The Abyss of Time
(The Discovery of Deep Time)
One of the most dramatic sights in the world is the Grand Canyon. Nowhere demonstrates more vividly the abyss of time than this abyss. To stand at the rim and to glimpse the Colorado flowing 5000 feet below is to glimpse time and possibly to suffer chronological vertigo as well as vertigo. The Precambrian rocks at the bottom are nearly two billion years old. Above that and succeeding each other like layers in a cake are strata through most of the geological record from the Cambrian (550 m.y.) to the Permian (283 m.y.). The duration of time recorded in the rocks is beyond comprehension whether one peers down from the rim or spends six hours climbing up the geological timescale from the Colorado River in sweltering heat. The Grand Canyon is a monument to Deep Time.
However, four hundred years ago the earth was thought to be a few thousand years old. This story is how the abyss of time was gradually comprehended as a scientific understanding of the earth developed. According to Archbishop Ussher in 1656 the earth was created on 22 October 4004 BC. That date has come to signify the traditional date of Creation according to the Church and what the geologists and Darwin had to battle against. Enlightened scientists struggling against the bigotry of a benighted Church makes a lively story but has less truth than a Grade B Western.
The discovery of Deep Time is not simply one of Judaeo-Christian time giving way to scientific time after a long and bitter struggle. The picture is more complex as religious ideas have been both inhibiting and liberating in developing our concept of time. The scientific understanding of time, whether geological or astronomical, developed in Western Europe from about 1650, in societies which had a dominant, but declining, Christian culture. As a result the influence of Christian thought on time must be considered carefully, without degenerating into a cowboys-‘n-injuns scenario of the church fighting against science
It is also one in which any concepts of circular or cyclical time gave way to linear time. There is an apparent paradox here. Linear time has roots in the biblical tradition with an initial act of Creation, followed by acts of God in history, the Flood, Abraham, Moses, David and the Monarchy, the Exile and finally Jesus Christ. Cyclical time has roots in the Greek and Eastern traditions and surfaces in the scepticism of the 18th century where the eternal nature of the physical universe was emphasised against the finite, linear Christian view. Christians accepted the “Arrow of Time” long before it became scientifically incontrovertible, whether from evolution or the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Diagram showing the linear understanding of time by Christians in 17th Century.
Creation > Man.> Abraham > Moses David Exile > Jesus > 2nd Coming
4004 2000 1500 1000 590 4BC ?
The story of the scientific examination of the age of the earth and universe and that of “Deep Time” goes back 350 years to 1650. Before that there are interesting, and at times profound, philosophical discussions on time but these are not scientific and give no sense of duration. However before considering these it is essential to consider Christian understandings, which were prevalent as the Scientific Revolution began in the 17th century, beginning with Genesis.
The Book of Genesis
The stories of Genesis are wellknown to Westerners. However, trivialising teaching in school and Sunday school caused many adults to think that kangaroos on the Ark and Creation in 144 hours are an integral part of Christian belief. To cast doubt on these can cause immense grief to churchgoers! Few reflect on what Genesis meant to the writer(s), or when it was written. The latter is the easier question; most biblical scholars reckon that it was compiled from earlier sources in Mesopotamia in about 500 BC; a minority reckon it was compiled in about 1000 BC; while many Evangelicals hold that Moses wrote Genesis and the Pentateuch in about 1250 BC. Because many parallels have been found between Genesis and other Near Eastern Creation myths, such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and some claim that this shows that Genesis is derivative.
Exactly how the Hebrews understood Genesis is harder to answer. Some scholars argued that the universe was a three-decker one and the representation of time is literal. If the Hebrews were as informed on astronomy as their neighbours in Egypt and Mesopotamia, they would not have held such crude ideas. As the Old Testament writers borrowed ideas from both civilisations (e.g. Proverbs 22 is borrowed from the Teaching of Amenope), they probably knew their astronomy as well. However, there are few studies focusing on the question of what the ancients actually believed about time and this may be an unanswerable question. Without entering the controversy whether the Old Testament is historical or not, the Hebrews were not as concerned about chronology as later societies.
The Early church
The early Christians were more concerned about time and chronology and soon began to elucidate the biblical chronology. Until 400AD the vast majority of Christians believed that the earth would last only 6000 years and had existed for about 5500 years when Christ was born. They argued the latter from taking all biblical chronologies, especially those in Genesis 5 and 11, literally. The former idea stemmed from “Chiliasm” – a belief that the earth would last Six days of millennia (from Psalm 90 vs 4 and 2 Peter 3 vs 8). This was proclaimed, rather than reasoned, as in the Epistle of Barnabas (c130 AD); “Therefore, my children, in six days – six thousand years, that is – there is going to be the end of everything.” This concern with the end of the world, or the coming of the Millennium, may explain their great interest in chronology.
An early example is Ad Autolycum by Theophilus of Antioch. Little is known about him beyond that he became Bishop of Antioch in 169 AD and wrote this volume after the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 AD. He was a Greek and was strongly influenced by Jewish Christians. At the end there is a chronology from creation to the death of Marcus Aurelius (d 180 AD), a duration of 5695 years, suggesting that Creation occurred in 5515 BC. The chronologies are detailed and calculated from the biblical data and are not far off Ussher’s compilations and today’s’ estimates from Abraham to the Exile.
