Category Archives: Creationism

Charles Darwin exposes A N Wilson as a fraud

What a rubbish article!!

Frankly this article by A N Wilson in the Evening Standard couldn’t have been much worse if it had been written by a Young earth Creationist like Ken Ham or Kent Hovind.

I lifted the whole article and made a few comments on the worst errors. I expect the book to be worse.

In the 90s I read Wilson’s two books; God’s Funeral – written in his athiest phase, and The Victorians, which on science and religion just repeated the well-worn, and, by then well-refuted, myth of the conflict of science and religion. I was not impressed then and am less so today.

Since then he has come back to faith , having originally been an Anglican ordinand. However he is still better at creative writing, rather than well-researched writing, which cares about intellectual honesty and accuracy.

It is so different from great biographies like that of Janet Browne, or rob Wesson’s recent study of Darwin’s South American geology – Darwin’s First Theory.

If you think I am annoyed about this, you may just be right.

For those who don’t know me, I am a semi-retired Anglican priest, who still runs a parish. I took a degree in geology and was an exploration geologist before ordination. I have written a fair amount on science and religion and also on Darwin’s geology and his beliefs.

BTW you should never use the word “silly” when criticising someone’s writing, unless………

A.N. Wilson: It’s time Charles Darwin was exposed for the fraud he was

Two of his theories about evolution are wrong — and one resulting ‘science’ inspired the Nazis

Comments deleted!!

Visionary or crank? Charles Darwin in 1881, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron
Visionary or crank? Charles Darwin in 1881, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Charles Darwin, whose bearded face looks out at us from the £10 note, is about to be replaced by Jane Austen. I’ve spent the past five years of my life writing his biography and mastering his ideas. Which do you throw out of the balloon? Pride and Prejudice or The Origin of Species?

Funnily enough, in the course of my researches, I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago.

Silly writing. Very few, especially among scientists, venerate Darwin. He is highly regarded as a great scientist and his limitations known.

We had our own version of a Soviet statue war in London some years ago when the statue of Darwin was moved in the Natural History Museum. It now looms over the stairs brooding over the visitors. It did originally sit there, but it was replaced by a statue of Richard Owen, who was, after all, the man who had started the Natural History Museum, and who was one of the great scientists of the 19th century. Then in 2009, the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth, Owen was booted out, and Darwin was put back, in very much the way that statues of Lenin replaced religious or monarchist icons in old Russia.

By the time Owen died (1892), Darwin’s reputation was fading, and by the beginning of the 20th century it had all but been eclipsed.

Too simplistic. If you read Bowler’s works eg The Non-Darwinian Revolution, you will note that after 1880 natural selection went out of favour for half a century. However Darwin was still highly respected as events on his centenary show.

Then, in the early to mid 20th century, the science of genetics got going. Science rediscovered the findings of Gregor Mendel (Darwin’s contemporary) and the most stupendous changes in life sciences became possible. Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, and thereafter the complexity and wonder of genetics, all demonstrable by scientific means, were laid bare. Only this week we have learned of medicine’s stupendous ability to zap embryonic, genetically transmuted disorders.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are.


That is a most face-palming comment. The use of the word Darwinism is unhelpful whether to describe the science of Darwin or his so-called followers. As for Darwin his science is as accomplished as it is wide ranging. He started as a geologist and showed great prowess. I have been lucky to study his geology in Shropshire and Wales in depth. This took place before and after his voyage on the Beagle. This can be studied in Sandra Herbert Charles Darwin;geologist and Rob Wesson.Darwin’s first theory. (or my lesser writings just-before-the-beagle  ) He had great plans for his geology in the 1840s and want to look at every limestone reef in Britain but illness put paid to that..

So on moving to Downe he did a highly detailed study on Barnacles, wrote the Origin and after that wrote some wonderful scientific monographs on so many aspects of biology. He was fascinated by the chemistry of drosera/ sundew which catches flies instead of photosynthesising. He was the first to use chemistry in biology. An American friend is writing a book on his experimental work.

I wonder if Wilson has read many of Darwin’s books, scientific papers or even notebooks

None of this denigrates Mendel or Wallace. Though Mendel is not highly significant.


It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged. But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel?

A silly comment. All good scientists make lots of mistakes. Darwin described his 1839 work on the Parallel roads of Glenroy  as a “long, gigantic blunder”. I found many in his 1831 geology BUT he produced so much good science.


There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion. Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist.

Perhaps so for Dawkins up to a point, but still grossly simplistic and silly.

You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work.

Silly. There had been tentative suggestions for 50 years, but none whether Erasmus Darwin Lamarck or Chambers in the Vestiges were acceptable scientific theories. Darwin produced the first scientifically TENABLE theory of evolution, even though there were gaps


His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations.

silly. See above. BTW Cuvier adamantly rejected evolution but was excellent on the succession of life worked out from fossils

Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story.

Pure fantasy. You just need to read all his references in his books

He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him.

Probably true as Erasmus put his ideas into a poem 🙂

He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Many reckon that Gould and Eldredge overstated the jumps, but both they and Darwin were operating on a long timescale.  Hey what!! I wonder if Wilson wants to reject the geological timescale. He might even find Ken Ham a good buddy.

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples.

A typical Creationist argument. in fact “Darwinism” (I hate the term – just say evolutionary science) predicted Tiktaalik and Shubin went to find it in Greenland. In a sense all fossils are intermediates!! Wilson’s misunderstanding of evolution is immense.

Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer. He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things.

Silly. Despite, or in spite of his wealth., Darwin had a great concern for the poor and needy. This statement runs contrary to everything we read about him and his actions

He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

Eugenics cannot be blamed on Darwin

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

A smear tactic with no historical foundation

Now that we have replaced Darwin on the tenner with the more benign figure of Miss Austen, is this not the moment to reconsider taking down his statue from the Natural History Museum, and replacing him with the man who was sitting on the staircase until 2009 — the museum’s founder, Richard Owen?

A.N. Wilson’s Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (John Murray, £25) is out next month

Churches’ storm in a tea cup over Darwin; 1860


Charles Darwin

Science versus religion – the antithesis conjures two hypostatized entities of the later nineteenth century; Huxley St George slaying Samuel smoothest of dragons; a mysterious undefined ghost called Science against a mysterious indefinable ghost called Religion; until by 1900 schoolboys decided not to have faith because Science, whatever that was, disproved Religion, whatever that was.

Owen Chadwick taking a rise out of the conflict thesis of science and religion.

Huxley; Darwin’s bulldog


The response to Darwin in 1859 was very varied and not restricted to the conventional conflict of science and religion. Christian responses varied from the acceptance of Kingsley and Gray and the rejection by Wilberforce and others. There was no literalist reaction and thus the response was not over the text of Genesis. Many Christians were concerned over the threat to design, teleology, the Fall and ethics. Initially Darwin was opposed by most geologists – Sedgwick, Phillips, Murchison and for a time Lyell – and physicists – Kelvin, Joule, Tait. To some evolution was still tainted with political radicalism. Thus the response to Darwin in the 1860s was complex and cannot be caricatured as Science vs Religion. Despite initial opposition evolution, in a non-Darwinian form was widely accepted in two decades.

This paper is a sequel to my blog on Genesis and geology

Keywords; Darwin, Kelvin, Wilberforce, evolution, Genesis, teleology, ethics.


At the first Charles Darwin Memorial Lecture in Shrewsbury in February 1997, David Bellamy emphasised that evolution was in harmony with his Christian faith. He was considering both the contemporary scene where many think Darwin and God to be incompatible, and also that there was a great furore in 1859 when Darwin published The Origin of Species. The latter forms in a major theme a recent biography of Darwin by John Gribbin and Michael White, which has the virtues of being cheap and readable. Its vices are legion as it contains several major chronological errors, completely misunderstands Darwin’s work as a geologist, and fails to use the recently published Correspondence of Charles Darwin. A chapter on the controversy with religion is entitled Battles with Bigotry (1), focusing on Samuel Wilberforce who is presented as scientifically ignorant and, of course, was defeated by the noble Huxley in 1860 at Oxford, as Chadwick mockingly put it “Huxley St George slaying Samuel smoothest of dragons”(2). White and Gribbin strongly criticised those who challenge the popular story of Huxley and Wilberforce, stating “This does not fit the facts.” Without getting into a discussion of what a “fact” is, this paper is an attempt to get at the “facts”.


Wilberforce has been denigrated for a century for hindering the advancement of science, because of his literalist views. Whatever else Wilberforce was, he was no literalist, and had considerable scientific knowledge. He was at various times on the committees of the Geological Society and the Linnaean Society and had attended Buckland’s lectures in geology at Oxford in the 1820s(3). He regularly went to scientific meetings in London and often attended the British Society for the Advancement of Science, where he took an active but supporting role. He made an impact at the 1848 Meeting of the British Association at Birmingham when, on a field trip, he used his episcopal clout to make the assembly shout “Hail, King of Siluria” to Roderick Murchison in recognition of his work on the geology of Wales and the Marches (4). Sir Roderick, King of Siluria, was one of Britain’s foremost geologists in the early Victorian era. Like all his contemporaries: de la Beche, Sedgwick, Buckland, Lyell and a host of others,


Sedgwick, Darwin’s geology teacher

Murchison argued for a geologically ancient earth, and clergy like Wilberforce were equally convinced of geology’s vast ages and extinct fauna. Whatever uneducated Christians thought, few educated Christians were literalists in early Victorian times, and virtually none by 1860.

This can be seen by considering the most well-known theological work of the 1860s and its myriad responses, Essays and Reviews. Goodwin’s essay on the Mosaic Cosmogony is often regarded as the first time the church faced the discoveries of geologists. In fact Goodwin was criticising how most Christian writers interpreted Genesis in the light of geology. Goodwin chose Buckland and Miller as typical representatives. Buckland was professor of geology at Oxford and was the first to identify a Jurassic mammal and to accept Ice Ages in Britain. Hugh Miller was a superb amateur who combined Evangelical and Presbyterian convictions with geology, whose Old Red Sandstone is a geological classic and The Testimony of the Rocks the finest work on geology and Genesis (5). Goodwin did not, and could not, criticise them for their geology but only for harmonising Geology and Genesis, which he considered futile. Along with Temple’s insipid introductory essay, Goodwin’s essay was the least controversial, as most criticisms were aimed at those by Wilson, Williams, Jowett and Baden Powell. Many orthodox Christians, from the Archbishop of Canterbury downward, responded angrily to Essays and Reviews. Samuel Wilberforce quickly brought out Replies to Essays and Reviews including an essay by Gilbert Rorison on the poetic nature of Genesis and a long appendix by John Phillips, professor of geology at Oxford. Of the many other “answers” none were literalist, except the Plymouth Brother B.W.Newton. I cannot give one Anglican counter-example.

The clergy who accepted vast geological ages and thus a non-literal Genesis, are innumerable. Focusing on Anglicans, there are the six clerical contributors to Essays and Reviews and those who wrote against Essays and Reviews, of which I have read about thirty. A selection of strong conservatives should suffice; S.Wilberforce, Henry Moule, R.W.Church, Dean Burgon, E.B.Pusey, J.C.Ryle, A Olivant, G.Rorison, J.B.Sumner, C.R.Sumner, F.Close, C.G.Gorham, T.R.Birks, C.Wordsworth, J.Pratt, J.Baylee, H.Tristram, H.G.C.Moule, H.B.Liddon, E.A.Litton, W.Lee to which may be added most commentators of Genesis. As is clear in this game of prosopography. The “score” is Literalists – Nil; Non-literalists – 21 and 6 essayists plus Colenso, Stanley, Westcott, Hort, Lightfoot, Tait, Henslow, Sedgwick, Kingsley etc., etc., giving 36 for starters. The pattern is clear: the vast majority of churchmen in the 1860s were not literalists and accepted geology. Such a revelation comes as a surprise to many, including Bishops and Geology Professors! It also means that there must be something wrong with many interpretations of the “conflict” of science and religion.

Why is this so? In 1896 Andrew. D. White, the President of Cornell University, published the final edition of The Warfare of Science with Theology (6), which has set the scene on how people have perceived the incompatibility of science and religion for a hundred years. The book has had enormous influence, especially in giving credence to what Prof.Leslie Francis describes as “the Perception of Christianity as Creationist”(7) and is often the only work consulted on how religion has always opposed every advance of science. Its pervasive influence can be seen in Josef Altholz’s essay The Warfare of Conscience with Theology (8), which refers to White’s book as “the traditional approach to the subject”, and despite distancing himself from White’s historiography largely follows it. The basic theme of White is that there has been an on-going war from Copernicus to Darwin in which the Churches opposed every advance of science. As Owen Chadwick expressed it so memorably;

            Science versus religion – the antithesis conjures two hypostatized entities of the later nineteenth century; Huxley St George slaying Samuel smoothest of dragons; a mysterious undefined ghost called Science against a mysterious indefinable ghost called Religion; until by 1900 schoolboys decided not to have faith because Science, whatever that was, disproved Religion, whatever that was.

Of course, that is true! That is the problem. White’s work was originally published in two volumes, each over 400 pages, covering a vast scope and supported by a vast array of references. There are sections on The war with Galilleo, From magic to Chemistry and Physics, and The Final Effort of Theology over Darwin, with the Final victory of Evolution. Many of White’s arguments have passed into the received wisdom of the twentieth century and are repeated ad nauseam by Christian and non-Christian alike. Thus G.D.Yarnold, a conservative physicist-priest wrote in 1958, “It is well known that Christian theologians at one time were somewhat reluctant to accept even the most certain conclusions of natural science into their thinking. However following a period of acute controversy ……”(9)





Though the publication of The Origin of Species changed the way people saw the world, the idea of evolution was not new. Darwin prefaced The Origin of Species work with An Historical Sketch mentioning in particular Lamarck and Grant. What was new with Darwin was the principle of Natural Selection, an idea which has often been misunderstood and wrongly associated with the Survival of the Fittest. Previous attempts at Evolution had foundered on a mechanism and Natural Selection was presented as just that. Though to many, Evolution is synonymous with Darwinism, the latter is strictly speaking Evolution in which the mechanism is largely Natural Selection. As Bowler points out in The Non-Darwinian Revolution, much of 19th century evolution was non-Darwinian, with Darwin providing the catalyst to make evolution acceptable. Within a few years of 1859 Evolution was often seen in Non-Darwinian terms and the last decades of the century saw a revival of Lamarck’s ideas (10).

At times people have looked too hard for precursors of Darwin, even recruiting St Augustine who wrote in an apparently evolutionary manner. In the Enlightenment the ideas of a Great Chain of Being stressed a continuity between species and almost gave a ladder, or chain, reaching up to man, but these were based on speculation rather than science. However before the 1790s there were no concepts to determine either the order in which animals and plants appeared or their age as this had to await the relative age-dating of the geologists, especially by Smith and Cuvier. Even then throughout the nineteenth century there was a general idea of vast geological time, without any method of ascribing particular ages for any formation, which had to wait until the application of radioactivity to dating rocks in 1905.

At the end of the eighteenth century there were two important attempts in presenting evolution in England and France. The Englishman was none other than Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, who was a doctor in Lichfield and a member of the Lunar Society. His main works were the Botanic Garden (1791) and the Temple of Nature (1803) which stand unique among scientific works as they were written in couplets rather than prose. His Zoonomia (1794-1796) proposed a theory of evolution, but his transmutationist ideas were developed from David Hartley’s account (1749) of how the soul is affected by the habits of life rather than from natural history. Erasmus Darwin was largely ignored in his time receiving a mixed response from the scientific press. The most hostile reaction was from the chemist Richard Kirwan. With the threat of invasion and the fear of revolution the reactionary 1790s were not a good time to put forward theories which had such Gallic overtones. Both the geologists James Hutton in the 1790s and William Buckland in the 1820s were regarded by some as politically dangerous. Hutton was a member of the Scottish Enlightenment and a deist, but Buckland was orthodox with Evangelical leanings.

