I had promised myself (and you!) that I wasn’t going to allow myself to be drawn into interminable debates about the Bible and geology. There are two reasons for this. The first is that these kinds of debates go round in circles. They are frequently accompanied by a great deal of nastiness. The second reason is that there is no debate. We know that the earth is unimaginably old and that evolution is true(1). It doesn’t matter that some claim the Bible insists otherwise(2).
My reason for turning to geology and the Bible now is that I have been reading the excellent Hugh Miller, the Cromarty Stonemason. For those that may not know, here is a brief biography of the man.
Five years ago I gave a paper at the first of the Christian Leadership in an Age of Science project conferences at St John’s College Durham. It was originally supposed to be on geology and Genesis etc, but then I was asked to do the controversial issue of fracking.
Rev William Buckland looking at Glacial striae in Snowdonia in October 1841. The Nantlle ridge in the background
During the conference I was interviewed by Prof David Wilkinson on me being a geologist and vicar. I deal with my coming to faith, whether I found any conflict of geology and Christianity, my resolution of the two, and the value of geology. We ended up n fracking, when I said all the things I shouldn’t – or should!
Very aptly I was interviewed in the Tristram Room in the college, named after the clerical naturalist Canon H B Tristram who was the first to use The Origin of species in a scientific paper – on the larks of the Holy Land.
I was interviewed looking at Tristram (and thinking he agreed with me!)
Here is the site of ECLAS with many interviews and other resources, mostly from those more high powered
A common assumption, and one I started with, is that before the rise of geology in the late 18th century all Christian churches reckoned that god created in about 4000BC and the days of Genesis were of 24 hours .
The more writers I read, the more I was aware of the diversity of opinion 0n the matter, and that Christian churches were most undecided on the subject
In the 16th century despite the drift to sola scriptura the influence of the renaissance added to that and depicting it simplistically
Bible alone – or so some claimed!
Bible plus classical literature (eg Ovid)
Bible plus classics plus astronomy.e.g. Calvin
Thus when it became apparent that Ussher was slightly out in his estimates, either the time of Chaos was extended to allow for geological time, or the 6 days of Genesis were extended, first to a year and then indefinitely, hence we have
Bible plus Classics plus astronomy plus geology e.g Hutton’s clergy friends!! and so many all round Europe
Though some, but fewer as time went on, and popular commentators did not always agree.
It was expressed wonderfully in Haydn’s oratorio The Creation
Here is a brief account of mine on developing understandings of Genesis One, from Chaos of Ovid to Geology.
Genesis Chapter 1 and geological time from Hugo Grotius and Marin Mersenne to William Conybeare and Thomas Chalmers (1620 – 1825)
The one certainty about Christmas Day is that Jesus was not born on that day. Others were, including some great scientists. The most well-known was Isaac Newton who got into calculus after an apple fell on his head. It was not a Pink Lady, nor was it a golden delicious.
Another was William Smith a great geologist who was born in 1769. He epitomises the symbiotic relationship of geology and industry, which the William Smith expert par excellence, Hugh Torrens, reckons is often overlooked by those who focus on the learned savants who never soiled their hands by working in industry, whether canals, coal mines or in drainage. Smith did all three and was guided by practical concerns rather than academic ones. As a result his interest in geology was practical and not theoretical.
Smith was born into humble origins and after a little schooling got employment with a surveyor, Edward Webb, in 1787. He progressed rapidly and a few years later moved to near Bath to assist in the construction of two canals running almost parallel to each other. It was there that he recognised strata AND their fossils appeared in the same order. Not for him were theories of the earth, the age of the earth and other geognostical speculations. All that mattered was to use his empirical information to further his work in enabling the transport of coal from the mines to Bath and beyond. His theoretical ideas were limited. For most of the 1790s he thought the earth was but a few thousand years old and that was the age of the strata! These strata were gently dipping to the east and he believed they were originally laid down at that angle a few thousand years ago. Despite the fact he independently worked out the principle of faunal succession of fossils along with the educated savants Cuvier and Brongniart over in Napoleonic France, he never saw his findings as giving the history of an ancient earth until the fin de siecle when the Rev Benjamin Richardson enlightened him and led him away from bishop Ussher.
After something went wrong Smith left the company in 1799 and spent many years getting work as a drainage engineer and in the course of his travels found enough evidence to publish his famous map in 1815, which is incredibly accurate.
That nearly broke him and broke he became later and spent time in a debtor’s prison. On his release he moved to Yorkshire and with his nephew John Phillips forged a new life and set Phillips up as a top-notch geologist. A few decades later Phillips became geology professor at Oxford despite having no degree. Not that you’d realise that from Phillips’ geological work.
In 1831 Smith was given belated recognition by the Geological society of London and he died in 1859.
There is, sadly, no decent biography of Smith, but Hugh Torrens has published extensively and republished Phillips’ hagiographic inverse nepotistical biography in 1844 in 2003, with two chapters of his own. It is probably the best source on Smith and his work.
The biography by Simon Winchester The map that changed the world (2001) is frankly woeful, as summed up in a review I wrote in 2001
Simon. B. A. Winchester. The Map that changed the world (Thetale of William Smith and the birth of a science
London: Viking, 2001. 338pp. hb. £12.99. ISBN 0–670–88407–3
Over the last few years there have been several popular works on the history of science and Simon Winchester has produced a very readable life of William Smith, the “Father of English Geology”. The author is both a geologist and a journalist and brings both skills to his book. (His geological background is almost identical to mine as he was two years my senior at university and began work in a Ugandan mine.)