Theophilus was highly literalistic, while others, like Augustine, took the days of Genesis allegorically; few reckoned the earth to be more than a few thousand years old.
Diagram comparing estimates of Biblical Chronology by Theophilus (180) Ussher (1650) and in the Good News Bible (1976). The date for Noah is taken from Pitman and Ryan, Noah’s Flood, (1999)
EVENT THEOPHILUS USSHER GOOD NEWS BIBLE
EXILE 561 593 587
DAVID(d) 1079 1014 970
MOSES 1577 1491 c1250
ABRAHAM 2262 1921 c1900
NOAH 3273 2347 5600
CREATION 5515 4004 ??
The Renaissance was a time of broadening of horizons and exploration. Columbus discovered the New World; Copernicus (1473-1543) rejected the Ptolemaic system and proposed heliocentricity as the best explanation of the relation of the sun and planets. There was a revival in the study of ancient texts, classical and biblical, which also resulted in the Reformation. In all this flowering of exploration, scholarship and literature there was a sense of the unity of knowledge.
It also marked the dawn of a historical consciousness but concepts were few and the Scriptures were some of few texts, which went back to the earliest history. Thus attempts at the history of the world involved the fusing of biblical and classical writings. An example is Sir Walter Ralegh’s (1552?-1618) History of the World, which he published in 1614 while in the Bloody tower of the Tower of London. Ralegh considered the world to be created in about 4000 BC and also gave a long dissertation on the four rivers of the Garden of Eden (Genesis chap 2). Ralegh’s date was the same 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. In the early 1600s the Dutch Protestant theologian Josef Scaliger put creation at 25 October 3950 BC. (Autumn was a favoured time for Creation, as the fruits would provide sustenance for the winter.) The most well-known Chiliaist was Archbishop James Ussher of Armagh (1581-1656). Ussher, whose uncle was an ancestor of the Queen (through an illegitimate niece of the Duke of Wellington), was a very able scholar and no obscurantist. He became Archbishop of Armagh in 1625.
The most well-known of his works was Annales Veteris Testamenti (1650), which was a solid piece of chronological scholarship in which he argued from historical grounds that Jesus was born not 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.
Theories of the Earth, 1660-1710
The Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, epitomised the flowering of science both in Britain and the continent. The work of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and others in physics and chemistry needs no introduction. Less well-known is the natural history of John Ray (1627-1705), Edward Lhwyd (1660-1709) and others. The period also saw the beginnings of a scientific study of the earth and their findings were published in turgid volumes known as “Theories of the Earth”. On a first reading these seem to be a literal reading of Genesis stories with a few semi-scientific glosses. A closer read shows them to be more profound as they meld together the Bible, the classics, almost mediaeval “book” learning with the citing of endless authorities and scientific insight in a Chaos-Restitution interpretation of Genesis One. Here they shared the outlook of most theologians (except Ussher!) and literary writers such as Thomas Traherne and Alexander Pope. Instead of taking the Creation story to teach creation in six short days, writers, following an interpretation going back to the early Church Fathers, claimed from Genesis (Chapter one verse one) that God first created Chaos (without form and void) and after an interval recreated it in six days. The duration of Chaos was undefined. With Ussher it was twelve hours, but for most it was a long and unspecified duration. Some, notably Thomas Burnet (1635?-1715), Edmond Halley (1656-1742) and William Whiston (1667-1752), reckoned the days to be more than twenty-four hours. Halley attempted a calculation of the age of the earth from the sea’s salinity, but came to no firm conclusions other than it was tens of thousands of years old. Likewise theological writers of the day; Bishop Simon Patrick (1626-1707) reckoned that God first created Chaos and then later re-ordered it in Six Days. He said of the duration of Chaos, ‘It might be … a great while;…’ Few accepted Ussher’s date of 4004 BC for the initial Creation, though most accepted that humanity first appeared in about the year 4000 BC, hence the general acceptance of the rest of Ussher’s chronology. The extension of time by the “Theorists” and contemporary theologians was minute compared to the billions of years of geological time, but was, as Stephen Gould wrote of Whiston’s argument that the day of Genesis one was a year long was, “a big step in the right direction.” In Britain the way was open for a longer time-scale.
Fossils and Geology
Not until the late 17th Century were “formed stones” or fossils recognised as imprints of dead creatures rather than formed as “sports of nature” in place. Only then could “fossils” be used to demonstrate former life and it took a century before the succession of fossils was used to put strata into historical order. Possibly the first person who used the succession of fossils to demonstrate evolution was Charles Darwin in a notebook in 1838, shortly before he “discovered” Natural Selection. In the 1690s there were insufficient grounds to suggest “Deep Time” or the continual reworking of the earth’s crust as understandings of erosion were rudimentary. Ray, Whiston and others cannot be expected to have done otherwise.