In France Buffon had offended the theologians at the Sorbonne with suggestions of a vast age based on cooling experiments on an iron globe. In contrast to Oxford, Cambridge and the Scottish Universities, the Sorbonne remained a bastion of biblical literalism until after 1850. Between 1845 and 1848 Canon Maupied gave his subsequently published Cours de physique sacree et de cosmogonie mosaique, in which he “optait pour la chronologie des Septante et situait la Creation cinq a six mille ans avant notre ere(11.). After the Revolution Jean Baptiste Lamarck first published on evolution during the month of Thermidor in Year 10 (August 1802) and developed this in his Philosophie Zoologique in 1809. Since 1794, Lamarck had been working on invertebrate taxonomy at the Museum d’histoire naturelle in Paris. Lamarck postulated an initial spontaneous generation of life and then development along a largely linear line (this is to be contrasted to Charles Darwin’s branching bush.) His ideas were revived when Natural Selection went into eclipse in the late 19th century and they are often regarded as the escalator theory of evolution.

Lamarck was strongly opposed by his colleague, Cuvier, who engineered his eclipse. Cuvier was a vertebrate anatomist and pioneered many of the methods on elucidating the skeletal structure of extinct creatures from a few bones. His natural history was more acceptable in England as he spoke of successive catastrophes but never supported those who saw the Noachian Deluge as the last catastrophe. In 1829 at the end of his career Cuvier was engaged in debate over evolution with Geoffroy Saint Hilaire. During the 1820s Robert Grant visited Paris regularly and was a convinced evolutionist teaching evolution in Edinburgh in the 1820s where he briefly had Charles Darwin as a student. How far Grant’s teaching actually made Darwin an evolutionist is open to question, but he was given anti-evolutionary teaching at Cambridge by Henslow and Sedgwick. In 1831 Richard Owen went to Paris with Grant and met Geoffroy but was not convinced. As Desmond expresses it “Edinburgh’s extramural schools were turned into Geoffroyian citadels” as Grant “imported the new philosophical anatomy lock stock and barrel, supporting even Geoffroy’s more controversial claims.”

In 1827 Grant left Edinburgh to take the chair of Zoology at the newly-founded University College in London and thus brought Geoffroy’s evolution to the capital. Until his decline in 1847, after which he lived in some poverty, he gave many lectures in London, often with Richard Owen opposing him. Their first run-in was in 1839 over the Stonesfield “opossum” a mammal-like creature from the Jurassic Strata (140 million years) which Buckland found near Charlbury. Buckland and Owen sought to show it to be a mammal; Grant disagreed, as a Jurassic mammal would have undermined his “ultraserialist” evolutionism. As well as scientific differences between Owen and Grant there were political and religious ones as well. Owen was an Anglican (and friend of Bishop Wilberforce) and a Peelite Tory, whereas Grant was Radical both in religion and politics. As Desmond points out, and is implicit in his book’s title The Politics of Evolution, there are political as well as religious and scientific dimensions to the controversy over evolution during the decades of Chartism. Thus in the 1830s evolutionary ideas in science were often held by those who were also politically and religiously Radical in the strongest sense. Some of the Anti-Geologists of the 1830s were also politically motivated, and considered that Radicalism was behind infidel Geology. An example of this was an anonymous letter which Buckland received in 1824 “from An enemy of Radicalism”. As a Canon of Christchurch, Buckland was hardly a Radical. The more orthodox (religiously) scientists tended to concur with Buckland and Sedgwick and adopt a Progressive Creationism which accepted an old earth but maintained that Creation rather than taking place in six days had been progressive over many millions of years.

In 1844 the anonymous publication of The Vestiges of Natural History of Creation created a storm and much speculation on the identity of the author. The volume was a synthesis of the Laplacean Development Hypothesis, contemporary ideas of evolution and other sciences. The main theme was a gradual evolutionary ascent to man. However it was seen as deistic rather than theistic and implicitly anti-miraculous. Many reviews were hostile. Sedgwick in the Edinburgh Review commented “I believe some woman is the author…partly from the utter ignorance the book displays of all sound physical logic.” But, then, Darwin’s sister Susan had taken considerable interest in him! The Scot Hugh Miller, responded with The Footsteps of the Creator and criticised it largely on scientific grounds. Don Cupitt, in one of his worse moments, completely misunderstood the book describing it as “a veritable dinosaur of a book”. Cupitt was right – it was a Velociraptor in its day! (12) There was much speculation on the identity of the author and Darwin was a prime suspect. However in a letter to the Revd W.D.Fox he said, “at which I ought to be much flattered and unflattered!”(24/4/1845). Fox was one of the first people to know of Darwin’s essay in 1842. By 1848 Darwin was convinced that Chambers was the author writing to Lyell on 16th June, “If he be, as I believe, the Author of the Vestiges, this book for poverty for intellect is a literary curiosity.” The secret was kept until 1884.

The reaction to The Vestiges probably persuaded Darwin not to publish his 1844 draft on Natural Selection. He continued his work on barnacles and wrote in his Transmutation notebooks. However despite scientific shortcomings Vestiges did make the whole concept of evolution more widely known and despite Miller’s strictures did present evolution as an idea which did not necessarily have Radical implications, whether those of Grant or Geoffroy

Darwin came to scientific maturity in this milieu. He was born in 1809 to a deistic doctor in Shrewsbury who had him baptised at St Chad’s Church at six months of age, then sent him to a Unitarian church and school and finally to an Anglican public school. As his sisters worshipped at first at St Chad’s and later at St George’s and sought to influence his religious development, Darwin had a hybrid background from the day of his birth, with roots both in the Radical Science of the Lunar Society and Grant and in the Anglican Oxbridge tradition. The Radical evolutionary side was epitomised by his Edinburgh teacher Robert Grant, and the shadow of his grandfather. The other was the Establishment Anglican Progressive Creationism of the Rev Professors John Henslow and Adam Sedgwick who between them had the greatest early influence on Darwin. Henslow, twelve years Darwin’s senior, as Professor of Botany informally taught Darwin at Cambridge, and thus Darwin was known as “the man who walked with Henslow”. When Darwin left Cambridge for Shrewsbury in June 1831 he was planning an expedition to the Canaries and in July attempted some field geology without success. Fortunately for Darwin, Henslow asked Sedgwick to take him on a field trip to North Wales, so that when he was invited to travel on The Beagle he was a competent geologist. His 1831 field notes reveal how rapidly he became competent under the tutelage of Sedgwick, who thereafter became a regular visitor at The Mount, the Darwin home in Shrewsbury(13). During his voyage Darwin changed his geological ideas from Catastrophism after Fitzroy gave him a copy of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, but Henslow had already warned against its Uniformitarianism. Despite the warning Darwin became even more uniformitarian than Lyell did. After his return in 1836 Darwin wrote up his geological findings himself and enlisted the support of other scientists for his biology. He achieved scientific recognition first as a geologist, and carried out his last geological fieldwork on Welsh glaciation in 1842. His change from geology to biology may have been due to his illness, as on his 1842 field trip at the age of thirty-three he never walked more than four miles in a day compared to twenty-five four years earlier. This may indicate that his illness was physical rather than psychological (14). He made early drafts of his evolutionary ideas in 1842 and 1844, but the hostile response to The Vestiges warned him off publication. From 1838, made several Transformationist notebooks, most of which are extant (15). Darwin moved from geology to biology with an interest in the origin of species and then in the nature of man, which reached book form in the Descent of Man in 1871. In 1855 he finished his work on Barnacles, which took much longer than anticipated after he discovered the fascinating sex-life of some barnacles! He then set to on his Big Book on Natural Selection, but after receiving Wallace’s paper in 1858, he presented a précis of his ideas in a short paper along with Wallace’s paper to the Linnean Society, and then shortened the Big Book for publication. It was published in November 1859 as The Origin of Species (16). Very soon over a thousand copies were sold, and were it published today it would have been in the best-sellers’ list for some time.


Huxley St George slaying Samuel smoothest of dragons

The simplistic answer is to follow Andrew White and to say that Darwin was supported by scientists and attacked by churchmen with Huxley and Wilberforce epitomising the two positions. This obscures the diversity of responses which involved both science and religion and also ideology and politics and even personalities. The slick presentation of Wilberforce as a bigoted buffoon and Huxley as an enlightened and impartial scientist is a distortion verging on dishonesty. Much writing on the response to The Origin relies on secondary sources often going back to the 1890s and no further when the warfare historiography crystallised in Huxley’s memoirs and Andrew White’s The Warfare of Science with Christianity. Owen Chadwick’s quotation sums up White’s treatment of Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who was supposed to be humiliated by Thomas Huxley over evolution at the British Association meeting at Oxford in 1860. In his section on Attacks on Darwin and his theories in England (vol i p 70ff.) White claimed that the “keynote was struck at once in (a review of Darwin in) the Quarterly Review by Wilberforce”. It is illuminating to check out what “the utterances of this most brilliant prelate of the Anglican Church” said about Darwin. White refers seven times to Wilberforce’s Review of “The Origin” and succeeds in misquoting Wilberforce on six occasions! One is given the impression that Wilberforce was a scientifically incompetent bigot. White gave the Received Version of Wilberforce on Darwin, which has been repeated ad nauseam for a century. One of the most widely read is Vidler who plagiarises White’s inaccuracies on Wilberforce! (17) In fact, Wilberforce was a competent geologist, having learned geology from Buckland at Oxford and served on the councils of both the Geological and Zoological Society. His review, though anti-evolutionary, deals mostly with scientific and geological objections and judged by the canons of 1860s science, is very competent. It was also well-written and amusing, referring to “our unsuspected cousinship with mushrooms” and “our fungular descent”. Only in the last few pages of a forty-page review does Wilberforce give theological objections to Darwin (18). His expertise is not surprising as Soapy Sam’s scientific adviser was the anatomist Richard Owen and their friendship had gone back 20 years when Owen was doing battle with the evolutionist Prof Robert Grant. Darwin’s copy of Wilberforce’s review carries the annotation “aided by Owen and Murchison”(20 July 1860), an admission of the quality of Sam’s advisors. Wilberforce’s objections were very similar to Prof Adam Sedgwick’s who wrote to Darwin in 1859 after reading the copy which Darwin had sent him. Sedgwick regretted that his friend, pupil, and almost brother-in-law, had “deserted — after a start in that tram-road of solid physical truth – ….induction …. and started up a machinery as wild as .. Bishop Wilkin’s locomotive that was to sail with us to the Moon.” Despite that he signed himself as “a son of a monkey & an old friend of yours.”.(24 November 1859)

The story of the Huxley-Wilberforce confrontation is frequently repeated and in it much is made of a Lady (Brewster) fainting – which was not surprising in an overcrowded room – and various comments about simian grandparents. However contemporary reports do not support the usual story. At the Oxford meeting of the British Association on Saturday 30th June 1860, the “confrontation” occurred after ‘A paper of a yankee donkey called Draper on “civilisation according to the Darwinian hypothesis”‘ as described in a letter from Hooker to Darwin (2nd July 1860). Hooker called it “flatulent stuff” and related how Soapy Sam “spouted for half an hour…coached up by Owen”. Huxley answered well but could not be heard, thus Hooker waded in to “smite that Amalekite Sam” as the President – his father -in-law Henslow – let him speak. At the end of the letter Hooker said he was thanked by many Oxford clergy, who like most Anglican clergy enjoyed seeing their Bishop deflated! The Athenaeum (14 July 1860) gave a report of the proceedings in which Wilberforce’s reply was scientific and not religious: “the Darwinian theory, when tested by the principles of inductive science, broke down.”(19) What did happen is difficult to work out, but one thing is clear, Wilberforce and Fitzroy did not throw a religious wobbler! There is no contemporary report that Fitzroy waved a Bible in the air. They were allowed to speak as the chairman Henslow considered them competent scientifically and gave scientific objections. On about 20th July Darwin wrote back to Hooker referring to Wilberforce’s review, “I have just read Quarterly R. It is uncommonly clever; picks out with skill all the most conjectural parts, & brings forward well all difficulties.-…..I can plainly see here & there Owen’s hand. – The concluding pages will make Lyell shake in his shoes.” A few days later he wrote to his son William “The Review by Bishop of Oxford + Owen in last Quarterly is worth looking at”. Many more references to Wilberforce can be found in letters to and from Darwin during July and August 1860, mostly amicably critical, almost flippant and often amusing. However all primary sources demonstrate that Soapy Sam was no fool, although he may have been scientifically wrong. In my opinion he was wrong, but that is a judgement of an evolutionary geologist writing in 1997. In 1860 Wilberforce had the support of many great scientists – Owen, Murchison and the geology professors of Oxford and Cambridge, (Phillips, whom Wilberforce recruited to write in his Answers to Essays and Reviews and Sedgwick). Jonathan Miller’s statement “Puffed up with stupidity and self-satisfaction, Bishop Wilberforce ….made a British ass of himself” is simply ill-informed prejudice (20). It is reasonable to conclude that the Wilberforce affair was well known by leading scientists and others, including many clergy and an allusion to it even makes its way into The Water Babies where Kingsley mocks his friend Huxley by basing Prof Ptthmllnsprts on him. This is clear as Ptthmllnsprts told the British Association that apes had “hippopotamus majors” in their brains, alluding to Huxley’s demonstration that apes have hippocampus majors thus contradicting Richard Owen. In the story Ptthmllnsprts told the British Association at Melbourne in 1999 that “nymphs, satryrs, fauns, inui etc. etc. were nothing at all, and pure bosh and wind…..Whereupon a certain great divine …called him a regular Sadducee….Whereupon the professor, in return, called him a regular Pharisee…But they did not quarrel in the least…So the professor and the divine met at dinner that evening…and each vowed that the other was the best company he ever met in his life.”(21) This is probably a truer representation of the “Huxley-Wilberforce Confrontation” than any popular account! The sources for this may well be personal conversations as Kingsley had excellent relations with both Wilberforce and Huxley and had met both after 1860.

The Huxley-Wilberforce episode has been reassessed by several scholars in the last two decades, and the most accessible reassessment is the essay Knight takes Bishop (22) by Stephen Gould, which shows that the received version is based on reminiscences thirty years on and is not supported by contemporary reports, or by the reminiscences by others including Dean Farrar. Elsewhere Colin Russell locates the social origins of the conflict metaphor with Thomas Huxley and the X-Club (23). Desmond in his recent biography Huxley demonstrates how “Huxley made straw men of the ‘Creationists'”, by asking “Who…imagined elephants flashing into being from their component atoms?” As Desmond said “His atomic elephant was a clever caricature. Yet many who were branded ‘Creationists’ never thought in those terms.” This would include Sedgwick and Wilberforce. Huxley had distilled his professional dissenting strategy against the privileged Anglican Church into a Manichean Evolutionist Vs Creationist slogan, us-vs-them. Having been so perceptive here, he later refers to Wilberforce needing coaxing “beyond the Six Days to a more informed opposition”, overlooking the fact that Wilberforce needed no coaxing to accept geological ages (24). (The term Creationist must be interpreted carefully, and not to imply belief in a young earth.)

Well, then, what did happen in those years after 1859? With such highly coloured stories often presented in a highly ideological way, it is difficult to be impartial and not to bring one’s own Weltblick into the discussion. In recent years there has been a vast output of books and papers, most notably by Jim Moore, A.Desmond, P.Bowler, O.Chadwick, D.Livingstone among others (25). Invaluable has been the publication of the Correspondence of Charles Darwin (26) which provides invaluable material for the years 1858 -1861 in particular. It would be convenient if one could simply analyse first the response of scientists and then of churchmen, lay or ordained, but the two categories overlap. However, despite the dangers of doing this, it does clarify both scientific and religious questions.

