Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Historical Perceptions of the Age of the Earth

 This might be an ongoing series, depending on my inclination.

  Before evolution, the first dangerous idea, was of course deep time. Espoused by geologist James Hutton and further developed by Charles Lyell, they claim it was this heretical thought that gave Darwin the springboard to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection. What's ironic is that, the earliest discoverers of deep time were actually opposed to evolution.

William "Strata" Smith
First, a little background if you may. The field of geology was expanding enormously throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. People were digging up fossils of extinct animals that, at the time, were utterly bizzare and alien. The public was being wowed by tales of monsters, from the skulls of noble mammoths found in the frozen wastes to  demonic plesiosaurs which were purportedly agents of Satan. Enter William "Strata" Smith, the father of English geology. He observed that, while working on railways, how well sorted fossils were from one layer to another, hence earning him his namesake.  Using this fact alone, he went on to plot the first geological map of entire Britain. A very remarkable feat indeed, especially considering he worked alone without any modern equipment.
What he never realized was that his valiant efforts would change the perceptions of the world we live in forever.
 Geologists began pondering the observations from the fossil record. What did this mean? When did these creatures live? If they were brought aboard Noah's Ark, why have none survived to this day? Most importantly, why were they so well sorted, from layer to layer? How could Noah's flood sort the fossils with such precision?

Bear in mind the notion of a global flood had already taken a beating almost a century ago, during the exploration of the Americas. Naturalists (many whom were also members of the clergy) struggled to explain a) the enormous diversity of animal life, particularly in the Amazon basin b) the origin of native Americans.
A particularly salient (and mildly amusing) question posed by Sir Thomas Browne was in this quote:

"How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange"

In which he ponders why, if native American Indians were descendants of Noah who dispersed at Babel, why did they decide to bring rattlesnakes, but forgot the horses? Another pressing problem was that Genesis only described the creation of one land, so to speak. Yet enormous continents existed that were completely separated from the rest of Europe.

But I digress. As you can see, the idea of a global flood and a young clockwork Earth was being increasingly challenged by the fossil record. Remember, this was long before James Hutton's ideas became popular and Charles Lyell first published his book, the Principles of Geology.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
Then in 1809, heresy! Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, French war veteran turned naturalist, published his book Philosophie Zoologique, in which he proposed that organisms slowly evolved over time. His foundation for the mechanism by which the change occurred was the theory of inherited traits, which postulated that organisms changed over time with "use or disuse" of their innate organs and passed down these traits to their offspring. He was way off the mark, but his theory actually has some basis in reality.

Lamarckism went against everything the Christian church taught, so enter brilliant distinguished scientist, Georges Cuvier, founder of modern anatomy. A man of wanton erudition, he had already come to realize a vast number of species in the fossil record were extinct. He noted the degree to which fossils were sorted according to strata, and was the first to recognize that elephant fossils found near Paris were distinct from living elephants we see today, or even the skulls of Siberian mammoths, and hence categorized them under a distinct species, the mastodon. He was the first to identify fossils found in South America belonged to a giant sloth, now known as Megatherium. And hence, he came up with the theory of catastrophism. Earth, he argued, had underwent a series of divine creations, succeeded by catastrophes which resulted in extinction events. The global flood, occurring about 4000-5000 years ago, was simply the most recent of them, he argued. In doing so, he utterly dismissed evolution and affirmed the theory of divine creation.

Cuvier's ideas were monumental. It helped found the modern field of palaeontology and formulate the idea of extinction events.

  Lamarck soon fell out of favour. In fact, after Lamarck died, penniless, Cuvier wrote a eulogy to him. Although at first glance, it seems to be honouring Lamarck's contributions to natural history, Stephen Jay Gould noted that Cuvier was subtly denigrating Lamarck.

The Cenozoic Age of Mammals. Image from

However, Cuvier's ideas on species' fixity and repeated catastrophes opened the idea that the Earth was far older than 6000 years, contrary the Ussher-Lightfoot chronology. Many theologians still struggled with this issue and eventually came up with the "gap" theory which  explained there was a vast period of time which separated the events of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. That way, a global flood and a young age of Man's existence was still tenable. Nevertheless, even this idea would be challenged in the future.