Most of the writers had some “scientific” understanding and often spent as much time refuting each other as suggesting new ideas. Some were mostly speculative, as was Thomas Burnet’s The Theory of the Earth. Despite his devotion to the Deluge, he sought to explain phenomena naturalistically and somewhat extended the duration of Genesis One. John Ray’s Miscellaneous Discourses concerning the dissolution of the world shows the beginning of careful observation on earth processes and questions over geological time. After reading the first edition of Ray’s Miscellaneous Discourses, Lhwyd wrote to Ray on 30 February 1691, ‘Upon the reading on your discourse of the rains continually washing away and carrying down earth from the mountains, it puts me in mind…which I observed’, and then described what he had observed in Snowdonia. He described innumerable boulders which had “fallen” into the Llanberis valleys. (Most of these are glacial erratics.) As ‘but two or three that have fallen in the memory of any man…, in the ordinary course of nature we shall be compelled to allow the rest many thousands of years more than the age of the world.’ Ray commented on Lhwyd’s findings and seemed deliberately to avoid facing the logic of Lhwyd’s comments. He nailed his colours firmly to the fence, and did not explicitly reject an Ussher chronology. However from his discussion of Chaos and other comments, it is fair to conclude that he accepted that the earth was considerably more than five-and-a-half thousand years old, but left the reader to decide.
Time in the Enlightenment
Often the 18th Century is presented as a geological Dark Age until Hutton shed light with his theory in 1788. The 18th century did not see a rapid advance in geology until about 1780, as observers continued the work of their 17th century forbears. Geologically the most important question was how to work out the historical succession of strata and that occurred at the end of the century.
Two who broke loose from the Theories of the Earth were de Maillet and Buffon. Benoit de Maillet (1656-1738) was a French diplomat with a sound grasp of the geography and geology of the Mediterranean and amplified Cartesian cosmogony. His work Telliamed: or conversations between an Indian philosopher and a French missionary did not appear until 1748, though manuscripts had circulated from 1720. It was an odd work both accepting mermaids and reporting careful observation on marine deposition. Our main interest is that the author reckoned the earth to be over two billion years old and according to Albritton the work acted as a leaven among 18th century geologists.
Buffon, born as Georges-Louis Leclerc (1707-88) was the Keeper of the Jardin de Roi in Paris and in 1749 published the first volumes of Histoire Naturelle, but by his death in had published only 35 of the projected 50 volumes. His work was widely available in English. His classification of the natural world is of no concern to us, but his discussion of Whiston, Burnet and Woodward in the first volume of his Natural History is. He had little time for these Theories of the Earth and said, ‘I reject these vain speculations.’ However according to Roger, his biographer, Buffon borrowed more from Whiston than he was willing to admit. It also shows that the Theorists’ longer timescale was wellknown on the continent. 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 that the age of the earth to be about 75,000 years. Though vastly greater than 4000 BC, it was not drastically different from British writers in the previous century and gave some experimental data to support them. In unpublished manuscripts Buffon reckoned the earth to be 3 million years old. In 1751 he was censured by the theologians at the Sorbonne and responded by claiming that the first verse of Genesis should read; “In the beginning God created the materials of the heavens and the earth”. This, in fact, is similar to the ideas of the initial creation of chaos, which was so widely held – at least by Protestants in Britain and Immanuel Kant.
Chaos and Time
Buffon went further than his contemporaries on the duration of time but the consensus of a Chaotic existence of matter in the early phases of the creation found its way into 18th century poetry. One was Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), whose early attempt of putting forward a theory of evolution was in rhyming couplets. If Buffon is a forerunner of Charles Darwin, Erasmus Darwin is doubly so. Charles wrote of his grandfather, ‘he fully believed in God as Creator of the universe.’ and Erasmus’s fin de siecle poems on evolution, considered by Horace Walpole as “sublime”, reflect current understandings of Creation and Chaos,
‘—- Let there be light!’ proclaimed the Almighty Lord.
Astonished Chaos heard the potent word:-
Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,
And the mass starts into a million suns;’
The views of Erasmus Darwin on the age of the earth are similar to Christians of the time. Take William Williams (1717- 1791), who wrote the hymn Guide me O thou great redeemer. In 1756 he wrote Golwg ar Deymas Crist (A View of Christ’s Kingdom) an epic poem answering the Deists. Chapter II of his epic poem is an account of Creation. There were two creations: the creation of the basic materials – Chaos – and the creation of the universe with those materials, all of which God accomplished ‘in one hundred and forty four hours’, as in Genesis. Though the Re-creation took 144 hours, Pantycelyn gives no indication how long Chaos had existed. Most other religious writers held similar views and only a minority espoused a young earth. At the end of the 18th century they also sang about it as in Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation, with the orchestral introduction on The Chaos followed by the aria ‘And a new created world sprung up at God’s command’. The libretto of The Creation dates from England in about 1750. An unknown poet took Milton’s ideas in Paradise Lost and wrote it for Handel. In 1792 Haydn obtained a copy while in England and put it to music on returning to Austria.
Many poets incorporated Chaos when versifying on Creation or related matters. The ubiquity of Chaos is evidenced by the Black poet Phillis Wheatly’s Thoughts on the Works of Providence;
That called creation from eternal night.
‘Let there be light,’ He said: and from his profound
Old Chaos heard
Wheatley was a slave born in Africa who was purchased and treated as one of the family by John Wheatley of Boston. The Wheatleys, slave-owners and slave, moved in Evangelical circles and are more properly considered in respect of abolitionism, but this sheds light on how the concept of Chaos and thus of the duration of time was widely held. Sadly Phillis died in poverty at the age of 31 in 1784.
