In the endless comment thread in the post that dealt with the congressional hearings (262 comments and counting!), the original topic has long been forgotten and the discussion now deals with creationist theories that seek to reconcile scientific knowledge about Earth’s geology with a biblical-based chronology. These attempts at reconciliation have a long history and I dealt with this topic on pages 68-75 of my book The Great Paradox of Science. I reproduce that section below for those interested in the history of how these creationist beliefs came about, starting with Bishop Ussher’s influential calculation in 1650 CE that the age of the Earth was about 6,000 years old. It also shows the beginning of the convergence of studies from a wide variety of scientific fields to arrive at the current consensus that the age of the Earth is about 4.5 billion years.
The acceptance of Ussher’s calculation for the age of the Earth had implications outside of religion, in particular for the embryonic field of geology. Early geologists were struggling to understand the origins of the major features of the Earth such as the existence of high mountains and steep canyons. The discovery of seashell fossils on the tops of mountains suggested to them that at one time the tops of mountains must have been below sea level and that either sea levels had once risen above them or that the mountains had got pushed up. Nicolaus Steno (1638–1687) and Robert Hooke (1635–1703) also found evidence for layers of geological strata that suggested that various sequential processes were at work in the creation of the Earth’s crust (Curler 2003).
Steno and Hooke did not try to use that information to fix the date of the Earth because it was assumed that that question had already been answered. Their focus instead was on how these major geological features could be consistent with Ussher’s calculation for the age for the Earth. Having only a few thousand years at their disposal, scientists of that period were led to the idea that mountains and valleys and fossils and sedimentary rocks had to be caused by sudden cataclysmic events such as earthquakes and floods, including the Great Flood of Noah. This model came to be labeled catastrophism, that the Earth’s features were shaped by one major catastrophe after another that enabled major geological features to emerge relatively quickly. Rene Descartes (1596–1650) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) were names closely associated with this idea (Burchfield 1975, 5).
But Ussher’s work coincided with the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment and that brought with it the beginning of a separation of scholarly thinking from religious dogma, enabling scientists to speculate more freely and broadly about all matters, including the age of the Earth. As the desire and need for conformity with biblical estimates weakened, scientists started devising alternative theories for the formation of the Earth and the universe that were not explicitly linked to biblical stories. Immanuel Kant (1724–1793) and Pierre Laplace (1749– 1847) created a new model of the universe called the nebular hypothesis that used Newton’s laws of mechanics and his theory of gravitational attraction to explain the formation and evolution of the solar system. This model said that stars and planets such as the Earth originated as clouds of gases that coalesced under gravity. In the process, their initial kinetic and gravitational energies were transformed into heat energy that resulted in, for the planets, initially molten bodies that over time had their heat dissipate to give us the relatively cool Earth (at least on its surface) with a solid crust that we now have.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788), was one of the first to try to pin an actual number to 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 2006, 117). Although that number is wildly off the mark by modern standards, we must remember that he was working before the field of modern thermodynamics and its associated laws governing heat flows had been formulated, and at a time when thermometers were just coming into being. In order to estimate the parameters involved in cooling, Buffon did experiments involving the cooling of metal spheres that used the extremely crude method of actually touching objects with his hands to judge when two objects were at the same temperature. He was aware that his methods were crude and suspected that the actual age of the Earth could be much greater, possibly up to ten million years (Rudwick 2014, 66).
Despite these understandable shortcomings, Buffon’s result was a significant development in two respects: it used purely secular scientific reasoning to arrive at an age for the Earth; and the age he reported completely broke with a Bible- based chronology, going well over the roughly 6,000 years that people believed the Bible required. This caused the theologians at the Sorbonne to complain bitterly. This would not have bothered Buffon too much since he was an influential figure and thus immune from the dangers that ordinary heretics might face, though he was willing to make some conciliatory remarks in later editions of his book. Incidentally, Buffon had earlier published the first of his three-volume Histoire Naturelle in 1749 which, over a hundred years before Darwin’s Origins book was published, suggested that the descendants of ancestral organisms, aided by migration and geographic separation, could diverge thus leading to the creation of new species (Henig 2000, 97–98). He also made explicit the increasingly widespread idea that human beings appeared at a very late stage in Earth’s history, contradicting the biblical Genesis story that human history and the Earth’s history covered the same time span apart from the first five days before the creation of humans. This too had angered the Sorbonne theologians, suggesting that ruffling theological feathers with heterodox views did not unduly worry him.