Over the previous ten years Darwin had aired his views privately to his friends almost “as if confessing a murder”. Thus Lyell, Huxley, Hooker, Gray and others knew the substance of The Origin before publication, but their response varied; Lyell had great difficulty in accepting evolution and it took him years before he grudgingly accepted Evolution; Huxley jumped at evolution, becoming Darwin’s Bulldog (Desmond’s epithet Rotweiler is better!), but never accepted Natural Selection; Hooker accepted both evolution and natural selection, and Asa Gray, a devout Christian who ran a Sunday School for Negroes in Boston and was in opposition to Agassiz both on slavery and evolution, accepted evolution but insisted on Supernatural guidance of the process. Richard Owen equivocally rejected it but wanted ultimately to defend his own version of divinely guided evolution. The astronomer John Herschel rejected Natural Selection as the “law of higgeldy-piggeldy” yet reckoned that the universe was 50 billion years old (slightly longer than today’s estimates of 10 to 15 billion.). The Unitarian Louis Agassiz, Swiss born and by 1850 a professor at Harvard and a supporter of slavery, who was one of the first to recognise Ice-Ages in the 1830s, rejected Darwin outright, as did the geologist Rev Adam Sedgwick. Darwin’s other teacher John Henslow (Hooker’s father-in-law) was sympathetic but ultimately could not accept Darwin. The interchange of letters between Darwin and Henslow demonstrate both their disagreement and their friendship. Darwin respected Henslow both as scientist and parish priest and was upset by Henslow’s death in 1861. Sedgwick wrote Darwin a friendly letter on why he objected to The Origin, but their friendship cooled off after his review in The Spectator for March 24th 1860. Physical scientists in particular objected to Darwin, notably William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Clerk Maxwell, Fleeming Jenkin and P.G.Tait (27). Thomson had particular doubts over geological Uniformitarianism and regarded geologists’ estimates for the age of the earth to be close to a billion years as ridiculous and contrary to physics. In the 1860s he favoured a maximum of 100 million years and later downsized it to 24 million. That meant that the Laws of Physics allowed no time for Evolution (28).

Now for churchmen: Baden Powell had accepted evolution in 1855 probably as result of Vestiges, and endorsed this in Essays and Reviews. Charles Kingsley, who was sent a copy of the Origin of Species, immediately accepted evolution writing back to Darwin on 18th November 1859 that “it is just as noble a concept of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development”. William Whewell likewise received a copy but was unconvinced. Less well known is Frederick Temple who indicated his acceptance of evolution in the sermon at the 1860 British Association Meeting. The evangelical Canon Tristram of Durham and no mean ornithologist went to that famous meeting an evolutionist and was persuaded against it by Wilberforce. However he soon recanted and his granddaughter reported him as saying, “When the world was evolved, oh! created.”(29). The High Churchman R.W.Church published a favourable review in the Guardian in February 1860. The biblical Scholar F.J.A.Hort tried to allay the fears of his colleague B.F.Westcott. Bishop Tait, soon to move to Canterbury, was undecided and was advised by Lyell in 1861 to read Gray rather than Wilberforce. The Scottish Presbyterian James Duns published a hostile review, but according to Livingstone was almost unique among the Scots for rejecting evolution. The American botanist, Asa Gray,


was quick to accept evolution but gave it a theistic interpretation. Gray and Darwin had a lengthy correspondence, which led up to Darwin publishing Gray’s review of the Origin in which it was interpreted theistically. Gray may be considered Darwin’s Retriever in contrast to Huxley as his Rotweiler! In 1873 Charles Hodge, a conservative Presbyterian, wrote a fine, but very fair, hostile critique What is Darwinism, concluding that Darwinism was atheism. However Hodge could, but did not accept Evolution and wrote, “If God made them, it makes no difference, how he made them: whether at once or by a process of evolution.” His theological sucessors, his son A.A. Hodge and B.B.Warfield, were totally convinced of evolution – and wrote the definitive statements of Biblical Inerrancy, which most today would consider to be inimicable with evolution (30).

Moving well into the 1860s Archdeacon Pratt of Calcutta revised his Science and Scripture not at Variance to take into account both the Origin and Essays and Reviews and by 1871 The Descent of Man, which he regarded as “a bad thing”. Also in 1871 the conservative High Churchman H.P.Liddon indicated his approval of evolution, as did E.B.Pusey with the rider that it did not involve “belief in our apedom.” In 1865 The Victoria Institute was founded to combat the effects of Darwin and Essays and Reviews but by 1867 George Warrington presented a paper entitled On the Credulity of Darwin and was rounded on by a James Reddie, who was always ready to oppose such wayward views. The Journal of the Victoria Institute gives a good record of the attitudes of British Evangelicals to evolution over the next hundred years, which may be summarised as the majority being cautiously in favour, with some strongly opposed and the very occasional young earther. More outright opposition came from the Revd F.O.Morris who wrote Difficulties of Darwinism (1869) and All the Articles of the Darwinian Faith (1875), which is “Dedicated by permission to the Right Honourable The Common Sense of the People of England”.

Reverting to a scoring system (remembering that the umpire is only able to see part of the field and thus numbers give only a rough idea), the score is for the early 1860s (so far) Biblical Literalists, Nil; Anti-Evolutionists, 6 and still counting; Pro-Evolutionists, 9; undecided, 4 and still counting. To continue this for the 1860s would give a balance in favour of Anti-Evolutionists, but this changed over the next two decades as more and more began to accept evolution. However most Christians followed A.R.Wallace, accepting evolution for the “brute” creation, but not for humanity.

The accepted picture that there was controversy verging on warfare is simply unsupported. However, at times, the conflict went further than words, as in the example of Prof James Buckman who was dismissed from his post at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, by the Anglican Governing Body, allegedly for his commercial interests but more clearly for his evolutionary views. This seems to have been a rare occurrence, but there is little research on this aspect. Against that several Oxbridge academics were evolutionists – Church, Kingsley and Hort- and in the late sixties two sympathetic to evolution were preferred to bishoprics; Temple to Exeter and Tait to Canterbury. After that it was a landslide. As Jim Moore states, “With but few exceptions the leading Christian thinkers in Great Britain and America came to terms quite readily with Darwinism and evolution.”(31). Despite the work of the early Moore, Livingstone and others on whose work much of this is based there is a marked reluctance for scholars to reject the conflict thesis as the recent works of Cashdollar and Ward show (32).

This is very much a catalogue of responses and without some interpretation only demonstrates the variety of response and not the reason.

It is not easy to separate religious objections from scientific and political as they were often fused together. Before considering what the objections were it is essential to know what the objections were not. In the 1860s (to my knowledge) not one Christian objector to Darwin did so on the grounds of Biblical Literalism or the Genesis account, except the Confederate D.L.Dabney. (My evidence for this is combing libraries and trying to find Biblical Literalists. However a long search into the stacks of the Bodlean in Oxford would produce some literalists – and many more non-literalists. ) Where Darwin’s critics objected on the basis of Genesis, it was in a general way as all took Genesis non-literally. It is remarkable and a cause for concern that so many “standard works” on the nineteenth century argue, without a shred of evidence, that “there is a clear conflict between a literal interpretation of the words of Genesis concerning creation and the theory of evolution”. Though historians, such as Worrall or Vidler, cite this as a self-evident fact, not one literalist opponent to Darwin is ever named (33). Where Christians objected on Biblical grounds this was more on the grounds of materialism (i.e. atheism), design and the moral status of man. Along with a series of scientific objections Sedgwick concluded his criticisms of The Origin by expressing his deep aversion, “because of its unflinching materialism” and thus its rejection of God. Ten years later Hodge in What is Darwinism? makes this clear in his answer; “Darwinism is ATHEISM”, because the random process of Natural Selection does not require God. Darwin had (deliberately?) avoided any mention of human origins beyond his elusive comment “More light will be shed on the origin of man”, but that did not stop readers realising the implication. The humorist Wilberforce recognised this by references to “our fungular descent” and “our unsuspected cousinship with mushrooms”. Our simian ancestry soon became a favourite topic for cartoons and Darwin made the evolutionary origin of man clear ten years later in The Descent of Man. This was a step too far for some, as to exclude a creative act to make a human was seen to exclude the Creator. Ironically, one who insisted on a discontinuity was the co-discoverer of Natural Selection, A.R.Wallace. Thus in the late 19th century many accepted evolution, but only up to and excluding man, for example the conservative Scottish theologian James Orr, who expounded this forcibly in the eponymous Fundamentals (34). Even more ironically this was the view of Jennings Bryan who fought for the prosecution at the Scopes trial in Dayton, Ohio in 1925. Several Christians today hold similar views and their motivation is to protect first the perceived moral nature of man and secondly to eschew reductionism. These two points go a long way in understanding why many thinkers, and not necessarily religious ones, have acute problems with evolution. One has only to cite Arthur Koestler, Bernard Levin, R.S Thomas, Bishop Montefiore  of today.

The other main religious objection to Darwin was the issue of design. The dominant British and especially Anglican tradition of science was to see life forms as designed by a Creator. This is especially manifest in the works of Paley and the Bridgewater Treatises. In a different way both Cuvier and Richard Owen based their science on Design, but not in a simplistic manner. The whole concept of Natural Selection was seen to undermine design as it depends on random variations some of which are more successful at surviving to reproduce (i.e. the Darwinian definition of Fitness). This randomness called forth Herschel’s epithet of “the law of higgeldy-piggeldy” and is why Asa Gray among others wanted to accept Evolution by Natural Selection up to a point but insisted that God had guided evolution “along certain beneficial lines”(35). Darwin could not accept that and criticised Gray at the end of Variations of Animals and Plants (36).

Though Christians of a more liberal persuasion often accepted Evolution more easily and rapidly than conservatives, one cannot maintain that a Liberal Theology was necessary to accept Evolution. Yes, Baden Powell was strongly liberal, but Kingsley, a moderate liberal whose works were not approved by the Christian Observer, who accepted evolution so quickly in 1859, totally opposed Essays and Reviews. During 1860 the conservatives Church and Tristram accepted evolution. For Tristram it was the second time as he had first accepted evolution in 1858 after reading Darwin’s Linnaen Society paper and then perverted in 1860 after hearing Wilberforce only to re-convert shortly afterwards. Within a matter of years and at the most within two decades Evolution had become acceptable to most conservative and evangelical Christians as Livingstone has forcibly argued for Scottish and American evangelicals. A similar case can be made for Anglicans. This conclusion is embarrassing to both evolutionary atheists and young earth creationists, but the evidence is irrefutable.

Mixed in with religious objections were scientific and unspoken political objections. Darwin was cut to the quick by Sedgwick who in his review argued that Darwin had departed from the principles of inductive science and was too fanciful in his theorising with insufficient evidence. Darwin drew a contemporary parallel: in 1861 the physicist James Clerk Maxwell developed the wave theory of electro-magnetism and postulated that waves passed through an aether in space. As Darwin pointed out the “aether” was pure theory, but Maxwell’s equations for electro-magnetism were accepted far more readily than Natural Selection (37). Probably the reason for this was that quantitative “mathematical” science was (and is!) seen to have a stronger basis than the qualitative arguments found in The Origin. Historically Darwin chose the right example as the “aether” was later found to be non-existent. Darwin’s “Blending Inheritance” was also found to be a chimera. There was and is a perceived hierarchy of the different sciences in which the more Mathematical ones, e.g. physics, are precise compared to the vagueness of biology and, before radiometric age-dating, geology. (Many, especially physical scientists, do not appreciate the difference between experimental physical science and the observational and palaeoaetiological (historical) sciences of biology and geology, and are disparaging of the latter for being little more than stamp-collecting, as my physicist uncle Yarnold quoted above twigged me with once.) Thus Kelvin’s estimate of 100 million years for the age of the earth was seen as precise, compared to geologists who spoke vaguely of hundreds of millions, with no evidence other than hundreds of layers of rocks! Kelvin’s estimates were too low for evolution to have occurred, particularly for Darwin’s very slow gradualism. Thus in the second half of the 19th Century some of the strongest objections to Evolution, especially by Natural Selection, without a directing shove from God, came not from the Church but from physicists. Hence Darwin was criticised for making the suggestion that the Cretaceous Wealden strata were laid down 306,662,400 years ago. Later editions of the Origin of Species omitted this section which was censured by most geologists and Bishop Wilberforce as well as the physicists (38). Actual dating of rocks had to wait until Boltwood started to use radiometric methods on Uranium-rich minerals in about 1905. These were later refined and perfected by Arthur Holmes and others and give us our familiar ages in millions of years. Darwin was not so far off in his estimate as the Wealden rocks have been shown to be about 100,000,000 years old from radiometric dating. Since 1950 the many different radiometric methods all show the earth to be about four and a half billion years old. Darwin now has sufficient time! Or does he?

Many geologists objected to Darwin’s claims of vast gaps in the geological record. Wilberforce took him strongly to task (Quarterly Review 1860, p242) and was echoed by many geologists of his day. Geikie wrote; “Geologists in this country were perhaps somewhat slow in appreciating the bearings of this remarkable treatise on their own branch of science.”(39) Geikie refers to the conviction of geologists that there were no vast gaps. However further work by geologists before 1900 convinced them that Darwin was right in his argument for great gaps.

Ironically, though James Moore has given the standard study on The Post-Darwinian Controversies, which is often cited as giving a definitive rejection of the Conflict of Science and Christianity, his more recent work and his Darwin biography co-authored with Desmond seem to have more sympathy for “Conflict”. However to these authors the conflict is not only between Christians and scientists, but is more political and is between the Anglican/Tory Establishment alliance of scientists like Richard Owen and Lyell, Oxbridge clerical scientists such as Sedgwick and Buckland, supported by Tories like Peel and Bishops e.g. Samuel Wilberforce, against the scientific and political radicals like Wikely and Grant of the 30s and 40s with Huxley and Tyndall as natural successors. Thus the conflict over Darwin may be seen as continuation of the Grant-Owen controversies of two decades earlier. A weakness is that the leading characters are categorised too neatly into those supporting the Tory/Anglican alliance or their Radical opponents. As Desmond states, both Lyell and Adam Sedgwick were Whigs and one of Grant’s ‘patrons’ was John Fleming, a Scottish Evangelical Minister. Though there was a political and religious Radicalism behind the controversies, there is more of a muddied continuum of viewpoints rather than simply than a warfare between dissenting Radical and Anglican/Tory Establishment. Probably Huxley and Wilberforce can be placed at the extremes of the spectrum, but, most, whether, Lyell, Temple, Kingsley or Herschel lie somewhere in-between. The question of political attitudes moulding scientific perspectives demonstrates the danger of attempting a purely religious or scientific analysis of the controversies without taking into account the wider social, political and cultural background. Some of the personality issues have been alluded to, the most notorious being the continued strife between Owen and Huxley. Concerning Huxley, he loved to take a pot-shot at Bishops.

