The Curious Case of the One-Man Band
The work of Guy Berthault: Revolutionary Geology or Extravagant Hubris?
Guy Berthault (1) is an outspoken critic of the conclusions that practically every professional geologist accepts about the chronology for the laying down of the sediments in the geological record. Monsieur Berthault claims to have demonstrated that all the strata in the geological record could have been laid down rapidly, that his findings revolutionise geology, and that a young earth can be supported by the science. Berthault is a Young Earth Creationist who is an adviser to the Kolbe Center (2), an ultra-conservative traditional Roman Catholic creationist propaganda group (Kolbe Center's "advisers" also include Bob Sungenis (3) whose absurd geocentrist ideas I address here). Unusually for Young Earth Creationist apologetics, Berthault bases his claims on work that he has published in peer reviewed scientific journals (4), (5), (6) and this fact has been gleefully trumpeted by other religiously motivated Young Earth Creationists. So, does he represent a real challenge to the entire professional geological community? In this article, I show that he does not.
Let’s consider, first of all, what Berthault set out to do. Having determined that the consensus interpretation of geology is a problem for the Young Earth Creationist’s view of the age of the earth and the chronology of the emergence of species, he attempted to undermine the stratigraphic principles (the principle of superposition, ie that younger strata deposit above older strata, and the related principles of original horizontality and continuity as set forth by Nicolas Steno in his book titled "De Solido Intra Solidium Naturaliter Contento Dissertationis Prodromus", published in 1669) on which geology is based, thereby calling into question the very foundations of geology (and with it the concept of evolution).
All the experimental work on which he bases his claims was carried out fifteen years ago or more, and reported at the time in French journals (4), (5), (6). He was careful, in those papers, not to make the radical claims that he and his followers have become known for. The assertion that his work has fundamental implications for geology was made later, in informal presentations and communications, on his website and by his creationist colleagues, quite outside the scientific peer review process. In the last few years, he has published three papers (7), (8), (9) in Chinese and Russian journals. None of these later papers report any new experimental work, and they contain nothing more than highly speculative and tendentious interpretations of his earlier work. Owing to their complete lack of new findings and their very poor quality, it is not surprising that these more recent papers are quite unpublishable in mainstream geology journals (and you can be sure that if Berthault could have published in Sedimentology, Geology, Journal of Geology or Sedimentary Geology then he would).
Much of his experimental work in the 1990s took the form of flume studies. Flumes are laboratory tanks or channels in which sedimentologists study the deposition of sediments carried by water. They are, by necessity, limited in length and depth, particularly in comparison to the huge extent and great depth of floods that would be capable of depositing major geological sequences. Berthault’s experimental work was focused on the sorting by particle characteristics of sediments carried in flows of limited width (streams) with different flow velocities or in which the flow varies in time. His experimental work shows that sediments can be sorted in currents by size and density, vertically (ie into layers lying one upon another), longitudinally (ie in the direction of the flow), and laterally (ie across the flow). His work also illustrates the effect of prograding sediments (ie sediments which are moved downstream and sorted by the action of currents). He concludes that sorted layers can be laid down rapidly and concurrently. He uses this fact to claim that he has undermined several of the basic principles of stratigraphy originally set forth by Steno (superposition, initial horizontality, and continuity), and that therefore the conventional interpretation - that strata are the record of sedimentation and other sorts of deposition which can occur at widely separated times - is wrong. Other commentators, in particular Dr Kevin Henke (10), (11) have explained that Berthault does not attack these principles as understood by modern sedimentology (what Henke calls "actualism"), but with Steno’s principles as originally formulated. Henke correctly points out that the interpretation of these principles has been much modified in the light of field geography in the last 340 years, and to that extent, Berthault is attacking a straw man.
Berthault, and his YEC supporters (1), (12), (13), (14), (31), (32), (33) make an unwarranted leap from the result that strata can be laid down simultaneously and quickly to claim that this "proves" that the major strata (formations, groups and supergroups) were deposited simultaneously and quickly in a single catastrophic event. That conclusion would undermine the entire stratigraphic foundation of geology, which is that major strata are often laid down over long periods of time, that different strata often represent different depositional environments separated by long periods of time, and that therefore fossils in different strata represent a record, through time, of the evolution of species. Of course, if Berthault were correct, he would be the greatest geologist of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as he would have revolutionised the field more or less single-handedly (his collaborator on ref 3, Pierre Julien, who is a professional and well-regarded sedimentologist with a very extensive publication record and many awards, does not appear to endorse the radical and umwarranted conclusions Berthault has drawn from the work). In contrast, professional geologists have ignored Berthault since his 1993 paper, and this is not surprising, since his more recent publications in obscure journals are little more than thinly disguised and poorly argued pieces of creationist propaganda unencumbered by new findings.
