IBRI Research Report #53 (2003)


The Struggle to Find and Defend the Truth
about the Earth’s Past

David C. Bossard
117 Storrs Hill Road
Lebanon, New Hampshire 03766
Copyright © 2003 by David C, Bossard. All rights reserved.


The Golden age of geology bloomed in the decades just prior to Darwin’s 1859 Origin of the Species. Geologists could read for the first time the details of how God created a place for mankind. Opposition came both from religious leaders and from secular opponents who saw their cherished notions challenged. The opposition was answered by painstakingly careful argument, which by the time of Darwin was seen by some prominent geologists to give strong evidence of God’s hand at work. After Darwin, though, this evidence in favor of a creator largely vanished from mainstream geology. In this talk we will discuss the state of geology just prior to Darwin and then ask whether the conclusions reached at that time were valid and why they disappeared from the literature after 1859.

Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 

Geology Before Darwin:

The Struggle to Find and Defend the Truth
about the Earth’s Past

“I must confess that I was at first startled and alarmed by rumours of changes and discoveries which, I was told, were to overturn at once the science of geology as hitherto received, and all the evidences which had been drawn from it in favour of revealed religion. Though well persuaded that at all times, and by the most unexpected methods, the Most High is able to assert Himself, the proneness of man to make use of every unoccupied position in order to maintain his independence of his Maker seemed about to gain new vigour by acquiring a fresh vantage-ground. The old cry of the eternity of matter, and the 'all things remain as they were from the beginning until now,' rung in my ears. God with us, in the world of science henceforth to be no more! The very evidences of His being seemed about to be removed into a more distant and dimmer region, and a dreary swamp of infidelity spread onwards and backwards throughout the past eternity.”
Lydia Miller, 18691


This quote, which comes from the preface to Hugh Miller’s Sketchbook of Popular geology, sets the scene for our discussion. The statement comes just 10 years after the 1859 appearance of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Already in that short time, the mood of geology had shifted dramatically from a wide concensus that noted strong evidence for God’s handiwork in creation, to a naturalistic view that saw no need for God — as Lydia Miller wrote, “God with us to be no more.” The dreary swamp of infidelity seemed to flood the landscape, so soon after many prominent scientists had declared that the evidence of geology strongly points to the work of a creator.

Lydia expressed the consternation that must have been shared by many of these geologists: had new changes and discoveries indeed so altered the landscape? What had they missed in their so-careful analysis of geological data — done, by the way, amidst hostile opposition from all sides, and thus carefully, carefully crafted (or so they thought)? In the end, Lydia remarked that, no, they had not missed the mark; the evidence is still the same; it has not changed: it is only being ignored and brushed away.

So, with these words our task is set before us: to look at what these early geologists found, or thought they found, assess it, and then ask again with Lydia Miller, “Is the evidence in favor of revealed religion still the same? Is it still valid? And is it being brushed away to ‘a more distant and dimmer region’?”

To begin, I would like to say something about how I became interested in 19th century geology.

Over the past few years, I prepared a series of seven lectures on the theme, “What is Life?” The series ends with some comments about geology, and in my reading, I repeatedly came across references to Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875), a prominent geologist in the mid-1800s. So I looked at his two principle works, the Principles and the Elements of Geology, published in many editions between 1832 and the 1860s. As I read, I marvelled at the very positive way that the essential role of a Creator figured in his treatment. It was presented as a very natural conclusion of the objective findings of geology.

This caused me to wonder whether the recognition was pecular to Lyell, or whether it was pervasive throughout geology at this time. So I read a number of other prominent geology books by other geologists of the period. Many of these authors had a similar theme that the geological evidence points to a necessary role for divine providence. Some were more outspoken about this, some of whom wrote entire books on Natural Theology,2 but all wrote in a way that at least left ample room for, and indeed argued the necessity, of God in the creation process.

This positive theme about the role of a creator, sounded strange, since I had become accustomed to the naturalistic bent that is common in such treatments today, and so it roused my curiousity: what had happened to geology between then and now? Was the presumed creator’s role just a gratuitous addition in those old texts — perhaps a sop to the religious influences which at that time still held sway in academia — or was it a scientifically-based conclusion?

The change, as we remarked, came with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. After its appearance, and the fervent promotion by such spokesmen as Thomas Huxley and Ernst Haeckel, (adding to the voices of some earlier proponents such as Lamarck and Voltaire) a purely naturalistic development of geology, leaving out any mention or admission of a Creator, became the required standard for a “scientific” understanding of geology.

So we will begin with a brief review of the state of 19th century geology up to the time of Darwin, and some of the findings that spoke in favor of a creator. Then we will try to understand what happened after the appearance of Origins.

The Golden Age of Geology. The first half of the 19th century was the golden age of geology. Much of the modern terminology, and the outline of the geological history of the earth were laid out at that time.

I think it is hard, looking at things from our modern perspective, to appreciate how unexpected it was that the Earth would preserve in its own rocks, a vast and minutely detailed record of its own past. Speculation about origins was thought to be the province of philosophers and theologians, not scientists.

In 1802, William Paley (1743-1805) published his famous work Natural Theology, in which he used the details of nature, and particularly of human anatomy, to show “the necessity of an intelligent designing mind” in creation. His book apparently caused quite a commotion, both positive and negative, and still excites comment 200 years after its first appearance.

