Henry M. Morris

by Doug Linder (2004)

Henry M. Morris, the man who would revive the creationist movement in 1961 with a popular book promoting the idea of a worldwide flood and then, two years later, found the Institute for Creation Research, grew up in the Texas of the 1920s and 1930s as a religiously indifferent youth.  Shortly after his graduation from Rice in 1939, however, Morris accepted the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, as the infallible and literal word of God.

Morris spent the next two decades as a member of the civil engineering faculty of four different universities, before taking a job as the head of the department at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1959.  He taught hydraulic engineering, and that interest, coupled with his belief that the Bible provided an accurate account of history, led him to ponder how the Great Flood reported in Genesis might be explained in scientific terms.  Morris’s determination to provide support for Genesis came from seeing “historical geology, with its evolutionary implications,” as the enemy.  Morris believed that the prevailing explanation profoundly influenced “nearly every aspect of modern life, especially in its fostering of an almost universal rejection of historicity of Genesis and of Biblical Christianity generally.”  (GF, xxvii)

In 1961, Morris and John C. Whitcomb, an Old Testament scholar, published The Genesis Flood, which Stephen Jay Gould calls “the founding document of the creationist movement.”  (C&S, 126)  In April 2003, the book, which attempts to account for how an ancient deluge might have covered the entire planet—even covering the summit of Mount Everest—for a full year, had its forty-forth printing.  The book is a demonstration of Morris’s commitment to support Genesis as “actual historical truth, regardless of any scientific or chronologic problems thereby entailed.”  (C&S, 56)  Morris believed that treating Genesis as allegorical or mythical led down a slippery slope to a point where “every man becomes his own God.”  Non-literalists, in Morris’s opinion, fail to recognize that their approach “inevitably undermines all the rest of Scripture. If the first Adam is not real,” Morris argued, “then neither is the second Adam real and there is no need of a Savior.”  (C&S, 81)

Morris’s Biblically-based assumption that the earth was no more than ten thousand years ago forced him to reject a concept which had dominated geology for more than a century. The uniformitarian position is that sedimentary rock, which often appear in layers thousands of feet in thickness, have been laid down by the gradual and steady process of deposition.  Obviously, if that is the case, the earth is a very old place—billions of years old, not thousands as Genesis suggests.

Morris replaced uniformitarianism with what he called “Biblical catastrophism,” a framework that resulted in the wholesale rejection of everything geologists thought they knew about geology.  Even the author of the book’s forward, John C. McCampbell, a geology professor from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (and presumably one of the most sympathetic geology professors that could be found anywhere), expressed misgivings with a framework that threw a century’s worth of geology out the window. “I would prefer to hope that some other means of harmonization of religion and geology, which retains the structure of modern historical geology, could be found,” he wrote. (GF, xvii)  Trying hard to muster a compliment, Professor McCampbell credits Morris with “real independent thinking,” which he described as fast “becoming a lost art.”  (GF, xviii)

Morris took inspiration for his Great Flood scenario from Genesis I: 6-7.  The sixth verse has God declaring, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.”   The seventh verse is more puzzling.  In it, God “divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so.”  What waters “above the firmament”?  Morris rejects the obvious answer—rain clouds—because Genesis 2:5 states “the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth.” Morris’s solution is to imagine an earth, in these early years of human history, surrounded by a giant, invisible canopy of water vapor.  How did the canopy get there?  Not my any means consistent with natural laws operating today.  Morris and Whitcomb write, “These upper waters were therefore placed in the position by divine creativity, not by the normal process of the hydrological cycle of the present day.”  Once the water canopy is installed, another supernatural act, the puncturing of the canopy by God, was all it took to produce plenty of water for Noah’s Great Flood.  Morris could not be more direct in conceding that a Flood of the magnitude described in Genesis was impossible without a suspension of natural law: “The simple fact of the matter is that one cannot have any kind of a Genesis Flood without acknowledging the presence of supernatural elements.”

In the introduction to his book, Morris stated the obvious.  He pointed out, “If a worldwide flood actually destroyed the entire antediluvian human population, as well as all land animals, except those preserved in a special ark constructed by Noah,…then its historical and scientific implications are tremendous.”  (GF, xix)  Evolution, most significantly, could not account for the variety of life on earth if the Genesis Flood occurred as reported.

Morris and Whitcomb acknowledged that their conclusions “must unavoidably be colored by our Biblical presuppositions,” but insisted that modern science was no less affected “by its own presuppositions and these are quite as dogmatic as those of our own!” (GF, xxi)  Specifically, the authors pointed to “historical continuity” and “scientific naturalism” as being untestable assumptions accepted by virtually all geologists.  Rejecting the continuity of physical laws becomes a handy device for Morris and Whitcomb to fend off the challenges presented by, for example, rubidium- strontium dating methods that seem to establish the earth’s age at something over four billion.  If we do not assume that elements decayed in the past at the same rate they do today (and how can we prove that they did?), then, Morris argued, how can we trust the radiometric dating that relies on this assumption?