William Smith is one of the many neglected scientists, whose significance is not widely known. His story is accurately and well told and makes a gripping read, how a canal engineer laid down the basis of geological correlation thus enabling the strata to be put into historical order. Smith was a canal engineer and developed his understanding of fossils in the strata in the coal seams and canals near Bath, before travelling the length of England. The book details his travails in publishing his map in 1815, his spell in a debtors’ prison and how his work was plagiarised by George Greenough. At the end of the 1820s Smith was befriended by clerical geologists such as Sedgwick and Buckland, who enabled him to be given the recognition he deserved. To know more simply read the book.
However Winchester’s book suffers from two weaknesses. First, he makes too much of a hero of Smith and ignores his contemporaries thus giving the impression that Smith is the father of geology and not only the “Father of English Geology”. The crucial decades for the growth of geology was from 1780 to 1800, as advances were made simultaneously throughout Europe. Winchester gives a little recognition to Hutton and the much-maligned Werner (whose work is now being recognised and who also attempted a map of his homeland), but does not refer to de Saussure of Geneva and the Frenchmen, Soulavie, Cuvier and Brogniart. Consequently the subtitle The tale of William Smith and the birth of a science gives insufficient recognition to the other numerous midwives of geology.
Secondly, Winchester has a totally inaccurate understanding of the British churches in relation to the rise of geology and simply repeats, with exaggerations, the old myths that there was a mighty war of Genesis and geology in the early 19th Century. He refers to the “church” negatively some thirty times and it gets tedious. His prejudice surfaces most blatantly on p29, ‘The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested,…, was beginning to be tested by real thinkers, by rationalists, by radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law, the clerics and the courts.’’ Or to put not to fine a point on it, only those who were not Christians in any way. Here Winchester is writing of the 1790s a mere one hundred years after the Revd John Ray and Edward Lhwyd were questioning the age of the earth. In fact throughout the previous century most thinkers Christian or deist thought the earth was older than Ussher’s estimate. What is the dogma and the law which forbade suggestions of an old earth? Granted some clerics did hold to Ussher’s age but the vast majority did not. Lastly, who was under any threat from the law for holding to millions of years? How does Winchester explain that it was clerics Richardson and Townsend who spread Smith’s ideas and Playfair Hutton’s? In his discussion of the clerical trio Buckland, Sedgwick and Conybeare he manages not to mention that they were ordained and any reader of the book could be forgiven if he did not realise that Sedgwick was a devout evangelical cleric! Winchester simply cannot accept that a clergyman could actually accept geological ages without challenging his faith, as is evidenced by his comments on Lewis, who helped Murchison unravel the Silurian in 1831. He wrote,’Many of the … fossilists were …called divines – a curious happenstance, considering the assault that any intelligent understanding of fossils would later have on divinity’s most firmly held notions, like the Creation and the Flood. The Reverend Thomas Lewis of Ross–on–Wye is characteristic of the type:’ (p115) This can only be described as complete and utter nonsense, if not bigotry. The author has absolutely no knowledge of the doctrine of Creation or the Flood and is ignorant of how the clerical geologists actually thought. His section dealing with Ussher (p16–21) is both flippant and inaccurate and even gets the first day of creation on Monday 23 October (day one) and the creation of animals on the Thursday 26 October(day six)! Actually Ussher wrote, ‘Sexto die, Octobris vigesimo octavo’ and it was Friday the day before the Sabbath! This kind of lampoon is fine for Peter Simple in the Daily Telegraph but not for a serious Guardian journalist. Winchester has simply not grown out of the outworn conflict thesis of science and religion, which by now should have been rejected by any who dabbles in the history of science and Christianity. However it is a persistent myth which is propagated through a popular misunderstanding. This myth encourages both unbelief and creationism.
This book is a veritable curate’s egg, on Smith as a geologist it is OK, but as soon as he puts matters into religious context rotten as only a rotten egg can be! This could have been an excellent book.
Many of the … fossilists were …called divines – a curious happenstance, considering the assault that any intelligent understanding of fossils would later have on divinity’s most firmly held notions, like the Creation and the Flood. The Reverend Thomas Lewis of Ross–on–Wye is characteristic of the type:’ (p115)
Sheer coprolite of the first order. Nearly all of these clergy thought the earth was ancient, including Tom Lewis who basically handed Murchison the Silurian System on a plate or rather a rock exposure
Poor Winchester had a bee in his bonnet about how the church persecuted these terrible geologists. It makes a good read but is simply untrue. The trouble is that people read AND BELIEVE Winchester’s book, as did the blogger from the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation ) for Smith’s birthday this year.
On this date in 1769, William Smith, known as the “Father of English Geology,” was born in Oxfordshire. Smith, who trained as an apprentice surveyor, single-handedly produced the world’s first geological map in 1815 of England, Wales and part of Scotland, spending 15 years on the project.
Smith, “whose agnosticism was well known,” according to biographer Simon Winchester (The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, 2001), produced a “map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science … a map that laid the foundations of a field of study that culminated in the work of Charles Darwin. It is a map whose making signified the start of an era, not yet over, that has been marked ever since by the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma, and to come to understand something certain about his own origins and those of the planet.”
Winchester also noted: “For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.”
Smith went bankrupt in 1819, spending several weeks in a debtor’s prison, then worked as an itinerant surveyor for many years. Not until 1831 did the Geological Society of London conferred on him the first Wollaston Medal in recognition of his achievement. His fossil collection is housed in the Natural History Museum, formerly part of the British Museum, in London. He died in 1839 at age 70.
“In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the Earth — and a central plank of established Christian religion — on its head.”
—Publisher’s blurb, “The Map that Changed the World” (Harper, 2001)
Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor
Though we have never met, Winchester and I have a very similar pedigree. He was two years ahead of me studying geology and thus learnt at the feet of the same teachers – who were a fantastic group. After Oxford he took a job as a geologist at Kilembe mines in Uganda, but only stayed a few months. Two years later I also took a job there on graduation and lasted a bit longer as I was transferred to South Africa. In both places I acquired similar nicknames, which I am not allowed to even mention today, though I am as proud of them as my african tribal name. I am not sure that my behaviour would have got a gold star from exponents of Critical Race Theory, but I am sure Martin Luther King and Alan Paton would have approved.
