A Geology Lesson

Earth science has been relegated to 8th and 9th grade general science coursework for so long that it’s almost regarded as a “soft” science. As with biology, it is assumed that what makes geology most interesting to the student and lay reader is the extent to which a geologist can piece together a history of the earth. Can one “read the rocks?” Persons of faith can take either of three positions on this. Those less charitable towards these scientists’ efforts distrust the time signature in uranium to lead decay and view efforts to read the rocks as a dismissal of the Biblical record and an attempt to prove that God was unnecessary to creation. Persons of faith who are more enthusiastic towards scientific interpretation, or at least resigned to the idea of an old earth, view such efforts as filling in the Biblical blanks. A third group of faithful is patiently waiting for science to catch up to what they already know has been revealed. We’re all hoping someday to have a match.

I’ve looked at two geology books that attempt to put geology into a “big picture.” The rocks “tell a story” about the earth’s history in the same way that archeology tells a story about ancient civilization. The first is The Rocks Don’t Lie by David Montgomery and the second is Geology Matters by Doug Macdougall. The first is a book length rebuttal of the idea that one global flood is responsible for the entirety of geological formations on earth. The second blends scientific attempts to piece together the past with an understanding of how geologists attempt to predict earth’s future. Both books work within a lay understanding of geology, so actual detail is sparse. A third book, Geology by Design is an attempt to present evidence in favor of a worldwide flood by cataloging a host of planetary features irrefutably a result of flooding. As a result, it lacks a full picture and it contains it’s own version of “geological time,” that is a bit, um, fanciful. But I shall review these books in greater detail in a later post.

The problem with the above books is that they were written to prove a point, an opinion. There’s a difference between an idea and an opinion, which may be hair splitting but I can feel it when I compare books by scientists who write to defend themselves and their ideas with books written by scientists who are simply in love with their work.

One of our presumptuous sins in this connection is that we venture to offer opinions to children (and to older persons) instead of ideas. We believe that an opinion expresses thought and therefore embodies an idea. Even if it did so once the very act of crystallization into opinion destroys any vitality it may have had; pace Ruskin, a crystal is not a living body and does not feed men. We think to feed children on the dogmas of a church, the theorems of Euclid, mere abstracts of history, and we wonder that their education does not seem to take hold of them. Vol. 6 p. 110

Perhaps no rules for the right conduct of life are more important than the following: (a) that we may not play with chance opinions; (b) that our own Reason affords an insufficient test of the value of an opinion (because Reason, as we have seen, argues in behalf of Inclination); (c) that we must labour to get knowledge as the foundation of opinions; (d) that we must also labour to arrive at principles whereby to try our opinions. Vol. 4, p. 59

For example, Montgomery, who seems to be sympathetic to the idea that flooding has in fact shaped the earth, spends an inordinate amount of time writing about his incredulous reaction to visiting the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. There is little point to that except to bolster an opinion that young earth creationists are stupid.

Which brings me to the book I did choose for Miss T., Northwest Exposures by David Alt. What I’ve concluded about geology is that for a Charlotte Mason high school course I’m looking for a book that is closer to field geology than, say, a treatise on geological time. CM students will have completed numerous field studies and should know about the different types of rocks. They’ve read about glaciers, volcanos, and the action of rivers and seas. By high school they should have enough chemistry to understand the chemical makeup of various minerals. What is most appropriate, then, is a book about how geologists study a terrain, more advanced discussion of features and formations, and, yes, how geologists draw conclusions from the rocks about the past and the future, and what might lie below should one start to dig. It should complement ongoing fieldwork, hence it probably should be local. I have used a book in the past that covers earth science with a broad brush, and I think the two types of books can be complementary.

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I thought this book would be a challenge, but Miss T. finds it intensely interesting. She asked me to slow down her coverage of it, so that rather than co-review it with me she could actually learn from it. Alt covers all of the northwest, from Montana and Wyoming to the Washington coast. There is a lot of new vocabulary, suggesting that if one has not studied many different types of rocks and minerals, one should have a field guide handy. This week, we learned about volcanic piles in central Montana, which have dikes that were formed of shonkinite magma. (shonkinite is a kind of potassium enriched basalt). At the ends of the dikes, the magma intruded into an underground space and formed a blister, called a laccolith. Miss T. was fascinated by the idea of a blister on the earth full of hot magma, so she drew that in her notebook after narrating. I underlined the vocabulary words that I thought she needed to understand and remember (with science, there is far more new vocabulary than with other subjects, so in the upper years it is very hard to avoid learning a good many new terms), and she defined them under her picture. She is familiar with basalt from our many volcano field trips over the summer, so she was able to picture shonkinite.

This book presumes an old earth, is peppered with thoughts about how long a given feature took to form, and divides its chapters by “geological time,” but Alt does not bother arguing about it. It is primarily a discussion of features and how they may have formed, and if an old earth time frame is problematic for your worldview, you will need to help your child construct a lens with which to view this book. Personally, I found the Montgomery book more difficult to grapple with, and he purports to be friendly to people of faith.

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