Fun with Creationist Plate Tectonics

From Left2Right to Pharyngula to you and me: High-Speed Plate Tectonics and Young Earth Creationism. Yow! Before we indulge ourselves in pointless nitpicking, let us address one misconception that seems to have come up among even the reality-based participants in this discussion:

Whatever Wegener might have thought, Pangaea was not “primordial”. Before there was Pangaea (c. 250 million years ago) there was Rodinia (c. 1 billion years ago). Before that, there may or may not have been other supercontinents, Columbia or Pangaea: Episode I or what have you – it’s hard to tell when most of the evidence has been swallowed back into the mantle. But it’s generally accepted that the continents have been stuck together and pulled apart at least twice. Since Genesis only allows for mentions one such event, it’s silly to claim that the modern story of multiple supercontinents was a Biblical hypothesis.*

But we shan’t let that ruin our fun with Do-While Jones, a hammer, and our trusty lumps of silly putty. Oh, no.

Mr. Jones begins with a basic introduction to plate tectonics, which is pretty much accurate. Possibly this is because he cribbed it from Schmidt and Harbert. When he is done being sad that geology textbooks use metaphors (which he calls “New Age”) as a pedagogical device, and fail to credit the not-at-all metaphorical Bible as the progenitor of all knowledge, we see some of his independent assessments of plate tectonics. They’re not awe-inspiring.

Also, “independent” means “pulled out of context from a freshman geology text”:

The three differences between modern theory of Plate Tectonics and the ancient theory of the division of land during the time of Peleg are (1) how it happened, (2) when it happened, and (3) how long it took to happen.

Come to think of it, there are really only two differences. The explanation of how it happened is basically the same for both theories. In the creationist theory, the land was divided by some mysterious forces that nobody can adequately explain scientifically. In the Plate Tectonic theory, the plates are moved by some mysterious forces that nobody can adequately explain scientifically. According to one college geology textbook,

Some geologists believe that plate-tectonic movements can be explained by convection in the upper mantle. Other geologists believe that convection occurs in the entire mantle. Thus convection in the mantle is indeed possible and prompts geologists to debate some key questions: Is convection an important process by which heat is transferred in the Earth? Is convection occurring now? Has it occurred any time in the past?

The college geology textbook he mentions is Press and Siever’s Understanding Earth, which we happen to have handy (though it’s the second edition, from 1998, not 1994). It was my first geology textbook ever – awwww! In my copy, the two ellipses in that quote cover a section-break and a full paragraph, and must be read upside-down and backwards for those sentences to occur in the order in which they are quoted. Here’s the quote in situ:

[… an analogy to Silly Putty, to explain how seemingly rigid rock can flow over long timescales.]… at conditions of high pressure and temperature, the mantle behaves as an extremely viscous fluid and “creeps” or flows. Thus, convection in the mantle is indeed possible and prompts geologists to debate some key questions: Is convection an important process by which heat is transferred within the Earth? Is convection occurring now? Has it occurred at any time in the past?

Effects of Convection It turns out that seafloor spreading and plate tectonics are direct evidence of convection at work. The rising hot matter under mid-ocean ridges builds new lithosphere, which cools as it spreads away; eventually, it sinks back into the mantle, where it is resorbed. This is convection; heat is carried from the interior to the surface by the motion of matter.

Some geologists believe that only the upper few hundred kilometers of the mantle are subject to the convection that drives plates, as in Figure 19.10. This would imply that the upper and lower mantles do not mix. Others think that the whole mantle is involved. […] Regardless of the specifics, geologists now believe that the movement of heat from the interior to the surface as the seafloor spreads is an important mechanism by which Earth has cooled over geologic time.

So maybe there were some changes between editions. But after we strip away disingenuous pull-quotes (why were they from the section on heat flow from the earth’s interior, and not the section on the driving mechanism of plate tectonics?) we see that in the creationist theory, the land is divided by some mysterious force that can never be adequately explained scientifically, while in plate tectonic theory the plates are moved by a not-so-mysterious force which we are understanding better and better every day. Which is basically the same thing as not understanding at all.

The real fun, though, comes when we examine Mr. Jones’s central claim, that plate tectonics happened really really fast. Now’s the time to bring out the Silly Putty and the hammer! Take a lump of Silly Putty and whack it real good with a hammer – if you do it right, the normally pliable putty will shatter. This is the funnest illustration EVAR of the way materials respond very differently to forces applied at short time scales than they do to force applied steadily over time.**

When you’re done playing, take a look at these fabulous folded limestone beds in Pennsylvania and the Palmdale road cut. Try to duplicate those shapes by hitting your silly putty with a hammer (we know you weren’t really done playing).