Closely related to this is the issue of the rising scientific professionalism, with particularly Huxley and other non-Oxbridge and non-clerical scientists. This is developed at length by Frank Turner (40) but he overstates his case. To contrast the late 19th Century professionals like Huxley with the “amateur clerical scientists” does not do justice to the latter’s achievements. The contributions to geology by Buckland and Sedgwick, or of Whewell in the philosophy of science, were as professional as anything before or since. The achievements of Sedgwick’s visit to North Wales in August 1831 with his delineation of the Cambrian System and the complicated geology of Snowdonia and elucidation of slaty cleavage were nothing short of phenomenal, and he managed to train up Darwin at the same time. And that was only one year’s work! To dismiss the Victoria Institute “as a conclave of amateurs” may be just to their amateur members, for example Rev Henry Moule, the inventor of the Dry-Earth Closet, and James Reddie, but a perusal of their journal shows that many of the contributors were professional scientists of the highest rank: the Physicist G.G.Stokes and the geologist J.W.Dawson. Undoubtedly scientific Christians were swayed in their science by their theology, but so were agnostic scientists by their naturalism. If early Christian geologists can be censured for their Diluvialism with links to the Noachian Deluge, so can Huxley be criticised for his “inchoate jelly-creature” Bathybius Haeckelii which he “discovered” in sea-floor dredgings from the Atlantic in 1868, when as Gould expresses it “his hopes and expectations guided his Expectations” and thus he found a pulsating primitive form of life from which all life must have evolved. In the 1870s Bathybius turned out to be a colloidal precipitate of calcium sulphate, which pulsated in the presence of alcohol! (41) Scientists are as prone to being guided by an ideology as anyone else, and as Anglican Evidential Science was dominant at the beginning of the era, so Scientific Naturalism grew in strength after 1850, and fuelled a rising sense of professionalism among scientists. After 1850 or so the sheer weight of clerical duties prevented a parson-naturalist making any significant scientific contribution, and the increasing technicality and specialism of science also prevented any but a professional adding to the store of science. In the 1820s Henslow could move easily from Mineralogy to Geology and then to Botany, and an amateur could have an extensive grasp of a science, and thus Ruskin could expect artists to know their geology. After mid-century this was no longer possible.

David Livingstone in Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders and other studies has dealt with Evangelical attitudes to evolution and comes out with the conclusion that from the mid-1860s until the First World War many Evangelicals were also evolutionists and those who were not evolutionists were old earthers. This comes as a surprise to many who think Evangelicals were and are Young Earth Creationist. More recently Livingstone has compared the attitudes to evolution of three groups of orthodox Calvinist Presbyterians in the 1880s. Not only were their theologies similar, they also had very close links, with interchange of academics. One group from the north of Ireland were to a man anti-evolutionary, but old earthers; the second from Princeton, including such ultra-conservatives as B.B.Warfield and A.A.Hodge, were mostly evolutionists. That really muddies the water! The reasons for this anomaly are fairly simple; the Americans were advised by Christian friends, Asa Gray and James Dana, who were the leading American botanist and geologist respectively, and the Ulstermen were reacting against John Tyndall’s British Association lecture given in Belfast in 1874. Among Scottish Presbyterians, who formed the third group, only James Duns of the Free Church writing before 1882 rejected evolution but Principal Rainy of New College declared himself an evolutionist in his inaugural lecture of 1874. In 1894 the Free Church James Iverach wholeheartedly embraced evolution, but a little cautiously for man, and Henry Drummond in Natural Law in the Spiritual World waxed lyrical about Christianity AND Evolution. It is almost paradoxical that Scottish Presbyterians of all shades were more open to Evolution than their English counterparts. Conversely Anti-geology and Anti-evolution were more popular among the English than the more conservative Scottish Calvinists. That is probably due to the influence of Chalmers, John Fleming and Hugh Miller (42). There was a fourth group of Presbyterians, this time from the Confederate states. Their leading theologians, R.L.Dabney and J.H.Thornwell were not only anti-evolutionary, but also anti-geology regarding geological methods as circular reasoning and thus fallacious (43). They also used their theology, and especially their understanding of Genesis, to support slavery, in marked contrast to the evolutionist Asa Gray.

As the Victorian era continued more and more educated Christians accepted some kind of evolution. When Frederick Temple gave his Bampton lectures on The Relations between Religion and Science in 1884, the issue was not strongly controversial. Ultra-conservatives like Dean Burgon still rejected evolution but, despite posturing as a biblical literalist, he was a confirmed old earther. Among Anglican Evangelicals Bishop J.C.Ryle of Liverpool directed his clergy to the Bucklands and Sedgwicks to help their grasp of science in the 1880s, E.A.Litton in An Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (1882) regarded the antiquity of man as of no consequence but rejected evolution, and Bishop Moule of Durham writing in 1889 accepted Genesis as poetic, and seemed to accept evolution, but drew the line at the creation of man. Among Baptists John Clifford welcomed evolution and regarded Darwin as a fine Christian and was on the opposite side of the Downgrade controversy to Spurgeon (44).

To summarise for the late nineteenth century from 1880 to 1900, Biblical Literalists among mainstream Christians are virtually non-existent and I am unable to provide one example from Britain or America. Apart from Ellen White, McCready Price, the younger Kellogg (of Corn Flakes fame) and others of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Literalists are extreme rarities, though a few literalists contributed to the Fundamentals. Evangelicals mostly either followed some kind of Progressive Creationism, e.g. the geologist J.W.Dawson, Bishop J.C.Ryle, or Evolution as confined to the non-human sphere, notably James Orr, Bishop Handley Moule and W.H.Griffith Thomas in The Thirty-Nine Articles. However Numbers reported that Thomas had become a literalist creationist after 1918(45). Some evangelicals adopted evolution from monad to man, notably B.B.Warfield. Non-evangelicals adopted some kind of evolution, frequently, as was normal at that time, a non-Darwinian guided evolution. As Darwinism, with its chancy random process based on Natural Selection, went into eclipse in this period to be replaced by a “guided” evolution, in which direction or orthogenesis operated, Evolution was susceptible to a theistic interpretation, as a guiding hand was apparent. This may explain why evolution was more acceptable a century ago than it is today. As Bowler points out in The Non-Darwinian Revolution, evolution was rapidly accepted in the 1860s and 1870s but Darwinism was not. In Britain a theistic, and divinely guided form of evolution was put forward by the anatomist Richard Owen and the Roman Catholic zoologist Mivart and this fitted into the temper of the late nineteenth century. Thus began the “eclipse of Darwinism” which lasted into the 1930s. This outlook is typified by the (dinosaur) palaeontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Alpheus Hyatt, who held to a directed evolution, Cope accepted that the pattern of evolution was “conceived by the Creator, according to a plan of His own”(46). His private life was not so overtly Christian and he died of syphilis in 1897 at the age of 47.

Despite the apparent dominance of Scientific Naturalists such as Huxley and Hooker, several leading scientists were devout Christians and keen to lecture and write on the compatibility of Evolution and Christianity. Sir Gabriel Stokes, recently retired President of the Royal Society, gave the Gifford Lectures for 1891 and 1893 on Natural Theology. Stokes was a physicist and younger colleague of Lord Kelvin, and like him stopped short of a thoroughly naturalistic evolution, and argued for an evolution in which God had intervened to create life and then man. Similar was the Californian geologist Joseph Le Conte whose popular lectures had considerable influence both home and abroad. As with so much of the relationship of evolution and Christianity one suspects that scientists like Le Conte, Stokes and many others are conveniently forgotten because they do not support the warfare of science and religion. If they are mentioned it is in a patronising and dismissive way as if Christians cannot adopt “a critical approach to scientific research”(47.).

Evolution had ceased to be an issue for most educated Christians by the time Queen Victoria passed on, except for a few ultra-conservatives. As a result of Andrew White and Huxley’s Memoirs the conflict thesis took root, and guided the perception of many for a whole century. It possibly guided the perception of some Christians by reacting against an anti-Christian viewpoint. Few, if any, studies have been carried out on less educated Christians, the members and leaders of Evangelical mission halls, or the men and women in the pew. Cartoons of the day on popular ideas of evolution show that many perceived there to be conflict, despite Frederick Temple’s Bampton Lectures. Conflict crept into popular novels as in Maria Corelli’s The Mighty Atom of 1896. There seems to be a popular assumption that Evolution is contrary to Christianity which surfaced in America in the Scopes trial of 1925. Even today there is a folk fundamentalism of many church members of non-evangelical churches, where there is a perception that the right way to take Genesis is literally. Again this would be another fruitful area for research. In the absence of research, I can only provide anecdotal comments on this from my experience. I find that many church members, whether Anglican or Methodist, born between 1890 and 1930, are convinced that there is a conflict of science and religion, finding another example the day before writing this. To me this is an indication that many church members were brought up to think there was conflict, more likely through Sunday school, with teachers born in the Victorian era, than through their ministers. The use of the first personal pronoun in this section indicates the tentative nature of my argument. It also indicates some fruitful lines for research.

Ironically the Fundamentalist Christian opposition to Evolution began with the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Ohio in 1925 (The old black and white film with Spencer Tracy is far better that the 80s remake in colour which is full of historical howlers. The remake portrays Jennings Bryan as a young earth creationist whereas he accepted evolution of animals, but not humans)(47.). Bryan, in fact, took a similar lie to A.R.Wallace, G.G.Stokes, James Orr and others. The Scientific and Biblical Creationism which has flowered in America and then Britain after the publication of The Genesis Flood by Morris and Whitcomb in 1961 had its roots not with Christians like Samuel Wilberforce but with the visions of the Seventh Day Adventist Mary Ellen White who in Patriarchs and Prophets (1890) argued as early as 1864 for the infidel nature of Geology and insisted on a literal interpretation of Genesis. This became official Seventh Day Adventist doctrine and was taken up by George McCready Price at the beginning of this century who claimed the falsity not only of evolution but also geology in such works as Illogical Geology. But that is another story (49.).

But to return to the 19th century. In 1897 a statue of Charles Darwin sitting in studious pose was placed outside Darwin’s school in Shrewsbury. Several bishops were invited to the unveiling. One was Frederick Temple, the enfant terrible of Essays and Reviews and since 1896 Archbishop of Canterbury. He was one of the first Anglican clergy to accept evolution and preached to that effect at the British Association in 1860, a fact usually overlooked. Another was William Walsham How, the aged Bishop of Wakefield who at that very moment was joining all the saints who were resting from their labours. He is now known as a hymn writer but in his day was known as a botanist and scientist, albeit an amateur. While Rector of Whittington he wrote his most well-known hymns and made a close study of the calcicole flora of the Breidden Hills. Foremost at the proceedings was Dr Stamer, Bishop of Shrewsbury, who replied to a toast to the Bishop and clergy. In his reply Stamer referred to how Wilberforce “one of the most brilliant, if not always most careful, Bishops of the day” had ridiculed Darwin, but to applause stressed how most churchmen now accepted evolution, regarding Darwin as “one of the doorkeepers in the vast temple of the universe.” The audience, including Hooker and several sons of Darwin, replied “Hear, hear!”(50.)



Charles Raven described the conflict of science and religion in the Victorian era as “a storm in a tea cup”, and that is a fair description. There was no simple conflict, but rather a series of new scientific ideas bearing down on a dynamic society, which was changing in so many ways, especially religiously. Some Christians did oppose science, like the clergyman who believed that God had created dead mammoth carcasses under the ice in the Arctic. Many scientists were Christians of varying orthodoxy and many were not. There was conflict and there was harmony between “Religion” and “Science”, but the whole idea of a conflict between Orthodoxy and Science as developed by Andrew White and Huxley is ultimately a myth, which survives today and is propagated by some with an atheist axe to grind, and by some Christians, whether a John Hick or Don Cupitt, who use it to justify an intellectual rejection of “old-fashioned” Orthodoxy, or Fundamentalists who reverse the roles of “goodies” and “baddies” so that the scientists epitomised by Darwin are the “injuns” who tried to destroy Christianity. Here History has turned into Ideology. Unravelling the Myth and the Ideology may shed light on science and religion both in the 19th and 20th centuries. Probably the issue and the conflict is no more resolved than when Darwin wrote to Asa Gray in 1860: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designed the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars..I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details….left to….chance. But the more I think the more bewildered I become.”(51.) Darwin put his finger on the ultimate issue, if God exists, does He create all the suffering?

Man but a worm

 References and notes;

1) White, M & Gribbin, J, Darwin, London, Simon & Schuster, 1995, Chap 11 “Battles with Bigotry”.

2) Chadwick, O, The Secularisation of the European Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Press, 1975, p161.

3) Register of William Buckland’s geological lectures in 1820s, Buckland Papers, Oxford University Museum.

4) Woodward, H.B., The History of the Geological Society of London, London: Geological society, 1907 p169.

5) Miller, Hugh The Testimony of the Rocks, Edinburgh, W.P.Nimmo, 1856.

6) White, A.D., A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology, London, Arco 1955 (orig 1896)

7) Francis, L.J, Gibson, H.M.& Fulljames,P, “Attitude to Christianity, Creationism, scientism and interest in science among 11-15 year olds”, British Journal of Religious Education, 1990, Vol 13 (1), p4.

8) Altholz, J.L., “The Warfare of Conscience with Theology”, from Altholz, J.L. (ed) The Mind and Art of Victorian England, Univ of Minnesota Press, 1976. (also in Parsons, G, (ed) Religion in Victorian Britain Vol IV , Manchester, Manchester Univ Press, 1989.

9) Yarnold, G.D. The Spiritual Crisis of the Scientific Age, London, George, Allen & Unwin, 1959 p46.

10) Particularly useful are Bowler, P.J. EVOLUTION; the History of an Idea, London, Univ of California Press, 1984.and Desmond, A. The Politics of Evolution London, Univ of Chicago Press, 1989.

11) Tassot, D, La Bible au Risque de la Science, Paris, F -X. de Guibert, 1997, p263.

12) Cuppitt, D, The Sea of Faith, London, SCM Press, 1993, pp69-71.

13) Browne, J. Charles Darwin; Voyaging London, Cape 1995.

Desmond, A & Moore, J. Darwin, London, Michael Joseph, 1991

On Darwin’s earliest geology; Roberts, MB “Darwin at Llanymynech”, British Journal for the History of Science, 1996, Vol 29 (4) pp469-78 and “Darwin’s Dog-leg”, Archives of Natural History 1998, vol 25, 59-73, “I coloured a map”Archives of Natural History, forthcoming, 1999/2000.

14) There have been many suggestions as to Darwin’s illness; depression due to guilt over the atheistic nature of his theory, a Psychosomatic problem (see Bowlby’s biography), a tropical illness (especially by P. Medawar) or multiple allergies. The first appeals to those who subscribe to the idea of warfare of science and theology. I find the idea of the tropical illness most satisfactory as it explains why in 1842, at the age of 33, Darwin could not walk more than a few miles, whether in Shrewsbury or Snowdonia, whereas from 1826 to 1838 he was walking 20 miles in the hills of Wales, Patagonia or Scotland. Something caused a dramatic physical but not mental or psychological decline between July 1838 and March 1842. This has been overlooked by all who have considered Darwin’s illness.

15) Barrett, P.H., Gautrey, P.J., Herbert, S., Kohn, D. & Smith, S, Charles Darwin’s Notebooks, 1836-1844 Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Press, 1987.

16) Browne, J. op cit p 471.

17) White, A.D. op cit p70; Vidler, A.R. ,The Church in an age of revolution, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1961 p117.

18) (Wilberforce, S. ) “The Origin of Species” Quarterly Review, 1860, Vol 102, pp225-64.

19) Burkhardt, F. (ed) The correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol 8; 1860, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Press, 1993, pp590-7.

20) Miller, J & van Loon, B, Darwin for Beginners, Cambridge, Icon Books1992, p127.

21) Kingsley, C., The Water Babies 1863, various editions chap 4.

22) Gould, S.J., Bully for Brontosaurus, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1992, p385.

23) Russell, C.A., “The Conflict Metaphor and its social origins.”, Science and Christian Belief, 1989, Vol 1 (1) pp3-26

24) Desmond, A. ,Huxley, The Devil’s Disciple, London, Michael Joseph, 1994, pp256 & 281.

25) Livingstone, D. Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders, Edinburgh, Scottish Academic Press, 1987.

Moore, J., The Post Darwinian Controversies, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Press, 1979.

