Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A new book on the discovery of geological Deep Time

by Salman Hameed

The idea of a few thousand year old (approximately 6000 years in the popular Bishop Ussher's calculation from 1650C.E.) is popular even today in some Evangelical groups in the US (though it is largely missing in the Muslim world). From a historical perspective, this young Earth idea went along with Noah's flood that was thought to have shaped all the major features of the Earth. Humans, in this version of nature, were central to creation and had been present on Earth from the beginning. The discovery of an old - in fact very old - Earth continued the decentrality of humans initiated by Copernicus. Like the case of Copernicus, these are not necessarily debates over science versus religion, but rather within religion about interpretations. If you are interested in knowing the history of the discovery of an old Earth, then check out this new book, Earth's Deep History: How it was Discovered and Why it Matters by Martin Rudwick. Here is a review from Nature (you will need a subscription to access the full article):
This traces the origin of historical science in the seventeenth century, when the things we
see around us in nature came to be seen as 'monuments', pregnant with historical meaning, like archaeological relics. With his talent for encapsulating pre-modern mindsets, Rudwick deftly explains how ideas of natural history were embedded in cultural history. He concentrates on thinking in the late eighteenth century, not only in Anglophone countries but, crucially, also in mainland Europe — especially France. The book's premise, which has been used before by Rudwick and others (including the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould), is that humanity's discovery of Earth's immense age is a step in science's progressive removal of humans from the centre of things. First our planet was relegated to mere third rock from the Sun; then humans were transformed from the pinnacle of God's creation into twigs on an evolutionary bush.
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Beginning with Irish Archbishop James Ussher's 1650 publication of a chronology suggesting that the world began on 23 October 4004 BC, Rudwick shows how, by the eighteenth century, Western culture had long accepted that Earth had been around for millennia. Ussher was not alone: Isaac Newton played the same game, suggesting a date of 3988 BC. Rudwick is at pains to emphasize that Ussher was a serious chronologist who did not deserve his post-Darwinian ridicule. What these chronologies show is that humanity was at that time assumed by all to have been part of the Universe from its inception.
And here is a more direct science and religion connection:
Rudwick goes on to reveal how natural philosophers such as Jean-André Deluc and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland arrived at a truer picture. In attempting to reconcile scriptural and other textual evidence with that slowly emerging from nature's monuments, they came to realize that Earth had had a long prehistoric existence for which there was no documentary evidence. Yet far from being stifled by what had gone before, they were profoundly aided by the work of traditional, historical and antiquarian scholars working in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The image of emergent science heroically struggling against obscurantist religion is a fiction conjured by post-Darwinian revisionism and militant atheists, Rudwick insists.
Full review here

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