The book was written just before the science of geology began to take off, and the irony is that the very first sentence in Paley’s book shows how completely ignorant he, and most scientists of the time, were of the vast store of information contained in the earth’s rocks. He began -- Chapter 1, first sentence of his Natural Theology --

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for any thing I knew to the contrary, it had lain there for ever; nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground…."3

Thirty years later, William Buckland4, an early geologist, quoted Paley’s remark, followed by “Nay, says the geologist,…” and then goes on to tell what that stone may tell us, as detailed and intricate a tale as the one told us by Paley’s watch.

Important preliminary steps had taken place about 50 years earlier by Buffon (1707-1778) and Linnæus (1707-1778). Linnæus’ great work on the systematic description of plants and animals, Systema Naturae, was published in many editions. He worked on this throughout his life. The 10th Edition, published in 1758, established the practice, still followed today, of naming a species by two Latin names: the genus with an intial capital, followed by the species, for example Homo sapiens.5 He firmly believed that species could vary only within certain limits. At the same time, his contemporary, Buffon, worked on the 44 volume Historie Naturelle, a vast attempt to catalog and describe all of nature. These early efforts to study nature systematically, provided an essential basis for the later systematic development of geology. In a sense, geology could not have proceeded without the work of these great men.

Modern geology began in 1799, some decades after the works of Buffon and Linnæus appeared. In this year, it was first publically recognized that rocks preserve a detailed record of the Earth’s ancient history, one that is consistent worldwide. The sheer extent and detail of this story told by the rocks was a total surprise to the scholars of the day, and remains a surprise even today. Not that they lacked notions about the earth’s past in those days; Buffon’s work included much along these lines, but those notions were mostly based on philosophical considerations rather than on systematic, objective science.

No scientist or philosopher was prepared for the sheer volume of significant information that these rocks would tell — an example of the “silent” voice of Psalm 19, declaring God’s glory.

There is a little story about this beginning which can be named to the specific day, June 11, 1799. William Smith (1769-1839)6 was a self-educated engineer who worked in the quarries, mines and canals in Wales and England. In his work he became intimately acquainted with the many strata of rock that exist on the Earth’s surface, and came to realize over some years, that the strata are consistent all over England, that they are uniquely identifiable by the type of rock and the fossils that they contained, and that the strata were laid down in an orderly sequence from the very earliest, fossil-free strata to the most recent strata.

He recognized that the strata in England and Wales tilt uniformly to the South-East at about a 3° angle of tilt, so that the rock outcroppings generally become older — that is, lower in the sequence — as one goes from the vicinity of London in the south-east and on through Wales and Scotland. This ageing is shown in the geological map of Figure 1, where the color darkens as the surface formation becomes older.

In Great Britain, the oldest fossil-bearing formations, occur in north-west Wales and Scotland and are from the Cambrian era. The youngest occur in south-east England are from the Triassic period, shortly after the age of dinosaurs. The K-T boundary which marked the end of the dinosaur age, is a line oriented in the north-easterly direction that passes about 20 miles north-west of London.

Figure 1
Geological Strata in Great Britain
(1878 Map)7

Geological Map of England

Note: Surface Fossil-bearing Strata indicated in Blue (Darker = older [lower]).

There is a story8 that William Smith visited two fossil collector acquaintances, Benjamin Richardson and Joseph Townsend, on June 11, 1799, and during their conversation, he stated that he could give the particular stratum where their fossils had been found, and also could predict what fossils would be found at any given location on the horizon about the home. They then trooped out into the surrounding countryside, and the accuracy of his assertions was so astounding that the collectors urged him to list and identify the rock strata in their proper order.

With William Smith dictating and Joseph Townsend transcribing, the world’s first orderly list of 23 separate strata with their thickness, identifying characteristics, and characteristic fossils, was set down on paper.10

Following the publication of this list, the same strata occurring in the same order were identified throughout Europe, North America and Russia. Many of the modern names for the rock formations are the same names given to them by William Smith, which are often rather barbaric, as he liked to use the names that the miners and quarrymen used.9

William Smith’s crowning achievement was a 6’x8’ geological map of England and Wales, based on data collected by himself , and completed in 1816. It still hangs in the Burlington House in London.11

The key discoveries in William Smith’s work, recorded on that birth day of geology, were,
• First, that most of the rock on land is sedimentary rock, laid down in identifiable layers or strata;
• Second, that the strata extend over large areas;
• Third, that the strata are characterized by the type of rock and fossil species; and
• Fourth, that the strata are laid down in a specific order.

The fossils are the key, and that is the peculiar insight of William Smith. Before his insight, fossils were thought to be scattered about more or less by chance.

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), the outstanding French Geologist of the time, pointed out the significance of these fossils in his 1825 book, The Revolutions of the Earth:

“How was it overlooked that it is to fossils alone that must be attributed the birth of the theory of the earth; that, without them we could never have surmised that there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe, and a series of different operations? Indeed, they alone prove that the globe has not always had the same crust, by the certainty of the fact that they must have existed at the surface before they were buried in the depths where they are now found. … If there were only formations without fossils, no one could prove that these formations were not simultaneously produced.12

Without the fossils, Cuvier continues, the science of geology would never have begun. He made further points which may be summarized as follows:

• Fossils tell us that many of the sedimentary rocks were deposited in situ under water -- not madly churned or rushing water but tranquil water, quiet water.