26) Burkhardt, F. & Smith, S., The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Cambridge, Cambridge Univ Press, 1985 –

27) Smith, Crosbie & Norton Wise, M, Energy and Empire; A biographical study of Lord Kelvin, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Morris, S.W. “Fleeming Jenkin and the Origin of Species: a reassessment.”, British Journal for the History of Science, 1994, Vol 27 (3), pp313-44.

28) Burchfield, J.D., Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, Los Angeles, Univ of California Press, 1990.

29) Fleming, E.M. Recollections of my Grandparents; Canon and Mrs Tristram n.d.  privately printed. Quoted by courtesy of Rt Rev R. Bowlby.

30) Roberts, M.B. “Darwin’s Doubts about Design”, Science and Christian Belief, 1997 10,p Also Moore (1979) and Livingstone (1987).

31) Moore, op cit p92.

32) Ward, K., God, Chance and Necessity Oxford, One World, 1996, p63

Cashdollar, C.D., The Transformation of Theology, 1830-1890, Princeton, Princeton Univ Press, 1989.

33) Roberts, M.B., “Unearthing Genesis”, Churchman, 1998, ii2, 225-255.

34) Orr, J., “Science and Christian Faith” The Fundamentals, Chicago, Testimony Publishing Company, n.d., vol iv, p102-4.

also, Orr, J., The Christian View of God and the World, Edinburgh, Andrew Eliot, 1897, lecture IV.

35) Gray, A, Darwiniana, Cambridge, Mass, Belnap Press, 1963 (rpr), pp121-2.

36) Darwin, C. ,The Variation of Plants and Animals, London, John Murray, 1868 (1905ed), Vol ii, pp524-5.

37) Burkhardt & Smith, op cit

38) Burchfield, J. “Darwin and the Dilemmas of Geological Time”, Isis 65, 1974, 301-321.

39) Giekie, A. A Life’s Long Work, London, MacMillan, 1924, p72.

40) Turner, F.M. “The Victorian Conflict between Science and Religion: a professional dimension”, Isis, vol 69. 1978, pp356-76. (also in Parsons, G, (ed) Religion in Victorian Britain Vol IV , Manchester, Manchester Univ Press, 1989.)

41) Gould, S.J., The Panda’s Thumb, Harmondsworth. Penguin, 1983, pp196-203.

42) Livingstone, D.N., “Situating Evangelical responses to Evolution”, paper presented at ISAE Conference, Wheaton College, 30 March – 1 April 1995. and Roberts, M.B., “Unearthing Genesis”, Churchman 1998, 112, p225-57.

43) Dabney, R.L., Lectures in Systematic Theology, 1878, pp247ff

44) Temple, F., The Relations between Religion and Science, London, MacMillan, 1884,: Moule, H.G.C., Outlines of Christian doctrine, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1889, ;Litton, E.A., Introduction to Dogmatic Theology, rpr London, James Clark, 1960 (1882 & 1892), Ryle, J.C. Charges and Addresses, London 1890s, Principles for Churchmen, London, 1889.

45) Griffith Thomas, W.H., The Principles of Theology, London, Church Book Room Press, 1945, Numbers, R.L., The Creationists, New York, Knopf, 1992, p97.

46) Bowler, P.J. The Non-Darwinian Revolution, London, John Hopkins, 1988, p99.

47) Stokes, G.G., Natural Theology, Gifford Lectures 1893, London, A &C Black, 1893; Le Conte, J., Evolution, its nature, its evidences, and its relation to religious thought, New York, Appleton, 1899. Cp, Turner op cit 39, p188.

48) Numbers, R.L., The Creationists, New York, Knopf, 1992, pp43-44.

49) See Numbers op cit 44, and Roberts, M.B., “The Roots of Creationism”, Faith and Thought vol 112, 1986, pp21-36.

50) Shrewsbury Chronicle Fri 13 August 1897.

51) op cit 18, p224.


Geology and Genesis Unearthed.

Did the churches actually oppose geology and Deep Time in the early nineteenth century?  Probably most who reckon they are educated would answer Yes. But they are wrong , thanks to the likes of the geologist Rev William Buckland of Oxford


Now if you take Genesis literally you will believe this picture


but few after 500BC did so!

So find out more here.

Geology and Genesis Unearthed

The challenge of Geology to Genesis is often perceived to be one of the issues of the “Victorian Crisis of Faith”. Geologists had, since Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology in 1831, been demonstrating that the earth was somewhat older than Archbishop Ussher’s Six Thousand years. Thus Richard Dawkins wrote, “in 1862 the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin greatly worried Darwin by ‘proving’ that the sun and therefore the earth, could not possibly be more than 24 million years. Although this estimate was considerably better than the 4004 B.C. date for the creation then favoured by churchmen…” (1) The historian Josef Altholz in 1976 argued that “The great majority of religous spokesmen condemned the doctrine of evolution, without regard to its scientific merits, on the ground of its repugnance to the text of the Bible and its tendency to degrade man to the level of beasts…..Both sides (i.e. clergy and scientists) seemed to identify the substance of Christianity with the text of Genesis.” (2) Both assume that most clergy in mid century were biblical literalists.

Read more

Genesis and geology unearthed

Is Young Earth Creationism actually scientific?


Now this cartoon is a bit naughty but after it I answer the question!


The tendency to dismiss YEC as pseudoscience or antiscience overlooks
the fact that YEC emerged from a scientific culture. McCready Price and
Morris were products of a technological education, which they revered.
YECs use an extreme version that science is empirical and experimental
to support a literalistic faith. This goes beyond the witticism of Ernest
Rutherford (1871–1937), and Nobel Prize winner in 1908, who said, “All
science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Like many aphorisms it is a
half-truth, but it explains why experiment is thought to be the essence of
science. This is reinforced as many studies on the philosophy of science
focus on empirical science and ignore historical science. Historical science
includes geology and archeology which deal with unique past events not
open to empirical test. However that does not mean that historical science
cannot be tested rigorously. This extreme experimentalismis reinforced as
many, especially males, tend to have studied more physical science than
geology or biology. Also, the study of rock strata and their relationships is
observational rather than experimental, but that does notmean that it lacks
scientific rigor. This can result in the hierarchy of sciences with physics
at the top and the “soft” social sciences at the bottom and geology and
biology somewhere in-between.
In Scientific Creationism Henry Morris develops this and questions the
reliability of any historical science because past events are unrepeatable.
He states, “At the same time, itmust be emphasized that it is impossible to
prove scientifically any particular concept of origins to be true. This is obvious
from the fact that the essence of the scientific method is experimental
observation and repeatability” (Morris, 1974, p. 4) He then develops his
two-model approach. To him neither is provable as both are “faith positions”
and dependent either on the Bible or materialism. As the Bible is
true so must be “creation,” that is creation in six days. Thus brieflyMorris
presents the case for rejecting all geological and cosmological arguments
for deep time. Thirty years onMorris’s argument is still held.On a popular
level Ken Ham developed this with his question, “were you there?” about
anything relating to the deep past, which is recommended for schoolchildren,
claiming biblical support from Job 38 vs 4, “Where were you when I
laid the foundation of the earth?”

Image result for ken ham image

Similarly, John Morris of ICR says that
not once has a rock “talked to him” and explained its history. The YEC
extreme experimentalism also questions whether historical sciences can
be science, as nothing in historical science can be tested experimentally.
In a sense, that is true. However, rather than recognizing the difference
between empirical and historical science YECs aim to show that historical
science cannot demonstrate anything about the past. This would also
nullify historical arguments for the existence of Jesus Christ!
Norman Geisler and Kerby Anderson tried to resolve the problem of
“Creation and Evolution” in their book Origin Science, a Proposal for the
Creation-Evolution controversy (Geisler and Anderson, 1987). Geisler was
a witness at the Arkansas trial in 1981 and a well-respected conservative
theologian at Dallas Theological Seminary. Following the suggestions of
Bradley et al. (1984, p. 204) that a science about past singularities should
be termed origin science, the authors tried to resolve the controversy by
distinguishing between operational and origin science, and “If both evolution
and creation honor these principles, then proponents of each can
at least engage in meaningful discussion” (Blurb to book). Origin Science
dealswith the unrepeatable events of the past and operational science deals
with repeatable present events. This goes beyond the common distinction
of empirical and historical science in that there is a possibility of divine
action in origin Science. They regard geological science as dealing with
historical regularities, but singularities can be explained by special creation
or macroevolution and that scientific evidence can show “that there is a
constant conjunction between a primary intelligent cause and a certain
kind of event” (p. 17) which points to a supernatural cause. The authors
are critical of the development of a “modern naturalistic approach” in astronomy
(Descartes, Buffon, and Laplace) and geology (Lyell) and biology

james-hutton-caracitureAngular Unconformity at Siccar Point, Scotland. Siccar Point, Scotland (Photo: Wikipedia “Hutton’s Unconformity”)

Hutton and his unconformity

They overstate their case as they fail to realize how close the
naturalistic geology of Lyell and much of Darwin’s biology (and geology)
is to that of their “theistic” counterparts like Sedgwick (Roberts, 2004,
pp. 280–285) and others mentioned in Chapter 4. Their conclusion is that
origin science, which allows for divine intervention is better than today’s
naturalistic historical science.
This and The Origin of Life (Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen, 1984) has provided
much of the basis for Intelligent Design (ID), with its attack on
Naturalism. The distinction of operational and origin science is now well establishedwith
YECs and ID,with origin science nowincluding all historical
science. However despite the avowal of geological time by Geisler and
Thaxton, origin science is often used to question geological time. This is
combined with a rejection of conventional geology as uniformitarian and
naturalistic and based on the antitheistic beliefs of Lyell (in fact a theist)
and Hutton, who both had roots in the Enlightenment. The combination
of origin science and anti-naturalism in its various guises, whether YEC
or ID, provides the basis for a powerful rhetorical attack on geology and
evolutionary biology. First, all “uniformitarian” geology can be charged
with being naturalistic and secondly that as geological arguments for great
age are historical, they cannot be verified empirically. Thus deep time or the
short timescale of YEC are equally valid and both ultimately faith-positions,
based on naturalismand theismrespectively. It can also be used to dismiss
all geology, by claiming that as an evolutionary origin science its conclusions
are entirely dependent on its presuppositions,without definingwhat
those are as does the AIG speaker Paul Taylor (Taylor, 2006). Opponents
of evolution used this during the campaigns of 2002/2003 in Ohio, when
SEAO published the following statement.

Historical science. Most sciences, including chemistry and physics, are empirical
(or experimental) in nature; theories can be tested by experiments in the laboratory
and/or by observations of the world. Some disciplines, like origins science, are
historical in nature; that is, they attempt to explain events and processes that
have already taken place in the distant past. Theories in historical sciences cannot
be verified experimentally, so the explanations are always tentative. Biological
evolution (like creation and design) cannot be proven to be either true or false. The
historical nature of evolution/design theory should be explained in the standards.

Had that passed into the statutes in Ohio it would have been impossible
for conventional scientists to teach either geology or biology without
breaking the law. At present, this distinction of operational and origin science
is widely used in both ID and YEC circles, including on the teaching
of science.Many find it plausible and so; if “creation” and “evolution” are
equally valid “faith” positions, why not teach both?
Uniformitarianism has long been criticized by YEC writers. In The Genesis
Flood Morris criticises Uniformitarianism at length, and this is now a
basic tenet of YEC. When Morris wrote the book in the late 1950s, there
had been little serious study of the history of geology, except that by the
evangelical Hooykaas (1957) and the then received account of the birth of
geology was that the founders, notably Hutton and Lyell, struggled heroically
against the constraints of the church. Historians of geology have
overthrown this “heroic” understanding of the history of geology during
the last three decades (Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time 2004). Hutton and Lyell were only two of many geologists, rather than the founders of geology with an anti-
Christian bent. It is, of course, impossible to do any geology without a basic
assumption of the uniformity of past physical processes. Otherwise one
would simply invent changes to physical processes in the past to explain
the unexplainable.
Steve Austin greatly misuses Uniformitarianism in his comparison of
the Grand Canyon and gorges carved out Mt. St. Helens after the 1980
eruption. Mudflows carved out thirty meters gorges in soft volcanics in
one day. YECs falsely claim that uniformitarians argue that this would
have needed millions of years.



A jet of water 🙂 quickly erodes this!!

They then claimed that the Grand Canyon
could be carved out rapidly.



Featured Image -- 5288


This argument is found in the AIG tract The
Voice of the Volcano and might convince the uninformed, but it fails to
recognize that unconsolidated volcanic ashes can be eroded rapidly but
not the hardened rock of the Grand Canyon. This can be shown by turning
a garden hose on a pile of loose sand and then on the brickwork of the
On the philosophy of science YECs make use of Thomas Kuhn’s The
Structure of Scientific Revolution. Kuhn’s thesis of paradigm shifts in scientific
theories is well known, but is not the last word. By using Kuhn’s
Paradigm Shifts writers try to demonstrate that because of the new YEC scientific
paradigm, the old evolutionary paradigmis crumbling and needs to
be replaced by a YEC paradigm. Throughout his book Creation and Change,
Genesis 1.1–2.4 in the light of changing scientific paradigm Kelly argues that
the new evidence (for a young earth) is crying out for a paradigm shift.
There is an incongruity in the YEC use of Kuhn as he reckoned paradigms
were changed because of scientific consensus rather than a closer approximation
to scientific truth. Kuhn rejected realism in science, whereas YECs
(and Dawkins) are na¨ıve realists and tend to absolutizewhat they consider
true science.

The punch up of science and religion?

Science and Religion


Throughout my thirty years in the ordained ministry I have always been surprised at the number of people who are baffled by how I can be both scientist and clergyman. Many are convinced that the two must conflict and this is as common among Christians as non–Christians. Once a liberal bishop asked me how I could be an evangelical and a geologist! In England, as in America, there is a deep–seated perception that science and religion are in conflict and one must choose one or the other.

Thus we need to ask two separate, but related, questions. First we need to ask what the actuality is. Have Christianity and science always conflicted in the past and do they conflict today? And if so, then how? And secondly, we need to ask what the perception is of the relationship of science and Christianity.

Now let’s look at one example and ask questions both about actuality and perception. From there we can consider other examples as well and consider the relationship over the last half a millennium. This example is of Christopher Columbus in 1492 shortly before he sailed across the Atlantic. Every high school student knows that theologians advised Columbus that he could not sail around the world because it was flat and he would sail off the edge. The common account is that Columbus had great difficulty in persuading the Roman Catholic theologians in Spain that the earth was spherical. The theologians were adamant that the earth was flat. However in the end the heroic Columbus persuaded the King to let him try despite the theologians. Off Columbus sailed and he landed in the New World and returned to tell the tale. The atmosphere of the whole incident is evoked by Joseph Chiari’s play Christopher Columbus (1979);

Columbus; The earth is not flat, Father. It’s round!

The Prior; Don’t say that!

Columbus; It’s the truth; it’s not a mill pond strewn with islands. It’s a sphere.

The Prior; Don’t say that; it’s blasphemy.


This perception is very deep–seated among people of all ages and education, but the actuality was very, very different. Only about two theologians in the previous thousand years believed in a flat earth. So where did this story come from? The writer Washington Irving fabricated it when he wrote a biography on Columbus in 1828. In this he included a long account that the sphericity of the earth was condemned at the Council of Salamanca. What a creative author! The truth is that the Council of Salamanca never occurred, but it was reported in the two classic works on the conflict of science and religion by Draper and White and has been repeated ever since. It is a prototypical example of an urban myth and most people in Britain and America believe it to be true. The actuality is that no theologian challenged Columbus about a flat earth. But the perception of what is true about Columbus is utterly false, and perniciously encourages the idea that science and faith are at loggerheads.