Conclusion: As you can see, even the most ardent opponents of evolution advocated an ancient Earth. The innate sorting, the striking differences in anatomy of fossils were vital in proving that our Earth is far older than the official date of creation. Joel Duff of the Natural Historian has an excellent series on 19th century scientists as well.

See them here:

The Earth on Show

William Buckland Grappling With Deep Time

Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den: A Challenge to a Young Earth

Mary Anning: Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs and the Age of Reptiles

Highly recommended!

Next up: the geology of James Hutton and Charles Lyell, and the Reverend William Buckland's admission of error.


  1. "why were they so well sorted, from layer to layer? How could Noah's flood sort the fossils with such precision?" D.Hew

    Because of inundation and essuaging. It depends upon how you look at it. You forget that back then the flood was ALSO seen in a primitive light, they would have likely thought the whole world was covered in water, then drained like a bath, if they were making silly statements about dinosaurs being demonic. I also wrote about the poor logic of "sorted layers" but the blog entry will take reading through, and some figuring of the logic I wrote about it. HERE:


    "But I digress. As you can see, the idea of a global flood and a young clockwork Earth was being increasingly challenged by the fossil record" D.Hew

    Not really Daren, so far you've said that MEN had found some evidence that would perhaps not make sense in light of a simplistic understanding of how the flood might have happened. To find anomolous evidence is normal, life is a complicated thing.

    There are lots and lots of problematic evidences for theories, and it can be hard to spot the difference between an argumentum ad ignorantiam and a genuinely conspicious absence of evidence. Think about it, most of the intermediates are missing in the fossil record, and this will sometimes only be an absence of evidence that is explainable, but sometimes the evidence was expected to be there. Part of the problem is that different groups of people will make different predictions about what should be there. For example, people find no evidence at the traditional Mount Sinai site, but other people would expect there shouldn't be any because the real Mount Sinai, they say is elsewhere. Can you see how fallacious it would be to then conclude that there wasn't an exodus because we didn't find expected evidence at the wrong site?

    "As you can see, even the most ardent opponents of evolution advocated an ancient Earth. The innate sorting, the striking differences in anatomy of fossils were vital in proving that our Earth is far older than the official date of creation" D.Hew

    The anatomical differences are only striking for different kinds of animals, but there have been fossils found that are basically the same, there are Pine Trees in the fossils, bats, crocodiles, spiders, dragonflies, all types of plants and insects that are only different in size. Huge dragonflies for example, or cockroaches, but still they are the same types of creature.

    "vital in proving that our Earth is far older than the official date of creation" D.Hew

    According to the notation of logic, the term, "proof" can't be used, because of technical, logical problems.

    So far you have given positive confirmation evidence of an older earth, but this is only the consequent in the modus ponen, you still can't affirm the consequent. To say, "therefore we proved the earth is older" from the evidence you have shown, is to affirm the consequent

    Please don't take my rebuttal personally, I just think people fail to see the significance the role of logic is. This is why I am not dogmatic about historical science, because our knowledge will always be thwarted, not by what we do know, but by what we don't know.

    I will concede this evidence you discuss, favours an older earth, but this is only some of the evidence, all of it would require several books to be written, and that's the problem, you end up with evidence in favour of a flood, and evidence in favour of long ages. (At least that's what I see.)Ultimately I don't believe I can know what happened in the past, so for me it's a matter of faith, in trusting what God has said, so largely I take it by faith and believe that even if we don't always have explanations for everything, that doesn't mean there aren't any.

    1. Hey thanks for commenting again. The demonic plesiosaurs were actually for amusements sake. This was meant to be discussing how science in the 19th century was struggling to explain their findings given their limited understanding. It was not meant to disprove a global flood.

      This post was meant to show how an ancient Earth fits the evidence better than a young Earth. But now our understanding of geology and biology has increased greatly which allows us to interpret the evidence much better.

      For example giant insects. We dont see them in the present because they simply wont survive in the relatively low oxygen levels today. Insects breathe through their skin you see. The larger they are the lower their surface area to volume ratio and the harder it is to supply oxygen throughout their body.
      Which is why they are only found in the swampy Carboniferous period when massive peat swamps trapped huge amounts of carbon and raised oxygen levels to astronomical proportions. We wont even find grass in Carboniferous deposits as grass is an angiosperm and only started appearing in the Cretaceous.

      You are right in saying that it does not affirm the consequent but I didnt mean to jump to conclusions.

