A critique of “The Genesis Flood”

Did animals escape to higher ground?

The idea that animals were fossilised in the order in which they succumbed to rising Flood waters was first proposed by John Whitcomb and Henry Morris in The Genesis Flood 1, in 1961, just before the concepts of plate tectonics revolutionised geology. Written by non-geologists and with an understanding of the Earth’s crust that was out-of-date almost as soon as it was published, the book made a huge impact amongst American evangelicals, and it is still regarded by most creationists as their founding document. It argued that the flood described in Genesis chapters 7–8 was an inundation of global extent, which must have affected the geological record profoundly, and if one were to look for geological evidence of it one would find that evidence, rightly interpreted, from the Cambrian all the way up to the higher parts of the Cenozoic. Virtually all plants and animals fossilised in the rocks of the earth were buried during the inundation.

Geologists working outside the biblical framework saw the fossil sequence as evidencing the gradual evolution of life from a single ancestor over billions of years. Whitcomb and Morris explained why the view was wrong. They gave, in essence, a two-fold answer, one part attempting to undermine the validity of the sequence, the other offering a diluvialist interpretation of the sequence insofar as it was valid. This article focuses on the second part of their answer. As points are illustrated mainly from the Grand Canyon, where the fossil-bearing strata are flat and undeformed, there is no question of the sequence having ever been other than what it is now.

The diluvialist interpretation consists of the following elements (quotations slightly abridged):
  1. ‘It is frequently found that the lowermost strata are those containing the simpler organisms, usually marine organisms. These marine creatures were, as would be expected, deposited first and deepest in the Deluge sediments. Two factors combine to make this a general, though by no means inviolable, rule. The sea-bottoms, both deep and shallow seas, would have been first affected by the breaking-up of the fountains of the great deep. It is not until the Permo-Carboniferous is reached, well up in the geologic column, that the first land animals are encountered.’
  2. ‘The other factor tending to ensure the deposition of the simple marine organisms in the deepest strata is the hydrodynamic selectivity of moving water for particles of similar sizes and shapes. The organisms in the lowest strata are very “streamlined” and quite dense. These factors alone would exert a highly selective sorting action, tending to deposit the simpler (i.e. more nearly spherical and undifferentiated) organisms nearer the bottom of the sediments [and build up] distinct faunal stratigraphic “horizons” with the complexity of structure of the deposited organisms increasing with increasing elevation.’
  3. ‘It is reasonable also to expect that vertebrates would be found higher in the geologic column than the first invertebrates. Vertebrates in general possess much greater mobility. The simplest vertebrates, the ostracoderms, are first found, and only sparingly then, in Ordovician strata. Fishes are found in profusion in the Devonian, often in great sedimentary ‘graveyards’, indicating violent deposition, and often in fresh-water deposits. The whole aspect of the fossil fish beds bespeaks violent burial in rapidly moving deltaic sediments, vast quantities of sediment entering the ancient lakes or seas and overwhelming and burying aquatic creatures by the hundreds of thousands.’
  4. ‘In other localities, and perhaps somewhat later, land animals and plants would be expected to be caught in the sediments. Of course there would be many exceptions, as currents would be intermingling from all directions, particularly as the lands became increasingly submerged and more and more amphibians, reptiles and mammals were overtaken by the waters. In general, though, beds would tend to be deposited in just the order ascribed to them in the geologic column. That is, on top of the beds of marine vertebrates would be found amphibians, then reptiles and finally birds and mammals. This is in the order: (1) of increasing mobility and therefore increasing ability to postpone inundation, (2) of decreasing density and other hydrodynamic factors tending to promote earlier sedimentation, and (3) of increasing elevation of habitat and therefore time required for the Flood to attain stages sufficient to overtake them. The Permo-Carboniferous rocks are those in which continental and oceanic sediments began to meet and commingle on a large scale.’
  5. ‘The Tertiary Period is popularly known as the age of mammals. They can once again be most easily explained in terms of greater mobility of the larger, stronger animals, and therefore their generally greater ability to retreat from the rising floodwaters and escape being caught in the swollen streams rushing downward from the hills.’
The explanation, then, visualised a pre-Flood world consisting consisting of various ecological zones, the location of which would determine where, geographically and stratigraphically, animals would be buried. The Flood began with the release of waters into the oceans from underneath the oceans. As a result of these upheavals, oceanic life was buried first. Then terrestrial life at the margins of the continents was overwhelmed. Finally, as the waters rose ever higher, animals far inland perished, even those that had escaped to the mountains. Their drowned bodies collected in valleys and lakes, or were washed out to sea. Hydrodynamic sorting and mobility affected the order in which marine animals were buried, habitat and mobility the order in which terrestrial animals were buried.