• Fossils tell us that the nature of the water and environment changed from time to time — salt water, brackish water, fresh water; deep water, shallow water; tropical, temperate or frigid water.

• Fossils tell us that these submerged sediments were subsequently exposed on dry land.

• Fossils tell us that the land was alternately submerged and exposed multiple times.

The publication of William Smith’s findings, led to a concentrated effort to interpret the geological record. Major efforts to catalog the geological formations arose worldwide over the next decades. One of the most astonishing of these efforts is the project to record the Natural History of New York, which was carried out over 50 years between 1843 and 1894, and directed by a single person, James Hall, over that entire period.

The situation after William Smith’s discovery in 1799 was something like walking into an Egyptian temple with hieroglyphics on the walls, realizing that the hieroglyphics were more than just pictures — they clearly say something — and then puzzling out what they say (Figure 2). William Smith showed that the rock strata say something: they exist in an orderly sequence, they are of identifiable mineral composition and contain unique fossils. The question is, what do the strata say? The speech is there, but what does it say? The answer to this question is the essence of geology as it developed by the mid-1800s.


Figure 2
Egyptian Hieroglyphics from the Rosetta Stone
It’s Writing ... but What does it say?

Rosetta Stone Hieroglyphics


To begin with, the following general facts were already well-known by the early 1800s:

1.    That much of the rock in the world exists in strata, which appear as if they were formed from sediment layer on layer.

2.  That almost everywhere -- even on the high mountains -- are extensive fossils of sea shells and other marine animals that imply that virtually all the land was once under water.
3.  That “modern” fossils occur only in the uppermost strata, while the lowest strata contain no fossils.
  • Each stratum corresponds to a geological age, and the order of strata progresses from ancient to modern.
  • Every major kind of plant or animal has an identifiable stratum where that kind first appears in the fossil record.
  • Once a kind appears, it is normally present in later strata, but each stratum exhibits unique species.
  • The first appearances display a progression from simpler to more complex plants and animals, culminating with mammals and humans.
  • Hitchcock observes: “The remains of animals and plants found in the earth are not mingled confusedly together, but are found arranged, for the most part, in as much order as the drawers of a well-regulated cabinet. In general, they appear to have lived or died on or near the spots where they are now found.”15

    4.  That the rugged landscape seems to imply a past time of violent land movements.

    The facts that underlie these points can hardly be disputed by a person who has studied the evidence. The question is, what can one conclude from them?

    One of Lyell’s major achievements concerned the last point. In a word, he argued that the implication of an extraordinarily violent past is wrong, or at least misleading. He devoted a major portion of his first book on the Principles of Geology, to defend a uniformitarian view, that the same laws of chemistry and physics prevailed in the past as they do at present, and (therefore) that the earth’s past can be fully understood by examining the present. There is no need to postulate special conditions or novel laws to explain what we observe in the geological record.16 He asserts,

    “We come to no spot, in the history of the rocks, in which a system different from that which now prevails appears to have existed.”17

    A necessary implication of Lyell’s uniformitarian argument is that the rugged landscape formed over many thousands or millions of years.

    The uniformitarian principle is also fundamental to modern research into the behavior of the very early universe, as early as fractions of a second after the big bang; the laws of nuclear physics and chemistry are the same, if they are adjusted to reflect the high heat and density that prevailed at that time: that is why we can use high energy particle accelerators to learn how particles behaved at those early moments.

    Lyell gave convincing proof that the lifting of the land and the upheavals that produced the mountains occurred over very long periods of time, and came about so gradually that they did not substantially disrupt the existing ecosystem; in fact, viewed from the eyes of a contemporary observer, the up-lifting might go virtually un-noticed. Lyell noted, for example, that a 100 mile length of the coast of Chili rose about 3 feet in a single earthquake which, while it was violent in spots, did not substantially upset the pace of life as a whole.

    Lyell concluded, after extensive research, that the rough terrain is the result of vast movements of the earth’s surface, and that these movements were energized by heat deep in the earth’s interior. Once this view was generally accepted, the question arose, where does the heat come from? This proved to be very hard to answer, and indeed could not have been answered using the laws of physics and chemistry known at that time. The full answer didn’t come until over a century later, in the mid 1900s when the science of nuclear physics matured.18 It is a remarkable testimony to the dogged adherence of these early geologists to the factual evidence that they persisted in the view that heat from the earth's interior is the primary engine for change over the geologic ages, despite the lack of a plausible explanation for its source.


    From the very first, as the geologists began to interpret these facts, there was vigorous opposition to their work. This opposition came from all sides — from theologians on the one hand, to naturalists on the other. It seems that everyone had a reason to object to the young science as it was being developed. This tension led to the very excellent result that the findings were hammered out with great care and thoroughness, and an exceedingly careful distinction was made between the conclusions that could be proven by the evidence, and the conclusions that were founded primarily on metaphysical assumptions. This great care and thoroughness is one of the reasons why the rapid change in viewpoint after Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared was so unsettling to Lydia Miller.

    Are the points of contention the valid findings of objective science? And are the points central to the argument — are they truly telling blows, or just arguable points on the periphery?

    I will list some of the arguments of the new geology that seem to me to be most significant, so you can get an idea of the scope of the matter. Of course, most of these points are discussed at length in the geological books of the time, to which you may wish to go for further information.

    … By the Theologians. At one extreme sat the theologians. There were three primary areas of contention.