This new freedom of thought stimulated interest in those areas of knowledge that we now label as geology and paleontology as scientists started to investigate the origins of the Earth and its fossils without the stringent constraints of biblical chronology. As mentioned before, people like Steno and Hooke had earlier observed the presence of seashells and other fossils on mountain tops and patterns in the layers of rock strata, and had used that information to create theories of geological formation in which rock layers were formed by sedimentation, with newer layers of rock settling on top of older ones. But they had not used this insight to actually try to date the Earth, because the biblical ages were the accepted beliefs in their time.
But now their early work formed part of the basis of the new sciences of geology and paleontology, combining the theory of slow sedimental formation with the ordering of fossils in the layers of rocks in which they were found. The clear pattern of evolution that emerged in the rock strata (with simpler fossils being found in the layers lower down and more complex ones in layers higher up) led paleontologists such as Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) and Jean- Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829) to suggest that the process of geological formation must have been quite slow, and required far more time than the Genesis story allowed, even though these early paleontologists were Christians. Steno, for example, was born into a Lutheran family and trained as an anatomist and geologist but later converted to Catholicism, became a monk, and gave up his scientific work in favor of theological studies, and Cuvier was religiously orthodox. But they all felt that the Bible should not be the source of empirical data for investigating the age of the Earth and that the evidence supplied by the Earth itself could reveal its origins. They felt that the truths revealed by the “book of nature” should be complementary to the truths revealed by the “book of God” and thus were untroubled by the possibility of any contradiction emerging.
A major development occurred when James Hutton (1726–1797) published a paper in 1785 that put into print ideas that had been circulating widely at that time 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 (Rudwick 2014, 68). In 1788 he argued in another 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 2006, 92).
These events were markers of the decline of catastrophism and the birth of the model known as uniformitarianism, which was the label attached to the idea that major changes could and did occur because of the steady accumulation of infinitesimal ones, and the forces that were shaping the geological features at present were the same as they had always been. It was clear to this school of thinkers that adopting this perspective meant that the Earth had existed for a vastly longer period of time than even Buffon had suggested. Some thought it extended back infinitely far and may have had cyclic upheavals that led to the rising and sinking of continents, while others thought it was not infinitely old but just 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 for their model of a slow rate of tiny changes producing large effects to work.
In the early 1800s, geology became recognized as a formal professional discipline. Societies were formed (the Geological Society of London, the oldest national geological society, was established in 1807), university professorships were created, systematic surveys began to be done of geological strata, detailed classifications made, and studies published. It was during this period that Charles Lyell (1795–1875) published the first volume of Principles of Geology (1830). His book was a best seller, 15,000 copies being purchased in its first edition alone and going through ten subsequent editions, and he emerged as a leader in this new field. Significantly, as we will see later, Charles Darwin was aware of his work and they became friends later on.
Lyell too argued in favor of the uniformitarian position that the Earth was extremely old, old enough to be indeterminate even if not infinite, sufficient to produce all geological features through the process of very small but cumulative changes. He additionally argued that the present rate of geological change could be assumed to have been constant over time and thus could be used to extrapolate backward to find out when specific geologic features began to be formed. As Lyell put it, “the present is the key to the past” (Jackson 2006, 130), and that this implied a sort of steady state for a largely unchanging Earth. Lyell and other uniformitarians were successful in persuading all but the most biblically committed that the Earth was far older than earlier, purely textual, studies had estimated, and by around 1850 this idea was predominant though not unchallenged. The main debate was whether the present rate and intensity of geological events had remained the same for all time or whether those could have been greater in the past, thus shortening the estimates of the Earth’s age (Rudwick 2014, 171).
By now, Enlightenment values had taken firm hold, science and rationality were on the rise, and religion could no longer rely on dogmatic assertions to suppress ideas that it found unpalatable, such as that of a very old Earth. So the strategy of those who wished to preserve the idea of an Earth that was a few thousand years old shifted to creating alternative narratives that had a scientific veneer that would make their religion-based conclusions more acceptable. The subsequent debate is illustrative for the purposes of this book because it shows how it is always possible to construct alternative theories to salvage one’s beliefs or to promote a particular agenda.
Although this particular example involves those with a religious agenda, they are by no means unique in adopting this strategy and secular groups with an economic or political agenda have followed similar approaches. If you cannot dethrone science as the main source of reliable knowledge, the next best thing is to try to undermine trust in its conclusions by appearing to use science itself, or at least particular features of it, to advance a conclusion that is outside the scientific consensus. This is a practice that has continued down to the present day in the shape of some arguing that climate change is either not happening or is not caused by human activity, that vaccines cause autism, that smoking is harmless, and so on. The specific issues and groups may change but the pattern remains the same. It is important to not summarily dismiss these groups just because their conclusions lie so far outside the scientific consensus. Their ideas are accepted by large swathes of people and one must understand their reasoning in order to better counter them.