This understanding continues to be widespread amongst creationists. In his book Origin by Design Harold Coffin presented the same picture:

In addition to ecological zones as the reason for the stratigraphic sequence of fossils, we must consider other factors. Animals that could walk would likely try to escape rising water by fleeing to higher ground. That would put creatures from lower zones into higher elevations.2

Andrew Snelling, former editor of Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal and now Director of Research at Answers in Genesis (USA), explains:

In the so-called Palaeozoic strata there is a preponderance of marine creatures, beginning with trilobites, corals, sea anemones, shellfish of all types, etc. This is what we would predict, given that the Flood waters carried sediments from the land out to the sea, where they would then be deposited, burying many of the relatively immobile seafloor-dwelling creatures, followed later by … burial of fish.3

The present editors of the journal also promote this explanation, as do most other creationist organisations. For example, the Institute for Creation Research interprets the Grand Canyon along the following lines:
  • Precambrian up to the Chuar Group = pre-Flood oceanic crust
  • Cambrian = increasing oceanic waters reach the continental margins
  • Permian (Coconino Sandstone) = waters 100 feet deep, the Flood at its height
  • Triassic onwards = Flood waters decreasing4
  • Tertiary onwards = Post-Flood5

The horizontal sequence of Precambrian fossils in California east towards Grand Canyon reflects a spectrum of marine ecosystems along the pre-Flood continental shelf.6 As the Flood waters increased, they swept inland and produced the 1500-metre-high sequence of strata we see in Grand Canyon today. In other parts of North America, where there are coals, the appearance of plants and land animals is explained by the concept of the “pre-Flood floating forest”, an ecological zone visualised as located between the ocean and the continental margin.7

While the designation of Tertiary rocks as post-Flood marks a slight departure from Whitcomb-and-Morris orthodoxy and some workers, such as Austin, Wise and Snelling, broadly accept the order of rocks and fossils presented in the geological column,8 the fundamental ideas continue to be those of The Genesis Flood. Namely:
  • Today’s continents are roughly where the pre-Flood continents were located.
  • The Flood began with the breaking-up of the fountains of the deep, located in the oceans.
  • The continents were flooded through the rising of the oceans, pouring in from all sides until even their interiors were inundated.
  • At the level of the Carboniferous and Permian (where the postulated “floating forests” were fossilised) terrestrial and oceanic sediments began to meet.

If it is not clear how to interpret the fossils in Grand Canyon, this is because ‘it is not clear whether the order of appearance of organisms in Grand Canyon, or anywhere on Earth, is different than a random order which a flood might produce’.9

Whitcomb & Morris’s predictions

The excerpts above supply the reader with a series of expectations about what the fossil record should reveal if there had been a global flood, and assure him that it fully meets those expectations. The occurrence of marine creatures is ‘as would be expected’. ‘It is reasonable also to expect that vertebrates would be found higher in the geologic column. ‘Fauna’ would tend to be deposited in just the order that has been ascribed to them’, marine vertebrates, then amphibians, then reptiles, finally birds and mammals. ‘A preponderance of marine creatures, beginning with trilobites, corals, sea anemones, shellfish of all types, etc. is what we would predict.’