    1. Age of the Earth. One early conclusion of the geologists was that the earth is very old. They did not have the tools to put a precise number on the age of the earth, but it was clear to them that the age is at least in the many millions of years.

    2. Universal Flood. At first blush, the evidence that most of the earth was once covered with water was seen as proof of Noah’s flood. But it was pointed out by scientists as early as Robert Hooke (1635-1703), more than a century earlier, that Noah’s flood was both too violent to account for the vast layers laid down under tranquil conditions and too calm to account for the great dislocations that resulted in marine fossils existing on high mountains.19

    3. Death prior to Adam. “[Geology] distinctly testifies to the occurrence of death among animals long before the existence of man.”20

    So, geology was seen to contradict what were believed by many theologians to be assertions of the Holy Scriptures: that the earth was created very shortly before man; that death came about as a result of Adam’s sin, and that there was a global flood. These views are based on the most direct and literal interpretation of the Bible, and are still quite popular today among many evangelical Christians. It is not surprising that those who accept this interpretation of Genesis would have severe problems with any science that claimed findings that contradict these views.

    As an aside it is interesting to note that a number of evangelical scholars of the late 19th and into the early 20th century, accepted these findings of geology; for example, the widely used 1917 edition of the Scofield Bible did21, as did a number of conservative Bible scholars of the time, such as Charles Hodge.22

    … By the Naturalists. At the other extreme from the theologians, opposition came from what were called “naturalists”, those who believe that the world of living species came about by purely natural processes, and deny the need for a transcendent Creator. With apologies to the theologians among you, I would like to pay particular emphasis to this side of the controversy, because it goes to the heart of the current arguments about evolution.

    For the naturalist, life developed from non-life by natural means. Advanced life developed from primitive life. All of the marvelous features of all living creatures, came about by mindless natural processes, without any need for a Creator.

    This naturalistic viewpoint came as a philosophical pre-disposition, which dates back to the ancient Greeks. In the contemporary context of 19th century geology, the prominent people who argued for naturalism included Voltaire (1694-1778) and Lamarck.23

    Clearly, a naturalist must believe that the present system of living species came about by some form of spontaneous generation, and by evolution, called “progressive development” by Lyell and other early geologists. Spontaneous generation was coming under a severe cloud at the time,24 although Pasteur’s definitive experiment did not take place until 1859, the same year as Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared.

    Lamarck (1744-1829) was a prominent proponent of progressive development, in opposition to Linnæus (1707-1778). The issue was posed in the form of a question: “Is there such a thing as ‘species?’” In other words, are there essential limits to their progressive development (as Linnæus affirmed) that separate various kinds of plants and animals, or is it possible for any kind to be linked to any other kind by purely natural variation?

    Lamarck argued that species is a useful concept only in the short run: given enough time anything can be related to anything else. Linnæus argued that there are essential limits that define species and cannot be crossed by natural processes.

    Lyell, the geologist, stated that the position of Lamarck finds no confirmation in the fossil record: the appearance of new fossil kinds is sudden, and there is no evidence, even in the long geological ages, for a species to develop a major innovation. He remarked that the arguments that Lamarck cites only go to show that certain attributes of a species can be enhanced or diminished over time, but “no positive fact is cited to exemplify the substitution of some entirely new sense, faculty, or organ, in the room of some other suppressed as useless....”25 He goes on:

    “ It is evident that, if some well-authenticated facts could have been adduced to establish one complete step in the process of transformation, such as the appearance, in individuals descending from a common stock, of a sense or organ entirely new, and a complete disappearance of some other enjoyed by their progenitors, time alone might then be supposed sufficient to bring about any amount of metamorphosis. The gratuitous assumption, therefore, of a point so vital to the theory of transmutation, was unpardonable on the part of its advocate.”26

    But I am getting a bit ahead of myself. What were the findings of 19th century geology that appeared to contradict the positions of the naturalists? Here are some of the points cited in a number of geology books by the 1850s.

    There was a beginning. Among intellectuals of the time, belief that matter and life were part of a non-ending cycle of existence was connected with atheism, notably the pantheism of Spinoza. This belief was thought to be a matter of philosophy; it was a great surprise that geology could defeat the belief, as far as it concerned life.

    Geology revealed that the earth began as a molten mass. One proof of this (among several) is the oblate spheroid shape of the earth (the poles are flattened) which is characteristic of a rotating molten mass.27 Obviously, then, the early earth was not habitable by any sort of life, and so life began a long, but not infinite, time ago. “all things remain as they were from the beginning until now,” is not possible. It is provably wrong.

    Obviously life cannot exist on a molten Earth, so life clearly had a beginning. Furthermore, as the fossil evidence accumulated it became clear that the various kinds of life – phyla, classes, families – also had beginnings, and that these beginnings were spaced out in an orderly sequence through the fossil record.

    I should note that the early geologists observed that rocks beneath the Cambrian strata had no fossils, and so they set the beginning of life to the commencement of the Cambrian age. We now know that many of these rocks underlying the Cambrian age are populated with microscopic fossils, which may even leave quite visible evidence, such as the stromatolytes. The fossils known to the early geologists come from what is now known as the Phanerozoic era, that is, the age of visible fossils, which began with the Cambrian age. The name distinguishes this era from the earlier era, now called the Cryptozoic era, when the fossils were microscopic.

    We know today that microscopic life existed virtually back to the very first time that the earth had cooled sufficiently for oceans to condense from the atmosphere, and that these early creatures built up -- over literally billions of years -- the oxygen atmosphere and available nitrogen that are essential for the visible animals to exist.

