Category Archives: Bath

Atheists make a pig’s ear of the history of Geology – just like Creationists!!

The one certainty about Christmas Day is that Jesus was not born on that day. Others were, including some great scientists. The most well-known was Isaac Newton who got into calculus after an apple fell on his head. It was not a Pink Lady, nor was it a golden delicious.

Another was William Smith a great geologist who was born in 1769. He epitomises the symbiotic relationship of geology and industry, which the William Smith expert par excellence, Hugh Torrens, reckons is often overlooked by those who focus on the learned savants who never soiled their hands by working in industry, whether canals, coal mines or in drainage. Smith did all three and was guided by practical concerns rather than academic ones. As a result his interest in geology was practical and not theoretical.

Smith was born into humble origins and after a little schooling got employment with a surveyor, Edward Webb, in 1787. He progressed rapidly and a few years later moved to near Bath to assist in the construction of two canals running almost parallel to each other.  It was there that he recognised strata  AND their fossils appeared in the same order. Not for him were theories of the earth, the age of the earth and other geognostical speculations. All that mattered was to use his empirical information to further his work in enabling the transport of coal from the mines to Bath and beyond. His theoretical ideas were limited. For most of the 1790s he thought the earth was but a few thousand years old and that was the age of the strata! These strata were gently dipping to the east and he believed they were originally laid down at that angle a few thousand years ago. Despite the fact he independently worked out the principle of faunal succession of fossils along with the educated savants Cuvier and Brongniart over in Napoleonic France, he never saw his findings as giving the history of an ancient earth until the fin de siecle when the Rev Benjamin Richardson enlightened him and led him away from bishop Ussher.

After something went wrong Smith left the company in 1799 and spent many years getting work as a drainage engineer and in the course of his travels found enough evidence to publish his famous map in 1815, which is incredibly accurate.

William Smith's A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales with part of Scotland (1815)

That nearly broke him and broke he became later and spent time in a debtor’s prison. On his release he moved to Yorkshire and with his nephew John Phillips forged a new life and set Phillips up as a top-notch geologist. A few decades later Phillips became geology professor at Oxford despite having no degree. Not that you’d realise that from Phillips’ geological work.

In 1831 Smith was given belated recognition by the Geological society of London and he died in 1859.

There is, sadly, no decent biography of Smith, but Hugh Torrens has published extensively and republished Phillips’ hagiographic inverse nepotistical biography in 1844 in 2003, with two chapters of his own. It is probably the best source on Smith and his work.

The biography by Simon Winchester The map that changed the world (2001) is frankly woeful, as summed up in a review I wrote in 2001