We will therefore examine these predictions (which had, of course, the benefit of hindsight). In his more popular book Scientific Creationism Morris listed fourteen,10 from which we have selected eight.
1. Animals caught and buried would normally be buried with others living in the same region. In other words, fossil assemblages would tend to represent ecological communities of the pre-cataclysmic world.

Fossil assemblages do tend to correspond with ecological communities. In the Bright Angel Shale of Grand Canyon we find trilobites, shellfish and sea-lilies, but no terrestrial fauna. In the Chinle Group, above the Grand Canyon sequence, we find dinosaur body fossils, tracks and droppings, fossilised ferns and trees; we do not find trilobites or fish. This is a universal feature of the fossil record from top to bottom. Occasional, but spectacular, ‘graveyards’ may point to communities wrenched from their habitat by some catastrophe, but they still have the coherence of a community (a shoal of fish or nautiloids, a herd of dinosaurs), living at the level where they are found. The trouble is, this is exactly what an orthodox interpretation of the geological record would expect.

The Whitcomb and Morris theory, on the contrary, does not validly make such a prediction. In the Grand Canyon, the Chinle Group is higher than the Bright Angel Shale (Figure 2). Thus, if the Chinle was laid down in the Flood and the dinosaurs which left their tracks and droppings in the Chinle were animals that perished in the Flood, where was that community of dinosaurs before the Flood overwhelmed them? According to the theory, it must have been on a Precambrian surface. We are asked to believe that somehow, while the dinosaurs were swirling around in water 100s of metres deep and sediments more than 1000 metres thick were piling up beneath them, the community remained together, remained alive, and at roughly the same time all suddenly ended up, in the middle of the Flood, on dry land, where they walked around and left dung droppings from freshly eaten vegetation.

Dinosaurs do not appear on any continent until the Late Triassic, more than half way up the geological column. Yet in the pre-Flood world the dinosaurs supposedly lived on a Precambrian surface. Why, then, were they not buried there, at that level? Why are there no dinosaurs at any level before the Triassic?

2. In general, animals living at the lowest elevations would tend to be buried at the lowest elevations, and so on, with elevations in the strata thus representing relative elevations of habitat or ecological zones.

As is well known, the fossil record is layered, and over much of the earth it is thousands, even tens of thousands, of metres thick. Coal-bearing basins alone can exceed 10,000 metres. This is not a state of affairs one would readily ‘predict’ as arising from a global flood. According to Morris, the waters rose so slowly that they had barely reached the level of even lowland habitats by the Permian, yet somehow, in the Grand Canyon area, they had deposited more than 1500 metres of sediment, limestones as well as sandstones. Where had all this sediment come from? How had it been eroded and transported thither? What depth of water above the original Precambrian surface would have been needed to deposit 1500 metres of sediment, and how would this depth be consistent with the idea that, by the end of the Grand Canyon sequence, the flood had reached only the continental margins?

Nonetheless, Morris predicts a pattern where, going up the strata, we pass through a succession of fossils that corresponds to the relative elevation of their habitats. Marine creatures and land creatures are buried approximately at the level where they had been living. That cannot be correct, since it would mean that dinosaurs, first appearing in the Triassic part of the geological column, were buried at that point because, before the Flood, they were living on a Triassic surface; horses were buried still higher in the column, in the Miocene, because they were living at elevations above the dinosaurs; and so on. One cannot then simultaneously argue that all rocks after the Cambrian, including Triassic and Miocene deposits, formed during the Flood.

3. Marine invertebrates would normally be found in the bottom rocks of any local geologic column, since they live on the sea bottom.

Marine invertebrates (e.g. shellfish) can occur at any level within a succession of fossil-bearing rock. This fact alone makes nonsense of the ‘hydrodynamic selectivity’ argument. Factors such as density and smoothness, which would also affect sediments, could certainly affect the pattern of deposition of a single stratum, even a sequence of strata, and ‘graded bedding’ on a scale of a few metres is common enough. But the entire geological column in an area consists of thousands of strata.