    This one fact, that life had a finite beginning, poses the problem of spontaneous generation. Either life was created by a God or gods, or it arose naturally by spontaneous generation. For a naturalist, spontaneous generation is an essential belief, despite the growing evidence against it.

    • The Earth as a whole is hostile to life. We live on a thin shell over a hot, inhospitable interior and under a cold, inhospitable cosmos. The actual volume that is habitable is minute.

    Furthermore, the two great engines for change on earth – fire and water – are essential to the development of life, but are potentially ruinous for life to continue. Quoting Hitchcock,

    “In the mighty intensity of their action in early times, we can hardly see how there could have been much of security or permanence in the state of the globe ... We feel as if the earth's crust must have been constantly liable to be torn in pieces by volcanic fires, or drenched by sweeping deluges. And yet the various economies of life on the globe, that have preceded the present, have all been seasons of profound repose and uniformity. … it must have required infinite wisdom and power so to arrange the agencies of nature that the desolating action of fire and water should take place only at those epochs when every thing was in readiness for the ruin of an old economy and the introduction of a new one.”28

    The conditions required for life to exist are exceedingly narrow: at the very least the conditions are bounded between the freezing and boiling points of water. But in addition there must be available nutrients in sufficient quantity, and as the species complexity increases, the specific requirements for life become more and more particular, and the species’ grip on life is increasingly tenuous.

    And yet the earth has been host for life continuously since the first life appeared. To Hitchcock, this implies that the development of life did not proceed randomly but was under the control of a divine power.

    I should note that to anyone who does not accept the truth that God providentially sustains the world, the fragility of the ecosystem, and its existence amid hostile surroundings can be a cause of great anxiety, and leads to extraordinary efforts to attempt to control the ecosystem by human effort.

    • There is an arrow of development and progression over geological history. The earth’s history shows a gradually increasing capability to sustain progressively more complex forms of life. At many stages in this process, the ecosystem at that stage relied on the products of earlier stages, and the living species that appear for the first time, could not have survived at an earlier stage. In particular, modern life could not exist without the preparation of those earlier stages.

    The appearance, then is that of deliberate design with the specific end of human habitation in view. Hitchcock argues,

    “Every successive change of importance on the earth's surface appears to have been an improvement of its condition, adapting it to beings of a higher organization, and to man at last, the most perfect of all.”29

    The progression through these stages is all the more remarkable in view of the very restricted conditions in which life of any sort can be sustained. Even the “primitive” species in those earlier worlds, had to be exquisitely adapted to survive, beginning with the very first living species.

    • All of Life shows a unity of design from the very first appearance in the fossil record. The collection of body plans (phyla) that characterize modern species is unchanged throughout all of the Earth’s history. All fossil species are recognizably similar in design to modern species.

    Buckland wrote,

    “It has not been found necessary, in discussing the history of fossil plants and animals, to constitute a single new class; they all fall naturally into the same great sections as the existing forms.” 30

    Here, Buckland uses the term “class” in the technical sense used in biological classification, which divides the animal and plant kingdoms into the groupings: phyla, class, order, family, genus and species. For example, mammals and birds form two of the classes of the vertebrates. Thus Buckland makes the remarkable assertion: there are no unfamiliar classes in the fossil record.

    Among other things, this unity argues against multiple creators (gods) and spontaneous generation. Paley, writing in 1802, notes:

    “We never get amongst such original or totally different modes of Existence, as to indicate that we are come into the province of a different Creator, or under the direction of a different WiIl. In truth the same order of things attends us wherever we go.”31

    The fossil record is characterized by annihilation followed by innovation. Many of the strata have very distinct boundaries, at which the nature of the fossils change dramatically with the sudden disappearance of some species followed by the sudden appearance of new kinds. In some cases the cause is clearly related to the rising or sinking of the land, but in other cases the change is even more dramatic, as in the Permian extinction before birds and large mammals appeared, and at the end of the dinosaur age, called the K-T boundary.

    The record is characterized by sudden innovations, not gradual change.

    -- All of the basic body plans appear suddenly in the earliest fossils during the Cambrian age. This fact was noted by Buckland in reference to the earliest fossil-bearing rocks.

    -- Major innovations arise suddenly. What is true for the very earliest fossils also holds for major innovations in the plant and animal kingdom: they arise suddenly in the fossil record with no evident transitional fossils. This results in the well-known “gaps”. Buckland notes:

    “It appears that the character of fossil Fishes does not change insensibly from one formation to another, as in the case of many Zoophytes and Testacea; nor do the same genera; or even the same families, pervade successive series of great formations; but their changes take place abruptly, at certain definite points in the vertical succession of the strata, like the sudden changes that occur in fossil Reptiles and Mammalia.”32

    The gaps were well-recognized by Darwin, but the general thought among the naturalists was that the gaps were the result of the incomplete nature of the fossil discoveries. However the gaps persist to this day, and the number of examples of supposed transitional specimens is infinitesimal in comparison with the number of gaps.

    There is no fossil evidence of species “improving” except as appears to be provided for within the limits of the species.

    Buckland also noted that the first examples of a major innovation in the fossil record are often quite advanced, and the effect of time often appears to lead to a reduction of ability rather than the reverse as evolution would seem to require. An example is the ammonites, to be mentioned shortly, and the loss of features, such as sight in cave fish.

