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Originally published Sunday, August 19, 2012 at 5:02 AM

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'The Rocks Don't Lie': looking at the evidence for a Noah-style flood

University of Washington geologist David Montgomery's new book "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood" examines both at the geologic evidence for a gigantic prehistoric flood and the enduring effect of religious belief on the story of the world's creation.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood'

by David R. Montgomery

W.W. Norton, 288 pp., $26.95

In 2002, University of Washington geologist David Montgomery discovered evidence of an ancient ice-age lake in Tibet's Tsangpo River valley. He was surprised to learn that lamas in a nearby monastery had a story of a great flood. It sounded strikingly familiar.

The experience sent Montgomery, author of the popular "King of Fish" and "Dirt," on an investigation of the biblical story of Noah's flood. His quest led him through the works of theologians, historians, philosophers and scientists. Along the way he experienced revelations of his own — about the nature of science, belief and the pivotal role Noah's flood played in the development of scientific geology.

"The Rocks Don't Lie" is the fascinating, exquisitely researched and comprehensive account of that journey.

Today, according to Montgomery, nearly half of Americans believe in young Earth creationism, the belief that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and its geologic features were deposited and shaped by Noah's flood. It is an idea, as Montgomery observes, "as scientifically illiterate as the idea that the Sun circles us."

Montgomery provides a detailed accounting of how we arrived here. He also describes the painstaking, centuries-long process by which geologists learned to read the history of the world through direct observation of the ground beneath them.

As early as the second century, the Greek philosopher Celsus questioned the veracity of Noah's flood. Early church theologians like Origen taught that the stories in Genesis were to be understood figuratively.

Geological science took a major step forward in the mid-1600s when Danish natural philosopher Steno discovered that fossils were actually once-living creatures. Soon heretofore unimaginable spans of geologic time became apparent to Enlightenment thinkers like James Hutton. Later, Charles Lyell showed how the deposition of rocks and the fossils they held told the story of an ancient Earth.

Despite Bishop Ussher's 1650 pronouncement that the Earth was slightly less than 6,000 years old, by the late 19th century the age of the Earth was generally settled.

Creationism, as we know it today, was revived by the 1961 publication of John Whitcomb and Henry Morris's "The Genesis Flood." Following that, radically conservative Christians, in Montgomery's analysis, "broke with those who acknowledged scientific findings and began to ignore, selectively cherry-pick, and actively undermine science to support their favorite literal interpretations of the Bible."

Montgomery's research takes him to the Scottish coast, the depths of the Grand Canyon and, enjoyably, to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., where visitors are confronted with exhibits of humans picnicking with dinosaurs.

Yet Montgomery remains sensitive to religious thought and refreshingly open to new approaches. He suspects that flood myths, including Noah's, are grounded in the reality of ancient, if regionally contained, floods. He also documents the suffocating effect established scientific bias can have on new ideas. And he credits the religious impulse to understand Earth's mysteries with many of science's most important discoveries.

The modern relevance of the Noah story? Montgomery suggests it may lie "in a timeless lesson about humanity's moral responsibility to safeguard creation, as did Noah and his crew."

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