‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ said Alice during her travels in Wonderland. Just so (even if that is a different author) ...
The Cave Book is, on first glance, a fairly traditional children’s book about caves; it contains the sort of topics and simple, clear drawings that might be associated with such a publication. That is, it is not a storybook but rather an educational title, backed with the fact that it is one in a series titled Wonders of Creation. The introduction and early chapters take us from the meaning of karst through cave man and cave art (there is a nice panel on how the paints were created) to mythology, cave life, geology, speleogenesis, speleothems, cave exploration, photography underground, science and conservation (good to see that last topic covered) and, to close, a glimpse at what modern caving is like. A fold-out poster forms the final bound sheet – overall, this makes The Cave Book good value. That it was published in 2008 yet is only now receiving a review is down to the simple fact that it slipped below the radar for too long.
Emil Silvestru has a solid caving background, according to the ‘about’ section. Romanian by birth, he worked as a research scientist for the Emil Racovita Institute of Speleology in Cluj before becoming its director in 1990 and is credited with a host of scientific papers. He now works full time for Creation Ministries International in Canada, and hence the Wonders of Creation series title.
Delve into the text and you discover that this is not the book you might have expected to read as a caver brought up on ‘normal’ fare. The Cave Book challenges accepted (by the majority of the world’s scientists and cavers) views and beliefs concerning caves and their age and evolution. Thus, the book is part rationalisations and arguments against ‘traditional facts’ and part attractive layout with an engaging and absorbing text.
This calls for some examples. There is a continuous theme that caves cannot be as old as science says; the Bible is the only arbiter. ‘God may have created pre-Flood caves,’ Silvestru writes, but these would have been destroyed during the cataclysmic event and thus ‘all of the caves existing today must have formed after most of the sediments had been deposited during the Flood.’ Fossils seen in cave walls were buried there during Noah’s flood, dated here as some ‘40+ centuries’ ago.
Or, showing that speleothems cannot be as old as science states (and thus cannot predate human use of caves by early man), because with their interesting shapes they would have been structures ripe for painting and yet ‘no cave formations ... have been reported thus far as part of cave art.... I see this as a strong argument that these structures formed after the artists left’. Silvestru, undeniably, points out that flowstone has often formed on top of paintings (thus, to science, confirming their age but to Silvestru suggesting that, generically, paintings came first) and a good deal of space is given over to refuting the claimed age of speleothems. Unfortunately, his comment ignores the art of Grotte Cosquer in France, where paintings of hands clearly adorn the stalactites (see them on the cover of The Cave Beneath the Sea); science has dated them to around 27,000 years old. Evolution of man obviously sees an airing, here with a direct statement that man did not evolve from apes – it is classic Creationist rather than Darwinian theory and there are many, many such instances that oppose otherwise accepted fact.
Creation theory forms the underlying message throughout The Cave Book and, it has to be said whether you agree with it or not, it is argued with clarity. In the end, this leaves me as the reader bemused at who the book is written for, however: children or adults. It still feels like a child’s book, but surely the language used in minutely detailed refutations and chemical formulae is not theirs (the publisher’s website suggests that this is a textbook aimed at high school level in the USA). At best, it is good that all opinion can be aired – science is nothing if not a field of study where facts are continuously challenged, and in that sense Silvestru’s words are a confrontation. But who is he trying to convince?
Do you believe in Creationism or hold an Evolutionary faith? This is an emotive subject that polarises opinion – yet either way, you will find The Cave Book interesting. It will either support your beliefs or, perhaps, make you think and question them; certainly, for the majority of Descent readers it will offer a fresh outlook on the world. Just do not expect to agree with every word or claim that appears, or think that cave photography (explained in its own section) really is at the state of art described here; we have progressed a little beyond worrying that the ‘high humidity of the cave atmosphere increases the absorption of light’, that the ‘vast majority of cave photographs ... are taken from a tripod’ and ‘even with the most powerful flashes, large voids cannot be photographed’.