    - Anticipation. Lyell goes even further in that he argues that a species, when it first appears, seems already to have the ability to adapt to the circumstances that it will face.

    "We must suppose that when the Author of Nature creates an animal or plant, all the possible circumstances in which its descendants are destined to live are foreseen, and that an organization is conferred upon it which will enable the species to perpetuate itself and survive under all the varying circumstances to which it must be inevitably exposed."33

    • The fossil body plans show fitness and harmony in all details. There are no “hopeful monsters” in the fossil record. If the record were able to be characterized in that way, then it would not have been possible for Cuvier, an early Geologist, to infer the function, habitat and general features of a species from a single limb, bone or even a single tooth. Buckland stated,

    “We can hardly imagine any stronger proof of the Unity of Design and Harmony of Organizations that have ever pervaded all animated nature, than we find in the fact established by Cuvier, that from the character of a single limb, and even of a single tooth or bone, the form and proportions of the other bones, and condition of the entire Animal may be inferred.”34

    This argues against unguided innovation of body parts.

    • The fossils show exquisite innovations that address intricate design challenges. The early geologists spend a lot of time examining the details of how the fossil species carried on their lives, discovering evidence of exquisite fitness for the particular environment that those fossils enjoyed. Lyell, Buckland, Hitchcock and others give detailed examples of the amazing engineering contrivances of ancient fossil species, many of which vanished — together with their exquisite adaptations — over the course of time, but preserved in the fossil record.

    Buckland, in particular, devoted a large part of his writing to the ammonites (now extinct), shell fish that use flotation chambers to control their feeding depth. In some instances, the fossil species used engineering contrivances that are more complex than modern species. He states,

    “We are almost lost in astonishment, at the microscopic attention that has been paid to the welfare of creatures, holding so low a place…. If there be one thing more surprising than another in the investigation of natural phenomena, it is perhaps the infinite extent and vast importance of things apparently little and insignificant.”35

    “From the high preservation in which we find the remains of animals and vegetables of each geological formation [both hard and soft body parts – dcb], and the exquisite mechanism which appears in many fossil fragments of their organization, we may collect an infinity of arguments, to show that the creatures from which all these are derived were constructed with a view to the varying conditions of the surface of the Earth, and to its gradually increasing capabilities of sustaining more complex forms of organic life.”36

    These, in summary, are some of the findings that the geologists came to by the mid-1800’s. Many of the geologists, including Lydia Miller, viewed these findings as powerful testimony to a divine creator.

    Modern Confirmation of these Findings.

    Continued advancement in geology to the present day strengthens a number of these conclusions of the 19th century geologists. For example:

    • Regarding the Beginning. It is now known that not only life, but matter and the universe itself had beginnings. A thorough understanding of nuclear physics and the nature of radioactivity allows precise dating of the age of the universe, of the sun, of earth, and of all of the strata in the geological record.

    •Regarding the Beginning of Life. It is now known that the simplest possible self-sustaining cell requires a genetic code of over 1,750,000 base pairs, and over 2000 genes.37 How is this to arise spontaneously?

    It is now understood that the earliest time that life could have existed on earth is about 3.9 billion years ago, when the earth’s crust first hardened and cooled enough for water to condense into the oceans. There is indirect evidence of life as early as 3.8 billion years ago38, and actual fossils have been found dating to 3.65 billion years ago. These fossils already had the exceedingly complex chlorophyll light-to-energy conversion and nitrogen fixing processes.

    This early appearance of life, severely limits the time available for it to arise spontaneously. There is no known process that would lead to such complexity of end result by purely random means using the known natural laws of physics and chemistry.

    • Regarding the complexity of the simplest cell, it is known that even the simplest cell relies on exceedingly complex processes that occur on the sub-microscopic level, such as the transport systems involving kinesin motor molecules that travel over the cytoskeleton microtubules. It is known that the basic body plans are implemented by an elaborate and delicate control process involving special “hox” genes. How are these to be had by random, undirected processes?

    •Regarding the unity of species. It is now know that all living species use the same genetic coding scheme (with only very minor changes that can be plausibly accounted for by random variation), and follow the same complex “central dogma” for converting the DNA code into molecules of life.

    It is difficult to even imagine how the complex central dogma — which itself requires over 150 separate genes involving over 150,000 DNA base pairs — could have arisen by naturalistic means. Furthermore, if life appeared by spontaneous generation, why is there only a single example of the “central dogma?” Why not multiple dogmas, corresponding to multiple instances of spontaneous generation?

    Regarding Sudden Innovations. The near-simultaneous appearance of all animal body plans is now accepted as a fact and that all of the 30-odd phyla of animals have their first appearance in the Cambrian rocks. Some geologists even assert that they all appeared within a (geologically) very short interval of time, perhaps as little as 5 million years. The body plans arrive in the record without any clear relationship to complexity. For example, trilobites, one of the earliest fossils to appear in the record, come complete with all of the major bodily systems – eyes, antennas and olfactory pits for sensors, a full digestive system, circulatory system with a heart, nervous system with ganglia, muscular system, and an articulated exoskeleton.

    regarding the gaps in the fossil record. The sudden appearance of major innovations is well-attested in the fossil record, and can no longer be attributed to an incomplete record. Indeed, the fact has been given a name: punctuated equilibrium. The gaps have sharpened, not diminished, and the number of proposed “transitional” fossils is miniscule in comparison with the number of acknowledged gaps.