Let’s consider the howlers in this blog
“In 1793 William Smith, a canal digger, made a startling discovery that was to turn the fledgling science of the history of the Earth — and a central plank of established Christian religion — on its head.”
I must ask “what Central plank”? Clearly it means that in 1800 the churches, and especially the Church of England, reckoned the earth was less that 6000 years old and made Ussher’s 4004BC an item of faith. That is simply untrue as first 4004BC was never an item of faith and secondly by 1780 most educated clergy and bishops followed the geological savants and accepted a vast age of the earth. Some were actually practising geologists eg Michell of Cambridge and the trio of clergy from Bath, Warner, Richardson and Townsend, who worked with Smith from 1798 or so.
Smith, “whose agnosticism was well known,”
It is very difficult to work out Smith’s religious beliefs, due to so little written evidence and there is no evidence for this statement. Neither Torrens nor I have got very far on it. One thing is absolutely clear from Torrens’ work is that when Smith worked out his principles in about 1793-6 he thought that the earth was but a few thousand years old and it took a trio of vicars to dissuade him!!! In 1814 Smith arranged for his nephew, Phillips to stay with Rev Benjamin Richardson and be educated, Phillips was always a good churchman.
map that heralded the beginnings of a whole new science … a map that laid the foundations of a field of study
This is twaddle. The new science went back to Steno in the 1660s
For the first time the earth had a provable history
This was a mayor issue in the 1790s when geological savants knew the earth was ancient but couldn’t give a history. Smith in 1793 thought the earth was young and that the strata he saw were laid down in a particular order at the time of creation. As torrens said it was a “Timeless Order” and only later courtesy of the 3 revs, but a history into and thus producing something akin to Cuvier and Brongniart on the Paris Basin
the excitement and astonishment of scientific discoveries that allowed man at last to stagger out from the fogs of religious dogma
Facepalm! It was well-known long before the earth was ancient and a young earth was not part of religious dogma. Silly man.
“For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.”
Another faceplam. SBAW simply ignores the whole development of geology from the time of Steno, both in Britain and the Continent. My favourite howler from Winchester, not cited here, is on p29;
The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested,…, was beginning to be tested by real thinkers, by rationalists, by radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law, the clerics and the courts.’’
There are so many historical errors here. Savants started to question 4004BC or rather an earth a few thousand years old with Ray
and Lhwyd in the 1680s – both were “real thinkers” and Ray was a clergyman, unlike some products of the Oxford Geology Dept. It’s remarkable how many of the “radically inclined scientists” were Christians and even clergy. A young earth was not the dogma of the church, as few of the churches ever defined it and definitely not the Church of England (or Scotland) and there was no court case against geologists suggesting deep time.
‘The hunch that God might not have done precisely as Bishop Ussher had suggested,…, was beginning to be tested by real thinkers, by rationalists, by radically inclined scientists who were bold enough to challenge both the dogma and the law, the clerics and the courts.’’
Poor SBAW, very few after 1656 actually agreed with Ussher and by 1780 most educated people , including most clergy, thought the earth was a wee bit older. Americans, please note, I am english!! There were simply no court cases, or even threats of one.
I am afraid this quote has had me chuckling for two decades on the cluelessness of some educated at top universities, but sadly many think that Winchester is right on what he writes about.
Usually I pull up Creationists for their inaccurate history but now do the same to a respected journalist, OBE and American citizen.
That this blog is found on the atheistic Freedom from Religion Foundation website shows that secularists can make as big a pig’s ear of the history of science and science’s relation with Christianity as any Creationist. I’d have thought that Jerry Coyne, Dawkins, Steve Pinker and Dennett would not approve of such a shoddy article.
It’s the idea of evolution and millions of years being added into the Bible that’s new!
This is simply not true. The scriptural geologists, as they’re called, were defending the historicity of Genesis and a global flood a century before A New Geology was published—and they were using many of the same scriptural arguments we use today because God’s Word hasn’t changed!
Poor Ken , so wrong on so many counts. Let’s consider them in depth. (If you are lazy just read my brief script, but if you are not indolent you can read all the links to get a full story.)
The classic long account of the origins of Creationist is in Ron Numbers The Creationists, -an excellent book – but here is a short account I wrote in 1985 and won’t change much of what I wrote!
The so-called Scriptural Geologists were a group from 1817 to 1855 in England who opposed geology as they didn’t accept a long timescale. They started from a literal interpretation of the Bible insisting Genesis spoke of 6 24 days, all strata laid down in the flood , no death before Adam and Eve scrumped some apples etc.
Their geological incompetence was considerable, and apart from one, George Young, none wielded a geological hammer . Mortenson describes them in his Ph D thesis and book – on AIG website as “British Scriptural Geologists in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century” It’s hilarious to find Mortenson saying most were competent geologists. They weren’t, whether by today’s standards or those of 1830. . Just read what I say about Fairholme on p115-6 from my book
Anyway thanks to efforts of Sedgwick and Buckland these Scriptural Geologsits had gone extinct from 1855 and after that any British Christian with a little education accepted geology. not so in the USA as many slave supporting theologians were biblical literalists!! These two were Anglican clergy who were two of the leading early 19th century geologists.
Read Adam Sedgwick’s battles with younger earthers from 1830 to 1844. It was a fun paper to write.
In fact, before the rise of uniformitarian (slow and gradual) geology, the overwhelming view of fossils was that they were the result of the global flood!
