Who Knew? The Man Who De­stroyed Bi­b­li­cal Time

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Sam Bromer

Dur­ing the doc­u­men­tary “Bill Nye: Sci­ence Guy,” Amer­ica’s fa­vorite sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor trav­eled to ru­ral Grant County, Ken­tucky, to visit Ark En­counter, a Chris­tian evan­gel­i­cal theme park. Its main at­trac­tion is a mas­sive, 510-foot-long, wooden “re­con­struc­tion” of Noah’s Ark, which tow­ers over the site’s park­ing lot. In­side the ark, tourists can take their picture with some of the crea­tures that, park cre­ator Ken Ham says, would have been present on the ark — in­clud­ing sev­eral species of di­nosaur. The park at­tracts more than 1 mil­lion vis­i­tors per year.

While the Young Earth Creation­ists, Ham’s group that founded the park, are fringe fig­ures to­day, only a few cen­turies ago their ideas were the main­stream. It was once very com­mon to be­lieve that the earth was 6,000 years old. In the 17th cen­tury, Arch­bishop James Ussher of Ar­magh me­thod­i­cally stud­ied Ge­n­e­sis, the He­brew cal­en­dar and other bi­b­li­cal records, and de­clared that the date of cre­ation was “the en­trance of the night pre­ced­ing the 23rd day of Oc­to­ber… 4004 [BCE].” His cal­cu­la­tion went all but un­ques­tioned for cen­turies in much of the West — es­pe­cially in Bri­tain, where the Angli­can Church stub­bornly re­tained a grip on knowl­edge well into the 19th cen­tury.

Ac­cord­ing to “Read­ing the Rocks” Brenda Mad­dox’s 2017 bi­og­ra­phy of sev­eral renowned Vic­to­rian ge­ol­o­gists, it was not un­til the mid-1800s, when the work of an aris­to­cratic Scot­tish ge­ol­o­gist named Charles Lyell flour­ished in the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness, that sci­ence openly con­tra­dicted the cre­ation myth. Lyell built on the ideas of James Hut­ton to es­tab­lish that, over huge time pe­ri­ods, seem­ingly small, grad­ual changes in na­ture can cre­ate colos­sal fea­tures of the en­vi­ron­ment such as vol- ca­noes, canyons, rivers and is­lands. His book “Prin­ci­ples of Ge­ol­ogy” in­spired the gen­eral pub­lic at a time when pop­u­lar lit­er­acy was on the rise and sci­en­tific writ­ing was in vogue.

Hut­ton, a Scot­tish nat­u­ral­ist, was one of the first ge­ol­o­gists to try to ex­plain how the earth’s crust changes over timescales, which, Mad­dox writes, had to be mea­sured over “mil­lions, not thou­sands, of years.” Hut­ton stud­ied the cliffs at Sic­car Point in his na­tive Scot­land and dis­cov­ered that they con­tained “two rock types of to­tally dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tion.” He noted that, over mil­lions of years, the earth’s forces had tilted a pet­ri­fied slab of rock from the seafloor onto its side, be­fore a

LYELL, LYELL: Ge­ol­o­gist Charles Lyell (in­set) pop­u­lar­ized the idea that the world was an­cient. de­posit of red sand­stone ar­rived on top.

Star­ing at this cliff, Mad­dox writes, Hut­ton faced “vis­i­ble proof that Arch­bishop Ussher’s cal­cu­la­tion of the earth’s age was… lu­di­crously wrong.” As sci­ence his­to­rian Stephen Jay Gould has noted else­where, Hut­ton’s work “burst the bound­aries of time, thereby es­tab­lish­ing ge­ol­ogy’s most dis­tinc­tive and trans­form­ing con­tri­bu­tion to hu­man thought — Deep Time.” Hut­ton’s work pro­vided proof that tra­di­tional re­li­gious doc­trine was out­dated and ab­surd; time was a mys­te­ri­ous abyss that could not be ex­plained by bi­b­li­cal teach­ings.

Lyell, though, was the one who most ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cated his ideas on “deep time,” and how the change of the earth’s crust over an im­mense times­pan cre­ates the phys­i­cal fea­tures we see to­day. Lyell’s book brought to the gen­eral pub­lic the “in­for­ma­tion — in­deed the news — that the world was an­cient.” More than sim­ply a rev­e­la­tion of the earth’s age, “Prin­ci­ples” ar­gued that the earth was formed by count­less small events, in ac­cor­dance with nat­u­ral law. No bi­b­li­cal del­uge was nec­es­sary to de­scribe the earth’s ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory. In fact, Lyell found no ev­i­dence of such an event ever hav­ing taken place.

Not only did Lyell in­flu­ence pub­lic dis­course on ge­ol­ogy, he also may have paved the way for Charles Dar­win’s “On the Ori­gin of Species,” which sim­i­larly posited that small, grad­ual changes pro­duced mas­sive change in the an­i­mal king­dom. Dar­win trav­eled with the three vol­umes of “Prin­ci­ples of Ge­ol­ogy” dur­ing his voy­age on the ship HMS Bea­gle. The books’ in­sights about the grad­ual, steady pace of change to the earth’s ge­ol­ogy in­flu­enced his the­o­ries on the grad­ual force of com­pe­ti­tion and adap­ta­tion in the nat­u­ral world. “Prin­ci­ples,” Mad­dox writes, alerted Dar­win to the dan­ger of “‘un­der­valu­ing greatly the quan­tity of past time’… [and] stirred him to won­der about the changes in life forms over time.”

In other words, it is pos­si­ble that with­out Lyell, Dar­win would not have had the con­cep­tual foun­da­tions to form his the­ory of evo­lu­tion. Nearly 150 years af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of Dar­win’s “On the Ori­gin of Species,” groups like the Young Earth Creation­ists still es­pouse the view that the word of the Bi­ble can be taken lit­er­ally. It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that their most foun­da­tional ar­gu­ments were re­futed nearly two cen­turies ago, by ge­ol­o­gists whose work pre­ceded the the­ory of evo­lu­tion.

Lyell’s book brought to the gen­eral pub­lic the news that the world was an­cient.

SCALES OF TIME: Di­nosaurs frolic in a ‘replica’ of Noah’s ark in Ken­tucky.

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