Accommodating science: Geology and Time

Some religions have no real view of history, while others hold to some kind of eternal cycle, but the western religions have a narrative with a beginning middle and end. And in the best known version of this – Christianity, what else? – history is given as a very short amount of time. And it is directional (does not cycle). And it is soteriological, which is a technical term to indicate that for Christians, history was all about salvation after a fall from grace.

Geology is perhaps more than any other science the most Christian of sciences. It was developed by Christians, and in particular by clergy, to begin with, as I have discussed before. And the growing interest in the amount of time the earth had existed since it was created led to more and more precise, and eventually even accurate, estimates of the age of the earth, and then the universe.

The first attempts to give numbers to the age of the earth began in the time of the Reformation, when the Bible was being promoted as the source of all knowledge by the Reformers. It had to do with the Ark. And ironically, it was not a protestant who started the trend. It was, instead, a Catholic Abbot, Jean Borrel (1492–c1564), better known under his Latin name, Johannes Buteo. Buteo was a polymath of some repute, and among his many mathematical and logical writings (he criticised attempts to square the circle, for example) he wrote a logistical tract about the size, dimensions and practicalities of Noah’s Ark, De Arca Noë in 1554.

Recall that the period of the Reformation came off the back of the first great exploratory and colonial period of Europe after the Crusades, and a great many new species were being found. This meant that if Noah’s Ark was to be thought of as a real historical event, then some calculations had to be done to accommodate these new species. Mostly it was done by way of lumping similar things into one genus and declaring that a genus was formed out of local varieties from a single species created by God due to climatic and geographic adaptation.

This then raised another problem, noticed by people since the earliest times, of the bones and shells of organisms that were no longer found. Dragons and cyclops were imagined from the skulls of dinosaurs and extinct megafauna, like mammoths (Mayor 2001). But the idea that there might be extinction was seriously a problem for theology, which held that God created the world perfect in all detail, and that must include all species that he wanted to exist would exist. Moreover, since God superintended nature, nothing could go extinct, which is why the proven extinction of the dodo in the late sixteenth century came as such a shock.

Buteo’s tract came to the attention of one of the more prolific of polymaths of all time: Father Athanasius Kircher (c1601–1680). Taking Buteo’s calculations as a starting point, he computed how big the Ark’s stalls and storage had to be for a set number of species (c310 quadrupeds and several score bird species, plus lizards and snakes), with all the rest forming by hybridisation after the Flood (Allen 1949; Breidbach and Ghiselin 2006)

So it became rather critical to work out how long it had been since the Flood, in order to work out how rapidly modern kinds (Latin: species) had formed from the original stock. And while you were at it, why not calculate the age of the earth too? Neither Buteo nor Kircher, so far as I know, did this, but of course, many did, including Newton and Joseph Justus Scaliger, and one of the more famous or infamous was Bishop Ussher (1581–1656), a Calvinist prelate in the Church of Ireland. He computed, using known historical dates (or what was thought to be known) from the classical world, and biblical narratives and ages of the patriarchs, that the world came into being on 23 October 4004 BC. It is not true that he gave the time of day as 9am (see Wyse Jackson 2006 for the story).

According to my Pearl Teacher’s edition of the King James Bible, Ussher put the flood in BC 2349, which meant that the living kinds on the Ark had diversified rapidly from a few hundred basic kinds to a massive number of kinds today, in just 4,000 years or so. So much for a static creationism.

But interest in the age of the earth had been piqued, and nearly all those who engaged in the study of it until the nineteenth century were clergy, largely because they were the ones with the time and resources to engage in field work. One character of great interest is Danish bishop Nicholas Steno (1638–1686). Steno was born a Lutheran, but converted to Catholicism at the age of 37, after which he focussed mainly on theological matters, but prior to that he had a real interest in natural history. He worked in anatomy, palaeontology, and crystallography, but he is chiefly remembered for his geological principles, called the laws of stratigraphy. The law of superposition that when formed the material that form rocks was fluid, and overlay older rocks; the principle of original horizontality that since it was fluid, it formed as horizontal layers, and so strata that were not horizontal had been moved in some way; and the principle of crosscutting strata: that if a stratum (a layer of rock) cut through another stratum, it must be younger than the stratum it cuts (Cutler 2003).

Steno’s principles, be it noted, were secular: they relied upon no biblical interpretation, and could be applied by any natural historian no matter their religion. They laid the foundation for subsequent geology, so to speak. But the age of the earth was as yet not given any absolute date – all Steno’s laws were relative rather than absolute. They might tell you which stratum formed before which, but not when, nor how long it took to do so.

With these rather clear principles, geology was slowly invented as a science, alongside palaeontology, which was seen as a part of geology for a long time. In the eighteenth century, however, something began to happen which challenged Ussherian chronologies of the Bible. They discovered the depth of the age of the earth. So far from being a very young planet and universe, it now looked like it was much older; perhaps tens or even hundreds of thousands of years old.

