David R. Montgomery: Excavating between Disciplines

Biblical stories through a scientific lens
Illustration by Simone MassoniIllustration by Simone Massoni
By Jennifer Weeks

David R. Montgomery is a geomorphologist at the University of Washington and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant for his research examining how landscapes change through time. So it may seem strange that he has written books about dirt, fish, and religion. But Montgomery uses geology as a base to explore topics that branch much more widely. “I try to wade into fields related to geology and use my knowledge to learn from them,” he says.

His wide-ranging explorations made him an excellent visitor to the Radcliffe Institute, where he first met with students from Harvard’s biology, geology, and history departments to talk about pursuing ideas across academic boundaries. “Students are very interested in doing interdisciplinary research, but we academics tend to focus narrowly on very particular things because that’s how you make progress,” he says. “It’s good for students to see that they can reach outside their own disciplines.”

In his public lecture at Radcliffe’s Knafel Center, Montgomery displayed the degree to which he has expanded beyond his own disciplines. He spoke extensively about his book The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (W. W. Norton, 2012), which was inspired by a research expedition to Tibet’s Tsangpo River valley. There Montgomery and his colleagues found evidence that a huge glacial ice dam had broken sometime in the eighth century—and also discovered that local farmers told a story of just such an event, handed down orally over more than a thousand years. He started to wonder whether flood stories in other cultures had similar geological bases. This led him to early geologists’ efforts in the 17th and 18th centuries to explain Noah’s flood, and to the response from 19th-century theologians.

Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur FoundationPhoto courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation“There has been a long-running argument within Christianity about how to interpret stories in the Bible,” Montgomery says. He was intrigued by this engagement between faith and reason. By the mid-19th century, early scientists—many of whom were also clergymen—had shown conclusively that geological records did not offer evidence that a flood had once covered the earth. Rather, it was clear that life on earth had been created and destroyed many times over a span too long to fit into a biblical narrative. Instead of rejecting this evidence, Montgomery found, many “Christian men of science” in the 1850s supported a view framed centuries earlier by Saint Thomas Aquinas that nature was “God’s other book” and could be used to interpret biblical stories.

Why, then, do 46 percent of Americans now believe that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, when scientists estimate that it was created 4.6 billion years ago? Why do they rely on a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis?

Montgomery concludes that “modern creationists have turned their backs on objectively studying nature.” The key text of these “young Earth creationists” is The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and Its Scientific Implications (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1961), coauthored by an Old Testament scholar and a hydraulic engineer. (Young Earth creationism is the religious belief that the universe, Earth, and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of God during a relatively short period between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago.) Montgomery calls the book “a very good critique of 1950s geology.” It raised many questions scientists could not fully answer at that time, such as why dinosaurs had died off and how mountains were formed.

Shortly afterward, however, geologists formulated the theory of plate tectonics, which stated that Earth’s outermost shell had been broken into large pieces that moved around on the planet’s surface. Plate tectonics explained much of Earth’s history, including the formation of mountain ranges and ocean basins. But it came after young Earth creationists had already laid out their own quasi-geological ideas supporting the Bible as truth. Instead of trying to reconcile new scientific insights with the Bible, they “have been using and interpreting geological data selectively ever since,” Montgomery says.

Although debates over creationism are often cast as a war between science and religion, Montgomery sees them as conflicts between religious believers about how to view science. “One thing I learned in writing The Rocks Don’t Lie was how diverse Christian perspectives are on the relationship between ‘God’s two books,’” he says. “And religious ideas, such as our responsibility to care for creation, can positively influence how we use and apply science.”

Montgomery's forthcoming book explores how microbes could revolutionize agriculture and medicine.Montgomery's forthcoming book explores how microbes could revolutionize agriculture and medicine.His extended trip through several centuries of Christian thought in The Rocks Don’t Lie illustrates Montgomery’s strong commitment to interdisciplinary research. He has also traced the impact of human actions on soils worldwide in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (University of California Press, 2007) and chronicled the evolution and near-extinction of salmon in King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon (Westview Press, 2009). His latest book, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health (W. W. Norton), is scheduled for release this fall. Coauthored with his wife, the biologist Anne Biklé, it describes what Montgomery calls “astounding parallels” between the critical roles that microbes play in human and plant health.

“The spaces between disciplines are very fruitful areas for research,” Montgomery says. “There’s a tension between the need to specialize in order to make progress and the desire to think broadly and synthesize. It’s a big issue across all academic fields. Yes, you should learn a discipline, but you don’t have to come from a discipline to synthesize it. You just have to be willing to enter as an intellectual observer and figure out what people in that field agree on.”

Jennifer Weeks is a freelance journalist who specializes in the environment, science, and health. She has written for Audubon, Boston Globe Magazine, the Washington Post, and many other publications.


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