      What I agree with you is that ultimately we wont know anything for sure. We are limited by our perceptions and mental faculties. I understand why you put your trust in God if he exists. Thanks for commenting again.

      Btw in relation to your previous posts, actually I know something of Hugh Ross; hes one of the better creationists. Quite smart and open minded guy,

    2. We won't agree about what the evidence in the ground means but I will point out that super-size species were not only insects, there was the chambered nautilus and massive super-crocs and many more large things, the giant Platypus. The evidence can be interpreted to fit different models but we can't interpret the evidence to not fit with exotic air or gravity, and NOBODY would argue that. So why is that? It's because of what we discussed previously, the limitations of induction. History leaves much larger gaps in our knowledge so many models tend to work from circumstantial evidence. Evolution will always be a weak science or even a philosophy because it relies on tenuous, fragmentary induction. But it's claims are astronomical. There is an axiom that states thus;

      "the greater a claim, the greater the evidence must be to support it."

      For example if I claimed I was superman for example, would some photographs of me flying and eye-witnesses, be sufficient in regards to the size of the claim? To claim molecules-to-man, to state that grass and trees are ultimately related to fleas, elephants and hairy-knees, is perhaps the greatest claim in history, and certainly one of the most astonishingly silly weighed against the clear facts of design that exist. To combine it with abiogenesis, as it should be combined with since both theories only exist to satisfy each other, leads to an impossible claim.

      I have read some very disconcerting things about Lyell recently, his correspondence with like-thinkers, and their writings indicate a very clear GOAL of ant-biblical and anti-God thinking, and a political agenda to achieve that goal, seeing it as an opportune time for them to do so. Even I was amazed by the letters, as I didn't think the agenda was so overtly atheist, but it is astonishingly clear from Lyell's writings, I might make a blog about it, it's quite shocking though, just how little genuine scientific inquiry for the true answer, interested them.

    3. Ah the problem of induction, first pointed out by empiricist philosopher David Hume. I guess my response would be that theories are weighed on the basis of their predictive quality and how well they fit the evidence from different disparate fields. As for evolution being a weak science it would relatively be so in the field of palaeontology as the only source of information would be comparative anatomy. However when we compare living species we can countercheck DNA data with anatomy to see if they are concordant which forms powerful evidence for evolution.

      As for the grand claim of evolution; yes, thats what evolution claims. But remember the relatedness extends very very far back. For example it is inconceivable to believe that humans are related to grasshoppers. When we stretch the timescale back hundreds of millions of years, we can see how, reversing millions of branchings, transitions and adaptations we arrive at a common ancestor which probably resembles something like a primitive arthropod.

      As for Lyell I might make an analysis of his writings in the future but remember that he was a Christian, and rejected Darwins conclusions for most of his life.

  2. http://creation.com/many-flood-legends

    (Please note Daren, that evolutionists would insist that homology "proves" divergence, so then over 300 worldwide flood stories, all involving some striking similarities to Genesis, would surely "prove" divergence of people, them all using the same story, and adapting it. Descent with modification!!!!!!)

    This is the problem, such evidence is powerfully in favour of the flood, because the similarities are often very strikingly overt, we have the same inherited story, that people have "adapted" to fit their culture and religion.

    Does this really prove a flood? No, millions of preserved dead things tend to ultimately be the evidence expected for a flood.

    Can you imagine if there was no fossil record? Atheists would have had a field-day, they would have declared that the earth shown no disaster upon the animals, no preservation. Ultimately, it is how you see the fossil record, Daren. We see a mass grave, and what was the flood story about?

    This is the problem, the evidence evolutionists use is SELECTIVE evidence, the evidence that favours their cause.

    1. Ah yes. It always surprised me why there were so many flood legends worldwide. Thanks for the link. The explanation for this was usually attributed to many civilizations springing from fertile river valleys which were very prone to catastrophic flash floods. The native Americans also had witnessed some particularly spectacular flooding at the end of the last Ice Age when huge glacial sheets melted. Another explanation was that people found fossils of marine molluscs on top of mountains which led them to believe the entire world was covered in water once.

      However this explanation becomes less likely if one finds very close similarities between each separate flood account, particularly the Mesopotamian and Noachian deluge.

      Thanks again. You have piqued my interest and I ve decided to continue this series as soon as possible.