Morris concluded that the second law of thermodynamics made “evolution in the vertical sense (that is, from one degree of order and complexity to a higher degree of order and complexity)…completely impossible.” (S&C, 10)  This conclusion represented a confusion of physical systems and living systems; although the universe may “run down,” life is quite capable of moving in the opposite direction.  Interestingly, Morris argued that the laws of thermodynamics did not apply during the days of Adam and Eve, but kicked in only at “the end of the creation period.”  (GF, xxvi) 

Fossils, needless to say, are a major thorn in the side of creationists.  To Morris, the fossil record, which gives the illusion of supporting evolution over hundreds of millions of years, was produced entirely during the 300 or so days of Noah’s Flood.  As Morris put it in The Genesis Flood, “The fossil-bearing strata were apparently laid down in large measure during the Flood, with apparent sequences attributed not to evolution but rather to hydrodynamic selectivity, ecological habitats, and differential mobility and strength of the various creatures.”  (C&S, 53)  In other words, the flood sorted corpses of animals into strata, as some species struggled more effectively than others to stay above the rising waters.

Morris’s scenario, featuring dinosaurs and sheep all trying their best to stay dry, met with widespread derision among scientists.  Kenneth R. Miller describes the “contradictions and fallacies and weaknesses of flood geology almost too numerous to mention,” but cannot resist a stab at Morris’s disposal of the fossil record.  Miller wrote:

Mammals occupy virtually every corner of this planet.  Some are very large, some are extremely small, some are quick, some slow, some burrow into the ground, some swim in the ocean, some climb the highest trees.  They differ enormously, as Henry Morris might say, in terms of their “hydrodynamic” properties (shape and weight), “ecological habitats,” “differential mobility and strength.”  Yet, not a single mammalian fossil appears until the very last strata from the creationist “flood” were laid down.  And when they do appear, with incredible bad luck, the fossils arrive in just the right sequence to piece together imaginary evolutionary sequences in a dozen different families.  Why is it that the first mammal to appear happens to be the most reptile like of all subsequent mammals and happens to appear just after the most mammal like of all reptiles?  Shouldn’t a single family of moles near the shore have been trapped by the rampaging waters and fossilized in the Cambrian period?  Shouldn’t swimming mammals have been fossilized alongside the jawless and jawed fishes in the early stages of the flood? (S&C, 54)

Stephen Jay Gould also takes obvious delight in bashing Morris’s suggestion that the fossils of the higher strata are what they are because some species had anatomical or functional advantages that allowed them to postpone the inevitable longer than other species.  Gould observes:

Surely, somewhere, at least one courageous trilobite would have paddled on valiantly (as its colleagues succumbed) and won a place in the upper strata.  Surely, on some primordial beach, a man would have suffered a heart attack and been washed into the lower strata before intelligence had a chance to plot a temporary escape….No trilobite lies in the upper strata because they all perished 225 million years ago.  No man keep lithified company with a dinosaur, because we were still 60 million years in the future when the last dinosaur perished.  (S&C, 132)

In the most famous geological treatise of the seventeenth-century, Reverend Thomas Burnet, in his The Sacred Theory of the Earth, addressed the same question Morris considered.  Burnet’s attempt to reconcile what he considered to be the fact of the Great Flood with what was then understood about science is laughable today.  (He imagined the earth as a sort of huge pressure cooker rupturing its skin and allowing surging internal waters to cover the earth.)  But Burnet, unlike Morris, resisted the temptation to simply call for a divine assist.  Although others urged him to resort to miracles, Burnet declared:  “They say in short that God Almighty created waters on purpose to make the Deluge….And this, in a few words, in the whole account of the business.  This is to cut the knot when we cannot loose it.”  (S&C, 133)

(Morris’s effort has not been the only—or even the most imaginative—effort to try to reconcile fossil data and a young earth chronology.  A creationist named Partee Fleming wrote a book entitled Is God’s Bible the Greatest Murder Mystery Ever Written? in which he argued that dinosaurs and other early species never existed.  The fossils that appear to confirm the existence of dinosaurs, Fleming contended, were merely planted to test our belief and demonstrate the “wit of Jesus.” In short, the massive fossil evidence seemingly proving evolution represents a God-sized prank.) (S&C, 21)

The Genesis Flood found an appreciative audience.  More than any other work, the book revitalized interest in a young earth cosmology among evangelical Christians.  Most seemed unconcerned with the book’s cavalier dismissal of fossil evidence and its failure to offer any testable alternative theory of natural history.  They seem to agree with Morris: “God was there when it happened.  We were not there….Therefore, we are completely limited to what God has seen fit to tell us, and this information is in His written Word.”  (S&C, 130) 

The scientific community, to the extent it paid any attention to The Genesis Flood, has been—to put it mildly—unimpressed. Kenneth R. Miller is one scientist who made it his mission to tackle the creationist arguments head on.  In one essay, Miller accused Morris and other creationists of blowing off “a shotgun full of mutually contradictory arguments…designed essentially to confuse and mislead, and even to misinform.”  (S&C, 47)

Two years after The Genesis Flood hit bookstores, Morris and nine other like-minded scientists founded the Creation Research Society, dedicated to established scientific support for the Genesis creation story.  Seven years later, Morris moved to San Diego to found a creationist center called the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).  ICR is an openly Christian operation.  Morris closed his monthly letters to “Friends” of ICR with the words, “Sincerely yours in Christ.”  (S&C, 22)  Scientists seeking to join ICR had to first sign a statement confirming their own belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, effectively excluding all but fundamentalist Christians.

The unmistakable aim of ICR is not to convert leading scientists to their way of thinking—an all-but-impossible task—but rather to influence textbook writers, school boards, and the unskeptical public.  ICR scientists generally to not seek review from “peers” in the scientific community, and rarely collaborate in any way with university researchers.  The goal of ICR, simply put, is to influence the way schools teach science. 

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