Yes, millions of years!


That Answers in Genesis crackpot, Terry Mortenson, is speaking on “Millions of Years” at the Creation “Museum”. Those of us who visited that circus of charlatanry know that this is one of their obsessions — the idea that the earth is more than 6000 years old is one of the wrecking balls atheists use to destroy faith.

He’s right, of course. It’s a very useful tool. When fundamentalists tie their faith absolutely to a claim that is easily refuted, that contradicts the evidence, and that requires them to constantly escalate their denial and delusions in order to sustain their belief, it makes it really easy for atheists to demolish their religion. We don’t even need to attack religion in the classroom at all — we just calmly lay out the facts, let the students work out the conclusions, and sometimes…it’s epiphany time! They realize their pastor lied to them, or was just really ignorant, and suddenly their respect for Christian authority begins to crumble away.

It’s not the atheist’s fault, though. The lesson should be, “Don’t lie to your kids,” not “Silence the people who would reveal that you lied to your kids,” or worse, “Lie harder.”

This is not a lesson that Mortenson has learned. He is apparently planning to babble about revisionist history in his talk, claiming that the evidence for the age of the earth is the product of an atheist conspiracy among geologists.

To really understand what is wrong with belief in millions of years, we need to go back to the early 19th century and study the origin of this idea. This unique and interesting lecture, based on Dr. Mortenson’s PhD research, will clearly show that the idea was not the result of just letting the rocks and fossils “speak for themselves” but rather comes from anti-Biblical worldviews (or philosophical assumptions) being imposed on the geological evidence. The talk explains the key men who helped develop the idea of millions of years, one of the geologically competent Christians who opposed those theories, and the subsequent consequences of the church’s compromise with millions of years. Even non-Christians would find this lecture thought-provoking.

Hah! The only thought it would provoke in me is to wonder where they kept the straitjackets. Looney-tunes revisionist history is not thought-provoking in a good sense.

I actually spend a fair amount of lecture time on the early history of geology in my introductory biology course. One reason is that, if you talk to most people, you will discover this fallacious belief that evolution leapt fully-formed from the brain of Charles Darwin, and there’s an anachronistic idea that ideas about the age of the earth, which are built on independent evidence from geology and astronomy, are somehow rooted in biology. It’s not so! Darwin’s antecedents had already laid the foundations in working out that the earth was old, that life had undergone many transitions, and that maybe species were mutable. Evolution was an inevitable conclusion of the evidence; Darwin and Wallace were just the clever fellows who managed to pull the whole story together.

I find it very useful to give students a quick overview of 18th and 19th century geology before we talk about Darwin, since the creationists in the classroom usually have this image of Darwin as Satan who foisted a false belief on the world because he hated god (hey, sounds like Terry Mortenson!). It’s very useful to be able to show how views of the world evolved, not by ideology, but by the growth of a body of evidence.

Let’s begin with Robert Hooke (1635-1703). He dabbled brilliantly in many things, but one subject of particular interest was the origin of these curious fossils that people kept digging up, which were thought to be either creatures turned to stone by some miraculous process, or were the expression of an intrinsic nature of stone to mimic life. Hooke examined the details of fossils microscopically, and determined that they had once been alive, and also worked out how the transformation had occurred — by the perfusion of minerals into buried or immersed dead organisms. He also examined the distribution of fossils; finding fossilized clams on mountaintops, for instance, says something about the prior state of that environment.

Most of those Inland Places. . . are, or have been heretofore under the Water. . . the Waters have been forc’d away from the Parts formerly cover’d, and many of those surfaces are now raised above the level of the Water’s Surface many scores of Fathoms. It seems not improbable, that the tops of the highest and most considerable Mountains in the World have been under Water, and that they themselves most probably seem to have been the Effects of some very great Earthquake.

These conclusions were evidence-driven. Almost no one in the late 17th century would have been interested in opposing religion, so you can’t pin that heresy on Hooke. He is simply describing the natural world and finding certain conclusions inescapable, including some to which creationists today still can’t adjust — and note that he is writing this more than 300 years ago.

There have been many other Species of Creatures in former Ages, of which we can find none at present; and that ’tis not unlikely also but that there may be divers new kinds now, which have not been from the beginning.