Very different are the clerical scientists John Hutchinson (1674-1737) and his disciple Alexander Catcott (1725-79). In 1748 Hutchinson wrote Moses’ Principia to oppose Newton. Both lay great store on Genesis and sought to correct the “errors” of Newtonianism. Far less is made of the Chaos than in the Theories and Hutchinson seems not to hold that the period of chaos or tohu va bohu was of any significant duration. In 1868 his disciple Catcott wrote his Treatise on the Deluge which implied that Chaos was of short duration. The Hutchinsonian ideas were held by some until the early 19th century and the last Hutchinsonian scientist seems to have been the entomologist William Kirby (1759-1850), who argued for a Six-Day creation in his Bridgewater Treatise. It would be fair to see Hutchinsonianism as a biblicist reaction to the prevalent Newtonianism.
For the first three-quarters of the century there was no consensus on the duration of time. What the uneducated believed no one can say with certainty but the case of Phillis Wheatley should caution against assuming a mere six thousand years as only the literate have left any evidence. A minority did take the Bible literally and adhere to an Ussher chronology,
but most Christians, whether evangelical or not, stretched matters with an indefinite chaos with humanity limited to 6,000 years. It is difficult to decide whether the lines of William Cowper (1731-1800), an evangelical poet, who also wrote a poem of appreciation to the botanical poet, Erasmus Darwin, reflect a concern for geology or not,
Some drill and bore
The solid earth, and from the strata there
Extract a register, by which we learn
That he who made it, and reveal’d its date
To Moses, was mistaken in its age.
William Cowper “The Task”
The Discovery of Deep Time.
Until the end of the 18th Century the vastness of time was little understood. Though the priority for the discovery of Deep Time is often assigned to James Hutton (1726-97), the Scottish physician and scientist, the “discovery” was also made by several scientists in Europe in the last two decades of the 18th century; the Genevan polymath and mountaineer Henri de Saussure (1740-99) in the Alps near Chamonix in 1778, the much-maligned German mineralogist Gottlieb Werner (1749-1817), the Parisian palaeontologists Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and Alexander Brogniart and in England, the Canal engineer William Smith (1769-1839) working near Bath.
None should be given all the credit. However by 1800 the age of the earth was known to be millions of years.
Bound up with this was the development of the use of fossils to determine stratigraphy and the historical order of rocks. Before long the succession of life was known with the attendant fact of extinction. The stratigraphic column was slowly worked out and was the main task of geologists until mid-century and slowly the familiar sequence of Cambrian, Ordovician, etc. was worked out.
Yet no precise figure could be given to the age of the earth; de Saussure thought the earth to be very old, his compatriot J.A.de Luc (1727-1817) thought it to be tens of thousands, yet in the 1780s Abbé Soulavie was denounced for impiety by fellow Abbé Barruel for allegedly giving an estimate of 356,913,770 years. By 1820 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. Prominent at the end of the 18th century were John Playfair (1748-1819) of Edinburgh and Joseph Townsend (1739-1816) of Bath, who publicised the work of Hutton and Smith respectively. Some churchmen did oppose geology, but they were always a small minority.
At the beginning of the 19th Century many Christian or nominally Christian, writers modified the consensus of the Theorists. The sequence based on Genesis One to Eleven of the initial creation of Chaos, re-ordering Creation in Six Days with man being created in about 4000BC and then the Deluge evolved into a vastly extended Chaos to allow for the vast time of geology and a multiplication of Deluges. Theologians quietly slipped geology into the Chaos. The first theologian seems to have been Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) at St Andrews in the winter of 1802. In 1816 the future Archbishop of Canterbury, John Bird Sumner (1780-1862) published similar ideas in A Treatise on the Records of Creation. Both Chalmers and Sumner were Evangelicals – of an intellectual bent. This harmonisation of geology and Genesis was widely accepted and prevented any major conflict, but from 1820 to 1850 a minority tried to dismiss geology and insist on a Six-Day Creation. Their strongest opponents were the clerical geologists and their supporters.
From about 1810 the main concern of English geologists was simply to work out the stratigraphic order of rocks before asking more philosophical questions. Most geologists accepted some kind of multiple Catastrophism with Noah’s Deluge as the last of these, and were known as Diluvialists. In the 1820s some geologists, notably Charles Lyell (1797-1875), rejected Catastrophism and suggested a more gradual Uniformitarianism. Thus meetings of the Geological Society of London were often fiery debates between the Fluvialists led by Lyell and the Diluvialists led by the Rev W.D.Conybeare (1787-1857), when no holds were barred. These were great fun as were the associated dinner parties where the port flowed freely. The debates are often presented as if it were Lyell who introduced notions of a great age. He did not as all of the “Conybeare Sect” (as Lyell called his friends) accepted vast geological ages. Some of the humour may be seen in Henry De la Beche’s watercolour cartoon lampooning Lyell’s “piddling” geology. De la Beche (1796-1855) was the first director of the British Geological Survey. However the result of Uniformitarianism was that the Deluge was no longer seen as geologically significant or as the last of many Catastrophes, but many geologists were not entirely convinced of Lyell’s Uniformitarianism. Lyell scarcely affected opinions on the age of the earth.
