The age of the Earth-3: The Earth gets old again

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For previous posts in this series on the age of the Earth, see here.

The Enlightenment brought with it the separation of scholarly thinking from religious dogma and this enabled scientists to think much more freely and broadly about all matters, including the age of the Earth.

As the desire for conformity with biblical estimates weakened, scientists started devising theories of the formation of the Earth and the universe and doing calculations that were not explicitly linked to Biblical theories. Immanuel Kant (1724-1793) and Pierre Laplace (1749-1847) created a new model of the universe, the nebular hypothesis, that said that stars and planets originated as clouds of gases. They used Newton’s laws of mechanics and his theory of gravitational attraction to explain the formation and evolution of the solar system.

Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) was one of the first to try and determine the age of the Earth using only scientific theories and data. He used estimates of the initial internal heat of the Earth and its rate of cooling to arrive at a value of about 75,000 years, a result that he published in 1778 (Jackson, p. 117). Although the number seems laughably low now, we must remember that he was working before the age of modern thermodynamics and at a time when the Fahrenheit temperature scale and thermometers were just coming into being. Buffon had to estimate the parameters involved in cooling by making judgments of when two objects were the same temperature by the crude methods of actually touching them with his hands.

Buffon’s result, though wildly off the mark by modern standards, was a significant development in two ways. First because it used purely scientific theories to arrive at an age and second because the age he reported broke with a Bible-based chronology completely, going well over the 6,000 years that people believed the Bible required.

This development stimulated the field of geology and paleontology as scientists interested in those fields now started to investigate the origins of the Earth and its fossils without the artificial constraints of the biblical chronology. People like Nicolaus Steno (1638-1687) and Robert Hooke (1635-1703) had earlier observed the presence of sea-shells and other fossils on mountain tops, and the patterns in the layers of rock strata, and had used that information to create theories of geological formation, in which rock layers were formed slowly by sedimentation and newer layers of rock lay on top of older ones. But they had not used them to actually try and date the Earth, because the biblical ages were the standard beliefs in their time.

But now their early work became the basis of the new geology, by combining the theory of slowly sedimental formation with the ordering of fossils in the layers of rocks in which they were found. The clear pattern of evolution that emerged of the appearance of fossils in the rock strata (with simpler fossils being found in the older layers lower down and more complex ones in younger layers higher up) led to later paleontologists such as Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) suggesting that the process of geological formation must have been quite slow, and required far more time than the Genesis story allowed. A few paleontologists even went back to the old idea that the Earth had existed forever. Even though these paleontologists were Christians (Steno, for example, was a priest and Cuvier was religiously orthodox), they all felt that the Bible should not be the source of data for investigating the age of the Earth and that only the evidence of the Earth itself could reveal its origins.

A major development occurred when James Hutton (1726-1797) published a paper in 1785 that argued that catastrophes and great floods were not necessary to explain the features of the Earth; that they could have been caused entirely by the slow and steady accumulation of small changes. In 1788 he argued in a paper that not only was the Earth infinitely old, it would also last forever saying, “The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end.” (Jackson, p. 92).

This marked the birth of the idea of uniformitarianism and it was clear to this school of thinkers that adopting this meant that the Earth had existed for a vast amount of time. Some thought it extended back infinitely far while others thought it was extremely old, so old that they were not that interested in pinning down an actual age or thought that it could even be done. They assumed that sufficient time was available as needed for their model of slow rate of changes to produce the desired large effects.

Meanwhile, what was the response of Christians to these grave challenges to their biblical chronology? That will be examined in the next post.

(Main sources for this series of posts are The Chronologers’ Quest: The Search for the Age of the Earth (2006) by Patrick Wyse Jackson and Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth by Joe D. Burchfield (1975).)

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Deity gets a tour of hell from Lucifer (Lucy)

The Jesus people should add this to their spiel, since they are obsessed with the idea of other people going to hell.

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