Simon. B. A. Winchester. The Map that changed the world (The tale of William Smith and the birth of a science
London: Viking, 2001. 338pp. hb. £12.99. ISBN 0–670–88407–3
Over the last few years there have been several popular works on the history of science and Simon Winchester has produced a very readable life of William Smith, the “Father of English Geology”. The author is both a geologist and a journalist and brings both skills to his book. (His geological background is almost identical to mine as he was two years my senior at university and began work in a Ugandan mine.)
            William Smith is one of the many neglected scientists, whose significance is not widely known. His story is accurately and well told and makes a gripping read, how a canal engineer laid down the basis of geological correlation thus enabling the strata to be put into historical order. Smith was a canal engineer and developed his understanding of fossils in the strata in the coal seams and canals near Bath, before travelling the length of England. The book details his travails in publishing his map in 1815, his spell in a debtors’ prison and how his work was plagiarised by George Greenough. At the end of the 1820s Smith was befriended by clerical geologists such as Sedgwick and Buckland, who enabled him to be given the recognition he deserved. To know more simply read the book.
            However Winchester’s book suffers from two weaknesses. First, he makes too much of a hero of Smith and ignores his contemporaries thus giving the impression that Smith is the father of geology and not only the “Father of English Geology”. The crucial decades for the growth of geology was from 1780 to 1800, as advances were made simultaneously throughout Europe. Winchester gives a little recognition to Hutton and the much-maligned Werner (whose work is now being recognised and who also attempted a map of his homeland), but does not refer to de Saussure of Geneva and the Frenchmen, Soulavie, Cuvier and Brogniart. Consequently the subtitle The tale of William Smith and the birth of a science gives insufficient recognition to the other numerous midwives of geology.
            Secondly, Winchester has a totally inaccurate understanding of the British churches in relation to the rise of geology and simply repeats, with exaggerations, the old myths that there was a mighty war of Genesis and geology in the early 19th Century. He refers to the “church” negatively some thirty times and it gets tedious. His prejudice surfaces most blatantly on p29, ‘The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested,…, was beginning to be tested by real thinkers, by rationalists, by radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law, the clerics and the courts.’’ Or to put not to fine a point on it, only those who were not Christians in any way. Here Winchester is writing of the 1790s a mere one hundred years after the Revd John Ray and Edward Lhwyd were questioning the age of the earth. In fact throughout the previous century most thinkers Christian or deist thought the earth was older than Ussher’s estimate. What is the dogma and the law which forbade suggestions of an old earth? Granted some clerics did hold to Ussher’s age but the vast majority did not. Lastly, who was under any threat from the law for holding to millions of years? How does Winchester explain that it was clerics Richardson and Townsend who spread Smith’s ideas and Playfair Hutton’s? In his discussion of the clerical trio Buckland, Sedgwick and Conybeare he manages not to mention that they were ordained and any reader of the book could be forgiven if he did not realise that Sedgwick was a devout evangelical cleric! Winchester simply cannot accept that a clergyman could actually accept geological ages without challenging his faith, as is evidenced by his comments on Lewis, who helped Murchison unravel the Silurian in 1831. He wrote,’Many of the … fossilists were …called divines – a curious happenstance, considering the assault that any intelligent understanding of fossils would later have on divinity’s most firmly held notions, like the Creation and the Flood. The Reverend Thomas Lewis of Ross–on–Wye is characteristic of the type:’ (p115) This can only be described as complete and utter nonsense, if not bigotry. The author has absolutely no knowledge of the doctrine of Creation or the Flood and is ignorant of how the clerical geologists actually thought. His section dealing with Ussher (p16–21) is both flippant and inaccurate and even gets the first day of creation on Monday 23 October (day one) and the creation of animals on the Thursday 26 October(day six)! Actually Ussher wrote, ‘Sexto die, Octobris vigesimo octavo’ and it was Friday the day before the Sabbath! This kind of lampoon is fine for Peter Simple in the Daily Telegraph but not for a serious Guardian journalist. Winchester has simply not grown out of the outworn conflict thesis of science and religion, which by now should have been rejected by any who dabbles in the history of science and Christianity. However it is a persistent myth which is propagated through a popular misunderstanding. This myth encourages both unbelief and creationism.

This book is a veritable curate’s egg, on Smith as a geologist it is OK, but as soon as he puts matters into religious context rotten as only a rotten egg can be! This could have been an excellent book.

Many of the … fossilists were …called divines – a curious happenstance, considering the assault that any intelligent understanding of fossils would later have on divinity’s most firmly held notions, like the Creation and the Flood. The Reverend Thomas Lewis of Ross–on–Wye is characteristic of the type:’ (p115)

Sheer coprolite of the first order. Nearly all of these clergy thought the earth was ancient, including Tom Lewis who basically handed Murchison the Silurian System on a plate or rather a rock exposure

Poor Winchester had a bee in his bonnet about how the church persecuted these terrible geologists. It makes a good read but is simply untrue. The trouble is that people read AND BELIEVE Winchester’s book, as did the blogger from the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation ) for Smith’s birthday this year.

https://ffrf.org/news/day/dayitems/item/14358-william-smith?fbclid=IwAR0ml8UlQuVDlmpbqKShWbQWawukS5xg98S8YAfWzcMKF13wP4n0TxF2oYI

William Smith

William Smith

On this date in 1769, William Smith, known as the “Father of English Geology,” was born in Oxfordshire. Smith, who trained as an apprentice surveyor, single-handedly produced the world’s first geological map in 1815 of England, Wales and part of Scotland, spending 15 years on the project.

Smith, “whose agnosticism was well known,” according to biographer Simon Winchester (The Map That Changed the WorldWilliam Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, 2001), produced a “map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science … a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and to come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet.”

Winchester also noted: “For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.”

Smith went bankrupt in 1819, spending several weeks in a debtor’s prison, then worked as an itinerant surveyor for many years. Not until 1831 did the Geological Society of London conferred on him the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his achievement. His fossil collection is housed in the Natural History Museum, formerly part of the British Museum, in London. He died in 1839 at age 70.

“In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the Earth — and a central plank of established Christian religion — on its head.”