Now as these views sprang up in the scientific community, religious believers had to adapt as best they could. They had three alternatives: one was to deny that the Bible actually made any scientific claims; one was to deny that science actually showed the earth was old; and the third was to try to reconcile the scripture with the science. All three were, and are, tried. As noted in the introduction, as late as 1851, Ruskin was finding the results of geology to be a hurdle to his faith. But this is after the seminal event that led geologists to an old earth: the visit to Siccar Point in Scotland by James Hutton, with his friends James Hall and John Playfair, in 1788. Here, and at other places, Hutton saw what came to be known as “Hutton’s unconformity”, where sedimentary rock layers (strata) were tilted, deformed, and lay in distinct and separate formations to the layers they abutted (that is, they did not conform to each other).

Hutton noted that there were at least three events of deposition, which is to say, the laying down of strata in a watery medium. First the lowest layer had to be formed, and then raised, and tilted. Then there had to be a period of erosion, and that formation had to sink below the sea. Then, a new formation of strata, also then raised above the sea, tilted again, and then eroded. This had to take a very long time, leading Hutton to declare that the rocks provided “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” Deep time had been uncovered. So long as you applied Steno’s principles, this was the only conclusion to draw. We were talking many hundreds of thousands of years.

Hutton was not a member of the clergy, but a medical doctor who took over his father’s farm and became interested in rocks and weather. He eventually was accepted into the Royal Society of Edinburgh, but held no academic position. He thought that the processes that formed rocks in the past were the same as those now in operation: deposition of sediments, erosion, and compression of sediments into rock. This view was later called uniformitarianism, and popularised by Charles Lyell in the 1830s and afterwards.

In the period leading up to Hutton’s publication, others had based their geology upon the Bible. Thomas Burnet (c1635–1710) had calculated that there was not enough water for the flood unless the earth had almost no mountains or valleys, and in his Sacred Theory of the Earth (Telluris Theoria Sacra, 1681, Eng. 1684) he offered a purely law-driven account of natural phenomena. When Newton, who admired Burnet’s work, suggested that God had changed the length of the day, Burnet rejected it for not being scientific enough an explanation.

About the same time, there were attempts by physicists, or as they were then called, natural philosophers, to estimate the age of the earth. One of the first was done by Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, known as Buffon to friends and foe alike. A wealthy member of the aristocracy, Buffon determined to find out how old the earth was, based on the theory of Newton’s that the earth was slowly cooling, and he set out to cast iron spheres from a half inch to five inches, and record how long it took them to cool down from the molten state. Scaling this up to the earth, he estimated that the earth was no less than 75 thousand years old. Buffon got some criticism from the theologians at the Sorbonne, however. First, in 1749 he suggested that the earth was caused when a comet hit the sun and threw off the material that then coalesced into a sphere and cooled. In later volumes of his series Histoire Naturelle (Natural History), he apologised for this to the theologians, but when he published his results on the cooling of the earth in 1778 they again attacked him for impiety (or at any rate, some did; others defended him). However, this time the influence of the faculty of theology on public opinion was almost inconsequential, and it had no effect upon Buffon’s popularity with either the general populace or the the intellectuals, and his books sold for another century.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, geology became a profession, although many of the early professionals were men who had degrees in other fields, such as Adam Sedgwick (1785–1873), William Buckland (1784–1856) and Charles Lyell (1795–1875). Sedgwick was trained in mathematics and theology, and became a fellow of Trinity at Cambridge, where he was appointed as professor of geology in 1818. Buckland was a theologian who became dean of Westminster. In 1822, he entered Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire where he found a cave with fossil remains of a hyena den, which he interpreted as antediluvian (prior to the flood). He held the idea that prior to the creation of humans, there were long epochs of previous fauna. And Lyell, who is famous for his influence upon Darwin, is also known for establishing as official methodology that geology rests upon the presumption that as it was in the past so it is in the present, and we can infer the past from the way things occur now, called “uniformitarianism” by his contemporary Whewell. He was trained as a lawyer. Darwin was told by his mentor Henslow to read Lyell but “on no account accept the views therein advocated”.

By the end of the nineteenth century, geologists were professionals, with geology degrees and industry support from mining. And the age of the earth had risen, somewhat. Several developments had occurred. One was that the epochs or eras had been named and mapped, and using Steno’s rules, given relative ages: the Silurian was older than the Devonian, and the Cambrian older than both. It had also been discovered that the fossils that are found in one epoch were the same ones around the world (especially shellfish and trilobites for older epochs), and so the presence of these fossils was an index marker of the age of a rock bed.

The other development occurred in physics. A theoretical model known as “thermodynamics” had been worked out in the context of the steam age, and such ideas as latent heat, radiation of heat, and so on were being quantified. This led to the British physicist, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) estimating that had the earth been cooling at the rate it was seen to today, the earth was between 20 and 400 million years old, later refined to between 20 and 40 million years old, the upper bound being set by the age of the sun being heated from gravitational collapse. However, in 1903, radioactive decay was discovered, and in 1930, nuclear fusion in the sun and other stars greatly increased the ages of the stars, the sun, and therefore the earth.