Again simply untrue. Uniformitarianism took effect after 1831 with Lyell and with Hutton earlier. However many geologists before 1831 were not uniformitarian and from 1780 or so. Virtually no geologists from 1770 or so accepted fossils were the result of the Flood. In England think of Smith (after 1798),
Rev Michell, rev Richardson, Rev Townsend, Revs Conybeare, Rev Sedgwick , Rev Buckland, Rev Henslow (all Anglican clergy), de la Beche, Phillips, Greenough , Murchison, Otley, Brogniart, Cuvier just for starters. I could give some more if I bothered. For more read Martin Rudwick (a Christian) Earth’s Deep History.
Loads of mistakes here . Too many to list or discuss.
it’s the idea of evolution and millions of years being added into the Bible that’s new!
No, deep time was first suggested by Llwyd and Ray in the 1680s and many after that. Few scientists disagreed with deep time after 1780.
And as for me personally, my father and I were dealing with the creation/evolution issue and what God’s Word in Genesis teaches when I was in grade six (at age 11) at school. The pastor of the church we went to started teaching evolution from the pulpit. My father was very upset and challenged this pastor using God’s Word in Genesis. Then at age 13, when in grade 8 at high school, we were using the latest science textbooks that presented naturalistic evolution as fact. My father and I discussed Genesis and that evolution did not mesh with God’s Word. It was because of an understanding that Genesis is God’s Word and is written as literal history that formed what I believe about creation—God created in six literal days about 6,000 years ago. Believing in a young earth is a consequence of what we believe Genesis taught. It had nothing to do with some Seventh Day Adventist, as Vischer claims. And I should know—I was there when my father and I discussed these issues. I held these creationist beliefs long before I ever read The Genesis Flood by Whitcomb and Morris. In 1974, before I had even heard about The Genesis Flood book, I read a small booklet from England that dealt with the issue of death. How could the fossil record have been laid down before man sinned when it’s a record of death, disease, bloodshed, and suffering? I saw this as a powerful theological argument against millions of years before I ever read The Genesis Flood.
Yes, I met a 400lb American baptist missionary in Uganda, and a pentecostal diamond driller in South Africa who were creationists and I bet they hadn’t read The Genesis Flood.
I am afraid poor old Ham has got it wrong again and Vischer is essentially correct.
No, Young Earthers cannot claim that their brand of science-denying biblical literalism has roots in the early 19th century and before
With George McCready Price it comes from the “prophesying” of Seventh Day Adventism. It began to rear its head during the Scopes Trial and was a rumbling sore during the interwar years.
and finally, consider how bad Morris’s geology was – and that of Answers in Genesis is no better. Here is an excellent review of The Genesis Flood by the Dutch geologist van der Fliert in 1969. If YECs were truly honest, they would have ditched the book.
Evangelicals and science in the Age of Revolution 1789-1850
This was a hectic sixty years, Napoleonic Wars, great advances in technology and science all over Europe. Selection is impossible, but here I have chosen “evangelical” issues partly based on a backward glance.
That means a considerable focus on geology, as many British geologists were evangelicals, as were those who opposed geology.
This period saw the formation of the geological column; Cambrian, Silurian, Devonian etc, and a universal conviction of Deep Time
Evangelicals and Science (pub 2008) Foreword and Introduction
In 2008 my Evangelicals and Science was published as part of the Greenwood series. On the same day Peter Hess produced Catholics and Science.
My aim was to give an overview considered historically. I confess I was not an outside, impartial observer as my roots are evangelical and moved away, more from evangelical behaviour than theology. I became a Christian through the Christian Union at Oxford, so began with an excellent pedigree. Soon after I was in Uganda as an exploration and mining geologist, where I was baffled meeting a 300lb missionary from the southern States, who lent me creationist literature. I thought it bunk and that no one could believe it. In 1971 I went to L’Abri and was told to study books like The Genesis Flood. I soon found how flawed they were. No one was bothered in Britain until the Arkansas trial of 1981.
I studied the whole evangelical relationship with science mostly from a historical point of view, with an emphasis on geology. That comes out in the book and no apologies. I went historical as I felt that would clarify many issues and I found it did and that I was echoing the work of many historians of science like Ron Numbers and David Livingstone.
I could go on but in the successive blogs I’ll present another chapter, which you can read by opening the link beginning GNWD018
Chapter 1 What Are Evangelicals? 7
Chapter 2 Evangelicals, the Bible, and Science 33
Chapter 3 Eighteenth-Century Evangelicals and Science: From
Jonathan Edwards to John Wesley 59
Chapter 4 Evangelicals and Science in the Age of Revolution 83
Chapter 5 Post-Darwinian Evangelicals 113
Chapter 6 Evangelicals in the Shadow of Scopes 139
Chapter 7 The Rise of Creationism: Young Earth Creationism
and Intelligent Design, 1961–2007 165
Chapter 8 Evangelicals and Science Today 201
Chapter 9 Evangelicals, the Environment, and Bioethics 225
Primary Sources 249
Chronology of Events
1720s Cotton Mather supports smallpox inoculation.
1730s Beginning of Evangelical Revival in Massachusetts (Edwards)
and England (Whitfield).
1738 Conversion of John Wesley.
1758 Death of Jonathan Edwards from smallpox vaccination.
1771 Francis Asbury goes to the American colonies and starts the
1795 Death of John Wesley.
1790s Evangelicals blossom in Britain and America.
1790–1820s Series of evangelical science professors at Cambridge.
1817 Rev. Adam Sedgwick elected Professor of Geology at Cambridge
1812–1867 Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution, London, much experimental
work and lectures.
1820s–1840s Height of “evangelical” geologists
—Sedgwick,Lewis, Miller in Britain and Hitchcock and Silliman in United States.
1859 Publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.
1860s Correspondence of Asa Gray and Darwin on design and
1880s Height of “rapprochement” with B. B. Warfield and G. F.