    In summary, the modern evidence only confirms and extends the main findings of the 19th century geologists, and the evidence in favor of naturalism is not strengthened in even a single point.


    So what do we make of all of this? Is there powerful evidence in favor of a Creator, as many geologists believed prior to the appearance of Darwin’s book?

    Well, these arguments seem powerful to me, and these are only a fraction of the evidence that is offered in the geologists’ writings of the time. I have intentionally omitted some of what I might call “fit” design arguments, along the lines used in Paley’s book; such arguments are quite convincing to a person who is already inclined to believe in the reality of a Creator, as I am myself, but don’t carry much weight with a dogged agnostic.

    For example, Buckland and Lyell note that the very ruggedness of the terrain — the high mountains and the exposed upliftings — are examples of God’s providence because they are necessary for man’s well-being. Lyell’s Principles has an extensive discussion of climate and notes that mountains help to control weather patterns, particularly rainfall. Alternations of permeable and impermeable rock strata facilitate the watering of the lowlands by in effect providing natural aqueducts that channel water from the mountains to the lowlands. In particular, London and Paris benefit from this effect.

    Buckland argued that the coal built up during the carboniferous age (the only geologic age with substantial coal formation), fueled the modern industrial age, and without it, civilization would still be an agrarian society with severe fuel scarcity limiting progress. And without the uplifting of the land and exposure of the carboniferous rocks, the coal would have been inaccessible, and its qualities probably not even known.

    But even leaving these arguments aside, the evidence that we have noted in favor of a Creator is very powerful. How can science ignor them? Why did this evidence disappear from the geological literature?

    I believe that Lydia Miller has it right: science just doesn’t contemplate it, but removes it “to a more distant and dimmer region.” Admitting the possibility of a Creator is viewed as outside of the purview of science. By implication, those 19th century Geologists were acting improperly to point out the evidence in favor of a Creator.

    I believe that there is also another factor that contributed to the disappearance. After 1859 the double opposition from theologians and naturalists that had forced the early geologists to use great care and thoroughness in their claims, largely vanished from the scene. The Darwinian thesis fell completely within the naturalist camp, which eliminated opposition from that side, and the new generation of scientists no longer felt an obligation to give serious attention to the theological views, as removed from the purview of science. A dark climate of intellectualism was rising, which over the next century, would lead to terrible worldwide devastation and destructive global warfare: social darwinism, the concept of superior races, communism and other terrible and perverse consequences of intellectualism gone awry.

    But the evidence, objectively considered, DOES point to a Divine Creator; this evidence is not philosophical, it is concrete and can be tested. Attempts have been made to disprove its findings for over 150 years, without success; only by removing the evidence to the dimmer regions, can it be ignored. It is the “silent voice” of geology, declaring God’s glory.

    David C. Bossard
    Lebanon, New Hampshire
    March, 2003



    1758  Carl von Linné (Linnæus), Systema Naturae: Creationis telluris est gloria dei ex opere Naturae per Hominem Solum. 10th. Ed. 
    1749-  Georges Buffon, Historie Naturelle, in 44 volumns between 1749 and 1804. 
    1802  William Paley, Natural Theology 
    1809  Lamarck, Jean Baptiste de Monet, Chevalier de Philosophie Zoologique 
    1825  Baron Georges Cuvier, A Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe, English Translation 1831. 
    1832-  Sir Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, 8th Ed. 1850 and Manual of Elementary Geology , 6th Ed. 1855. 
    1837  William Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, Volume VI of the Bridgewater Treatises. 
    1840  John Pye Smith, On the Relation between the Holy Scriptures and some parts of the Geological Sciences. 
    1841  Edward Hitchcock, Elementary Geology 31st Edition, 1862. 
    1847-  James Hall, Natural History of New York 8 Vols. between 1847-1894. 
    1851  Hugh Miller, Footprints of the Creator 3rd Ed. 1858. Compiled by Lydia Miller. 
    1851  Edward Hitchcock, Religion of Geology. 
    1857-  Louis Agassiz, Natural History of the United States of America, 4 vols. 
    1857  Hugh Miller (1802-1856), Testimony of the Rocks. Compiled by Lydia Miller. 
    1859  –– Sketchbook of Popular Geology, 4th Ed. 1869. Compiled by Lydia Miller. 
    1859  [Pasteur’s Experiment proving spontaneous generation does not occur.] 
    1859  Charles Darwin, Origin of Species 
    1862  Lord Kelvin, On the Secular Cooling of the Earth. 
    1863  James Dana, Manual of Geology, 4th Ed. 1896. 

    1870  Alexander Winchell, Sketches of Creation 
    1878  Sir Andrew Crombie Ramsay, Geology of Great Britain 5th Ed. 1878. 
    1901  Karl Alfred von Zittel, History of Geology and Palæontology to the end of the Nineteenth century. 
    1987  Daniel Wonderly, Neglect of Geologic data: Sedimentary Strata Compared with Young-Earth Creationist Writings. 
    1999  Size Limits of Very Small Microorganisms, National Research Council, 2000. Text is available at http://www.nationalacademies.org/ssb/nanomenu.htm. 
    2002  Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Perennial. 



    The Problem of the Source of the Earth's Heat Energy

    One of the dilemmas that the early geologists faced was that the understanding of physics and chemistry in the mid 1800s could not account for the evident presence of heat energy in the Sun and in the earth’s interior. More particularly, the geologists could not reconcile the evident old age of the sun and earth with the continued expenditure of vast amounts of heat energy over that time.

