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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

A Flood Geologist Recants

Post of the Month: April 2002

by Mike Dunford

Subject:    The Flood and empirical evidence (WAS: Re: Wilkins Argues...)
Date:       April 21, 2002
Message-ID: Xns91F6E7AB539AEmdunfordhawaiirrcom@

A Pagano <> wrote in


<sigh> I have lost count of the number of times I have responded to your incorrect and misleading claims regarding the treatment of the deluge by geology. I do not recall you ever even acknowledging any of them. Nevertheless, I will try again.

> Any given theory is actually a part of framework which
> contains any number of assumptions, initial conditions, and
> presuppositions that are not observable and no attempt is
> made to observe them. It is the empirical consequences and
> the prohibitions of such a framework that are critical.
> God may not be observable but the empirical conseqences of
> a world wide, catastrophic, short term flood set into
> motion by supernatural cause certainly is.
[rest snipped]

A noted geologist once delivered a remarkable statement in a public address before what was, at that time, the premier geological society in the world:

...But theories of diluvial gravel, like all other ardent generalizations of an advancing science, must ever be regarded but as shifting hypotheses to be modified by every new fact, till at length they become accordant with all the phenomena of nature.

In retreating where we have advanced too far, there is neither compromise of dignity nor loss of strength; for in doing this, we partake but of the common fortune of every one who enters on a field of investigation like our own....

Bearing upon this difficult question, there is, I think, one great negative conclusion now incontestably established -- that the vast masses of diluvial gravel, scattered almost over the surface of the earth, do not belong to one violent and transitory period. It was indeed a most unwarranted conclusion, when we assumed the contemporaneity of all the superficial gravel on the earth. We saw the clearest traces of diluvial action, and we had, in our sacred histories, the record of a general deluge. On this double testimony it was, that we gave a unity to a vast succession of phenomena, not one of which we perfectly comprehended, and under the name diluvium, classed them all together.

To seek the light of physical truth by reasoning of this kind, is, in the language of Bacon, to seek the living among the dead, and will ever end in erroneous induction. Our errors were, however, natural, and of the same kind which lead many excellent observers of a former century to refer all the secondary formations of geology to the Noachian deluge. Having been myself a believer, and, to the best of my power, a propagator of what I now regard as a philosophic heresy, and having more than once been quoted for opinions I do not now maintain, I think it right, as one of my last acts before I quit this Chair, thus publicly to read my recantation.

We ought, indeed, to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory, and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic flood....
(Sedgwick, 1831, p. 312-314)

This statement is exceptional not so much because it displays the courage to publicly admit to significant error (although such courage is both admirable and sadly rare), but more because of who made the declaration, when, and why.

The speaker was Reverend Adam Sedgwick, Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, and at the time of his 'recantation' President of the Geological Society of London. He was a highly respected geologist (and is still considered by many to be one of the greatest geologists of all time), and until shortly before that address was considered to be one of the staunchest supporters of the deluge as a major event in the history of the earth. It should be noted that Sedgwick went on after that statement to confirm his belief in the flood of Noah as a historical event; he did not concede that the flood did not happen, but that it was not a significant geological factor: we deny the reality of a historic deluge? I utterly reject such an inference. Moral and physical truth may partake of a common essence, but as far as we are concerned, their foundations are independent, and have not one common element. And in the narrations of a great fatal catastrophe, ... there is not a word to justify us in looking to any mere physical monuments as the intelligible records of that event...
(Sedgwick, 1831 p. 314)

This was a remarkable change for a man, who just a few years earlier (in 1825) had been arguing just the opposite:

...The sacred record tells us -- that a few thousand years ago 'the fountains of the great deep' were broken up -- and that the earth's surface was submerged by the water of a general deluge; and the investigations of geology prove that the accumulations of alluvial matter ... were preceded by a great catastrophe which has left traces of its operation in the diluvial detritus which is spread out over all the strata of the world.

Between these conclusions, derived from sources entirely independent of each other, there is, therefore, a general coincidence which is impossible to overlook, and the importance of which it would be most unreasonable to deny. The coincidence has not been assumed hypothetically but has been proved legitimately, by an immense number of direct observations conducted with indefatigable labour, and all tending to the establishment of the same general truth.
(Sedgwick, 1825; Quoted in Hallam, 1989 p.43)

His recantation marks the death-knell for that hypothesis, although it would be a few more years before the final convulsions ceased. By 1840, however, no respected geologist continued to propose that the flood was a major factor in the history of the earth.

