Monday, March 09, 2009

Genesis and Geology

With this special attack upon geological science by means of the dogma of Adam’s fall, the more general attack by the literal interpretation of the text was continued. Especially precious were the six days—each "the evening and the morning"—and the exact statements as to the time when each part of creation came into being.... Difficult as it is to realize it now, within the memory of many now living the battle was still raging most fiercely in England, and both kinds of artillery usually brought against a new science were in full play, and filling the civilized world with their roar.

Andrew Dickson White

The story which has worked its way into the public consciousness is that, throughout history, the study of Geology has been hampered, held back and opposed by those who were standing up for the Genesis account; not only with the present day creationist movement, but also in the 18th and 19th centuries. This story has been fostered by the self appointed spokespersons of science and used for ideological purposes.

As the scientific study of the world progressed there was a dawning realisation that human history was but a tiny speck at the end of a long and eventful geo-history of the earth. Something of this was captured during last night’s episode of the Victorians, presented by Jeremy Paxman. The show’s narrative included the painting by William Dyce of Pegwell Bay; a significant location because it was where St Augustine of Canterbury landed in 597 AD. The painting conveys a great sense of unease, an effect created by the looming cliffs and the autumnal light. The focus of attention is drawn to the women collecting seashells in the foreground and the evidence of the great age of the earth all around them, the fossils, the flints and the eroded chalk cliffs. Dyce’s curiously joyless painting is therefore a typically Victorian expression of religious doubt, the gloomy rocks and the comet which traces its course over the sky both dwarfing one’s existence into insignificance.

This is a sentiment we find echoed in Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach, with it's ‘sea of faith’, ‘once full’, but now ‘Retreating, to the breath of the night-wind and naked shingles of the world’. When Alfred Lord Tennyson, consumed by grief for the lost of his friend Arthur Hallum, turns to the rocks for solace he sees only the brutality of mass extinction; ‘ From scarped cliff and quarried stone She cries, "A thousand types are gone: I care for nothing, all shall go’. No wonder that John Ruskin was moved to comment, in 1851, "If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses'. Geology then, had an undeniable significance in the Victorian crisis of faith.

It was in the 17th century that the much maligned Archbishop Ussher proposed the night preceding 27 October 4004 BC as the date for the creation of the universe, and interestingly, the beginning of time itself. Usher was a not very distinguished member of a whole science called chronology. This was a discipline of textual scholarship, which wasn’t even primarily biblical. Mainly this was a historical science, a branch of human history, into which the bible naturally fitted because it was one of the oldest historical narratives. The goal of chronology was to construct a world history which would be cross cultural. Usher’s book covers the period from 4004 BC, up till around the time of the fall of Jerusalem, and it primarily is focused on the last few centuries which was where the vast majority of evidence lay.

Somewhat later than Ussher, Bernet’s ‘Sacred Theory of the Earth’ was published. The frontispiece has Christ standing astride over seven successive stages of the earth. Although this is arranged in a circle, it is a linear kind of history with Jesus in charge from the beginning to the end. The position Burnet argues against is Aristotle’s eternalism, the idea that the cosmos has always existed. So the area of conflict at this point of time was between two alternate accounts, neither of which was the modern concept of a very long, but finite, history of the earth. Instead the choice was between a short, but finite, history and on the other hand, Aristotle’s concept of an infinitely long and uncreated kind of history. In this context geology could be used to counter enlightenment deism, in particular the idea of an eternal present summarised by James Hutton (1726-97), ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. The development of modernity was to extend the short time scale but specifically to recognise that a great deal of the earth’s history was pre-historical and pre-human. Aristotle was wrong, and not for the first time I might add.

In the 18th century, the relevant natural historians became aware that there was good evidence for a very long time scale. One of the reasons for this was because of the immense piles of sedentary strata we see around us, many of which contain large quantities of marine shells. It therefore became inconceivable that all these layers could be easily fit into a short time scale (Yes, I know! - it is conceivable, Young Earth Creationists try to do it today - but we shall leave that aside). The second reason was volcanoes, specifically the historical records which showed one eruption after another. One could therefore get a pretty good idea of how much of the cones of volcanoes such as Etna and Vesuvius had been accumulated within recorded history; a very small amount as it happened.

By the end of the 18th century therefore, there was a very strong sense of ‘deep time’, as research progressed this would be strengthened and qualified. Comte De Buffon, drawing on his theory that the earth had been a cooling body, estimated that the age of the earth was 75,000 years. The Oxford Geologist William Buckland(1784-1856 - pictured on the right) writing in the early part of the following century, spoke of geological time as amounting to ‘millions and millions of years’. According to the research of Professor Martin J Rudwick, deep time appears to have had no religious implications amongst scientists, the reason being that there was a long standing hermeneutic tradition - going all the way back to the church fathers - by which you could interpret Genesis according to the natural facts. You could for example, say that the days of Genesis were simply long periods of time, or you could say that it was simply a story about human history. The biblical literalism which had been a novelty in the 17th century had yielded in the 18th century to an appreciation of the multi-vocality of the bible and a realisation that taking bible passages at face value might obscure the meaning. A good example is this is the case of Haydn, whose 'Creation' was based on Genesis 1. Having lived in London, Haydn was a friend of a naturalist called John Hunter who knew all about deep time and would presumably have discussed it with him. It doesn’t appear to have made any difference to the composer.