Geology comes of Age
For the first half of the 19th century there was an almost unanimous conviction that the earth was extremely old, but not how old. Geologists were unravelling layer upon layer, strata upon strata going from the recent Drift rocks down through the Mesozoic to the Cambrian and below. The time involved was immense and apparently immeasurable. Critics of geology picked up sweeping statements of geologists, who spoke of millions of years as if they were days. Buckland reckoned the earth to be “millions upon millions”
and his friend Conybeare “quadrillions”. Darwin said of his geology tutor Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873), “What a capital hand is Sedgwick for drawing large cheques upon the Bank of Time!” Beyond affirmations of great age Lyell gave no figures. This consensus of millions upon millions may contrasted to tens of thousands of de Luc in the 1790s. After the mid-1820s no geologist would even suggest that, no matter how religious he was. The earth was millions of years old, but no one knew how many.
REACTION TO DEEP TIME
Throughout the half-century when Deep Time was developed a minority opposed the vast extension of time. In the 1790s Richard Kirwan (1733-1812) famously opposed Hutton partly on the spectre of an eternal earth. In 1802, the very year that the French naturalist J.B. de Lamarck (1744–1829) first developed his own theory of evolution, François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) of Combourg château in Brittany published the Génie du Christianisme, a Catholic literary tour-de-force re-acting against the French Revolution. He rejected Buffon’s long timescale commenting, ‘Dieu a dû creér, et sans doute créér le monde avec toutes les marques de vétusté.’ This can be translated ‘created the world with all the marks of antiquity and decay’, thus the world may appear ancient but is actually a recent creation. This was later taken up by Gosse. As biblicist Evangelicalism took root in Regency Britain opposition to geological ages mounted, even dismissing such evangelical geologists like Sedgwick as infidels. This did not last and by 1850 most educated people, whether or Christian or not, had accepted the Deep Time of geologists. For decades geology had been the most popular science, clergy did sterling fieldwork in their spare time, geology books were available in mechanics institutes, and geology lectures were given in most towns and often in churches. The picture Pegwell Bay painted by the founder of the Pre-Raphaelite movement William Dyce (1804-64) in 1860 encapsulates the awareness of geology and other matters scientific with its almost photographic detail of the flint bands in the chalk cliffs. It is often interpreted as depicting geological vertigo, but by 1860 scarcely any educated people or clergy rejected geological time. Almost the only person who did was the naturalist Phillip Gosse (1810-88), whose life was put in semi-fictional form by his son in Father and Son. Gosse was a man of extreme religious views and was not a member of any mainline church. In 1857 he wrote Omphalos (Greek for navel) to show that although the earth appeared old all was created in an instant some 6000 years ago. Thus Adam was created de novo complete with a navel. The book was a lead balloon and the parson-naturalist Charles Kingsley (1819-75) reckoned it made God a liar. There was no other answer.
If Gosse can be ignored for being beyond the fringe, le channon (or Canon) F.Maupied as a leading Roman Catholic theologian at the Sorbonne cannot. In the 1840s Maupied was teaching a literal creation and a rejection of geology during his lectures, something which had never occurred at Oxford or Cambridge. After 1850 apart from a few extreme Evangelicals and Seventh Day Adventists hardly anyone argued against Deep Time until 1961 when the Creationist movement took off.
The motivation for this reaction against Deep Time was both theological and political as it reflects reaction against both Revolution in France and Reform in Britain.
Deep Time and The Origin of Species
When Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, the vast age of the earth was as established as heliocentricity, but no firm figures could be put to its age. To many physicists geologists were far too cavalier in their guesses on geological time. The Revd Samuel Haughton (1821-97), Geology Professor at Dublin and an ardent opponent of Natural Selection suggested that 1,526 m.y. had passed since the beginning of the Cambrian, three times the present figure. Darwin was equally generous with time and suggested that some 300 m.y had passed since the early Cretaceous. He argued this on sound geological reasons, but also to give sufficient time for evolution.
Though many make much of (limited) religious objections to Darwin, the strongest opposition came from physicists such as William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin)(1824-1907), P. G.Tait (1831-1901), James Joule (1818-89) and others. Theirs was a chauvinism from “exact scientists” to the imprecision and lack of quantitative methods of both geologists and biologists. Physicists sometimes regard geologists as stamp collectors! Kelvin struck at the heart of both with his estimates of the age of the earth. From 1855 Kelvin reckoned the age of the earth to be no more than 100 m.y., a minute fraction of the time Darwin needed for evolution to occur through Natural selection. With the authority of physics most biologists and geologists succumbed. In later editions of The Origin of species Darwin removed all reference to his high estimates and thus for the rest of the 19th Century Darwinism as such went into eclipse and most evolutionists adopted a non-Darwinian evolution.
In the 1880s Kelvin reduced his estimates to about 24 m.y., thus almost making any evolution impossible, unless there was an ineffable outside agent controlling evolution. Kelvin had virtually bludgeoned geologists into accepting limits on the age of the earth 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 72,000ft, that made about 96 m.y. This date gave credence to Kelvin’s 1868 estimate of 100 m.y. Huxley was less happy but was unable to assail Kelvin’s calculus. Few geologists were able to challenge Kelvin, partly because they had no good method of quantifying geological time and had to adopt guesstimates based on supposed rates of deposition as table shows. 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. In 1893, three years before the discovery of radioactivity, William McGee took Precambrian sediments into consideration. Playing with the arithmetic he allowed the age of the earth to be somewhere between 10 m.y. and 5,000 b.y. and favoured 6 billion, not far of the 4.64 b.y. of today.