Thompson was very religious, and may have worked on this to undermine Darwin’s theory of evolution, which seemed to required much longer than even 40 million years, and we’ll get back to that, but his method was quite secular. Even Darwin’s own son, George, worked under Thompson on these calculations. Thompson was a devout Presbyterian until the end of his life, but he did his science in a secular manner, no matter what his motivations.

Now the history of geology shows most clearly the complex nature of the relationship between religion and science. It shows that this science more than most is in conflict with some cherished theological ideas about the world, which although not derived from science were scientific ideas in the end. And as scientific ideas, they conflicted and dismissed the religious ideas. But that is not the end of it. Each time the religious ideas were challenged by religious people, more often than not themselves members of the clergy. However, that is not enough to support the idea that religion is a benefit to science, since clergy were often the only ones before the professionalisation of scientific disciplines like geology who had the time and resources to undertake them.

But one thing does stand out: the secular nature of the methodology and explanations from Steno to Kelvin. The use of these methods and the aiming for these goals in no way relied upon prior religious commitments. It may be that religious thinkers were motivated one way or the other based upon their doctrinal commitments, but in the end they applied these methods without regard for religious sensitivities, whether they were orthodox like Lyell, or heterodox like Newton, or borderline atheists like Buffon.

So despite Ruskin’s lament, we can safely say that there is little evidence of religion impeding or retarding geology. Next we will look at geology’s child, biology, and in particular evolution.


Allen, D. C. (1949). The Legend of Noah. Renaissance rationalism in art, science and letters. Urbana, University of Illinois.

Breidbach, O. and M. T. Ghiselin (2006). “Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) on Noah’s Ark: Baroque “Intelligent Design” Theory.” Proceedings of the California Academy of Science 57(36): 991-1002.

Cutler, A. (2003). The seashell on the mountaintop: A story of science, sainthood, and the humble genius who discovered a new history of the earth. London, Heinemann.

Mayor, A. (2001). The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Wyse Jackson, P. (2006). The chronologers’ quest: episodes in the search for the age of the earth. Cambridge, UK; New York, Cambridge University Press.

5 thoughts on “Accommodating science: Geology and Time

  1. Two items:

    1. The old story about Lord Kelvin’s erroneous calculation has been challenged by recent research (England, Molnar and Richter, GSA Today, January 2007—there’s a pdf on the web at
    Apparently radioactivity wasn’t the real problem. Lord Kelvin neglected convection in his model of heat flow in the Earth. His error turns out to be relevant to the later history of geology because it is convective motions in the mantle that move the tectonic plates around.

    2. Martin J.S. Rudwick’s books, particularly Bursting the Limits of Time, World Before Adam, and the Great Devonian Controversy, are the best sources I’ve found for both the crucial early years of professional geology in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries and the emergence of “Biblical Geology” in response. If nothing else, the first two of the books I mentioned are a real pleasure to look at because they are so splendidly illustrated with contemporary drawings and maps. (Just what every author needs: suggesting other books to read! It’s an evolved form of trolling.)


  2. Waler Raleigh in his History of the World [1614] did the calculations on the size of the Ark and the number of species it would hold. He came to about 250 – allowing space for Noah and family – and a few extra animals ‘for sacrificial purposes’. I Wonder if Father Athenasius Kircher took his lead from there.


  3. “The first attempts to give numbers to the age of the earth began in the time of the Reformation ….”

    It was clear enough to much earlier students of Scripture that the earth was only a few thousand years old. For example, Augustine wrote (City of God, Book XII): “… reckoning by the sacred writings, we find that not 6000 years have yet passed” (since the creation of man). A translator’s footnote states that this figure is based on Eusebius’s calculation of 5,611 years from the Creation to the taking of Rome by the Goths (using Septuagint numbers for the patriarchal ages).,+we+find+that+not+6000+years+have+yet+passed%22+%2B+%22Augustine+here+follows+the+chronology+of+Eusebius%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=eHUTU5nkIYuBogS6moLgCA&ved=0CC0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22reckoning%20by%20the%20sacred%20Writings%2C%20we%20find%20that%20not%206000%20years%20have%20yet%20passed%22%20%2B%20%22Augustine%20here%20follows%20the%20chronology%20of%20Eusebius%22&f=false

    “… the living kinds on the Ark had diversified rapidly from a few hundred basic kinds to a massive number of kinds today, in just 4,000 years or so. So much for a static creationism.”

    But “static creationism” is not a view held by informed creationists today. (However, we would not say that the number of “kinds” has increased.)

    “… the seminal event that led geologists to an old earth: the visit to Siccar Point in Scotland by James Hutton, with his friends James Hall and John Playfair, in 1788.”

    A creationist geologist has knowledgeably deconstructed the use of Siccar Point as an “old earth icon.”


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