Marine invertebrates can occur thousands of metres above other rocks, containing other marine invertebrates. The position of the fossils higher up cannot be explained by supposing that before the Flood they lived on a Precambrian sea-bottom. Frequently, as on a modern sea-floor, the shells are broken and scattered, and may well have been transported a certain distance (horizontally, not vertically). Sometimes they are found in life position, showing that the level at which they are buried represents an ancient sea-floor. The clearest examples of fossilised sea-floors are hardgrounds: cemented surfaces encrusted with the remains of sea-lilies and other such fauna that attached themselves to the surface.12 It is clear from the time required to account for their development that they cannot have formed during the Flood. The same considerations apply to fossil reefs, which occur at all levels of the geological column.

Nor is it uncommon for rocks containing marine fauna to lie on top of rocks containing land fauna, as a result of periodic re-inundations of continental margins. During late-Cretaceous times, chalk, the hardened ooze of calcareous plankton, covered almost the whole of England and Wales.13 Dinosaur tracks, left, obviously, by living animals, as in Yorkshire and Oxfordshire, occur only below this level.

4. Marine vertebrates (fishes) would be found in higher rocks than the bottom-dwelling invertebrates. They live at higher elevations and also could escape burial longer.

This prediction would make sense only in relation to marine life fossilised in rocks above the original, pre-Flood ocean floors. But where were these oceans? According to Morris they were approximately where the modern oceans are. Similarly, Austin et al. associate the beginning of the Flood with the encroachment of (what is now) the Pacific Ocean eastwards across the land of (what is now) Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. On the other side of North America, the Flood waters came in westwards from the direction of the Atlantic.

Such a scenario does not correspond with geological reality. The sedimentary ooze and oceanic crust beneath the Pacific and Atlantic oceans are Mesozoic/Cenozoic and, as such, much younger than the rocks with which the onset of the Flood is associated (Grand Canyon rocks are no younger than Palaeozoic). The marine vertebrates that occur as fossils are fossilised in rocks on the present continents, not the present oceans. Rocks from ‘the Age of Fishes’ (the Devonian) occur only on the continents.

It is true that fishes do not first appear in the sequence until after invertebrates first appear. However, when we turn from the generalised ideal to real examples, it is clear that specific kinds of invertebrate, such as the well-known bivalve Gryphaea (which is restricted to the Triassic and Jurassic) or Inoceramus (which is restricted to the Jurassic and Cretaceous), do not appear until after the first fishes. Gryphaea and Inoceramus were highly-evolved, heavily-built shellfish designed for life on the muddy environments in which they are fossilised. They do not occur at all in the Palaeozoic. Such examples are not exceptional; there are hardly any fossil species whose occurrence is not restricted to a particular age/level. The Whitcomb and Morris scenario not only does not predict the presence, on top of pre-Flood landmasses, of shellfish which are uniquely Mesozoic; it cannot account for them at all. The scenario predicts that the bottom-dwelling invertebrates would be found exclusively in the lowermost rocks, under the present-day oceans.

After the Cambrian both fishes and bottom-dwelling invertebrates are found in strata of all ages. For example, the fish of the Green River Formation, Wyoming, on display in any fossil shop, belong to the Eocene, near the top of the geological column. The limey muds of the Green River Formation were formed in large inland lakes. Around them, and underneath them, was solid land.

5. Amphibians and reptiles would tend to be found at still higher elevations, in the sediments at the interface between land and water.