And then there’s Baron Cuvier (1769-1832) and Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847) who studied the rocks of the Paris Basin. There were many quarries situated around Paris that cut deep into the hills to provide building stone, and they gave these two the opportunity to look into the structure of the rocks. They identified five major layers, and by examining the fossils, worked out what kinds of animals and plants lived there when the layers were deposited. They found that layers with saltwater species were interleaved with layers containing freshwater species — Paris had been under the sea at least twice!

Cuvier was not an atheist. In fact, he was even adamant that the earth was relatively young, but in a way that contradicts what Answers in Genesis would tell you. He had worked out that there were different assemblages of animals in each layer, and proposed an explanation: a series of ages, each very different, with the most recent major catastrophe occurring five or six thousand years ago (to bring it in line with the literal interpretation of the Bible) and sweeping away prior forms to allow for the flourishing of human beings.

It is certain that we are now at least in the fourth succession of terrestrial animals. The age of reptiles was followed by that of the palaeotheres [primitive mammals], then the age of mammoths, mastodons, and megatheria. Finally we arrive at the age of the human species together with domestic animals. It is only in the deposits subsequent to the beginning of this age, in turf-bogs and alluvial deposits, that we find bones all of which belong to animals now existing…None of these remains belong either to the vast deposits of the great catastrophe or to those of the ages preceding that wonderful event.

If you want someone who was willing to assert that the earth was very, very old, we have to look to the Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726-1797), who was accused of atheism for his ideas, but they were backed up entirely by hard-earned evidence. He postulated that the geology we see was created by multiple cycles of sedimentary deposition, volcanic uplift, and erosion, and he mapped and documented complex unconformities and intrusions that demonstrated that the history of the earth was complex and required great time for the formation and distortion of rock. He also found that the evidence of the time was insufficient to even show the history of the beginning of the earth, which is why he closed his book, Theory of the Earth, with the famous line, “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.”

Again, his conclusion was dictated by the evidence, not some atheistic philosophy.

At the same time Cuvier and Brongniart were exploring the Paris Basin, William Smith (1769-1839) was walking all over England, building up his geological map. We know what his motivation was: it was economic. He worked in mines, and was eager to capitalize on the opportunities opened up by the Industrial Revolution. Railroad and canal cuts exposed the strata of English geology all over the place, and being able to assess good locations for coal mines was a profitable skill — much like petroleum geology now. Smith observed consistent features of geology, like the way rocks were layered, and what fossils were present in specific layers, and could see that a layer was a slice of time, and that each slice contained different animals (which led to his Principle of Faunal Succession). He worked out the first geological map of Britain on the basis of his surveying.


There is a pattern to geology: we can see that the strata are not purely local phenomena, but part of formations that often extend continent-wide. These strata also have a predictable order that reflects the timing of their formation. These observations are not reconcilable with the simplistic dogma of the creationists.

Charles Lyell was also an important geologist, who was also very influential on Charles Darwin. He was not an atheist, but rather, a devout Christian, which caused him considerable discomfort since he was never able to accept the full implications of Darwin’s work. Lyell’s key dictum was that the present is the key to the past, that what you needed to do was work out mechanisms in action right now and use those to explain what must have happened in the past.

Darwin himself applied this principle to estimate a minimum age for the earth. He knew from published observations that a rapid rate of sedimentary deposition was 600 feet in 100,000 years; he also knew that the known strata in England had a depth of over 72,000 feet, which implied that the earth had to be at least 12 million years old.

It’s so widely accepted that even creationists use it — it’s the basis for their arguments that the ocean sediments and moon dust say the earth is young. Unfortunately, the way they accomplish that is by either using the wrong numbers for accumulation or ignoring the multiple processes that affect the rate.

It is simply ludicrous to claim that 18th or 18th century geologists bent their interpretation to fit some imaginary godless worldview — in general, the scholars of that period were more concerned with avoiding conflicts with religion, since the majority of them were doctrinaire church-going Christians themselves. What led them to the conclusion that the earth was millions, and then billions of years old was the evidence, not their ideology.

And now, of course, the evidence is even more overwhelming, and it’s mostly physics at its heart. Trying to salvage Bishop Ussher’s weird numerological and biblical 17th century chronology in the 21st century by invoking the incomplete understanding of 19th century scholars is exactly the kind of inanity we’ve come to expect from creationists.