In the first half of the 20th century creationism, at least when it had any scientific pretensions, tended to be of the old earth variety. And many American Christians, even rather fundamental ones, felt no need for science denial at all as Bowler reminds us. Instead, progressivism (“Mankind ever upward and onward”) was the order of the day in popular culture and to some extent in scientific thinking. Evolution was thought, even by some scientists, to include an innate drive toward progress, and this could easily be seen as God’s method.
By mid century progressivism had suffered two major blows. There had been two world wars, the first insane and the second not only that but starkly demonstrating man’s capacity for evil. The idea of inevitable progress seemed ludicrous. At the same time, Fisher’s mathematical basis for what came to be known as the Modern Synthesis in biology removed any hope for innate progress in evolution and replaced it with chance and selection. But for many believers, it just didn’t seem like God would do it that way.
In the 1960’s young earth creationism (YEC) was jump started by Whitcomb and Morris’s book The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Explanations. After losing its legal battles to get into the school science curriculum, YEC lost steam in the eighties. Then in the nineties creationism in general got a major public relations boost under the rubric of intelligent design, an attempt to unite both old and young earth creationists against science. IDC has been an effective social legitimizer and political door opener for creationism, which in 21st century America is increasingly of the young earth variety.
Creationist geologists are thriving, paradoxically, at a moment when evangelicals are becoming more educated, more prosperous and more open to scientific progress. And though they are a lonely few among Christian academics, they have an influence far out of proportion to their numbers. They have just opened a state-of-the-art $27 million museum in Kentucky, and they dominate the Christian publishing industry, serving as the credentialed experts for the nearly half of Americans who believe in some version of a young earth. In a sense, they represent the fundamentalist avant-garde; unlike previous generations of conservative Christians, they don’t see the need to choose between mainstream science and Biblical literalism.
On the shoulders of what?
Marcus Ross, the creationist who recently completed an entire Ph.D. program in paleontology with his fingers crossed, is a rising star in YEC. How does he try to justify saying that the earth is only a few thousand years old? Rosin:
Outside school, Ross studied what he considered great breakthroughs in creation geology. In 1999, Ross came across John Baumgardner’s theory of catastrophic plate tectonics, which was proposed a few years earlier. The theory is the first attempt to describe the mechanism of the flood. It involves a fantastic “runaway” situation in which the ocean floor slides into the earth’s mantle in a matter of weeks and then hot rocks come to the surface of the ocean floor, causing ocean water to vaporize and rush out like a geyser (“the fountains of the great deep” described in Genesis). A computer model refining the theory purports to show an earth wobbling crazily on its axis as land masses come together and then break apart, forming the continents we have today.
“Until then, my options were pretty pathetic,” Ross said. Now he had something that “accounted for a large body of geological evidence,” proposed by a geophysicist trained at U.C.L.A. and supported by three other geology Ph.D.’s.
So YEC’s best claim to a scientific foundation rests on Baumgardner’s bizarre geology. Discussion of his arguments can be found at Talk Origins. Joe Meert’s report on the YEC RATE conference provides further insight into Baumgardner’s standards of argument. Readers are invited to analyze YEC geology.
Newton famously remarked “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.” Ross and other “scientific” YECs have chosen far lesser shoulders.