It is only in the 1820's that we find a reversion to literalism in the movement called scriptural geology which emerged in Great Britain. This movement was attacked most vehemently by those geologists who were known as believing Christians. It was a conflict which would find an echo in the twentieth century with the growth of young Earth creationism.

In the 19th century, the flood story was seen to be historical in character in a way which was no longer applied to the creation story. The reason for this was that similar stories were being discovered in non European societies and it appeared to be a cross cultural phenomenon. It was therefore regarded as being part of the earth history and seemed to be a boundary event between the history of humanity and that of the deep time which preceded it. There appeared to be natural documents as well as human records. This led to the theory of the geological deluge which could either be regarded as distinct from, or the same event as the biblical flood.

One can easily understand why this became a serious scientific proposition called the Diluvial theory. One of the biggest problems at the time was that Geologists would find enormous blocks of rock which could be traced back to their source. In many cases was found that they had moved hundreds of kilometers. How had they made this journey?. The explanation at the time was that they had been transported by an enormous current of water, which seemed to need a huge causal origin; a mega tsunami. It was an obvious starting point to link this to the biblical flood and similar events recorded by other civilizations. The account of Noah’s ark does not suggest a worldwide catastrophe, but it was felt by Geologists like Buckland that the story, although garbled, had a core of historicity. Buckland’s description of how material had been transported from Northern England to London therefore drew on the flood for explanation. Diluvial theory was extended by Georges Cuvier into an explanation of the extinction of the large mammal species and the Pleistocene mega fauna in the geologically recent past.

The evidence for a great deluge was dramatically reinterpreted over several years in the light of a new theory, the ice age. Rather than science triumphing over religion, the biblical flood was simply recognized as referring to a local Mesopotamian event and separated from evidence for the proposed geological tsunami, now interpreted as due to the action of glaciers. Buckland soon changed his mind and helped introduce the glacial theories of Jean Louis Agassiz. Geologists returned to earlier hermeneutical methods ( e.g. days as geological periods) and reconciled Genesis and Geology. Buckland , for example, held the view that the first two verses of Genesis covered the immensity of geological time, and this approach was endorsed by leading Anglican theologians. The bible was held to cover the history of mankind, scared chronology, the period of the humanity’s existence.

There was one uncomfortable fact which the rocks established in 1800; the presence of extinct fossilized creatures. How could death be a punishment for man’s sin if it had already occurred so much in pre-human history?, and why would a good creator allow the gratuitous death and destruction of so many creatures?. There were two solutions, one to claim death was a punishment for man, but not for the whole of creation. Utilitarian arguments were applied to show how death could benefit animals by ending the suffering of the young, the weak and the old. There was also the development of the idea of a great chain of being, the theory that what the fossils showed was progress and progressive development; fish to reptiles, mammals to human beings. For Adam Sedgwick and Buckland, the Christian idea of history having a direction and a teleology seemed vindicated against the enlightenment’s cyclical time and eternalism; although to many, it was a little too open ended for comfort. Of course not everyone was very happy about this, with Ruskin, for instance, bemoaning the ‘filthy heraldries which record the relation of humanity to the ascidian and the crocodile’.

The great detractor from this view was Charles Lyell, who felt that the idea of progressive development he had first encountered by reading Lamarck affronted human dignity and turned mankind into a glorified Orang Utang. As a result he stripped the fossil record of any progressive scheme. Man, he thought, had to be special. As it turned out, he was wrong and the progressive creationists would soon have reason to feel vindicated.

What we find in the historical record is the continual reinterpretation of Genesis as the evidence accumulated; the findings of geology occasioned no deep rupture between science and religion and the difficulties which arose were quickly accommodated. Geology was a science which was developed and pursued by Christians; most of whom appear to have been able to reconcile their religious beliefs with the evidence. In fact, the leading English geologists of the early nineteenth century-William Buckland, William Daniel Conybeare, and Adam Sedgwick- were all clergymen, as was the American geologist Edward Hitchcock. As Nicolaas Rupke concludes in ‘Science and Religion’ (Ferngren)

‘By and Large, mainstream Christian geologists and palaeontologists succeeded in coming to terms with the new geology. Their reconciliation schemes provided space for scientific inquiry as well as religious belief. Traditional flood geology, with its tenets of a young earth and a geologically effective cataclysmal deluge, became regarded as incorrect and antiquated’

All the most ironic that it has re-emerged among American fundamentalists.

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unkleE said...

Humphrey, thanks so much for documenting all this. It will be a very useful reference.

Humphrey said...

Hey, no problem. Glad people are reading it.

Anonymous said...

This has stuff in it that I've been saying for years. Buckland discovered his Megalosaurus (basically,the first dinosaur recognised as such), said it was millions of years old,and was Dean of Westminster. With these 3 facts evident,the Dawkinsitas' position religion in science looks horribly simplistic.

Humphrey said...

"With these 3 facts evident,the Dawkinsitas' position religion in science looks horribly simplistic."

Yeah, I hope we have established that by now.