1910 Publication of The Fundamentals.
1920s Rise of anti-evolution, and splits over modernism.
1925 The Scopes Trial, Dayton, Tennessee.
1930s Heyday of Harry Rimmer and George McCready Price.
1941 Formation of the American Scientific Affiliation in United
1944 Formation of what became Research Scientists Christian Fellowship
(later Christians in Science) in London.
1949 First Billy Graham Crusade at Los Angeles.
1954 Publication of Ramm’s The Christian Vew of Science and Scripture.
1961 Publication The Genesis Flood.
1962 Formation of Creation Research Society.
1972 Founding of Institute of Creation Research at San Diego.
1981 Trial at Arkansas.
1992 Formation of Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN).
1994 Formation of Answers in Genesis at Florence, Kentucky (with
2000 Cornwall Declaration opposing the EEN.
2005 Charles Townes, Nobel Laureate for MASER and LASER
awarded Templeton Prize.
2006 American evangelicals divided over global warming.
2007 Opening of Creation Museum in Kentucky
And then my introduction, which gives an outline of each chapter and acknowledgments. Many will be familiar to those who follow the issue and I leave it to members of HOGG to identify the one who called me “bloody clergyman” and gave me immense help in my related interest on the history of geology.
Is this really Mary Anning at Lyme Regis? Or someone else somewhere else?
It is one of the most popular pictures of Mary Anning and even used on a suggested draft of a £50 note.
The most famous fossil collector was Mary Anning of Lyme Regis in Dorset. She spent years collecting fossils and selling them on. This is one of the most popular pictures of her at work;
It was used on the front cover of a biography and on The Geological Curator in 1985
In the next few months the film Ammonite on the life of the great fossil-collector Mary Anning will be premiered in the USA and the UK. Mary lived from 1799 to 1847 in the seaside town of Lyme Regis and unearthed may significant fossils on the Jurassic coast. She provided specimens for geologists like Conybeare, Buckland and de la Beche.
Duria Antiquior – A more Ancient Dorset is a watercolour painted in 1830 by the geologist Henry De la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning
(compare this with Mary anning picture – is it the same style?)
By the time she was died she was famous and here is a posthumous portrait.
Posthumous painting of Anning by B. J. Donne from 1847, based on the 1842 portrait at the head of this article, showing her pointing at an ammonite
Now back to the oft-posted picture of Mary geologising, alleged to be painted by Sir Henry de la Beche, who was more than capable as an artist. However he should be expunged from history as a former slave-owner.
Here she is, in shorter skirts, standing on a rock with her hammer ready with Golden Cap in the background.
Just a minute!
Is it really Golden Cap? Golden Cap is only 171 metres high (560 ft if you prefer) and with a flat top to play cricket on as I had to on family holidays.
And is it Mary Anning?
To me, as I am familiar with Lyme Regis, having been there on geology field trips and three summer holidays as a child, it just doesn’t look right and I am sure de la Beche was a better artist and would have drawn Golden Cap more accurately right down to the horizontal strata.
Looking at it, I am minded of one of favourite mountain ridges in Snowdonia, the Nantlle Ridge which starts at Rhyd Du and works its way along the ridge to Craig Cwm Silyn. It is an exposed route as to the north cliffs drop into a series of glacial cwms. The first time I traversed that ridge I tore my brand-new anorak.
Here is the east end of the Nantlle Ridge from Rhyd Ddu with Llyn y Gader in the foreground.
The peak of Y Garn (653metres) on the right with steep (glaciated?) nose and a glacial cwm behind. To climb it the route takes you up the shoulder on the right of the photo. At the bottom was a scruffy sign telling the English to Far Cough. From the first top you move to the left to Mynydd Drys y Coed (695m) and then along the narrow ridge to Craig Cwm Silyn, the high point at 734 metres. From there I normally retraced my steps beck to Rhyd Ddu. The north side of the ridge is precipitous as there are several northerly orientated glacial cwms.
The engineer, geologist Thomas Sopwith drew a sketch of Pen y Gader in October 1841, during a visit to North Wales with the Rev William Buckland to see if there had been glaciation in Wales as well as in Scotland.
It’s the same as my photo with a roche moutonee in the foreground.
Now for a bit of history. In 1838 William Buckland went to visit Louis Agassiz in Switzerland. Agassiz was full of ice as he had just publicised that the glaciers in Switzerland had been far more extensive and that there had been an Ice Age in the none to distant past. He claimed ice had spread right up to the Jura mountains , where a glacier had dumped the erratic block, Pierre a Bot, high above Neuchatel – and scratched some rocks in the process. On a field trip we also found many glacial grooves on exposed rocks. Buckland took a lot of convincing but in the end Agassiz froze him out, and Buckland became a convert.
In 1840 Agassiz came to Britain and went up to Scotland with Buckland and Lyell. Near Lancaster, where I live, they found their first evidence of an former ice age – drumlins -and I used to live on one. They then went to Glen Roy with its famous and baffling parallel roads. Two years earlier Darwin studied them and concluding they were ancient raised beaches from the lowering of sea level from 1200 ft. Agassiz disagreed and said there were from an ancient glacial lake publicising it in the Scotsman. Darwin had made a “gigantic blunder”, as he later admitted.
Next year, the ailing John Eddowes Bowman toured North Wales to find evidence and claimed to find nothing. In October Tom Sopwith met up with Buckland near Chester and explored the area in one of the worst Octobers ever. They began at the meres at Ellesmere and reckoned to identify rocks from both Scotland and Wales, concluding that ice sheets met there. They were absolutely correct and I enjoyed doing the same. From there they went up the Dee valley to Bala and then past Arenig Fawr (2804ft) where they did not notice the result of glaciation.