Amphibians (all of them extinct, it should be noted) first occur in Devonian rocks, not in the Silurian, Ordovician and Cambrian rocks which generally precede them. Where Silurian, Ordovician and Cambrian rocks do precede them, they cannot both be pre-Flood land and products of the Flood. Since the previous prediction fails, so does this one. As a matter of fact, land areas in the Devonian were both more extensive – i.e. less flooded – than in the Cambrian and Ordovician.14-15

6. There would be few if any terrestrial sediments or land plants or animals in the lower strata of the column.

This prediction is the opposite of what a reader of Genesis might expect (assuming that the Flood waters were mostly marine and fossils remnants of pre-Flood life). Genesis says that the waters submerged the dry land and then, in the course of many refluxes, retreated. Therefore, the volcanic and sedimentary rocks supposedly left by the Flood must lie above the place where the pre-Flood land was. Since we stand above the original, pre-Flood land, the fossils of terrestrial fauna and flora ought to lie beneath marine sediments. In reality the reverse is generally the case.

The lower strata of the present continents contain marine fossils. Cambrian strata, at the bottom of the Palaeozoic, record a process of marine transgression in many parts of the world. They occur over all but the central part of United States, and by the end of the Ordovician (Figure 4) most of the continent was under water.16 Apart from spores, land plants and animals do not occur until the Silurian, flowering plants and bees not until the Cretaceous.

7. Mammals and birds would be found in general at higher elevations than reptiles and amphibians, both because of their habitat and because of their greater mobility.
If most of North America was under water by the Upper Ordovician, the idea of animals escaping to higher ground and being overcome in the Mesozoic is a non-starter. According to Whitcomb and Morris:

As far as land animals and man were concerned, their greater mobility would have enabled most of them to escape temporarily to higher ground as the waters rose, only occasional individuals being swept away and entombed in the sediments. Eventually, of course, the floodwaters overtook even those who had fled to the highest elevations, but in most cases these men and animals would not be buried but simply drowned and then carried about by the waters on or near the surface until finally decomposed by the elements.17

Somehow man and animals all knew, from the rain falling, that this was going to be a downpour that would engulf the entire land. Their instinct was not to stay put in homes and burrows, or to climb up the nearest tree, but to travel for what could have been tens or even thousands of miles to the highest elevations, and the rains were tranquil enough to allow them to do so. Before making the predictions, nonetheless, Morris asks us to:

Visualise, then, a great hydraulic cataclysm bursting upon the present world, with currents of waters pouring perpetually from the skies and erupting continuously from the earth’s crust, all over the world, for weeks on end, until the entire globe was submerged, accompanied by outpourings of magma from the mantle, gigantic earth movements, landslides, tsunamis and explosions.

Can one also visualise animals escaping to higher ground in such circumstances? When it starts to rain the instinct of an animal is to seek shelter, not higher ground. If its burrow becomes completely flooded, it perishes. If lava erupts under its feet, or earthquakes flatten the mountains, it dies within seconds.

Where are the remains of the fields and cities from before the Flood, the forests, buildings and other aspects of civilization? They are nowhere to be found. The strata beneath the Cambrian preserve no monuments, no instruments of bronze and iron, no fossilised bones of land animals, no tracks of animals moving while they were still alive, no petrified forests, no testimony of a pre-Flood world.

Referring to the unconformity between the Precambrian and Cambrian in many (but not all) parts of the world, geologist E. C. Olson writes:

The continental nuclei at that time were largely stripped down to the crystalline basement. Ancient mountain systems were worn down to their roots reducing the continents more nearly to a plain than they have ever been before or since.18

That is a comment to make anyone sit up and think. If these “ancient mountain systems” were the mountains of the pre-Flood world, it would have availed nothing to escape to higher ground. In many regions there would not even have been any mountains. Imagine escaping to higher grounds in the Netherlands or Bangladesh.

8. Land animals would tend to be found segregated vertically in the column in order of size and complexity, because of the greater ability of the larger, more diversified animals to escape burial for longer periods of time.

There is no such succession. Mobile and slow-moving animals occur at the same levels. Several dinosaur families through the Mesozoic show a progressive increase in size – but also a great increase in number of species and population density (quantity of fossils found). The giants of the Cretaceous are not the same species as those lower down in the stratigraphy and were comparatively slow-moving. The bipedal dinosaurs of the Triassic could move faster than the quadrupedal dinosaurs of the Cretaceous. The fastest dinosaurs came in all sizes. There is no trend of increasing mobility over time.