We could go on to make snarky remarks about the way Do-While Jones confuses the Pacific and Farallon plates. But it’s Valentines Day and we have chocolate chips to melt into a lazy person’s fondue. Young-earther fish will still be in their barrels for shooting another day.

* Compatible with Genesis? Plausibly, if you’re willing to play fast and loose with the timescale. Predicted by it? Not so much.
**A less fun illustration occurs in woodworking: when you’re bending wood, you need to use steady pressure and a great deal of patience, or the wood will break. I could go on, but why?


  1. esrever_otua wrote:

    1) Referring to the Earth as a ‘living machine’ is indeed New Age symbolism – the Earth is dead, only the animals, insects, etc etc are alive, and each is *independently* alive from the next; there is no ‘wholeness’ or ‘oneness’ at all, which ‘living machine’ implies.
    2) Silly putty isn’t rock, and rock ain’t silly putty
    3) If some mysterious force suddenly started moving the plates, today, at speeds relative to each other of, say 100km/h, do you think that the edges would get quite hot? Do you think that maybe, after a several thousand kilometre trip like that, that they would be very hot indeed, for a fair ways inland from the edge? So when rock gets hot, what happens to it? Oh, that’s right, it starts getting *soft*, so when it then collides with another, very hot plate, it would *fold*, wouldn’t it? And it would have a huge amount of inertia/momentum, so the folds would be *pretty big*, wouldn’t they?
    Your effort at ‘debunking’ that article amounts to little more than the same random speculation that you accuse the author of.

  2. yami wrote:

    Goodness, my very first real live churlish oppositional force! Now I have really arrived.
    1. You know what would be awesome? A machine made out of ants. Like if I could get them to wash my dishes instead of just crawling around on the floor.
    2. But they’re importantly similar.
    3. Hot rocks metamorphose in ways that are systematically different from the changes that happen when they’re put under pressure without applied heat. Chemistry, isn’t it?
    4. I didn’t mean to accuse the original author of randomness, but of wrongness. My apologies if that wasn’t sufficiently clear.

  3. yami wrote:

    Fake trackback alert! This has made it onto Kuro5hin and Husi. People there seem to be taking me far more seriously than I take myself, but I suppose that’s how one draws attention these days.

  4. wabbit wrote:

    Damn! You beat me to it! Not being a geologist, or even a scientist, I guess I have what you might call an amateur interest. But taking those points…
    1)esrever_otua – if you want to be independently alive, that’s fine. Lets see how long you last in an airtight container. Me, I’m going to continue to be dependent on plants to produce oxygen, and animals to eat.
    2) Silly Putty’s not rock. Damn that’s astute. It sounds like a cool experiment though, I’m going to have to get my hands on some silly putty.
    3) If rocks started moving faster, I’d imagine that they’d start to melt, and if two gooey sticky melted masses hit each other (with a combined speed of 200Kph in your example) I imagine that you wouldn’t get nice layers in rock, more an amorphous splat. Also, the shock of two chunks of crust hitting each other would produce a hell of a bang and shockwaves and people would probably either notice, or discover evidence for such traumatic events. Also, if sedimentary rocks had hit each other and heated up, wouldn’t there be chemical evidence, change in chemical structure etc?

  5. yami wrote:

    The silly putty thing is indeed a very cool demo; I’m always surprised that more people haven’t tried it. As a commenter on Husi pointed out, though, it’s really just an instructive demo and not a full-fledged argument for the epistemological robustness of modern geodynamics. Happily, this blog prefers hitting things with hammers to blandly discoursing on the philosophy of science, so we’re sticking to demos and the smashier the better.
    And wabbit, re #3: from a modern perspective any such heating and collision would leave recognizable marks, yes. But I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about sedimentary rocks in a creationist framework. We’re obviously dealing with divine Ur-Rocks here, not the normal rocks of today, and you’d need to develop a theory of theopaleopetrology to handle the details of melting, magnetization, etc etc etc.