—Publisher’s blurb, “The Map that Changed the World” (Harper, 2001)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

**********************************

Though we have never met, Winchester and I have a very similar pedigree. He was two years ahead of me studying geology and thus learnt at the feet of the same teachers – who were a fantastic group. After Oxford he took a job as a geologist at Kilembe mines in Uganda, but only stayed a few months. Two years later I also took a job there on graduation and lasted a bit longer as I was transferred to South Africa. In both places I acquired similar nicknames, which I am not allowed to even mention today, though I am as proud of them as my african tribal name. I am not sure that my behaviour would have got a gold star from exponents of Critical Race Theory, but I am sure Martin Luther King and Alan Paton would have approved.

Let’s consider the howlers in this blog

“In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the Earth — and a central plank of established Christian religion — on its head.”

ararat_or_bust

I must ask “what Central plank”?  Clearly it means that in 1800 the churches, and especially the Church of England, reckoned the earth was less that 6000 years old and made Ussher’s 4004BC an item of faith. That is simply untrue as first 4004BC was never an item of faith and secondly by 1780 most educated clergy and bishops followed the geological savants and accepted a vast age of the earth. Some were actually practising geologists eg Michell of Cambridge and the trio of clergy from Bath, Warner, Richardson and Townsend, who worked with Smith from 1798 or so.

Smith, “whose agnosticism was well known,” 

It is very difficult to work out Smith’s religious beliefs, due to so little written evidence and there is no evidence for this statement. Neither Torrens nor I have got very far on it. One thing is absolutely clear from Torrens’ work is that when Smith worked out his principles in about 1793-6 he thought that the earth was but a few thousand years old and it took a trio of vicars to dissuade him!!! In 1814 Smith arranged for his nephew, Phillips to stay with Rev Benjamin Richardson and be educated, Phillips was always a good churchman.

map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science … a map that laid the foundations of a field of study

This is twaddle. The new science went back to Steno in the 1660s

For the first time the earth had a provable history

This was a mayor issue in the 1790s when geological savants knew the earth was ancient but couldn’t give a history. Smith in 1793 thought the earth was young and that the strata he saw were laid down in a particular order at the time of creation. As torrens said it was a “Timeless Order” and only later courtesy of the 3 revs, but a  history into and thus producing something akin to Cuvier and Brongniart on the Paris Basin

the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma

jesusfacepalm

Facepalm! It was well-known long before the earth was ancient and a young earth was not part of religious dogma. Silly man.

“For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.”

BmZJVIpCEAEmHN_

Another faceplam. SBAW simply ignores the whole development of geology from the time of Steno, both in Britain and the Continent. My favourite howler from Winchester, not cited here,  is on p29;

The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested,…, was beginning to be tested by real thinkers, by rationalists, by radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law, the clerics and the courts.’’

There are so many historical errors here. Savants started to question 4004BC or rather an earth a few thousand years old with Ray

300px-John_Ray_from_NPG

and Lhwyd in the 1680s – both were “real thinkers” and Ray was a clergyman, unlike some products of the Oxford Geology Dept. It’s remarkable how many of the “radically inclined scientists” were Christians and even clergy. A young earth was not the dogma of the church, as few of the churches ever defined it and definitely not the Church of England (or Scotland) and there was no court case against geologists suggesting deep time.

‘The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested,…, was beginning to be tested by real thinkers, by rationalists, by radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law, the clerics Jacobus_ussherand the courts.’’

Poor SBAW, very few after 1656 actually agreed with Ussher and by 1780 most educated people , including most clergy, thought the earth was a wee bit older. Americans, please note, I am english!! There were simply no court cases, or even threats of one.

I am afraid this quote has had me chuckling for two decades on the cluelessness of some educated at top universities, but sadly many think that Winchester is right on what he writes about.

Usually I pull up Creationists for their inaccurate history but now do the same to a respected journalist, OBE and American citizen.

Fourth Law

That this blog is found on the atheistic Freedom from Religion Foundation website shows that secularists can make as big a pig’s ear of the history of science and science’s relation with Christianity as any Creationist. I’d have thought that Jerry Coyne, Dawkins, Steve Pinker and Dennett would not approve of such a shoddy article.

Useful References;

My book Evangelicals and Science;   chapter 5 deals with period and these geological Christians!  https://michaelroberts4004.wordpress.com/2020/12/07/evangelicals-and-science-part-5-of-12/

Hugh Torrens; Timeless Order; William Smith and the search for raw materials. In Lewis and Knell, The Age of the earth from 4004BC to AD2002. Geol Soc of london special Publication no 190.

Memoirs of William Smith, John Phillips,  ed Hugh Torrens 2003

Martin Rudwick Earth’s Deep History Chicago Univ Press 2014

And

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