The Biblical Flood is one of several legendary catastrophes that over the millennia have made their way into popular mythology. Indeed, Baron Georges Cuvier explained his stratigraphy of the Paris Basin and fossil evidence for extinctions of animals as the results of repeated inundations. His opinions and those of other scientists of the catastrophist school reflect the philosophical transition that began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century: curiosity and observation set against medieval dogma. It seems that transition is incomplete as there are still people who seek remains of Noah’s Ark and propose alien beings as the constructors of the huge geoglyphs of the Nazka Desert in Peru. On the other hand, Walter Pitman – one of the pioneers of plate tectonics – and his colleague William Ryan sought a rational explanation for the Flood, based in part on a more detailed description of a flodd in the Near East in one of the oldest written documents, the Epic of Gilgamesh (~2150-1400 BCE). In 1996 they published a hypothesis that such flood legends may have arisen from oral accounts of the flooding of the previously cut-off Black Sea basin through the Bosphorus as global sea level rose about 7600 years ago.
Chinese mythology too contains graphic descriptions of catastrophic flooding in the legend of Emperor Yu, first written down at the start of the first millennium BCE. Rather than being a victim or a survivor of catastrophe, Yu is credited with relieving the aftermath of the supposed flood by instigating ingenious systems of dredging and rechanneling the responsible river, and instigating the start of Chinese civilisation and the Xia Dynasty. Such detail conveys a greater air of veracity than a substantial boat containing male and female representatives of all animal species ending up on top of a mountain once Flood waters subsided! Recent research by Quinglong Wu of the School of Archeology at Peking University, together with other Chinese and US colleagues along the Yellow River has nailed the truth of the legend to events in the headwaters of the Yellow River (Wu, Q. and 15 others 2016. Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty. Science, v. 353, p. 579-582).
The team discovered evidence for a huge landslide in a terrace of the Yellow River where it flows through the Jishi Gorge. Probably dislodged by an earthquake, the slide blocked the gorge so that a large lake formed above it. The lake also left sedimentary evidence on the flanks of the gorge, which suggest that it may have been as much as 200 m deep and impounded 12 to 17 km3 of water. Downstream of the gorge sediments of the Guanting Basin contain chaotic sediments characteristic of outburst floods, probably deposited once the landslide dam was breached. 14C dates of charcoal from the outburst flood sediments give a likely age for the massive event of 1922±28 BCE. Astonishingly, remains of three children from a cave near the Yellow River are buried in the flood deposits and provided an age within error of that of the flood: they were victims. Sediments extending to the coast in the North China Plain are the repositories of much of the archaeological evidence for the evolution of Chinese culture along with signs of rates of sedimentation. The definite signs of a catastrophic flood upstream coincides with the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age artefacts in the Yellow River flood plain.
Creationism is a topic about which I would not normally comment for much the same reason that once prompted pub landlords to have a sign behind the bar reading ‘No politics, no religion’. Yet geology has played an historically central role in the debate about Genesis vs Science. An excellent summary of how this emerged and was fundamentally resolved in favour of scientific endeavour, even if the ‘Genesisists’ have not been entirely rooted out, appeared in the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today in November 2012 (Montgomery, D.R. 2012. The evolution of creationism. GSA Today, v. 22, p. 4-9).
Starting with Steno’s break with a literal acceptance of Genesis in 1669, the dominant view grew among clerics as well as scientists – ‘back in the day’ often one and the same – that the Earth was far older and its history one of changing natural processes. That outlook prevailed to strengthen through the late-18th and 19th centuries. Of course there was a tendency among ‘people of the Book’ somehow to blend their religious and scientific views, along the line that ‘scientific revelations that contradicted biblical interpretations provided natural guidance for better interpreting scripture’. But by the end of the 19th century there were very few literal creationists though a great many Christians who endorsed attempts to reconcile biblical text and geology. Yet long after the Reverend William Buckland finally admitted in the mid-19th century that his imagination had ruled his zealous quest for evidence of a Noachian Flood and abandoned a literal idea of that and other aspects of Genesis there remained a persistent dribble of creationism.
That minor current split in the 20th century into a ‘tanky’ tendency that defended young-Earth creation and a global flood in the last ten thousand years, and a more ‘moderate’ wing of ‘old-Earth’ creationists. ‘Old-Earthers’ happily accept geological evidence of great antiquity, but maintain that God made it for eventual use by humanity; i.e. it had just sat around awaiting Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden. Both wings evolved along equally bizarre paths using a logic that boils down to a blend of perversity and simply ignoring any contrary evidence, such as that unearthed by Buckland long before. For instance when confronted by the fact that the deepest parts of the oceans contain less sediment than has accumulated on the continents, they defy gravity by insisting that ocean basins were eroded out by the Flood and then deposited with all their internal structures intact on higher ground.
Unsurprisingly, most creationists believe that there has been a centuries-long conspiracy by scientists to mislead the rest of humanity. Were it not for the fact that more than 40% of people in the United States believe in young-Earth creation, David Montgomery’s account of what is now a somewhat one-sided yet stupidly lively debate as regards true evidence would be amusing. His concluding sentence, ‘How many creationists today know that modern creationism arose from abandoning faith that the study of nature would reveal God’s grand design for the world?’ is probably one of the best ways of enraging any creationist who tries to enlighten you: he/she will certainly not just go away, but in the foam they generate you should be able to make good your escape.