Henry Morris and the Lewis Overthrust

by Bob Wheeler

Most mainstream geologists today probably equate Young Earth Creationism (YEC) with “junk science,” as opposed to real science, which is supposed to be based on hard evidence. But the fact of the matter is that most of Henry M. Morris’ seminal book The Genesis Flood, which he coauthored with biblical scholar John C. Whitcomb, is devoted to a discussion of the evidence. His work should not be simply dismissed by critics; they should refute it, if they can.

    Morris was primarily concerned with attacking geological Uniformitarianism and building the case for Catastrophism as an alternative. More specifically, he advocated “Young Earth” Creationism, contending that most fossiliferous rock strata can be tied to a single geological event, the world-side deluge recorded in the Book of Genesis in the Bible. Morris’ argument is that Uniformitarianism cannot explain much of the evidence, which actually points in the direction of some form of Catastrophism.

    How well did Morris establish his case? Let us look at one particular piece of evidence, the Lewis Overthrust in Montana, USA and Alberta, Canada. The Lewis Overthrust in an example of a formation in which the supposedly older rocks are on the top and the younger ones on the bottom. Morris cites this as evidence that the rock strata are out of chronological sequence, thus disturbing the argument for evolution from the fossil record.

    The standard explanation for this formation is that it is an example of an “overthrust,” a case in which a large wedge of rock was forced up and over an adjacent layer of rock. In this case the rock wedge is several miles thick and several hundred miles long, and apparently moved nearly 50 miles eastward. Morris wondered how such a thing could be possible on this scale.

    “It seems almost fantastic to conceive of such huge areas and masses of rocks really behaving in such a fashion, unless we are ready to accept catastrophism of an intensity that makes the Noachian Deluge seem quiescent by comparison!  Certainly the principle of uniformity is inadequate to account for them.  Nothing we know of present earth movements – of rock compressive and shearing strengths, of the plastic low of rock materials, or other modern physical processes – gives any observational basis for believing that such things are happening now or ever could have happened, except under extremely unusual conditions” (The Genesis Flood, pp. 180-181).

Morris denied that the characteristic evidence of a fault thrust were present, and maintained that the “overthrust” consists of normal bedding layers, laid down in the order in which they are now found, and thus upsetting the evolutionary timeline.

    The anti-Creationist website TalkOrigins has an article entitled “Thrust faults” in which John G. Solum examines Morris’ argument in detail. In some ways Solum is unfair in his treatment of Morris, sometimes misrepresenting Morris’ arguments and missing the point Morris was trying to make. But to his credit he does interact with the evidence and makes some telling criticisms. In particular he cites evidence to show that the Lewis Overthrust does indeed show evidence of being a genuine fault thrust. He also criticizes Morris for quoting some of his sources out of context, and notes that Morris misidentified a lock layer in a photograph in Morris’ book (Figure 17 on page 190). There seems to be little reason to doubt that it is a genuine overthrust.

    Ironically, when Morris how such a massive overthrust could have occurred, he could have answered his own question. He himself notes at one point that “It is quite true that the entire area . . . gives much evidence of faulting, folding, and general tectonic activity . . . Such activity is to be expected in connection with mountain-uplift processes, whatever the nature or cause of these processes may be” (p. 185). And that is, indeed, exactly how most geologists now believe is the case. The Lewis Overthrust was formed at the same time as the Rocky Mountains, and this, in turn, was the result of colliding tectonic plates on the west coast of North America.

    But in refuting some of Morris’ evidence, Solum ironically reinforced Morris’ central thesis. The overthrust is just a part of a much larger system – the entire Rocky Mountains. If it is true, as Morris said of the overthrust itself, that “It seems almost fantastic to conceive of such huge areas and masses of rocks really behaving in such a fashion,” how much more true is it of the entire Rock Mountains? And if the principle of Uniformity states that “The present is the key to the past,” and that “Rocks formed long ago at the earth’s surface may be understood and explained in accordance with physical processes now operating” (Gilluly, Walter & Woodford, Principles of Geology, p. 18), then how can we account for something on so large a scale? As Morris put it, “Nothing we know of present earth movements . . . gives any observational basis for believing that such things are happening now.” “It seems almost fantastic to conceive of such huge areas and masses of rocks really behaving in such a fashion unless we are ready to accept catastrophism” — a catastrophism that exceeds even Henry Morris’ imagination!