Glenn Morton, 1950-2020

Glenn Morton
Glenn Morton, 1950-2020.

Jonathan Kane is a science writer who has written five previous posts for Panda’s Thumb from 2016 to 2019 (they are listed in the Archives for those years). He is the editor and primary author of God’s Word or Human Reason? An Inside Perspective on Creationism, co-authored with Emily Willoughby, T. Michael Keesey, Glenn Morton, and James R. Comer, published December 2016 by Inkwater Press, with a new edition published in spring of this year. Matt Young is this post’s moderator.

I’m sad to announce that Glenn Morton, the geophysicist and former creation scientist who eventually became a critic of creationism, and who coined the term “Morton’s Demon”, died on August 5 after a long battle with cancer. He was 70.

Over the course of his geophysics career, Morton worked for several petroleum exploration companies, including ARCO, Oryx, and Kerr-McGee. Early in his career Morton was a young-Earth creationist, albeit one whose work required him to deal with vast amounts of geological data, and in the 1970s he became known as a creation scientist who sought ways of reconciling this data with young-Earth models. Morton’s 1980 paper “Prolegomena to the study of the sediments”, published in Volume 17, issue 3 of Creation Research Society Quarterly (under the name “Robert Morton”), was the first creationist paper to raise the issue of how the relative thickness of sediment on continental platforms compared to that in oceans was a challenge to Flood Geology models. His 1982 paper “Fossil succession”, published in Volume 19, issue 2 of the same journal, raised several ways that traditional Flood Geology models cannot adequately explain the stratigraphic data, and introduced the alternative diluvialist model that’s now known as Recolonization Theory.

Morton, who was not afraid to criticize other professional creationists for their lack of rigor, soon became known as a maverick among creation scientists. In Robert Schadewald’s summary of the 1986 International Conference on Creationism, published in Volume 6, issue 5 of NCSE Reports, Schadewald describes a presentation by Morton titled “Geological Challenges to a Young Earth”. By this point Morton was what he called a “middle-Earth creationist” - someone who still sought to interpret the book of Genesis as literal history, but who recognized that a 6,000 year old Earth was incompatible with geological data. Morton’s presentation was negatively received by most of the conference’s other attendees, and Morton asked Schadewald (perhaps only half seriously) to “catch any tomatoes that came sailing over”.

By the end of the 1980s, Morton’s growing disillusion with the creation science community led to a complete withdrawal of publishing papers in that area - and eventually, by 1994, to his abandoning creationism entirely. From the 1990s onward, Morton was a prominent critic of creationist arguments in the field of geology, and his earlier years as a creation scientist gave him an intimate familiarity with these arguments. Morton’s transformation from a young-Earth creationist to a critic of creationism is described in his article The Transformation of a young-Earth creationist, originally published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith in June 2000.

After his transformation, Morton regularly wrote criticism of creationist models for journals and websites related to the creation/evolution controversy, including NCSE reports, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, and the Talk.Origins website and newsgroup. Probably his most influential article is the one that coined the term “Morton’s Demon”, which describes a type of confirmation bias that is particularly strong among creationists. Morton also is the author of what is arguably the definitive refutation of the creationist argument that the entire geologic column cannot be found in a single location.

Despite his opposition to creationism, Morton never quite became a conventional evolution advocate. In his books Foundation, Fall and Flood (1995) and Adam, Apes and Anthropology (1997), Morton presented the view that Adam and Eve were early hominins, and that the flood described in the book of Genesis was the Zanclean flood, which filled the Mediterranean Sea basin 5.33 million years ago. In Morton’s view, the Zanclean flood is the only flood for which geological evidence exists that was large enough to match the description given in Genesis.

I first got to know Glenn Morton in 2007, while I was working on my own book criticizing the creationist movement, God’s Word or Human Reason?: An Inside Perspective on Creationism (the first edition is available here, and the recently released second edition is available here). I invited Morton to write the book’s chapter about stratigraphy because I considered him the most qualified person to critique creationist arguments in that area. Morton’s chapter for this book, eventually published in December 2016, was his final anti-creationism publication. The book also republished, in slightly expanded form, Morton’s personal account of his abandonment of young-Earth creationism.

As the book’s publication date neared, Morton informed me that he was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the anti-creationism movement and took down his personal website, where many of his writings could be found. He explained to me that although he still opposed YEC and stood by his earlier arguments against it, he was upset by the way people had begun using his writings to attack religion in general, which was a use of his writings that he did not approve of. However, he continued to support my book project, because the book took a clearly defined neutral stance with respect to religion, and after its publication he told me that the eventual product lived up to his expectations.

Morton’s final book, Eden Was Here, was published only a few days before his death. This book seeks to identify the location of the Garden of Eden from an evolutionary and old-Earth standpoint. As a Christian theistic evolutionist, Morton placed a great deal of importance on reconciling details from the book of Genesis with geological and evolutionary science. In a blog post from June 9 of this year, Morton explained why he considered it important for people and events discussed in the Bible to have a historical basis.

Some of PT’s readers who think of Genesis as a collection of myths, or as a moral and spiritual text that was not intended by its author to have a historical basis, may regard this endeavor as having been a waste of time. But it is impossible to deny the importance of Morton’s criticism of creationist models, or his importance as the most prominent example ever to exist of a professional creation scientist who eventually abandoned creationism. While I personally disagree with many of Morton’s ideas about the intended meaning of Genesis with respect to the Garden of Eden and the Flood, I also find something to admire in his determination to come up with his own set of models that matched his beliefs. Until the end of his life, Morton never was willing to let anyone else pressure him to change what he believed, whether that pressure came from creationists or anyone else.