So, does he have a point? Well, no, there are very obvious reasons why Berthault’s work does not undermine the consensus view of geology, and his work is certainly no reason to call into question the old age of the earth or the evolution of species because:
His experimental work is not especially original or revolutionary
His work was neither the first nor the only flume study in sedimentation and it does no more than confirm principles of size sorting in the presence of currents and shear velocities (20) – (28). It is relevant to bedding within a layer, as well as to turbidity events such as those caused by underwater landslips, to pyroclastic flow and to prograding sedimentation. Since these sources of rapid sedimentary formation are already well known, geologists, in reconstructing the environment of the original sedimentation when interpreting sediments in the field, already consider them.
The sorting of sediments into laminae according to particle size and density in a turbidity event is known as a Bouma sequence (15), and it is well known that such a sequence can be deposited in a short period. In addition, volcanic pyroclasts are known to form laminae rapidly (16). Berthault is unique amongst researchers, as far as I know, in claiming that his valid but limited laboratory findings can be interpreted as a fundamental revolution in geology. He fails in all of his work to demonstrate that major stratigrahic groups, some of which are hundreds of metres thick, could have been or were, as a rule, laid down rapidly.
But perhaps, most fundamentally, his work fails to refute the basic principle of Steno that in undisturbed sedimentary layers, those above were deposited after those vertically below nor does it challenge the principles of sedimentation as understood by modern geology (10), (11).
His studies do not support a radical reinterpretation of sedimentology
One cannot simply extrapolate the findings of size-sorting from a sedimentation experiment in a flume, carrying at most a few feet depth of water, to conclude that the whole post-Cambrian geological column, more than a mile thick in some places, was laid down rapidly in a single event.
Take, for example, Berthault’s recent paper speculating on the process which led, so he believes, to the Tonto Group (Tapeats Sandstone, Bright Angel Shale and Muav Limestone) of the Grand Canyon being deposited in a single huge energetic flood (9). He openly follows the flood geology of the Young Earth Creationist, Steve Austin (17), referencing Austin's work, using Austin's diagram and taking Austin's model for the formation of the Grand Canyon as a given, even though Austin's model is utterly rejected by professional geologists. It is astonishing to me that the editors of the Russian journal, Lithology and Mineral Resources, did not seem to recognise the fundamental creationist import of this paper or to detect its lack of rigour and quality.
Let us be clear about what we are considering here: the consolidated sedimentary rocks of the three formations of the Tonto Group total up to 1000 feet or 300 metres thick. Conventional geology holds that these were deposited partly concurrently (but obviously sequentially in any one location) over a period of about 50 million years in the Cambrian. Berthault’s model requires the sediments of the Tonto Group to be eroded directly from the underlying Vishnu Group and he makes no attempt to demonstrate that this is mineralogically feasible. (Curiously, Berthault completely ignores the presence of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, a major group of seven formations that in places are as much as 2 miles thick, that lies above Vishnu and Zoroaster and below Tonto, but which do not outcrop in the Western Canyon). He speculates that not only the Tonto Group, but also the strata overlying it were formed in the same event. He claims that the unconformities between the Tonto and Supai Groups can be explained by high velocity flow scouring previously deposited but unconsolidated sediments.