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. Writers such as James Orr, a Scottish theologian and George Wright an American clergyman and geologist used this limited time to show how evolution had to be divinely guided rather than occurring through chance and natural selection. But by then time was getting deeper still.
Deep time goes deeper
While Kelvin was shrinking the age of the earth, in 1896 the French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908) discovered Radioactivity as Uranium compounds emitted energy similar to x-rays. 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. Kelvin went to the grave without accepting the implications of radioactivity, which destroyed all his arguments and soon gave methods of estimating the age of rocks and of the earth and gave vastly greater figures. 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 (1890-1964). 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 6d) and 1937. In 1913 he based his work on three Uranium-Lead results from the Palaeozoic. 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 work, they show remarkable geological insight. As time wore on the number of age determinations multiplied and are almost infinite. A study of Holmes’ work over half a century (as carried out by Cherry Lewis) shows how a scientific theory can be gradually supported by strong experimental data.
Initially Holmes reckoned the age of the earth to be under 2 billion years (actually 1.6 b.y. in 1913 and 1927 and 1.75 b.y. in 1937), 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 picture 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 has not yet been bettered. The five methods used (see figure ) give an average of 3.65 billion years. 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 in 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. (see figure ) 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 and was developed independently by Holmes and Houtermans in 1946. (For a more technical discussion read Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth.)
Astronomy becomes Cosmology
In the early modern period up to 1800, Astronomers were more interested in matters of space rather than time, as first geocentricity was rejected and then elliptical orbits accepted rather than circular ones. It was possible to calculate the distance of stars by geometrical means. As estimates had been made of the speed of light since the 17th century, by 1800 the distance of some stars indicated that they were two million light years away thus indicating a vast age of the universe in harmony with geological estimates. Beyond that they was little sense of time and estimates on the age of the universe could first be made in the 1920s, nearly two decades after radiometric age determinations showed the earth to be several billions of years old.
This was due to the discovery of the redshift-distance relation – Hubble’s Law – in the 1920s. Edwin Hubble (1889-1953) worked at the Mount Wilson Obsevatory above Los Angeles with Milton Humasson, a former muleteer turned astronomical photographer. Hubble’s Law pointed to the Universe forming at a particular time and thus from then the age of the universe became an important and potentially answerable question. Over the next seventy years this became a perennial issue in which the “age” depended on the value of Hubble’s Constant. An irony here is that this time astrophysicists had to see that their results concurred with the geologist’s age of the earth of several billion, rather than the physicists in the person of Kelvin over-ruling geologists. The Belgian astronomer-priest Fr G. Lemaitre (1894-1966) began to talk of a beginning in time for the universe whereas in 1932 Einstein had clearly avoided this question. At a meeting in Rome in 1952 W.H.W. Baade (1893-1960), a German émigré living in the States, argued that the universe was between 1.8 and 3.6 billion years old, somewhat less, but in the same order, as estimates for the age of the earth. All hinged on the value of H – Hubble’s Constant. To cut a long story short, (or else read Gribbin’s The Birth of Time), estimates for H have varied from 40 to 525, with suggested ages up to 20 billion years. In 1997, estimates for the age of the universe lie between 10 and 13 billion years, with a best value of 11.5 billion. And that clearly concurs with the geologists.
However, a philosophical or theological question remains. What was there before the birth of this universe? It was Fr Lemaitre who implicitly raised this question, which also has theological implications.
The duration of homo sapiens
Until the 19th Century few doubted that humans had only existed for 6000 years, or a similar short duration. In the absence of archaeology and limited historical research this is not surprising. Even when geologists were pushing back the age of the earth, 6000 years for humanity was still accepted. Often this is put down to the doctrinaire influence of the church over the age of the earth as is often claimed over the human remains at Paviland Cave in South Wales. In the 1820s William Buckland reckoned these human remains, which he christened the Scarlet Lady of Paviland, to be Roman in age, but later work showed them to be 20,000 years old. In part this was due to Buckland holding a recent existence of humanity though he was most liberal on geological time.
During the early 19th Century evidence came in slowly and by mid-century many were accepting of a longer human history. By 1847 the geologists Edward Vivian and William Pengelly were suggesting that the human remains at Kent’s Cavern in Devon were far older than the Deluge, but their ideas were not acceptable to the Geological Society. Charles Lyell held that humankind was recent (i.e.6000 years old) in 1831 but in The Antiquity of Man (1864) extended it to 100,000 years. That remained controversial for many years and even in 1912 G.F.Wright, no mean geologist, was arguing that ‘the antiquity of man … need not be more than fifteen thousand years old.’ That was almost immediately untenable due to radiometric age-dating. The date of the appearance of Homo Sapiens is a matter of controversy and today is reckoned to be in the order of 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. The question is debated with vigour both in the technical literature and popular presentations by Leakey and Stringer.
The cosmic story
At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution there was a simple cosmic story based on the early chapters of Genesis taken at face value. The story was similar for the three monotheistic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, reflecting their common roots. The great eastern religions and the animist cultures had different stories. An essential feature of the monotheistic story was that these events had happened in time, albeit a mere few thousand years ago.