  6. esrever_otua wrote:

    Goodness me, an ad hominem attack in the *very first line* of your response? Come on now, surely you could have done better than that. Nevertheless, I agree that a machine of ants to do my dishes would be nice, if perhaps a little messy. WRT the idea that rocks would have changed as a result of heat etc I say ‘of course’… But the question is therefore ‘what did the rock look like *before* it was folded?’ — and the answer, of course, is that neither you, nor I, really know…
    Finally, I am individually alive. I am not ‘connected’ in any way with anything else on this earth except insofar as I rely upon certain phenomena to continue living. I find it ironic that self professed ‘evolutionists’ are arguing for the essential interconnectedness of all living things; if that were the case, how did they all come to miraculously be? Or is it that we really *don’t* rely on them so specifically, and so it’s ok if they didn’t all arrive on the evolutionary escalator at the same time. In which case, what is it that makes them such a perfect ‘Living Machine’ again?
    In any case, as I mentioned on K5, the phrase ‘Earth is a Living Machine’ is scientifically invalid and is an obnoxious thing to find in a scientific textbook. A more scientifically rigorous and less loaded and prejudiced phrase would have been “the living things on the earth interact in ways that make them almost like a living machine”
    But that wouldn’t have furthered the ideology so nicely, would it?

  7. wabbit wrote:

    What did the rock look like before it was folded? (and heated through friction by travelling at 100Kph and hitting more rock)
    As a stratum of rock should be more or less homogenous (otherwise it would be a stratum of a bunch of different rocks) The heating by friction and impact would have been non-uniform. Your theory would predict that the outer boundaries of rock, or that near fault lines would be chemically altered (by heat and or large hammers) and would therefore be different to the rock in the same layer, but centrally located in the plate, away from the boundaries. Is this the case?

  8. yami wrote:

    Esrever_otua (that’s cute, btw): The joy of trashy repartee, though, isn’t it?
    There are other topics and other fora where I put significant energy into maintaining a respectful dialogue, but I think the tone of my initial entry was sufficiently full of snark to serve as a warning that this isn’t one of them. If you were going to object to the tone, I would have preferred you to do so in your initial comment, rather than asking condescending rhetorical questions and then feigning surprise when I call them “churlish”.
    I’m sure that working out Bible-based geologic maps from the time of Arphaxad would be a lovely way to spend a winter’s evening. Current understanding of metamorphic petrology being what it is, you might just have a revolution in mineral physics on your hands with fabulously futuristic industrial applications. Or maybe just some ad hoc observations about what God did when he divided the land. I’m not holding my breath here, but you’re welcome to give it a go.
    FYI, the specific “living machine” references that started the whole metaphor bit are just chapter titles; the phrase “earth is a living machine” does not appear in the offending text (which is online so you’ve no excuse for misquotations). The chapters were on tectonics, not ecology or atmospheric chemistry or evolution. If you want to say that rewriting a chapter title as a simile somehow transforms this comparison from hippy tripe to rigorous science, please ground your argument in the actual text.
    I’m actually surprised that you’re so passionate about goofy chapter titles in an online textbook, but hey, that’s cool. I didn’t think it was even worth bullshitting over, thus the non sequitur.

  9. infideluxe wrote:

    In response to auto’s comment:
    Wrong. First of all you’re essentially arguing that you’re not connected, except for the ways you in which you are. Kind of the way jesus and god are individuals, but they’re really not? That’s not a valid argument, and I could stop there, but I feel the urge to rack your sack. Believe it or not, you currently host millions of bacteria. Some are just living on/in you running their own little shows, while others you need to stay healthy. But whether you need them or they need you, that, my good fellow, is a bonafide connection. You leaving the planet? Well they’re coming too. You can’t get away. They will be there to eat your corpse and mine long after our brains have stopped driving our respective bodies around. That’s how the whole environment works, almost like a single living machine. It’s amazing how the environment works hand in hand with the planet. Sure, you can nit-pick and use semantics to attack a part of the text that was obviously meant as an artistic expression. The earth may not qualify as a living entity in technical terms but everything together, much like a colony of individual bacterium, is very much a living machine in the sense that anyone disinclined to grossly miss the point would have gleaned.

  10. Watchman wrote:

    for a more serious representation of Catastrophic Plate Tectonics, (more detail than can be shared in this forum) try Global Flood dot org or Answers in Genesis if you are not serious about finding the true answers or even the true arguments about Creationism verses Evolution then why did you even bother to come here?

  11. Ron Man wrote:

    I say, If you do not believe In GOD not just any man made god but the one who called Himself “I AM” Thn I will predict that in the future YOU WILL. It will be better for you if you start now.. Merry Christmas 12-26-11

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