Nor is there any trend of increasing ‘complexity’ (whatever that means). If one considers the fossil record of particular families, the trend is one of increasing diversity and increasing specialisation. There is a genuine genealogical sequence over a considerable span of time, regardless of whether we are observing evolution in any Darwinian sense.

Nor does increasing complexity correspond to increasing mobility. Suppose we were to interpret the sequence from amphibians to reptiles to mammals as a sequence of increasing complexity (which is questionable). Would large amphibians be less able to survive a flood than terrestrial animals? Are lizards less mobile than hedgehogs? Sloths are amongst the slowest-moving mammals. Despite their unwillingness to exert themselves, they first appear in the Eocene (early Cenozoic), after which there is a continuous record of fossil sloths from the Eocene to the very top of the geological column.

Summing up

The creationist hypothesis is that the fossil record consists of a succession of ecological zones where each lower-lying zone and its fauna were buried before the waters of the Flood reached the next zone up. This is not what we see. Most of the earth was under water by the end of the Ordovician, long before animal fossils appear. The proposal does not explain the order in which fossils occur in the geological record. Morris’s predictions fail, every one, and their thinking is muddled. The Genesis account of the Flood may or may not be true. Creationism’s wilful and unrepentant insistence that fossils formed during the Flood is certainly not.

Notes and references

  • Whitcomb, J. C. & Morris, H. M., 1968. The Genesis Flood, London.
  • Coffin, H. G., 1983. Origin by Design, Review & Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Md, p 81.
  • Snelling, A. A., 1992. Where are all the human fossils? Creation Ex Nihilo 14:18-33.
  • Austin, S. A. (ed.). 1994. Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, Institute for Creation Research, Santee, Ca, pp
  • Wise, K. P. et al., 1996. Catastrophic plate tectonics: a global flood model of earth history. In: R. Walsh (ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, Pittsburgh, pp 609-21.
  • Wise, K. P., 2003. The hydrothermal biome: a pre-Flood environment. In: R. L. Ivey (ed.), Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, Pittsburgh, pp 359-70.
  • Wise, K. P., 2003. The pre-Flood floating forest: a study in paleontological pattern recognition. In: R. L. Ivey (ed.), Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Creationism, Pittsburgh, pp 371-82.
  • Snelling, A. A. and eight other signatories, 1996. The geological record: a statement, Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal 10:333-34.
  • Austin, S. A. (ed.), 1994, op. cit., p 147.
  • Morris, H. M., 1974. Scientific Creationism, San Diego, Ca, pp 118-20.
  • Lockley, M. G., Hunt, A. P. & Meyer, C. A., 1994. Vertebrate tracks and the ichnofacies concept: implications for palaeoecology and palichnostratigraphy. In: S. K. Donovan (ed.), The Palaeobiology of Trace Fossils, Baltimore, p 260.
  • Wilson, M. a., & Palmer, T. J., 1992. Hardgrounds and hardground faunas, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
  • Rawson, P. F., 1992. The Cretaceous. In: P. McL. D. Duff & A. J. Smith (eds), The Geology of England and Wales, London, p. 374.
  • Sloss, L. L., 1988. Tectonic evolution of the craton in Phanerozoic time. In: L. L. Sloss (ed.), Sedimentary Cover – North American Craton: US, Boulder, Colorado, pp 25-51.
  • Hallam, A., 1992. Phanerozoic Sea-Level Changes, New York.
  • Cook, T. D., & Bally, A. W. (eds), 1975. Stratigraphic Atlas of North and Central America, Princeton, New Jersey, p. 14.
  • Whitcomb & Morris, op. cit. [1], p 266.
  • Olson, W. S., 1966. Origin of the Cambrian-Precambrian unconformity, American Scientist 54:458-64.