After that they stayed at the coaching in at Pentrefoelas and continued along the new road (A5) to Snowdonia, finding evidence of glaciation en route. They stayed at Llanrwst. And went up to Ogwen. From Llanrwst they went to Pen y Pass and in between the showers worked out the glaciation
This map shows the glacial troughs Buckland and Sopwith identified.
Llyn y Gader is the smallest of the three lakes just to the west of Snowdon. Note 2 glacial cwms are marked.
For my paper on the work of Bowman, Buckland and Darwin on Welsh Ice see
In a few days of torrential rain they delineated all the major glacial troughs in Snowdonia. It was brilliant work. After dropping down to Beddgelert, they ended up at Rhyd Ddu and noted that glaciers seemed to be going in three directions. As well as being an engineer and geologist, he also produced excellent models showing geological structures.
This Thomas Sopwith was the grandfather of Sir Thomas Sopwith, who designed the Sopwith Camel, a WWI fighter plane. The latter’s grandson, also Thomas, lived near where we lived in Chirk. Sopwith was a fine artist at both sketching and painting. His most famous was of William Buckland dressed for glacier work. It is both faithful, but a bit of a send-up.
The wording is entertaining. It is of Buckland at the Waterloo Bridge in Betws y Coed. I once hobbled over that bridge, having twisted my ankle trying to find one of Buckland’s sites.
This was also the basis of a painting, a poor copy by an APF. Who was it? Sopwith would say it was not up to scratch!
Now another sketch at Beddgelert by Sopwith on 16th October 1841
Here’s Buckland in the Pass of Aberglaslyn in the same garb. He stayed in Beddgelert but the record of his stay is “missing”
When you compare these with the “Mary Anning” picture, you will note the same clothes, shoes and hat! And then there are also the glacial striae on the roche moutonee, which is not possible for Lyme Regis as ice never reached Dorset during the Ice Ages. Further the painting is in the style of Sopwith and not the exquisite watercolours of de la Beche.
I think one can only draw one conclusion. This picture is not of Mary Anning, nor of Lyme Regis, nor by de la Beche, but is of William Buckland in Snowdonia and the original by Thomas Sopwith. (The hill on the right is Mynydd Cigwyn just above Nantlle.) Buckland’s cloak, much needed that October, does look a bit like a shorter skirt adding to the confusion. It also warns against jumping to historical conclusions. Tom Sharpe, who has an imminent biography on Mary Anning, has also made the same points in a HOGG newsletter https://historyofgeologygroup.co.uk/hogg-newsletter/hogg-newsletter-61/
Some years ago I took the part of Sedgwick in a planned HBS documentary of evolution. But it got left out.
Here’s a photo of a woman in 1830s working class clothes
Who’s more like the person in the picture?
This annotated picture should make it clear. Go and visit the place and prove me wrong!
Now here is a picture of Buckland by de la Beche on Buckland’s favourite topic- coprolite. A mortarboard and not a top hat! Also note what each animal is doing! What is between Buckland’s legs?
Maybe I’ve done what de la Beche did to Lyell’s ideas on uniformitarianism in 1831, when he reckoned that the little volumes of water couldn’t do what Lyell claimed in his uniformitarianism. Here Buckland’s son, Frank, is recruited to show why Lyell was wrong. I reckon this is above Idwal cottage looking down the Nant Francon, but Martin Rudwick is sure it is in the Auvergne. Take your pick, but I re-enacted it on a field trip in 2009
One of the most famous of geological sites is the unconformity at Siccar Point in Scotland. James Hutton went there in 1788 with his friend Rev John Playfair. Near the sea they found an interesting feature. Some rocks dipping steeply were overlain by almost horizontal strata. Sir John Hall later made a sketch
The rocks at 65 deg are Silurian and the flatter ones are Devonian. It represents a gap of 60 million years or so. This is elementary geology to but Hutton was the first to realise the incredible time gap. Since then many more have been found all over the world.
A fine one is the Steamboat Unconformity in the Blackhills with a gap of a billion years between mid Precambrian and Cambrian.
Unconformities demonstrate a considerable lapse of time, something Young Earth Creationists do not like. Hence Siccar Point is a good target to eviscerate as “creationist geologist” like Tas Walker tries, flashing his doctorate from the Dunning-Kruger University, in this article.
“The heritage trail at Siccar Point, Scotland
Commemorating an idea that did not work”
Doesn’t it work? Let’s see!
Before going through his blog I’ll make some historical and geological comments about the background of Hutton at Siccar Point. This CMI blog seems to imply that Hutton pulled his ideas out of thin air when visiting, but a consideration of the previous 120 years of geologising all over Europe contradicts that.
What Tas does is to re-iterate the creationist version of the Hutton-Lyell myth. The creationist version is that Hutton and Lyell were the naughty boys who invented Uniformitarianism out of thin air to attack the bible. Unconformities were part of that attack along with Deep Time, which nobody had thought about before.
The myth has a secular form in an old-style bad history of science , which is hopelessly Brito-centric just focussing on two geologists as if they were the only ones. Creationists took this and gave it a demonic twist.
Thus we have two main issues – Deep Time and Uniformitarianism
Deep Time is simply vast geological time. In 1650 most educated and uneducated people in Europe thought the earth was about 6000 years old. There was no geological evidence to guide them, so that cannot be held against them. For the last 70 years geologists have argued that the earth is 4.56 billion years old. In the 1780s Hutton and others knew the earth was very old but not how old.
We usually think of Ussher’s date of 4004BC which is similar to John Lightfoot’s of 50 years less. Both wrote in the 1650s and were excellent scholars.
The journey began in the 1660s, when Nils Steno (later a Catholic bishop who got beatified) was studying fossils and strata in Italy and worked out the Principle of Superposition. He was rather undecided on the age of the strata. But he had made a vital breakthrough.