The perception that science and faith are mutually exclusive has had and continues to have a disastrous effect on our churches today. Rather than being simply a double bind, it is a triple bind as this perception militates against Christianity in three different ways.

First, it makes Christians very suspicious of science because they believe science intends to disprove the Bible, which encourages many to believe that if one studies science in-depth it may destroy a person’s faith. As far as the myth of Columbus goes this unsettles Christians and makes them doubt whether or not Christianity can be true.

Secondly, it makes some Christians think that only a liberal Christianity can be intellectually coherent. Thus to have a faith which is acceptable scientifically one must reject miracles, creation, and anything concerned with the supernatural elements of faith, including the Virgin birth and the resurrection. This is the appeal of the way–out ideas of Bishop Spong and other liberal Christians, who claim to incorporate science into their faith.

Thirdly it makes non–believers think that Christianity is rooted in anti–science and is thus anti–intellectual and rooted in Medieval superstition. Thus no intelligent being could possibly be a believer. Richards Dawkins and others repeat this like a mantra.


Conflict Thesis of Science and Religion


Science versus religion – the antithesis conjures two hypostatized entities of the later nineteenth century; Huxley St George slaying Samuel smoothest of dragons; a mysterious undefined ghost called Science against a mysterious indefinable ghost called Religion; until by 1900 schoolboys decided not to have faith because Science, whatever that was, disproved Religion, whatever that was.


So wrote the great Church Historian Sir Owen Chadwick on the common understanding of the conflict of science and religion in a send up of the clash between Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s Bulldog, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce over The Origin of Species in 1860. Most accounts tell us that Huxley trounced the good bishop and made him look stupid. It is quoted frequently to show how the church has always opposed science with bigoted obscurantism. Even the BBC produced a re–enactment for television and the book Evolution, the triumph of an idea, which accompanied the PBS series on Evolution, repeats a similar story. Like many good stories it has only one fault and that is that it is wrong! Those who have studied all the evidence have found this to be a fabrication and a legend. The story was not told until thirty years after the event and it transpires that Huxley’s memories played tricks on him as he compiled his memoirs in the 1890s. In fact Huxley could hardly be heard and his friend Hooker had to take the bishop to task. Even so Wilberforce made some telling criticisms of evolution and was supported by scientists including Sir Benjamin Brodie – the President of the Royal Society.

Huxley was not alone in peddling this conflict of science and religion. Two of the foremost were the Americans J. W. Draper and Andrew Dickson White of Cornell University. White wrote a book The Warfare of Science with Theology, which is in the form of a historical account of the way the church has always opposed science from the time of Christ to 1895. The historian of science Colin Russell described the book as a ‘polemic tract masquerading as history’. That is an English understatement! It is a book which raises the blood pressure of many historians as, if you check out the references as I have, you promptly find misquotation after misquotation. Yet for over a century White’s book has encouraged people to believe that there has always been a conflict and is still in print and available on line. His errors are copied in other books, at times in a plagiaristic manner. They are then copied by students who expect to get high grades!

They re-surface frequently in a wide variety of writings – “pop” history of science, popular science (often written by atheists with an axe to grind), college, and even evangelical, surveys on the history of ideas, and many works by theologians and church historians (both liberal and evangelical). Usually these focus on one or more of three main issues;

  1. The Churches’ opposition to Copernicus and Galileo
  2. The Churches’ opposition to Geology around 1800.
  3. The Churches’ opposition to Darwin in 1860.

In many books Calvin’s opposition to Copernicus is cited from his commentary on Genesis where he refers to Psalm 93:1 and then asks, “Who will dare to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” (I even have it in French!) This quote is not to be found in Calvin’s commentary on Genesis, nor is it to be found in any of Calvin’s writings. Calvin did believe the earth to be at the center of the universe, but he died in 1564, 21 years after Copernicus. His commentaries on Genesis and the Psalms were published in 1554 and 1557 – within 15 years of the publication of  de Revolutionibus. In the 1550s only a handful of people would have accepted Copernican ideas as anything other than a mathematical description. Yet the charge sticks, and generations of students are still taught such legends and I still put a red line through when a student quotes it. The Galileo myth is even stronger and was briefly discussed earlier.

In a previous section I discussed the rise of geology and the fact that many early geologists were Christians. Yet the common view is that the church opposed geology at every turn. A minority of vocal Christians did oppose geology from 1800 to 1850 but did not represent the mainstream of the churches or evangelicalism. Some years ago Simon Winchester, a journalist with an Oxford degree in geology, wrote a life of William Smith entitled The Map that changed the World. It became a best–seller and had rave reviews, but on many pages it lambasted the church for opposing geology. Winchester wrote on page 29, ‘The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested [creation in 4004BC],…, 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.’ Winchester seemed oblivious to the fact that Smith’s main advisors and supporters were three clergymen, one an Evangelical. He does not mention which law forbade people to re–consider the age of the earth (assuming there was one!). The brief treatments in this chapter should demonstrate the falsity of his statement, but I wonder how many readers, Christian or not, will swallow his fabrications. Winchester is not alone as many writers repeat similar inaccuracies.

My favorite story about the response to Darwin in 1860 is what the Bishop of Worcester’s wife is supposed to have said, “Oh, my dear, let’s hope that what Mr Darwin says is not true. But if it is true, let us hope that it will not become generally known.” The source of this story is unknown and is regarded by many historians as an Urban Myth. Yet it appears on BBC documentaries about Darwin.

The Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, also is in error when he wrote in The Oxford Companion to Animal Behaviour, ‘… in 1862 the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin greatly worried Darwin by ‘proving’ that the …earth could not possibly be more than 24 million years. Although this estimate was considerably better than the 4004BC date then favored by churchmen…’p155 Apart from inaccuracies about Kelvin, Dawkins did not state which churchmen, presumably because he could not name any!

Sometimes when browsing in bookshops, I check history, theological and scientific books and usually find a few more examples of these alleged conflicts between science and faith. Unfortunately it is the minority who do not repeat these myths. We may ask what the effect is on the readers. I am sure that it re–inforces the popular perception that Christianity is in opposition to science. There is also a negative reverse side to the conflict thesis which, I believe, affects numbers of Christians for the best of motives. The effect here is to convince some Christians that much of science is wrong and atheistic in intent. The result is that Christians may be susceptible to believing the truth of any attack or demolition of science, which appears to contradict the Bible.


Refs J.H.Brooke Science and Religion, some historical perspectives, 1991, Cambridge University Press

Brooke and Cantor Reconstructing Nature, 1999, T & T Clark

**Denis Alexander Rebuilding the matrix, 2001, Lion (most readable of these!)

Lindberg and Numbers God and Nature, 1985, Univ of California Press

Lindberg and Numbers, When Science and Christianity meet,  2003 Univ of Chicago Press

And also the grossly unreliable

  1. D. White , The Warfare of Science with Theology, 1895 and reprints.


Influence of Science on Belief


Many Christians would be horrified that science can affect our belief and understanding of the Bible. It does, but it may be for good or ill. For example, there are many instances where archaeology illuminates the Bible and suggests that one interpretation is better than another. One simple example is that nature of the manger that Jesus was born in.  It was not a rustic log cabin but rather an extension carved into the limestone hillside of Bethlehem, which was common in that town.

On matters astronomical we will reject the type of astronomy suggested in Genesis 1 and Isaiah 40:22. It clearly depicted a flat earth with a firmament above, which was the common cosmology before 500BC. I do not think many will insist on a three–decker universe today! After doubts about Copernicanism until about 1650 hardly any theologians since then have opted for geocentrism. They accepted heliocentricity for scientific reasons and reckoned it was not important theologically. However it must be said that some Lutheran theologians did reject heliocentricity until the 19th century in the American Mid-West.


The question of the age of the earth is more problematic. Geologists have been categorical that the earth is millions of years old only from the late18th century. Before then there was no way of reckoning the age. So from the time of Christ until shortly before 1800 both “scientists” and theologians gave no clear answer as to the earth’s age. Thus a biblical commentator could do no more than guess and many left the question open. Thus for 1800 years commentators gave differing answers to this question. They also varied over their interpretation of the Bible. But by the early 19th century even the most conservative and evangelical commentators accepted the findings of the geologists and thus rejected a simple 6-day creation. To them geological findings eliminated one possible interpretation of Genesis.  They argued that this was no more significant than theologians who rejected geocentrism two centuries earlier. These include some of the most prominent evangelicals of the 19th Century – Chalmers, Candlish, Hodge father and son, B. B. Warfield, J. C. Ryle, Handley Moule, Gaussen among others. Several of these contributed to The Fundamentals of 1910 and are thus the earliest Fundamentalists.

Against this, some argued that science undermined the Christian Faith. From the time of Copernicus some Christians have thought that new science was a threat to faith. This is seen in some Lutheran reactions to Copernicus and the Inquisition’s opposition to Galileo. From the late 17th century until the middle of the 19th century a minority opposed early advances in geology on the grounds that it contradicted scripture, especially on the Creation and Flood. Thomas Burnet was criticized by some in 1690 because he suggested that the Days of Genesis might be longer than 24 hours, even though others put forward the same ideas. At the end of the 18th century some opposed geology in Britain and France. The major opposition to geology took place in Britain from 1817, when a small minority of Christian leaders argued that geology had to be wrong as it contradicted a literal Genesis and that the existence of animal death prior to the Fall negated the atonement. Most had no geological skills but a few had a smattering, and are variously termed Scriptural or Anti–geologists. They published a flurry of pamphlets and books, which were roundly opposed by leading evangelicals such as Sumner and Chalmers. However by 1855 hardly any Evangelicals still insisted on a literal Genesis. I give these two examples as they demonstrate a reaction against science by some Christians.

Since the 18th century various thinkers of an agnostic or atheistic persuasion have used science to undermine Christian belief, seeking to demonstrate that science has made faith untenable. Some argue that every scientific discovery since Copernicus has negated faith and here they adopt an extreme conflict of science and faith perspective. Such writers as Draper and White are typical, as are Jones and Dawkins today. Very often writers like these trot out the old stories of Columbus, Galileo, opposition to Geology and Darwin without much concern as to accuracy. As this is the dominant opinion of popular scientists today it molds the beliefs and perspectives of many and is often what is presented in the teaching of science at all levels from high–school to post–graduate.

Science has also affected the way that miracles are understood. Before the rise of science miracles were seen as acts of God and not given any explanation. David Hume changed that in the 18th century in his attack on miracles. The key was to define miracle as an event contrary to scientific law and his definition is now the accepted one. The Bible does not see miracles like this, as the Bible is prescientific, and considers them as particular acts of God. This is very clear in the treatment of “signs” in John’s Gospel. (In John’s Gospel miracles are always called “signs”.) This definition has taken root by Christian and non–Christian alike with unfortunate consequences. It has meant that the biblical miracles can be rejected as contrary to science and this has been the theme of much liberal theology since 1800. Some of the early examples are the re–writing of the New Testament to eliminate the miraculous by D. F. Strauss and F.C. Baur in the 1840s. From then on there has been a tendency to reject the Virgin Birth and Empty Tomb and bodily resurrection and if faith is retained the content is purely naturalistic and rejects the possibility of the miraculous. Thus today many Christians in mainstream denominations will reject core doctrines for being anti–scientific. Arthur Peacocke, a recipient of the Templeton Prize, argues very strongly that miracles have no place in the Christian faith as he believes God does not intervene in that way.  Questions about miracles are never far away when one considers the relationship of science and faith, but miracles have been given careful study by writers like C.S.Lewis, Colin Brown and Denis Alexander.


C.S.Lewis Miracles

Colin Brown Miracles and the Critical Mind

**Forster and Marston Reason, Science and Faith, 1999 Monarch, and on website


Genesis 1 to 11

When it comes to science, Genesis 1 to 11 is the locus of most controversy and confusion. There are basically four problem areas; a) the days of Genesis One, b) the Creation of Man and Woman En 1.26 – 2, c) the Fall of Man and the nexus of sin and death and d) the Flood.

As the focus of this volume is on the age of the earth, I shall only consider the first. I have already been sharply critical of those who falsely accuse Christians of hindering the rise of geology. In the two millennia of Christian history there has not been one fixed or even dominant interpretation of the Days of Genesis. The New Testament is silent on the matter and perhaps that should tell us not to make it a touchstone of orthodoxy. The Early Fathers of the first Five Christian Centuries were divided on the matter. Some took the days literally and reckoned the earth would last only 6,000 years as did Barnabas and Theophilus in the second century. Other writers including Augustine did not take the days literally. From this we may conclude that the duration of the Day is a secondary matter, unlike the Trinity and the Person of Christ which were the dominant theological questions of the early church. Further, at that time there was simply no geological evidence on the age of the earth, so people could only speculate from the Bible or various Greek and Roman myths.

The general opinion is that the Christian Church of whatever denomination believed Genesis literally until geological evidence forced them to reconsider the matter in the 19th century. Most writers claim that literalism and a young earth was the orthodox position until Chalmers succumbed to geology in 1802 and put forward his Gap Theory. Many secular and liberal Christian writers argue from this that the church was obscurantist and anti–science and thus Christianity had to bow the knee to science. Some liberal Christians like Bishop Spong use this as an argument as to why Christians must reject the authority of the Bible and discard most of the classical Christian doctrines. Some Christian writers argue differently and posit that to be orthodox in belief, as the church was before 1800, a Christian must believe in a literal Six-Day Creation. This almost pincer movement of atheists and liberal Christians on one side and young earthers on the other often makes it difficult for a Christian to claim that it is perfectly orthodox to believe in an old earth now and it was also orthodox to do so in 1800.

Though this is a very common perception, there was not a unanimous belief in a Six-day creation in the past. It is, of course, correct to say that most writers in the Reformation period and many until the early 19th century did believe that Creation took place in about 4000BC, but many did not. Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618) in his History of the World (1614) written in the Tower of London considered the world to be created in about 4000 BC. Raleigh’s date was the same as that proposed by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), the Roman Catholic Cardinal Bellarmine (1542-1621), and the devisor of the map projection, Mercator (1512-1594). A century earlier Columbus (1451-1506) was more generous with 5443 BC. These few dates show how widely accepted a date of 4000 to 5000 BC was for the origin of the earth. The majority of Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians concurred on about 4000BC and the Geneva Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) typically reckoned “the present world is drawing to a close before it has completed its six thousandth year.”

As the Reformation progressed some developed a revamped Chiliasm, that is that the earth will last “six days” of one thousand years (a millennium) followed by the seventh chiliastic day  – the Millennium. In the early 1600s the Dutch Protestant theologian Josef Scaliger put creation at 25 October 3950 BC. (Autumn was a favored time for Creation, as the fruits would provide sustenance for the winter.) The best known Chiliaist was Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh (1581-1656). Ussher wrote Annales Veteris Testamenti in 1650, which was a solid piece of chronological scholarship in which he argued from historical grounds that Jesus was born in 4BC. But he is remembered for his date of creation – 4004 BC. Despite popular representations, he did not arrive at this figure from arithmetic applied to dates of patriarchs and other Old Testament figures. To Ussher there were six Chiliastic days of 1000 years apiece followed by the seventh day of the Millennium. There were four Chiliaistic days before Christ and thus Creation took place in 4004 BC, on the night before 23 October. Adam was created on 28 October. This date causes amusement to many, but the rest of Ussher’s chronology was very sound for the 17th century, as he was a careful scholar. ( figure n.) His chronological calculations for the rest of the Old Testament are close to today’s estimates. Had not Ussher’s chronology been inserted in many English Bibles from 1704, he would probably have been forgotten, except to historians who valued his careful work on most of the Old Testament. As a result Ussher’s date of 4004BC is even today regarded as official church doctrine until the geologists demonstrated the vast age of the earth.

