The title of the DpSU for the 20th of December is Whales in the Desert? The topic is interesting in that I’ve already heard of this find in the context of creationism – it was discussed twice on TWIGO:CP, in TerryH fails geology forever and more briefly in Terry vs The Whale, and inspired a post on We Couldn’t Make This Up.
Now, Mr Hurlbut made a slightly different claim than Mr Thomas does now. To quote the latter blog post:
His argument boils down to the fact that “How did eighty whales wash ashore, half a mile inland, and at an elevation greater even than the height of the Empire State Building?“
Much of the criticism directed at TerryH on the RationalWiki page can be summarised by the following quote from Whoover in the first discussion link:
Here’s a site, not too far from the “coastal highway” expansion that uncovered the site. Its elevation is 151 feet. “Whale Hill” must be hella steep. OTOH, if the site were at 13,000 that wouldn’t hurt “evolutionists'” feelings.
(Terry claimed that the Atacama desert is 13,000 feet high, and argued that the fossils were found at a similar height. They almost certainly weren’t, but even if they were they had 7 million years to get there.)
But what am I talking about? We have some whale fossils discovered in the Atacama region as part of an expansion of the Pan-American Highway in 2010. Since October of this year palaeontologists have been hurrying to excavate as many of the fossils as they can in the short period of time they have been given. To quote now the Science Insider article:
The team has found more than 20 complete whale skeletons, and about 80 individual specimens, as well as other types of marine mammals.
So where does Mr Thomas want to go with this? Let’s find out…
Workers expanding a highway in 2010 found fossils of 80 huge whales in desert sandstones in Chile, prompting questions of how they died and why they were so well preserved.
He provides no source for the claim that people are wondering “why they were so well preserved” or even that they were particularly well preserved, beyond there just being lots of them. Additionally, only his link to a CMI article on the subject could be used to support the idea that there is any controversy over how the whales may have died, and the most you can take from that is that we can’t tell if the whales beached or were trapped in a lagoon.
Clearly, a catastrophe must have happened, since so many whales died at once. Just as clearly, the catastrophe must have involved large quantities of fast-moving sand in order to encase the huge animals in sandstone.
Whether you want to call mass whale beachings a catastrophe in and of themselves is up to you, but they do happen fairly regularly and biblical-scale floods are frankly unnecessary to bring them about. As far as I am aware we don’t actually know what the cause of most beachings are, but if they correlated well with the kind of things that creationists propose happened in the Flood I think we would notice. It should be added that the deposition of sandstone-forming sediment requires the water to slow down from a higher speed, but not too quickly or other sediments will deposit at the same time. The kind of thing you might expect from a river flowing into the sea perhaps, but difficult to achieve with a global flood. Plus, no calamity required.
Things that are presented as ‘clear’ rarely are, in the same way that ‘humble opinions’ aren’t. But this goes beyond that.
Construction halted on the highway temporarily, allowing Smithsonian paleontologists to examine the fossils. Since the site may be destroyed when roadwork resumes, the scientists are using laser imaging technology to quickly record the fossils’ 3-D positions in the sandstone so that they can be virtually reproduced “for museums and future study by paleontologists.”
Images from the excavation site show the whale remains close to, and even overlapping, one another. They are gathered in a low spot called the Caldera basin, where water runoff from the continent toward the Pacific Ocean was trapped. The water would have rapidly drained out after depositing the whales and the sand, allowing the carcasses to dry quickly and not decay as the surrounding sand hardened into sandstone and preserved them.
Well there’s your uniformitarian explanation… (Although the water probably didn’t deposit the whales, just the sand on top. If the water was carrying the whales, the whales probably wouldn’t have dropped out with the sand.)
Enlightenment-era notions of slow and gradual geologic processes cannot account for this mass grave. Neither can they explain a separate case in which 300 whales were found buried with land animals, also near the western coast of South America. But a massive watery catastrophe like the Flood of Noah would have had the requisite power to move the amount of sediment and water that formed these massive whale fossil sites.
This other whale find seems to be a favourite for creationists. The abstract at least is filled with YEC-attracting phrases such as “preserved in pristine condition” – “(bones articulated or at least closely associated)” – “rapid burial,” and “Current depositional models do not account for the volume of diatomaceous sediments or the taphonomic features of the whales.” It also says “The 346 whales within ∼1.5 km2 of surveyed surface were not buried as an event, but were distributed uninterrupted through an 80-m-thick sedimentary section,” which somewhat lessens the use to which this can be put by the YECs.
Also interesting is the fact that (at least) the first author of the paper is a YEC himself, but one who “challenges his fellow creationists to use caution when making scientific claims,” which is nice (and something they don’t often do). He apparently favours the idea that the fossils are post-flood, which wouldn’t be all that catastrophic and un-uniformitarian.
I can find no source for the ‘land animals’ element of Mr Thomas’ claim, though again I can’t read past the abstract of the paper, and there is no reason why that would be a problem if they were there.
Genesis 8:3 states, “And the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated.” Since these whale fossil deposits probably overlie thousands of feet of sedimentary rocks, it stands to reason that much of the underlying rock was formed during the first 150 days of the Flood, as water was carrying sediment onto the continent.
Later in the Flood year, the whales would have been deposited in low-lying areas as waters “abated” from the continents and into the new, deeper ocean basins. This would account not only for the large numbers of remains found in one place, but also for their preservation.
So he’s not supporting the weird only-parts-covered-at-any-one-time Flood idea we saw in Forgive Me If You’ve Heard This One Before the other day? Once again, it would be difficult to engineer a situation where the sediments would deposit correctly in this, more traditional model of a Global Flood.
ScienceInsider reported that researchers “are striving to learn how the site was formed and how the marine mammals died.” The first place they should look is Genesis.
This is the problem with creationists when it comes down to it – they think that Genesis is helpful in scientific inquiry. Tell me, what does it say that could help us with this question? It says that the waters go up, the waters go down, and something about a dove and some leaves or something, but nothing that could enlighten us about how these whales actually died. The creationists may build their interpretations on top of Genesis, but they extrapolate hugely – the bible doesn’t tell us all that much that would be helpful even if all it said was true.