Twenty years later Edward Lhwyd and Rev John Ray spent much time botanising in Snowdonia. Lhwyd was struck by the number of boulders in Nant Peris. As only one had fallen in living memory, he tentatively concluded that the hundreds of boulders must have fallen at intervals of several decades, meaning that Ussher’s age of 4004BC needed to be revised upwards. After all 500×50 =25,000. A wee advance on Ussher! In fact, they were glacial erratics dumped almost together some 20,000 years ago, so Lhwyd was wrong! Even so, it was an interesting idea showing a questioning mind.
Others reckoned the earth must be older too as did Hooke and Hobbes (see my Genesis and Geological time p41)
Going into the 18th century more and more studied the rocks throughout Europe and almost all concluded that the earth was old. Less geological was Buffon who in his Epoques of 1778 argued from cooling globes the earth had to be at least 74,000 years old, but privately argued for millions. If you want more read Martin Rudwick’s Earth’s Deep History or Gabriel Gohau Les sciences de la terre aux XVII et XXVIII siecles.
Few continued with a young earth after Scheuzer, apart from the English Hutchinsonians, followers of John Hutchinson (1674-1737). One was Alexander Catcott whose Treatise of the Deluge (1768) is the oldest book I own. It’s a mix of biblical theology, speculations about the ark ( which included 2 camelopards and quoting Bishop Willkins “1825 sheep… for the rapacious beasts” ) and some good geomorphological observations.
By the end of the 18th century few scientists/savants did not accept Deep Time and the Irishman Richard Kirwan was one of the handful who didn’t. Even J.A. de Luc, who is often presented as a young earther, believed in an ancient earth, but not as ancient as Hutton’s!
In the last decades of the 18th century Hutton just took the standard view of an ancient earth along with a galaxy of workers all round Europe –Rev J Michell, Fr. Soulavie, de Saussure (of Mt Blanc fame), De Luc, Werner an others in almost every country, but an Anglocentric approach, which only considers Hutton and Lyell, misses that.
Hutton is NOT the father of Deep Time, but one of many very able scientists, who worked on deep time.
We also need to note that from 1660 Christians, especially clergy, were involved in the discovery of geological time. In 1785 the Rev William Robertson, Moderator of the Scottish Kirk, was totally supportive of Hutton and reckoned that nothing in Hutton’s work was “in any respect repugnant to the Mosaic account of creation.” And for the last 135 years most Christian ministers, evangelical or not, have agreed with Robertson, from Billy Graham to John Stott, loads of Popes and Archbishops and those in local churches.
This is used as a bogey term. In one sense Uniformitarianism in the sense of “the present is the key to the past” is both widely used and has to be used and basic to any historical study. In its minimal sense it means that the physical processes today occurred in the past – e.g. water flows downhill, and the physics and chemistry is the same. In the maximal sense it insists that rates of processes were identical in the past. At times both Hutton and Lyell tended toward that view, though Lyell in his Principles of Geology looked to more “catastrophic” processes to explain how erratics were moved from the central alps to the Jura Mountains, as in the case of the Pierre a bot – but that was before the concept of Ice Ages.
Continental geologists use the term “Actualism” to show how present geological processes relate to past geological time and events. It is a better term as the word itself allows more variation of “rate” as “uniformitarianism” as a word does.
After Lyell published in 1831 most British geologists ditched the older ideas of catastrophism and those who did not, like de la Beche and William Buckland, found themselves left behind both geologically and in time as they got older and younger geologists took their place. For 150 years a weakness in geology was that geologists tended to think all processes had always been slow and gradual, but that was slowly overturned in the 20th century as Ager made very clear, Ager may not have been a Uniformitarian but he was a strict Actualist.
Volcanic rocks. Travellers around Europe would see active volcanoes at Vesuvius and Etna. One who studied Vesuvius was Lord Hamilton, cuckolded by Lord Nelson. From Italy some found the hills in Auvergne looked like and had similar rocks to Italian volcanoes, pointing to them being volcanoes. Similar hard rocks were found in Britain and Hutton studied the Salisbury Crags. The similarities – the present is the key to the past – demonstrated these were volcanic. Repeat a thousand times!
Ripple marks. Those who play by rivers and the shore will find many ripple marks in places and often see them being formed by a river or the see. At times exposed rocks have marks which look identical and comparison – the present is the key to the past – points to them being laid down by water. When working in Precambrian strata in South Africa, I found that the Stinkfontein sandstones (900my) often had ripple marks, which I duly measured and recorded, helping me work out the direction of the ancient rivers. One day it rained hard – a downpour in a desert – resulting in flash floods. These produced ripple marks in places so I measured and compared them.
These are two simple examples and there are many more. Needless to say, working it out in practice is often difficult
This is Uniformitarianism proper rather than an idea plucked out of thin air.
The worst example of mis-applying Uniformitarianism is the argument from the rapid formation of a gorge at Mt St. Helens to an alleged rapid formation of the Grand Canyon. Now that takes the biscuit! The volcanic ash was deposited rapidly during the eruption and then eroded before they could consolidate. Even in 2009 I found that applying a small jet of water from a masculine source caused rapid erosion!
The Grand Canyon was cut into hardened sediments, from Precambrian to Mesozoic, exposing the unconformity between the Precambrian and Cambrian. On my ascent and descent I was unable to erode anything!!
High above the cliffs on the Scottish coast—60 km east of Edinburgh—is an interpretive billboard that overlooks a rocky point.1 It is part of a heritage trail opened in 2006, celebrating the life of James Hutton, a local farmer and physician
. This is a silly putdown as Hutton was these, but far more. He was part of the Scottish Enlightenment, which involved the Kirk, an a pioneer geologist.
who became known as the ‘father of modern geology’.2
. He often shares this title with William Smith of England. I prefer to see him as one of many key figures from Steno in the 1660s onwards.