And this is where the story stops for most, but it is where the story begins. We have already considered how geology and its arguments for a vast age developed from early beginnings in the late 17th Century. One of the features of the Renaissance as understood by the various churches was that all knowledge was part of a unified whole and thus ‘Biblical History’ was related to other spheres of knowledge both classical and modern. Thus Genesis was not considered in isolation but with reference to those classical writers like Heisiod who spoke about chaos. It was widely held that God first created chaos (identical with tohu vabohu – the ‘without form and void’ of Genesis 1:2) and sometime later re–ordered the chaotic creation in Six Days. This extended understanding of Genesis predates any scientific influence.  In the early 17th century the Arminian Hugo Grotius in The Truth of the Christian Faith in Six Books argued that ‘the most antient tradition among all Nations [Phonecian and Greek] is exactly agreeable to the Revelation of Moses’[1] and his work was later translated and widely available and used throughout Europe. Many later writers, like Nathaniel Grew, cited Grotius in support of a chaos of undefined duration. In 1624 Mersenne, priest–mathematician, wrote a massive commentary of early Genesis (size 18”x12”x5”!!) adding much mathematics to his exegesis which included many references to classical writers.[2] He also included a chaos of undefined duration.

Some decades later from the 1660s Steno, Ray, Woodward, Whiston and others began to study the earth and laid the foundations of geology. Several wrote Theories of the Earth, which built geology around Genesis 1 to 11. Most take these Theories as teaching a literal Six-Day Creation and Flood, but in fact they all speak of the initial creation of chaos, which lasted for some time. Burnett wrote of indefinite chaos, ‘so it is understood by the general consent of commentators’ and the commentator Bishop Patrick wrote of the duration of chaos that’ (I)t might be a great while’. A survey of these Theories and theological writings of this period show that most did not follow Ussher’s chronology and allowed more time for creation. I am tempted to call these writers MECs (middle–aged earth creationists). This view was the dominant one until after 1760, when an increasing number of writers, acknowledging geological arguments for a great age, interpreted Genesis accordingly. They did this in two ways. Some argued that the Days were indefinitely long – extending Whiston’s idea that the Days were each a year long. The Swiss geologist de Luc reckoned the days to be a few thousand years, but Buffon, who was no atheist or deist, argued for tens or hundreds of millennia. Others kept the Six Days of re–ordering and extended the duration of chaos to include all geological time. Thomas Chalmers classically expressed this in 1802 with his Gap Theory. All Chalmers did was to tweak the common interpretation of Genesis.

By considering the way these interpretations developed we can see that Christians did not suddenly realize in about 1800 that geologists were arguing for millions of years and then as a desperate expedient made up the Gap Theory or the Day–Age Theory in a last–ditch attempt to save Christianity from geologists. This is how it is often presented in popular books and websites. In fact, Chalmers’ Gap Theory is a gradual development over two centuries from Grotius’s apologetics, as he himself claimed.

Though there are theological problems with the Gap Theory it was the dominant view held by conservative Christians until the last thirty years when many began to insist on a literal Genesis. However forms of the Day Age theory and the Gap Theory have been held by Christians since the time of the early church which saves them from the charge of being sops to geological ages. During the 19th Century most evangelical Christians held to one or the other and that includes the architects of Inerrancy – the Princeton theologians Charles and Archibald Hodge and the great B.B.Warfield. Space forbids listing any others. Many of the contributors to The Fundamentals and early 20th Century Fundamentalists agreed with Hodge and Warfield. It is often not known that very few 19th Century Evangelicals took Genesis literally and denied geological ages.

However in the 21st Century we cannot consider Genesis independently of our understanding of modern science. That is the case, whether we are Christian or not, or whether we accept the findings of science or not. The result is that the options presented are often reduced to either accepting Genesis in a literal sense, or else bending or breaking Genesis to conform to the dictates of science and rejecting the “traditional” literal interpretation. A consideration of the history of the interpretation of Genesis One will prevent such a stark choice and much heartbreak.

Today several liberal theologians claim that before Darwin all took the Bible literally and now cannot. Thus today that means one can accept neither Genesis nor the rest of the Bible, thus the OT becomes folk tales about Israel and the NT is demythologised. The existence of Jesus is accepted but his Divinity, the Virgin Birth and any objectivity of the Resurrection are firmly denied. This is also the common fare of the humanist, atheist and confused unbeliever. The net result is a considerable scepticism and resistance to the Bible and Christ’s claims.



Forster and Marston Reason, Science and Faith


The Problem of Perception


Last year a colleague of mine was unjustly critical of American churches at a meeting. I confess to interrupting him and saying that this was racist. It stopped him in his tracks! He suffered from a false perception of American churches and only focussed on the bad. I have spent too much time with American Christians to allow such false perceptions to go unchallenged. Unfortunately false perceptions of America and her churches are rife in Britain, as are false perceptions about the British in America. It is essential to have a good knowledge of the other nation so we can see both the good and the bad in them and discern where the two nations are simply different.

There is also a serious problem of perception on the relationship of science and religion. The alleged conflict is often a matter of perception, and at times this perception can be fuelled by ideological concerns, especially by some with an atheistic axe to grind. Believing the atheist to be correct in their historical facts some Christians react and thus develop a perception, which perceives that science is anti–Christian. The two mis–perceptions feed each other and cause havoc both in churches and in the classroom.

One of my purposes in this short account of the history of changing concepts of science is to challenge false perceptions both by agenda–driven atheists and Christians as they have both done so much damage to the Gospel over the last century. Despite the fact that today there is so much good history of science (and its relationship with Christianity), whether by believers or not, it is simply overlooked and ignored by many Christians. There are many fine Christian historians of science who can help our understanding; Mark Noll, David Livingstone, Edward Davies, David Knight, the late Reijer Hooykaas, Colin Russell, Paul Marston, Martin Rudwick, Ted Larsen, and also many historians, who make no Christian claims, whose work is sympathetic and helpful; Geoffrey Cantor, Michael Ruse, Ron Numbers, Peter Bowler, Hugh Torrens. Perpetuating false perceptions mars much popular writing on the subject from non–believers and believers alike. The one presents scientists as anti–Christian and the other Christians as obscurantist bigots.




Very briefly, we have selectively looked at the development of science in the last 3000 years. It shows how we have moved from a pre– and non–scientific culture to one dominated by science. Particular emphasis has been given to geology and astronomy because of the implications on the age of the earth and the universe.

The development of the sciences has been put into the cultural and religious context of the time, so that any possible conflict can be seen in context rather than according to atheistic spectacles, which makes us judge the Christian Church in a negative way.

It cannot be denied that science causes a major problem to many Christians and that non–Christians often believe that science contradicts Christianity. As a result unbelievers believe that science has disproved faith and good numbers of believers hold that to be a Christian one must reject large parts of science. However by looking at the issues historically, the problem of perception is raised and identified. Here the whole issue is confused and inflamed by the Conflict Thesis of Science and Religion, which was introduced by 19th century polemicists like Draper and White. This misperception has been widely accepted and is used by atheistic popularizers to denigrate Christianity. Though the conflict thesis has been refuted by many historians, both non–Christian and Christian, it still forms the perception of the majority of people.

It is this false perception that does so much damage to the Christian Faith throughout the world. One of the purposes of this chapter is to change that misperception and recognize that in the past many of the scientists who developed their particular fields were devout Christians.

I will conclude with the epitaph to Adam Sedgwick, the greatest evangelical geologist of all, in the church of his birth at Dent in the Yorkshire Dales;













[1] Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Faith in Six Books tr John Clarke, 1719, section XVI

[2] Mersenne

Not 4004 BC. The Doctrine of Creation considered geologically.

Some years ago I was asked to write an Anglican view of creation for the Geological Society of London’s Special Publication on  Geology and Religion. 


Here it  is. My brief was to deal with the relationship of geology  to Christianity. Hence I omitted the important issue of the environment which would have required as much wordage again. Hence I only deal with the Geology/Genesis aspects and consider the variety of responses from the Sea of Faith, throught the (sane) views of those like Peacocke, Polkinghorne and McGrath and finally Creationism  in its various forms.


Needless to say Triceratops-riding Christians were never far away.

Caution Creationists3


Here is my chapter

An Anglican priest’s perspective on the doctrine of creation in the church today


How geology has changed in 350 years, with a snook to Creationists

From very early times people had observed and made use of the geological environment. Minerals have been mined for millennia and one of the earliest accounts of mining is to be found in Job 28.

1 “Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined.
2 Iron is taken out of the earth, and copper is smelted from ore.
3 Miners put an end to darkness, and search out to the farthest bound the ore in gloom and deep darkness.
4 They open shafts in a valley away from human habitation; they are forgotten by travelers, they sway suspended, remote from people.
5 As for the earth, out of it comes bread; but underneath it is turned up as by fire.
6 Its stones are the place of sapphires, and its dust contains gold.
7 “That path no bird of prey knows, and the falcon’s eye has not seen it.
8 The proud wild animals have not trodden it; the lion has not passed over it.
9 “They put their hand to the flinty rock, and overturn mountains by the roots.
10 They cut out channels in the rocks, and their eyes see every precious thing.
11 The sources of the rivers they probe; hidden things they bring to light.
12 “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?
13 Mortals do not know the way to it, and it is not found in the land of the living.

The sheer number of mines in the ancient world shows just how much practical knowledge of rocks and minerals there was. There is a mine for copper and base metals near Mt Sinai which dates back to 1400 BC, which may well have provided the metals, needed for the tabernacle. Old Testament Cosmology reflects its origin in 500-1000BC


Many Greeks and Romans observed natural phenomena and Pliny was the first vulcanologist to be killed by a volcano in 79 AD, when he was helping people to escape from the eruption of Vesuvius.

Today Creationists reject all geology and suggest bizarre alternatives but none as humorous as this one


Out on a cycle ride pedalling over hills made of 330 my old Carboniferous limestone and smeared with Glacial Till some 20,000 years ago I saw this sign outside an Anglican church. It is both true and dishonest. Theories do change as this essay describes, but the purpose of the poster was to sow seeds of doubts and open the way fro Creationism.


Try another thought experiment in the year 1650. You are interested in fossils, minerals and rocks and wonder how they all got there. You are very well–read and can read all the Latin works on minerals, but you want to get back to the beginning. So you read the Bible with creation in six days and an enormous deluge. As many had worked out the Biblical Chronologies, with Ussher’s Annales Veteris Testamenti published in 1656 as the most famous, it was thought that the age of the earth was to about six thousand years.


And then there was the Deluge. Most people in Europe were aware of the devastating effects of floods. They were intimately acquainted with flooding of the Severn and Trent in England, the Seine, Rhine and Danube on the continent, not to mention flash floods in hilly areas. Sudden floods could not only wash away river banks and property, they could also leave thick deposits of sand and silt. A primitive understanding of sandstones and silts would compare them to mud and sand and thus it was believed they were deposited by water.

What would you conclude? You would think that the earth was not very old, humans had been around about 6000 years and that the Flood had mashed up the earth’s surface and could well have laid down strata, just as you had seen by a river bank. You have ended up with a fairly typical Theory of the Earth of the late 17th Century, which were produced by the dozen.

As savants (I use the French word as many of these highly educated writers were not scholars in the usual sense of the word, as some were men of means, others university professors or in secular employment.) began to look at the earth and its rocks after 1660, the formed stones or fossils began to be studied in earnest. Any substance embedded in a rock was called a fossil, whether they are human artifacts, minerals or plant– or animal– like objects. These formed stones became a center of controversy in the late 17th Century. Some argued that they were impressions of dead animals or plants and others denied it. What is obvious to us was not at all obvious then, as no one would expect plants or even sea–shells to be turned into stone. It was contrary to commonsense and observation. By the end of the century most savants accepted the organic origin of formed stones, but that created another problem. How could one explain fossils found at high altitudes, say at 2,000 feet in the limestones of Northern England or many thousand feet high in the Alps? Something watery had to deposit them there and the obvious culprit was the Deluge.

So by 1700 most savants in Europe reckoned the earth to be thousands of years old – probably somewhat older than Ussher’s date of 4004BC – and that most rocks were laid down by the Flood. To make it more plausible, Whiston and Halley suggested that a passing comet affecting the oceans caused the Flood, thus giving a naturalistic twist to this scriptural geology. Therefore until nearly 1800 most early geologists followed a Flood Geology model as this made greatest scientific sense to them.

The progress of geology appears to us to be painfully slow. Until 1760 the 18th Century was not a very fruitful period for geology but observers added to the knowledge of the earth. After mid–century many savants throughout Europe turned their eyes away from the stars above to the rocks below. Often the story is told that it was the heroic efforts of a few men like Hutton and Lyell who argued for an ancient earth in the face of virulent opposition from the church. That has the same truth content as the flat–earth story, even when put forward by learned scholars from Cambridge or Berkeley. It is perfectly true that some Christians opposed geology but most did not.

It is difficult to say exactly who first argued for an ancient earth in the 18th century as scientists were arguing for it in many European countries from 1760 to 1800. Like many scientific discoveries it was a culmination of previous work and no one scientist should take all the credit. It was a cross–fertilizing, trans–European venture with significant workers including Whitehurst, Hutton


and Smith from Britain, Buffon, Cuvier and Soulavie from France, de Saussure and de Luc from Switzerland and Werner and Blümenbach from Germany. There was considerable diversity between them, both in religious belief and scientific method. They differed on the age of the earth: de Luc and de Saussure favored an age of tens of thousands of years (MECs –Middle-aged Earth Creationists!) whereas Hutton, Buffon and Soulavie favored millions. However both of these views would be lethal to a young earth. Geologists were slowly piecing together very fragmentary evidence and there is no sense that any started from an assumption of an old earth in some kind of materialist opposition to the Christian Church. It would be truer to say that geologists started with young earth and flood geology assumptions and then changed them, as contrary evidence proved irresistible. A good example is Sir William Hamilton, plenipotentiary at Naples, who is best known to the British as the husband of Lord Nelson’s mistress, Emma. However before he married Emma in 1791 he carried out much research on Mt Vesuvius. He observed that in between many bands of lava was a band of burnt soil indicating sufficient time between volcanic eruptions elapsed to allow the formation of soil and vegetation. He concluded that the earth must be more than thousands of years old.

We move from Naples to Chamonix in the Alps. Henri de Saussure of Geneva was a great explorer of the Alps and the second to climb Mt Blanc. His Voyages dans les Alpes (1779-96) is a wonderful account of his explorations and geology. When he commenced his work he was convinced that the rocks in the heart of the Alps were those formed during the early stages of Creation. He began to question this as a result of his exploration of the Arve Valley from Geneva to Chamonix. This included ascending the precipitous Mt Buet (10,500ft) with a large barometer and Mt Blanc. Two places were of prime importance in convincing de Saussure of the earth’s vast age. First are the waterfalls at Nant d’Arpenaz, near Sallanches. Water plunges down a vertical cliff of over 1000 feet and the cliff is a synclinal fold of Mesozoic limestone rotated though 90 degrees. (Figure 3.) The second are vertical sediments (actually Ordovician) at Vallorcine 10 miles east of Chamonix. These were thought to be crystalline-like granite but de Saussure found rounded pebbles indicating water–erosion. Instead of crystalline “creation rocks” (i.e. those formed in the initial creation) followed by sediments, de Saussure now had older sediments underlying the newer sediments. He concluded that the earth had to be old but never speculated in print what the age could be and simply considered it to be “très vieille”.

Writers like de Saussure and Hamilton published their findings either in tomes or journals, which were widely read throughout Europe. During the last decades of the 18th Century the question was not whether the earth was considerably older than Ussher suggested, but whether its was millions of years old as Buffon, Fr Soulavie, Fr J. Needham (both Roman Catholic priests) and Hutton suggested or tens of thousands as de Luc and de Saussure posited. The choice was OEC or MEC!