Other than Berthault’s experiments with sediment beds a few inches thick in his flume, there is absolutely nothing to support his contention that the Tonto Group was or could have been deposited in a single flood. Features such as water ripple marks, trilobite trails and brachiopod fossils in the Tapeats Sandstone (deposited, according to the mainstream view, on the shore of a transgressing sea), and the fact that each formation is by no means homogeneous in particle size, with, for example, coarse-grained inclusions in the Bright Angel Shale, stand strongly against it. And even if, for the sake of argument, the Tonto Group was deposited in a single flood event, that says nothing about the 2700 feet or 800 metres of the Temple Butte, Redwall, Supai Group, and the Hermit, Coconino, Toroweap and Kaibab formations overlying it which certainly do not follow the basic coarse to fine sequence displayed in Tonto. Berthault claims that the unconformity between the Muav limestone and Temple Butte or Redwall (depending on where in the canyon one looks), conventionally assigned to the missing Silurian and Ordivician ages, was formed during the flood as a result of erosion of already deposited material by fast-flowing water. If this were true, then the whole sequence from Tapeats to Kaibab would represent a deposition of considerably more than 4000 feet in a single event – if we associate this single event with the Noahic flood then this entire sequence must have been deposited at an average rate of more than 35 feet a day, which is simply not supported either by features in the Tonto group such as ripple marks and trilobite trails, or by settling conditions for finer sediments contributing to fine shale and limestone strata.
Even more telling, in the strata above the Tonto Group, we find the Surprise Canyon Formation filling what were canyons in the Redwall, cut by rivers. Above that, we find deposits which were formed both by wind- and water-borne sediments interleaved, including both aeolian beds and karst limestone, deposited in air and not in water.
Berthault’s claims that the Tonto Group was deposited rapidly in a single event such as a flood, is based entirely on unwarranted extrapolation from his flume experiments. There is no evidence to support this claim, and, as we have seen, considerable evidence against it.
The geological column contains deposition mechanisms that lie outside the processes that Berthault investigated
Berthault goes much further than his immediate claims for the Tonto Group – in fact, he uses his flawed conclusions for the Tonto Group to claim that all sedimentation in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere was deposited rapidly in a violent flood. He claims: "The sequences are correlated to the series and systems of the stratigraphic column. The above reasoning for the Tonto Group applies equally to all the series and systems and, consequently, to all parts of the stratigraphic scale.” (9). But the geological column, including major elements of the Grand Canyon formations, contains many strata which cannot possibly have been deposited rapidly or in an underwater environment:
In the several miles of depth of the geological column that is present in some places, many of these different processes can be found in a vertical section through the column, indicating that the environment in which the individual strata were deposited has changed over time. So, for example, we get fossiliferous lacustrine strata (bearing index species which clearly support the conventional chronology) separated by volcanic tuff, evaporites or aeolian deposits under marine strata overbedded by lava all in the same place.
The suggestion that fossil organisms are sorted, not chronologically, but ecologically and hydraulically, is not credible
Berthault and his supporters suggest (9), (33) that the sorting of fossils in the geological column is a consequence of ecology and hydraulics – ie organisms are buried where they live, or where they can reasonably be expected to be transported in the putative floods. But this is simply unsustainable. Even in the Grand Canyon, Berthault’s prime example, the fossil species support the chronological rather than the hydraulic sorting of fossils – as they do everywhere in the world. Below the Tonto Group, in the Grand Canyon Supergroup, there are only fossils of very early pre-Cambrian organisms such as stromatolites (fossilised mats of cyanobacteria); there are brachiopods and trilobites in the Cambrian rocks of Tonto above this; in the overlying late Devonian, Mississippian, Pennsylvanian and Permian deposits we find more advanced species such as sponges, corals, molluscs, crinoids, sea urchins, fish, amphibians, reptiles and green plants. But we do not find fossils of organisms that evolved later than the Late Permian anywhere in the Grand Canyon sediments all the way from the Great Unconformity up to Kaibab. There are no Mesozoic or Cenozoic fossils to be found anywhere in Grand Canyon rocks. In fact there are no fossils in the Grand Canyon that are out of place according to a conventional view of chronological sorting, other than some instances of reworking of underlying eroded strata immediately above an unconformity.
This is true throughout the geological column worldwide. To my mind, the single most telling evidence against the idea that a global flood is responsible for most of the post-Cambrian column is that fossils are quite clearly sorted chronologically – no Young Earth Creationist has ever proposed a remotely credible hypothesis to explain the sorting of fossils in the geological column. Berthault certainly hasn't.
Radiometric dating supports both the immense age and the chronological ordering of strata
Radiometric dating of layers of volcanic tuffs, lava beds and so forth that interleave major sedimentary strata, confirm not just the immense age of the strata, but also their chronological ordering. Berthault has criticised radiometric dating technology, but he has consistently failed to explain why the dates produced by radiometric dating are consistent with the consensus view of geology (34) and utterly inconsistent with his idiosyncratic interpretation.