He proposed the geological philosophy of uniformitarianism—that present geological processes are the key to understanding the rocks.
This is a cardboard cut-out history of geology. “the geological philosophy of uniformitarianism” sounds impressive but is nonsense. All geologists, then and now, sort of accept uniformitarianism, with the present as the key to the past, but Hutton almost over-played the rate of rock formation and the sameness of processes. It was a difference of degree, not kind, to Catastrophists.
Hutton assumed Noah’s Flood never happened.
He avoided the question but was long convinced of the vast age of the earth as were the vast majority of geologists of his day. Hence he was always looking at rocks so much older than the flood.
He did not appreciate the enormity of that global catastrophe, which involved faulting, folding, and immense deposition and erosion.
Hehe. Nor did any other geologist from the 18th century!!
The locals are keen to capitalize on Siccar Point, claiming it is the most important geological site in the world.2
Not all would agree, but Siccar Point is very important – Vallorcine nr Chamonix, Old canals near Bath (Smith), Auvergne volcanoes, Jurassic Coast, Steno’s Tuscany come to mind.
The story goes that these rocks led Hutton to conclude the earth was not made in six days.
That is simply not so. He was already of that opinion as were the vast majority of geologists from 1700 whether Christian or not. It was the same in England and the European mainland
Rather, faulting and folding were important processes in the evolution of the landscape.3 The sign at the site says the rocks proved geological time was virtually unlimited,
No, just very long as Hutton et al could not pin down a time except in words of de Saussure of Mt Blanc fame “tres vieux”.
contrary to the few thousand years, which most people believed at that time.1
That is very misleading. Most people at that time could not read and as all they heard came from simple preaching they probably thought the earth was young. As for those with education many agreed with Hutton, or rather the scientific savants throughout Europe, and by 1800 the vast majority of educated, Christian or not, accepted an ancient earth
But Hutton did not discover deep time, he assumed it.
Nonsense. Deep time was coming in from the time of Steno in Italy in the 1660s. Right from the 1660s there was an increasing awareness that the earth was more than a few thousand years old. Thus Lhwyd and John Ray tentatively argued for an older earth in the 1680s. Throughout the 18th century researchers found evidence that the age of the earth was immense but could not put a date on it. Hutton was one of those
That was partly because Hutton’s knowledge of geology in the late 1700s was seriously limited.
Pathetic comment. Yes, Hutton’s knowledge of geology was limited compared to 1850,1900, 1950 or today, but he knew a lot.
He did not know that the lower Silurian rocks were turbidite beds, deposited rapidly from underwater density currents that sped across the ocean floor as fast as 100 km (60 miles) per hour.4 Neither did he know the upper strata were of a terrestrial origin, deposited from a vast expanse of fast flowing water that covered a large part of the continent, depositing thick, cross-bedded strata.5,6
This comment is plain silly. Turbidites were discovered between 1925 and 1950. It is like criticising Isaac Newton for not knowing Relativity
But most significantly, Hutton assumed Noah’s Flood never happened.
He did not appreciate the enormity of that global catastrophe, which involved faulting, folding, and immense deposition and erosion.
During the Flood, the rocks at Siccar Point were eroded in days or weeks, not over millions of years.
The notice board at Siccar Point, which needs a little improvement
As John McEnroe said on the tennis courts “Are you serious?” The “What really happened” is pure bunkum.
Hutton is hailed as a father of modern geology for his philosophy of uniformitarianism, but ironically geologists now acknowledge that uniformitarianism does not work.
A veritable half truth
Toward the end of his career, Derek Ager, professor of geology at Swansea, Wales, said of uniformitarianism, “We have allowed ourselves to be brain-washed into avoiding any interpretation of the past that involves extreme and what might be termed ‘catastrophic’ processes.”7
See above on Uniformitarianism. Ager wrote to me in a letter complaining how creationists twisted his work.
Hutton’s friend (and popularizer) John Playfair, who accompanied him by boat to Siccar Point in 1788, is famous for his impressions of that trip. He is quoted on the sign. “The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.”
However, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, it is unfortunate that Playfair did not connect his Bible with the world around him
Thus in one sentence Tas walker condemns the vast majority of Christians to perdition
. A better response would have been, “The mind was sobered to look upon the enormity of God’s judgment at the time of Noah.”
Mine is to study Exodus 20 vs 16!!!
I cannot see how anyone can write such an article as it is so inaccurate. I am sure it is not pleasing to God.
references and notes
Interpretation board, Siccar Point; geograph.org.uk/photo/2143249. Return to text.
International interest in new James Hutton trail, Berwickshire News, 21 June 2006; berwickshirenews.co.uk/news/local-headlines/international-interest-in-new-james-hutton-trail-1-237894. Return to text.
Siccar Point, Gazetteer for Scotland, 2011; scottish-places.info/features/featurefirst5590.html. Return to text.
Fine, I.V. et al., The Grand Banks landslide-generated tsunami of November 18, 1929: preliminary analysis and numerical modelling, Marine Geology215:45–57, 2005. Return to text.
Browne, M., et al., Stratigraphical Framework for the Devonian (Old Red Sandstone) Rocks of Scotland south of a line from Fort William to Aberdeen, British Geological Survey, Research Report RR 01 04, p. 50, 2002; nora.nerc.ac.uk/3231/1/Devonian.pdf. Return to text.
For a detailed geological analysis of Siccar Point see: Walker, T., Unmasking a long-age icon, Creation27(1):50–55, 2004; creation.com/siccarpoint. Return to text.
Ager, D., The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record, Macmillan, London, p. 70, 1993. Return to text.
After this the landscape was eroded by ice sheets in the post-Flood Ice Age. Return to text.
That begs a lot of questions as the Ice Ages began 2 million years ago. Which Ice Age does he mean? Was it the upper or Lower Dryas or an earlier one?