So much for the age of the earth, but how were the rocks deposited? The proto–geologists of the 17th century were convinced of the major and, possibly, only cause – The Noachian Deluge. It is fashionable to make jest of this and to claim that this was the pernicious influence of the church. This is standard fare of the “pop” atheist but is rejected by any competent historian of geology. With Genesis as the only writing available, which spoke of the early story of the earth, it was almost inevitable that they should opt for the Flood. It made a tremendous amount of sense as no one had any inkling how old the earth was. The Flood could apparently explain how strata, which looked similar to river deposits, were formed and why fossils could be found on high ground. The realization of the true nature of fossils served to confirm this and thus until about 1830 the Flood was seen to be an important geological agent. Consequently, the many Theories of the Earth written in the 17th Century all emphasized that the strata with fossils were laid down by the Flood. As the 18th century wore on, several observers began to question it. In 1749 Buffon in his Histoire Naturelle questioned the flood arguments of Whiston, Woodward and Scheutzer and offended the theologians at the Parisian University of the Sorbonne. These theologians objected to Buffon minimizing the effect of the Flood rather than raising the age of the earth – a point which is often lost.

Towards the end of the 18th century some geologists, notably Hutton, ignored the Flood altogether. Others suggested the strata were deposited by  a succession of catastrophic floods, and that the Noachian Deluge was the last of many. After Lyell published his Principles of Geology in 1830, Whewell named Hutton, Fleming, Lyell and similar geologists Uniformitarians in distinction to the Catastrophists, who included George Cuvier, Jameson and many geologists on both sides of the Channel. Most notable in the 1820s were the English clergy –geologists Sedgwick, Henslow, Conybeare and Buckland who was reckoned to have believed in some fifty deluges! As a high proportion of strata (in today’s terms from the Cambrian to the Quaternary) was clearly deposited by water and contained marine fossils, multiple floods, or catastrophes, made sense. However by 1820 only the Quaternary deposits were regarded to be Noachian. As it turned out these were drift deposits formed during the Ice Age.

The differences of Uniformitarians and Catastrophists are often reduced to parody as if one group were reasonable scientists escaping the clutches of the churches and the other second–raters beholden to church dogma which insisted on the Flood. It is frequently claimed that Lyell enabled geologists to escape dogma and become free in their science, especially in regard to the age of the earth. This argument is wrong on several counts. First, all geologists sought to explain geological events by natural causes (even by comets causing floods) and by comparing present processes with what happened in the past, thus Catastrophists were uniformitarian in one sense. Secondly, both Uniformitarians and Catastrophists were equally convinced of the vast age of the earth. Thirdly, from 1780 to 1830 Catastrophists had made a larger contribution to geology than Uniformitarians, particularly on the Geological Column. And fourthly, many Uniformitarians, most notably the Reverend John Fleming were devout evangelicals.

So far, we have considered many aspects but not the historical order of strata, which geologists call the Geological Column. This is one of the most important interpretative constructs of all geology, but its origin even confuses many geologists. There are several principles behind its method. First there is the Principle of Superposition, which was grasped in the 1660s by Nils Steno, later a Roman Catholic Bishop. This simply states that in a pile what lies at the bottom was put there first and what lies on the top was put there last. Very obvious and very simple and inevitable because of Gravity. However the out–working of these principles is never easy because at times strata are folded or inverted. By 1790 i.e. before Cuvier and Smith


began to use fossils there was a rudimentary geological column with rocks in approximate order that gave us the Primary, Secondary and Tertiary strata in descending order of age. (diagram ex Laudun) The Primary rocks were mostly granites and gneisses and were thought to be the rocks of the original creation. (Remember that both Christians and Deists believed that God originally made the world.) These were overlaid by newer and newer rocks. It was relatively easy to work out a rough order where strata were more or less flat and folded rocks. Hutton was the first to work out The Principle of Cross–cutting Relationships and the occurrence of unconformities in the 1780s.

During the 18th Century many workers produced their tables of strata, but these remained rudimentary until the important breakthroughs of the 1790s. The German geologist Blümenbach worked out that animals and plants could go extinct – with great implications for the history of life. Also in that decade fossils were first used to work out the order of strata. The French say Cuvier and Brogniart were first with their work on the chalk (Cretaceous) around Paris, but the English claim priority with William Smith who mapped the limestones (Jurassic) around Bath. It is often portrayed that they used only fossils to work out the relative order of strata, but they could do this only because the strata were almost horizontal and the Principle of Superposition enabled them to work out the order of the strata in the first place. As they also noticed that certain fossils always appeared in the same order, they realized that the order of fossils was a historical sequence. If they then went somewhere else and found those fossils they could correlate them with those they had already found. By 1799 Smith had worked out the succession of strata from the Coal Measures (Pensylvanian) to the Chalk. This he improved in 1816, when his new Geological Column was essentially that of 1860 and today. (see Figures 4 and 5 ) In his work Smith was encouraged by three Anglican clergy – Warner, Richardson and Townsend. What is often not known is that in 1797 Smith believed all rocks were laid down at the same time, i.e. about 6000 years ago but by 1805 realised that the earth was ancient. With these breakthroughs using fossils the elucidation of the history of the earth and the Geological Column could begin in earnest. It is often claimed that the use of fossils in dating rocks and producing the Geological Column is a case of circular argument from evolution. As Cuvier and Brogniart were dogmatic anti–evolutionists and Smith knew nothing about it, that charge is falsified. Fossils are not absolutely necessary to elucidate the order of strata as I found when I mapped a large area of fossil–free Precambrian in South Africa, by working out which strata lay above another, and working out the displacement due to faults.

From then on geologists gradually began to work out the Geological Column and tried to work upwards and downwards from the Jurassic and Cretaceous. They used a mixture of the Principle of Superposition and the use of index fossils. By the 1820s they had worked out most of the strata from the Carboniferous (Mississipian and Pennsylvanian in the United States) to the top of the Cretaceous, but had problems with the Permo–Trias (New Red Sandstone) owing to the lack of fossils. What was above and below defied them. The newer strata – the Tertiary – did not contain easily identifiable stratigraphic units and the fossil contents of different layers seemed to merge into each other and contained some forms living today. In 1831 Adam Sedgwick


and Roderick Murchison began to work on what are now the Cambrian, Ordovician and Silurian rocks of Wales. Sedgwick worked on the Cambrian in Snowdonia where the strata contained few fossils and were heavily folded and thus relied more on the principle of superposition. Murchisons’s task was easier as he found more fossils and encountered less folding. He was also fortunate to have a Shropshire vicar the Reverend Thomas Lewis, a former pupil of Sedgwick, to direct him to sections passing down from the Old Red Sandstone (Devonian) to the older strata which he termed Silurian. Murchison, to his shame, never gave full recognition to Lewis. The work was slow and laborious and resulted in fractured relationships between Sedgwick and Murchison and was only completed after their deaths when Lapworth suggested the Ordovician to lie in between the Cambrian and Silurian. What is not widely known is just how many of the early 19th century geologists were devout Christians, including several evangelicals such as Sedgwick, Fleming, Lewis and Townsend.

By about 1850 the whole of the geological column was more or less worked out and it is almost identical to what we have today. (Figure 5.) The main differences are some name changes of stages and the recognition that parts of the Cambrian and Silurian are now Ordovician. The whole succession of life from the base of the Cambrian was also worked out. Up to then there had been little work on the Precambrian and much of that waited until the 20th Century. From reading this you may think that the Geological Column is of only local value as initially it was worked out in Britain and the European mainland. However, the same sequence was found throughout Europe and, given local variations, is the same throughout the world. I had its universal validity demonstrated to me while teaching geology for Wheaton College in the Black Hills. Almost all strata from the Precambrian to the Tertiary are present in a small area. Very quickly I could make sense of the geologic succession by comparison with British formations, as they were remarkably similar. Even the fossils were similar. I found the same comparison in the Grand Canyon the year before. By 1850 geology had come a long way in two hundred years, but no one had any idea of the real age of the earth. It would be correct to say that in the 17th Century geologists started with the assumption of a young rather than an old earth and during the 18th century were forced, by geological evidence to accept an old earth. Until 1910 there were many guestimates, both educated and uneducated, on the age of the earth. From the middle of the 18th century it was clear that the earth was more than a few thousands of years old, but how old was not known.


The authors of the various Theories of the Earth reckoned the earth to be thousands of years old – older than Ussher suggested but not much. Two who broke loose from the Theories of the Earth were de Maillet and Buffon. Benoit de Maillet (1656-1738) was a French diplomat who wrote Telliamed: or conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary in 1748. It was an odd work both accepting mermaids and that the earth to be over two billion years old. The second was Buffon, born as Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707-88), the Keeper of the Jardin du Roi in Paris. He published many volumes of Histoire Naturelle. Buffon also carried out experiments on the cooling of red-hot globes of iron and then applied his findings to the cooling of a globe the size of the earth and estimated the age of the earth to be about 75,000 years.  In unpublished manuscripts Buffon reckoned the earth to be 3 million years old.

By 1800 many thought that the age of the earth was millions of years, yet no precise figure could be given. Twenty years later, the eccentric British clerical-geologist William Buckland (1784-1856) was reckoning “millions of millions” of years.


There was no concerted attack by the church as most educated Christians happily accepted geologists’ findings, which was not surprising as many were clergy. When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, the vast, but unspecified, age of the earth was as established as heliocentricity. The Reverend Samuel Haughton (1821-97), Geology Professor at Dublin and an ardent opponent of Natural Selection, suggested that 1,526 m.y.(million years) had passed since the beginning of the Cambrian, three times the present figure. That was too cavalier for William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), who believed in the precision of physics. From 1855 Kelvin reckoned the age of the earth to be no more than 100 m.y. With the authority of physics against them, most geologists succumbed.

In the 1880s Kelvin reduced his estimates to about 24 m.y. and for a half-century from 1860, few geologists dared to suggest more than 100 m.y. for the age of the earth. In 1860, John Phillips (1800-74), nephew of William Smith and geology Professor at Oxford, suggested 96 m.y. He estimated that the rate of deposition today is one foot in 1,332 years. As the estimate of the thickness of fossiliferous strata was 72,000 ft, that made about 96 m.y. This date gave credence to Kelvin’s 1868 estimate of 100 m.y.  Though rates of deposition were very much guesses the thickness of strata in the various periods are good indication of the relative length of the periods. Despite this great disparity of estimates, the one agreement was that the age of the earth was to be measured in millions of years. This was shared by most Christians, including the evangelicals, whose ideas of time were included in the booklets published in 1910, entitled The Fundamentals.

While Kelvin was shrinking the age of the earth, the French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) discovered radioactivity in 1896. Radioactivity had two major implications for the age of the earth. The first was that radioactive decay created immense energy, thus negating Kelvin’s arguments for a cooling earth. The second was that radioactive elements could be used to measure time as they disintegrated at a fixed rate – known as their half-life.   In 1905 the English physicist John William Strutt, later Lord Rayleigh (1842-1919) showed that a mineral containing radium was 2 billion years old because of its helium content. In the same year Bertrand Boltwood suggested that Lead may be the end product of the decay of uranium and calculated the ages of 43 minerals from 400 to 2,200 my. The radiometric dating game had begun.


Arthur Holmes and the Age of the Earth

For the next fifty years the most innovative geologist on the dating-game (and on plate tectonics) was Arthur Holmes.


He wrote many articles on geological time and several editions of a short, but profound book The Age of the Earth in 1913, 1927 (this edition cost sixpence) and 1937. In 1913 he based his work on three Uranium-Lead results from the Paleozoic. Combining this with the thickness of sediments, he estimated the base of the Cambrian to be 600m.y., remarkably close to present figures of 550m.y. Whatever flaws there were in his early work, they show remarkable geological insight. As time wore on the number of age determinations multiplied and is now almost infinite. A study of Holmes’s work over half a century (as carried out by Cherry Lewis) shows how an initially tentative scientific theory can be gradually supported by strong experimental data.

Initially Holmes reckoned the age of the earth to be under 2 billion years, but from 1946 this was seen to be nearer 4.6 billion, with the Cambrian commencing in about 550-590 m.y., with the lower estimate being accepted today. Despite the many refinements and explosion of methods and age determinations, this figure has remained the same for half a century. There are three basic methods of determining the age of the earth. The first is to date the oldest rocks on earth, as this will give a minimum age of the earth. The ages of the Amitsoq gneisses of Greenland, first “dated” by the Oxford geologist Stephen Moorbath and others in the early 1970s, have not yet been bettered.  The five methods used give an average of 3.65 billion years, with a variation of less than 0.1 b.y. either way, which is about 2%. Nearby the Banded Ironstones give ages of 3.8 b.y. These are for whole rocks and in the last ten years minute fragments of detrital Zircons in early Precambrian sediments have given ages up to 4.4 b.y. indicating that the grains may have been formed at that time yet deposited by water about 3 b.y. ago. That indicates that the earth had cooled to form a crust with 200 M.y. or so from the formation of this planet. The second are the ages of meteorites, which give ages between 4.5 and 4.7 b.y.  The second are the ages of meteorites, which give ages between 4.5 and 4.7 b.y. The third is more theoretical and is to determine “model lead ages” from the decay of uranium into lead for the Earth, Moon and meteorites. It was developed independently by Holmes and Houtermans in 1946. (For a more technical discussion read Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth.)

The greatest advance in the late 20th Century was the discovery of plate tectonics and its precursor continental drift. Though this came to be geological orthodoxy in the 1970s, Wegener, Holmes


and du Toit were suggesting continental drift from the fit of continents in the 20s and 30s. Most significant was the matching–up of the geology of Africa and South America. To give an example, I worked in the Precambrian strata near the mouth of the Orange River in South Africa. When a geologist friend returned from Uruguay I was able to describe to him the Precambrian geology of Uruguay, without having been there or read a book on the subject. The discovery of subduction and ocean floor spreading turned old ideas of continental drift into a highly plausible theory. Plate tectonics has a superb explanatory power and explains so many geological riddles of the past. As a result it has come to be seen as the over–arching theory of geology and has unified the somewhat disparate geology of the last 200 years.



Rudwick The Meaning of Fossils, 1972 London

Young, Davis, & Stearley; The Bible, Rocks and Time  IVP 2008

The Biblical Flood, 1995, Eerdmans

Roberts, M Evangelicals and Science 2008 Greenwood

  1. J. Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, 1988 Viking

** A. Cutler, The Seashell on the Mountaintop, 2003. (A readable and superb biography of Steno, a 17th century geologist and anatomist.)

  1. Winchester, The Map that changed the World, 2001, Penguin (Readable, but anti-Christian)


Historical Box

Geologist                           Dates                                 Contribution                             Religion

Steno                               1638-1686                             Principle of superposition       RC Bishop

Ray                                 1627-1705                            Hints of older earth                   Minister

Buffon                            1707-1788                          Great age                                     Nominal RC

J-L Soulavie                1752-1813                             Great age                                    RC Priest

de Luc                         1727-1817                            Much geology                               devout Prot

Werner                       1749-1817                           Much geology                              ?prot?

Hutton                         1726-1797                         Unconformities etc                     Deist

Smith                           1769-1839                         Use of fossils                               anglican?

Cuvier                         1769-1832                          Fossils, strat,                                nom prot

Sedgwick                    1785-1873                          Cambrian etc                              Evang clergy

Buckland                     1784-1856                          fossils, ice age                          Anglican clergy

Lyell                            1797-1875                         Uniformitarianism                        Unitarian

Murchison                   1791-1871                          Silurian                                        nom Anglican

Thomson (Ld Kelvin) 1824-1907                   Physicist, age of earth                     Presbyterain

Holmes                        1890-1964                   Radiometric dating                            none