As science advanced this story was changed beyond recognition and to most people has been totally replaced by a scientific cosmic story spanning well over ten billion years. Gone were any immediate acts of a Creator producing fully-formed aspects of creation. No longer can one say with Milton;
The grassy clods now calved, now half appeared
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his brinded mane; Paradise Lost VII 463-66 (5)
Instead was a slow development from the initial formation of the universe so that everything can be seen as evolving from Hydrogen. The sceptic might say, “In the beginning Hydrogen.” And so the whole total evolutionary story from the Big Bang may be traced out, through the heavy elements to the formation of the Solar System with Sun and planets, of life and ultimately, in almost the last moment, human beings. At times this acts as a secular creation story replacing the biblical one. However whether or not this is seen to exclude God it does emphasise the vastness of time, which is beyond human expectation and comprehension.
The Arrow of Time
The Christian understanding of time has been linear, starting from Creation and progressing to Christ to the Second Coming, thus having an “Arrow of Time”. In the 17th century the Theorists and Newton in his biblical researches followed this linear scheme. Newton’s Laws of Motion, which could explain and describe the motion of the heavens and mundane objects exemplified a reversible view of time. Creation was conceived as God making an up-and-running universe rather than an evolving one. Throughout the 18th Century this proved an excellent scientific way of looking at the universe as the motion of heavenly bodies could be described mathematically and their future paths predicted. Basically the same methods are used today and Einstein’s Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are essentially reversible.
As geologists developed their understanding of Deep Time and the stratigraphic succession in the 19th century some, notably overtly Christian geologists like Sedgwick, Buckland or Conybeare interpreted the succession as a linear progression, in which God had progressively created various life-forms. In 1830 Lyell gave an anti-progressive gloss to his uniformitarianism, which prevented him from accepting evolution until 1865. Lyell adopted a steady-state view of the earth, denied directional change in the fossil record and speculated that creatures similar to extinct forms might recur, thus activating De la Beche’s satirical pen once more. Darwin took Lyell’s Uniformitarianism and retained the linear geological progression of Sedgwick and others giving a strong directional and irreversible aspect to evolution, later often known as Dollo’s Law.
The irreversibility of time began to be grasped by physicists in the mid-19th century as thermodynamics was developed as a result on research on the production of energy from steam engines. The work of Helmholtz, Clausius and Kelvin led to the significance of entropy and thus to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In whatever physical process entropy always rises. Applied to the universe this means that the temperature will inevitably become uniform throughout. The other implication is that this gives a direction and irreversibility to the universe, with time pointing from the past to the future, like an arrow. Hence the Arrow of Time.
One of the best-selling books in evangelical bookshops is Timothy de la Haye’s novel Left Behind, which portrays the events leading up to the Return of Christ and the Millennium as interpreted by Dispensationalists. Since the mid-nineteenth century Dispensationalists have developed the Chiliasm of the past into detailed fulfilments of prophecy and some have even suggested that Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist. Other contenders have been Napoleon and Hitler. De la Haye claims that Christ will return soon and the Tribulation will be inflicted on the godless who were left behind. Not only does de la Haye hold that the earth has little time left but also that it has only existed for about 10,000 years as he is very much a Creationist and his Christian Heritage College was for a time associated with the Institute of Creation Research at San Diego founded by Henry Morris (b1918).
Creationism has risen to such dominance especially in the USA that many do not realise that it was insignificant until the publication of The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris (a professor of hydraulic engineering) and J.C.Whitcomb (an Old Testament scholar) in 1961. The main arguments of Creationism are simple and beguiling and reject both evolution and any concept of Deep Time. While the falsity of Creationism has been frequently exposed, its influence remains unabated as is evidenced by the continual problems in science education as in Kansas in 1999, and law suits in Australia. The Kansas proposals removed any mention of cosmology and deep time, presumably because without Deep Time evolution is impossible. Creationism’s influence has spread to Britain and much of the world, including the former Soviet Union, and presents itself as “true Christianity”. The popular but inaccurate opinion that Darwin shattered belief in a literal creation lends credence to their arguments, as does the strident atheism of some pop scientists. Creationism has had immense influence on popular culture in the USA and elsewhere and it spreads divisively into church life and issues of public education. The National Council for Science Education at San Diego is devoted to opposing Creationism. Creationism’s appeal must be recognised and that at its heart is a total rejection of Deep Time and thus any scientific understanding of the universe. However it must be said that not all anti-evolutionists reject Deep Time, most notably exponents of Intelligent Design though they often avoid the issue.
Creationists, whose leaders often have Ph.D.s in science and engineering, leave the majority bewildered on why they should adopt such untenable beliefs. Slick explanations of religious brainwashing will not do. Two main reasons are a fear that a rejection of a literal Genesis will destroy the Christian faith and a certain amount of general chronological vertigo as the billions of years which trip off the tongues of geologists and astronomers and seem so glib and threatening to finite souls.
How much time left?