1. M Berthault’s website can be found here:
3. See the ‘Advisory Council’ link at ref 2
4. Berthault, Sedimentation of a Heterogranular Mixture. Experimental Lamination in Still and Running Water, C.R. Acad. Sc., 1988, vol. 306, Serie II, pp. 717—724
5. Berthault, Sedimentologie: Expériences sur la lamination des sédiments par granoclassement périodique postérieur au dépôt. C.R. Acad. Sc., 1986, vol. 303, Ser., 2, no. 17, pp. 1569-1574.
6. Julien, Lan and Berthault, Experiments on Stratification of Heterogeneous Sand Mixtures, Bull. Soc. Geol. France, 1993, vol. 164, no. 5, pp. 649--660.
7. Berthault, Geological Dating Principles Questioned, in the Chinese journal Journal of Geodesy and Geodynamics 22, No 3, 2002, pp. 19-26
8. Berthault, Analysis of Main principles of Statigraphy on the Basis of Experimental Data, in the Russian Journal Lithology and Mineral Resources, English translation of Litologiya i Polznye Iskopaemye 37, No 5, 2002, pp. 509-515
9. Berthault, Sedimentological Interpretation of the Tonto Group Stratigraphy (Grand Canyon Colorado River), Lithology and Mineral Resources 39, No 5, 2004, pp 504 – 508
10. Henke, Berthault's "Stratigraphy": Rediscovering What Geologists Already Know and Strawman Misrepresentations of Modern Applications of Steno's Principles, available here:
11. Henke, Some Questions for Dr Berthault, available here:
15. Bouma, Sedimentology of some Flysch deposits; A graphic approach to facies interpretation, Elsevier (1962)
16. Fisher and Schmincke, Pyroclastic Rocks, Springer-Verlag (1984)
17. Austin, (ed.) Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe, Institute for Creation Research (1994)
18. Fischer and Roberts, Cyclicity in the Green River Formation lacustrine (Eocene) of Wyoming: Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 61, 1146-1154 (1991)
19. Ripepe, Roberts and Fischer, ENSO and Sunspot Cycles in Varved Eocene Oil Shales from Image Analysis, Journal of Sedimentary Petrology 61, no. 7, Dec. 1991, 1155-1163
20. Stow and Bowen, A physical model for the transport and sorting of fine-grained sediment by turbidity currents Sedimentology 27 (1), 31–46 (1980)
21. Jackson and Beschta, Influences of increased sand delivery on the morphology of sand and gravel channels Journal of the American Water Resources Association 20 (4), 527–533 (1984)
22. Steidtmann, Size-density sorting of sand-size spheres during deposition from bedload transport and implications concerning hydraulic equivalence Sedimentology 29 (6), 877–883 (1982)
23. Sengupta, Size-sorting during suspension transportation—lognormality and other characteristics Sedimentology 22 (2), 257–273 (1975)
24. Sengupta, Grain-size distribution of suspended load in relation to bed materials and flow velocity Sedimentology 26 (1), 63–82 (1979)
25. Bridge and Best, Flow, sediment transport and bedform dynamics over the transition from dunes to upper-stage plane beds: implications for the formation of planar laminae Sedimentology 35 (5), 753–763 (1988)
26. Ashley, Southard and Boothroyd, Deposition of climbing-ripple beds: a flume simulation Sedimentology 29 (1), 67–79 (1982)
27. Jopling and Forbes, Flume Study of Silt Transportation and Deposition, Geografiska Annaler Series A, Physical Geography 61, 67-85 (1979)
28. Carey and Roy, Deposition of laminated shale: A field and experimental study Geo-Marine Letters 5, (1985)
29. Machlus, Olsen, Christie-Blick and Hemming, American Geophysical Union, Milankovitch Cyclicity in the Eocene Green River Formation of Colorado and Wyoming Fall Meeting 2001, abstract #U12A-0000
34. Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth, Stanford University Press (1994)
Thanks to Tim Herbert, Phil Porvaznik and LJ who helped with suggestions and corrections. Any remaining errors and omissions are mine entirely
© Copyright evolutionpages.com 2007