The timing of this statment is also somewhat important to note, since it establishes the context of his statement with regard to other important concepts in the history of geology. Sedgwick delivered his recantation at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of London, on 18 February 1831. Obviously, this is well prior to Darwin's work; in fact, it will be another ten months before he departs on the Beagle. The first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology has only been out for a few months, and it will be another couple of years before William Whewell coins the term 'uniformitarianism' to describe the underlying philosophy of Lyell's work. Catastrophism is the reigning school of thought in 1831, and Sedgwick one of its deans.

The factors that dictated Sedgwick's change in perspective are important, but so are some factors that did not play a major role in this conversion. I will deal with those the non-factors first:
-Sedgwick's scientific views did not change because his religious views had changed. In fact, as I demonstrated above, his religious, faith-based acceptance of the Noachian deluge did not change despite his admission that there was no physical evidence for the flood. (See quote above.)
-Sedgwick did not change his views because of the influence of Lyell's uniformitarianism. Although Sedgwick had read volume one by the time he recanted, he was strongly opposed to much of Lyell's work, including the uniformitarian core. In fact, he made this abundantly clear earlier in that same address, when he reviewed Principles.
-Sedgwick did not change his views because new discoveries had made it possible to dispense with divine influence as a cause for those deposits. The nature of the deposits had been clarified, but no new causes had been suggested. In fact, it would be several more years before Agassiz proposed and popularized the idea of the ice age, and several more before that hypothesis became generally accepted.

Why, then, did the good Reverend's views shift so completely? His assumptions and presuppositions did not shift. God was not squeezed into a smaller gap by a new explanation for the evidence which rendered a larger divine role unnecessary. Nor did any of the other unobservable conditions Pagano claims play such a major role in the removal of God from science pertain. What then was so critical a factor to convince a man of the cloth to stop using the flood to explain major geological features?

The answer is simple: empirical evidence. Because the 'diluvial' strata which had been cited as evidence for a global flood were composed of gravel and other unconsolidated sediments, they were harder to investigate than the older, consolidated sedimentary rock. However, after a great deal of study, some geologists had been able to map portions of the 'diluvium' and demonstrate conclusively that they were the result of different events, clearly separated in time. Once this was firmly established, it became clear to Sedgwick and others that if the deposits were clearly the result of a series of distinct events, they could not have been the result of a single global flood. Therefore, as a conscientious scientist, Sedgwick rejected his previous hypothesis.

Sedgwick's rejection of a hypothesis which was contradicted by the empirical evidence, despite his religious beliefs, is the act of the true scientist, and stands in stark contrast to the example provided by modern young-earth creationists. The modern YEC is in posession of the same data that Sedgwick was -- as well as over 150 more years of research -- but is unwilling to make the same concession Sedgwick did, even in the face of more overwhelming evidence.

Instead, the modern YEC takes a unique perspective. Instead of treating the deluge as a hypothesis in need of test against the evidence, and subject to being discarded if found to be contradicted by the evidence (as Sedgwick did), modern YECs declare the deluge, its scope, and effects to be definite, indisputable FACT, not subject to any discussion. Instead of modifying their view of events based on the empirical evidence, they insist that the basic facts of their history are absolutely true, and that the evidence must be interpreted in this light. This, in turn, leads to a vicious cycle in their science-so-called, as they tack ad hoc modifications onto ad hoc modifications.

Instead of taking Pagano's advice, and searching for the empirical consequences of the flood (in fairness to them, that has been done, as I demonstrated above), they attempt to create explanations for the evidence that do not contradict their assumed version of events, and then to explain discrepancies in the empirical consequenses of those explanations. And so forth. And so on. (This post has run long enough that I will refrain from posting some of the copious quantity of examples available; but can and will do so upon request.)

The difference between the modern YEC and early geologists like Sedgwick is clear. The early geologists began by assuming that the biblical deluge was a major factor in the history of the earth. When it was demonstrated that the evidence contradicted such a view, they discarded it as a hypothesis with varying degrees of reluctance and moved on to newer, more promising avenues of investigation. The YECs begin by declaring the biblical flood to have definitely been a (if not THE) major factor in the history of the earth, and attempting to explain all of the evidence according to this belief. Sedgwick's actions are a credit to science, and his expression of continued faith in the historicity of a global flood despite the now acknowledged lack of evidence does credit to his personal level of faith. The desparate scrambling of YECs to find reasons for their faith not to be threatened by the evidence is a credit to nobody.


Sedgwick, Adam. 1825. Annals of Philosophy, ns 10, 34. Quoted in Hallam, A. 1989. Great Geological Controversies, 2nd ed. Oxford U. Press. New York.

Sedgwick, Adam. 1831. Anniversary Address of the President, 1831. Proceedings of the Geological Society of London. v.1 p. 281 -- 316.

--Mike Dunford

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