The end of the world has always held a fascination if only in a fascination for disaster movies. Many have their understanding of Christian views of the end of the world coloured by predictions of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Dispensationalists, which are not held by most Christians. There have long been scientific speculations on when the world will end and how long time will last. The two questions are not the same. For our planet there are two possible fates. First all or most life could be destroyed by a colliding comet or asteroid, similar to that which struck Earth 65 million years ago. But that would not be the end of time as the Earth would still be there, even though humans were destroyed. Then in about 5 billion years time the sun may become a Supernova and explode and destroy the Solar System, but there would still be a Universe. The final fate of the Universe is much further off and would be when everything is uniform and entropy has increased to its maximum. The question is if there is no more change, can there be time? (see Paul Davies, The Last Three Minutes)
Like any development in human thought, the discovery of Deep Time has not been a simple linear progression as the forces of truth overcame the forces of ignorance. The popular story of the Church holding out for 4004BC until they were totally routed by scientists, who overcame their obscurantism by scientific heroism, is far wide of the mark.
Before 1600 most people believed that the earth was created in 4000BC for the simple reason there was no arguments against this view. As we have seen significant breakthroughs occurred in the late 17th century with the misunderstood theories of the earth, in the end of the 18th century with the simultaneous development of geological understanding all over Europe, the discovery of radioactivity and its application to dating rocks in the 1890s, and the discovery of the redshift-distance relation by Hubble in the 1920s, which demonstrated a beginning to the Universe.
Only since 1946 has it been possible to date the age of the earth to 4.5 billion years, since the 1960s the Age of the universe has been variously estimated between 10 and 20 billion years. Today the age of the earth can be dated with fair precision at 4.55 b.y. and the Universe less precisely as 13 b.y. give or take a couple of billion.
We have come a long way from the 6000-year-old universe held by most in 1500. The development of understanding over the last half millennium has progressed not smoothly, but in fits and starts. One cannot separate “scientific” understandings, from “philosophical” or even “religious” ones as all had a part to play. At times these could inhibit or retard understanding and at other times accelerate it. There was no simple liberation of free thought from religious tyranny.
There is now a wide consensus on both the age of the earth and of the universe, with a knowledge is that not only that this universe has a beginning but so does time. We are now back with Augustine who claimed that the Universe was not created in time but with time. It is that question with which cosmologists like Stephen Hawking are grappling. Yet despite the irrefutable scientific evidence of vast antiquity a sizeable minority of the Western world still retain a chronological vertigo and reject any concept of Deep Time in favour of a universe which has existed only for a few thousand years.
C.J. Albritton, The Abyss of Time, California, 1980
P.J.Bowler, Evolution; the History of an Idea, California, 1989.
J.H.Brooke, Science and Religion, some historical perspectives, Cambridge, 1991.
G.B.Dalrymple, The Age of the Earth, California, 1992.
Paul Davies, The Last Three Minutes, London, 1994.
J.Gribbin, The Birth of Time, London, 1999.
Cherry Lewis, The Dating Game, London, 2000.
R.Numbers, The Creationists, New York, 1992.
- Young and Steary , The bible, Rocks and Time, Grand Rapids, 2005.
Chiliasm, a Christian belief centred on the Millennium, usually taking the form that the earth will last 6000 years before the Millennium is ushered in. Held by some early Chrsitians, some in 17th Century e.g. Ussher and extreme Evangelicals today. (from Greek for 1000.)
Millennium, – a thousand years. Usually taken to be the thousand years of Chrsit’s reign after his Return, based onm a literal reading of Revelation 20, which most Christians take as symbolic.
Dispensationalism, a form of popular chiliasm developed in the 19th Century, which is strong on predicting future events and a comlex working out of the Second Coming of Christ. De la Haye is an example.
Literal(ism). An unhelpful, but often used, term to label Christains who especially take Genesis One as teaching a Six-Day creation.
Evangelical. A Christian tradition stemming from the 18thCentury Revival putting especial emphasis on the Bible and the atoning death of Christ. Often wrongly considered to be literalist in use of Bible, but some are!
Deluge. Normally the Flood of Noah, which from 1650 to 1750 was thought to be the main geological cause of the strata. From 1780 to 1840 many geologists thought strata were deposited by a succession of Deluges, Noah’s being the last. This was also known as Catastrophism or Diluvialism. Lyell’s Uniformitarianism put paid to it. Recently, following Henry Morris, Creationists argue that Noah’s Deluge laid down all strata. Geologists totally reject this idea.
Catastrophism. (Not always a helpful term) see Deluge
Diluvialism. See Deluge.
Uniformitarianism. A geological outlook that geological processes in the past were uniform to processes today and thus reluctant to posit any catastrophe. Held dogmatically by Lyell and Darwin but is under question today, especially as one considers the extinction of dinosaurs. Before 1830 known as Fluvialists. See de la Beche’s cartoon on this “piddling” school of geology!
Radiometric Age-Dating. Radioactive elements disintegrate at a fixed rate known as a Half Life. For example Uranium disintegrates into Lead, and the proportions of both elements in a mineral can be measured. In certain circumstances this can give the age of the mineral or rock. The techniques are too complicated to be explained here, but see Lewis or Dalrymple.
Biography;Michael Roberts, M.A. (Oxon), B.A. (Dunelm) F.R.Hist>S.
Michael studied Geology at Oxford and spent 3 years in Africa as an exploration geologist. He studied theology at Durham and was ordained into the Anglican Church in 1974. . He is a keen mountain walker and has written articles on science and religion (one on Darwin and Design received a Templeton Award in 1997) and Darwin’s geology and a book Evangelicals and Science (2008).