In reaction to the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of uniformitarianism in geology and its concomitant idea of an extremely old Earth with possibly no beginning at all, there was a resurgence of biblical literalism that manifested itself in an alternative school of thought known as Neptunism or Flood Geology, that argued that water was the main cause of changes in the Earth’s features. Because it was no longer sufficient to appeal to the authority of the Bible, this theory was advanced by those seeking to convince people that Bible-based estimates for a very young age of the Earth had a scientific justification. Some of the adherents of Neptunism were convinced that the Great Flood of Noah was sufficient to create the major geological features and thus preserve the biblical chronology; consequently this group steadfastly rejected any attempts to make the Earth older than 6,000 years or so.
One of the most well-known proponents of this theory was George McCready Price (1870–1963), who tried to make the case that scientific evidence supported a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible. The numbers of people who supported Price and his Flood Geology theory remained small until the rise of the creationist movement in the United States that was facilitated by the publication in 1961 of the book The Genesis Flood that built on Price’s ideas (Whitcomb and Morris 1961). While John Whitcomb was a theologian, Henry Morris had a doctoral degree in hydraulic engineering with minors in geology and mathematics. He later founded the Institute for Creation Research in 1970 to advance these ideas, and that institution still exists with the same goals.
Even though scientists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were often religious, most seemed to accept the idea of an extremely old Earth and were willing to concede that a strictly literal acceptance of biblical chronology was too restrictive and required the existence of unrealistically strong forces to create its effects in such a short time. To meet the need to resolve the contradiction between religious and scientific beliefs, religious apologists who were more sophisticated than the Flood Geologists now sought to find ways to reconcile an extremely old Earth with their religious texts, something that happens repeatedly when scientific evidence contradicts religious beliefs. But while Price and others sought to change science to agree with the Bible, these new attempts went in the opposite direction and consisted of inventing new interpretations of the scriptures that were consistent with scientific estimates of an old Earth. After doing so, some even went further and argued that this new agreement showed that the Bible was correct because it predicted that the Earth was old.
One version of this new biblical interpretation is what is known as the “Gap” (or “Ruin-Reconstruction”) theory that arose in the early nineteenth century. This theory claimed to find a “gap” between Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) and Genesis 1:2 (“Now the earth was form- less and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”) that allowed for an indefinite amount of time, and that gap was used to insert a very old, unspecified age of the universe in which matter was first created, followed by nonhuman life and the formation of fossils. This gap allowed for multiple cataclysms and is flexible enough to accommodate most geologic evidence. But when it comes to the first appearance of humans, the model reverts to that of strict standard creationism with a Garden of Eden and the first humans Adam and Eve created in six 24-hour days in 4004 b.c.e. followed in 2348 b.c.e. by Noah’s flood, which in this model need not be a global flood but could be a local phenomenon, and so on (Numbers 1992).
A different reinterpretation of the Bible had an even more flexible structure and is known as the “Day-Age” model. This allows for a very old, unspecified age of the universe in which matter was first created, followed by life, the formation of fossils, and finally human beings. Noah’s flood is still a historical event in this model but it could be a local phenomenon. The six “days” of creation in the Genesis story are now interpreted allegorically as representing long but in- determinate ages in time, whence comes the name of this model, and hence all the major events in Genesis have unspecified dates that can accommodate values obtained using the standard dating techniques of science. Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden story are also interpreted metaphorically and not as actual historical people and events (Numbers 1992).
Nowadays one rarely finds people who believe in the Gap model. Christians, especially in the United States, seem to be either young-Earth Flood Geologists or some form of Day-Agers. Islamic creationists and some of the more sophisticated Christian apologists, including those in the so-called intelligent design movement, also adopt variants of the Day-Age model, because it enables them to finesse some of the contradictions between science and religion. William Jennings Bryan, a key player in the Scopes trial of 1925 that challenged the teaching of evolution in American schools, seemed to be a believer in the Day- Age model but under questioning during the trial, possibly for tactical reasons related to the specifics of that case, responded as if he was a believer in the more restrictive Gap model (Larson 1997; Singham 2009, 35–52).
As I said above, if one is determined enough it is always possible, by adding ad hoc hypotheses that are not required to make any testable predictions or be consistent with other theories, to construct alternative theories to salvage one’s beliefs or to promote a particular agenda. That is one major difference between scientific and dogmatic ways of thinking.