    In 1862, Lord Kelvin estimated the age of earth at 98 million years based on cooling from a molten state.39 This assumed that the heat generation followed the known laws of physics and chemistry. As to the Sun, one theory was that the Sun’s fuel was constantly renewed by meteorites from space; otherwise the Sun would also burn out over a time measured in millions of years.

    It is greatly to their credit that geologists persisted in the view that the primary source of energy for the earth’s changes came from heat generated in the earth’s interior, despite the apparent contradiction between this view and their understanding of physics and chemistry. By the late 1800s, the geologist James Dana gives the age of the earth as “probably 24,000,000 years” with extreme estimates from 10 million to 6 billion years40, which range does in fact span the current estimate of 4.55 billion years. The bias in favor of the lower values was undoubtedly influenced by Lord Kelvin’s estimate.

    The answer, which was not understood until well into the 20th century, is that nuclear energy is the source of the heat both in the Sun and in the earth’s interior. For the Sun, the energy results from nuclear fusion, primarily of hydrogen into helium, and for the Earth the energy comes from nuclear fission, the radioactive decay of uranium and other heavy elements. This is the reason why the Earth’s interior has not cooled and has always been partially molten.

    I might mention one interesting incident about this misunderstanding of the importance of nuclear energy. William Buckland (1784-1856) was a contemporary of Lyell who wrote a treatise in 1837 on geology.41 This book is a strong defence of the consistency of the Bible with the findings of geology.

    At one place in this book42 , he mentions 2 Peter 3:10, "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up." He argues that the "destruction" is not of the earth but of matter on the earth. He explains, "The common opinion is, that intense combustion actually destroys or annihilates matter... But the chemist knows that not one particle of matter has ever been thus deprived of existence; that fire only changes the form of matter, but never annihilates it." So he then goes on to explain that burning is oxidation, and that what will be annihilated is the burnable matter on earth "since biblical and scientific truth must agree, we may be sure that the apostle never meant to teach that the matter of the globe would cease to be, through the action of fire upon it." He goes on, "the passage under consideration teaches us that whatever upon or within the earth is capable of combustion will undergo that change, and that the entire globe will be melted."

    Of course, with our more accurate understanding of the nature of the elements, we know that the elements can indeed be destroyed, and that oxidation is not the only means of change in a substance. In fact, with an understanding of nuclear processes, the passage in Peter takes on new and awesome significance.


    1 Hugh Miller (1802-1856), Sketchbook of Popular Geology, 4th Ed. 1869, Preface p. xxx. The Sketchbook was edited and published posthumously by his wife, Lydia Miller. The first edition was published in 1859. See http://www.hughmiller.org/ for more on Hugh Miller. Other books, also written by Hugh Miller and brought into publication by his wife, include: Testimony of the Rocks (1857), and Footprints of the Creator (1851).

    2 For example: Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), William Conybeare (1787-1857), William Buckland (1784-1856), Hugh Miller (1802-1856), Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), Sir Andrew Ramsay (1814-1891), Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), James Dana (1813-1895), Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), and Alexander Winchell (1824-1891). Books that specifically concern natural theology include Hugh Miller’s books cited above, and William Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, 1837; Edward Hitchcock, Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences, 1851. Buckland’s work (2 volumes) was Treatise VI of The Bridgewater Treatises on the Power Wisdom and Goodness of God as Manifested in the Creation, published in the 1830’s.

    3 William Paley, Natural Theology, 1802.

    4 William Buckland, Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, Volume VI of the Bridgewater Treatises, 1837, p. 672ff.

    5 Carl von Linné (Linnæus), Systema Naturae: Creationis telluris est gloria Dei ex opere Naturae per Hominen Solum. 10th Ed. 1758.

    6 See Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology. Perennial, 2002.

    7 Adapted from a map in A. C. Ramsay, The Physical Geology and Geography of Great Britain, 1878.

    8 Winchester, p. 128 ff. An original copy (one of three) of the table is preserved at the Geological Society of London.

    9 Lyell, Principles, p. 60 “Smith adopted for the most part English provincial terms, often of barbarous sound, such as gault, cornbrash, clunch clay; and affixed them to subdivisions of the British series. many of these still retain their place in our scientific classifications, and attest to his priority of arrangement.”

    10  A version of this table, published in 1801 can be viewed at the University of New Hampshire web site dedicated to William Smith, at http://www.unh.edu/esci/wmsmith.html.

    11  William Smith's map can be viewed at the University of New Hampshire web site, op. cit.

    12 Georges Cuvier, Revolutions of the Earth, [1825 (French; English Translation 1831)] p. 36.

    13 Edward Hitchcock, Religion of Geology, 1851. p. 57: “stratified rocks are … six and a half miles thick in Europe, and still thicker in this country (i.e. in the United States – dcb)… the manner in which the materials are arranged, and especially the preservation of the most delicate parts of the organic remains, often in the very position in which the animals died, show the quiet and slow manner in which the process went on.”

    14 Wonderly, Neglect of Geologic Data, 1987, gives examples.

    15 Hitchcock, p. 35-39.

    16 A curious historical fact is that this uniformitarian view came to be such an ingrained dogma that geologists were very slow to accept two of the most important current views: Tectonic plate theory; and the explanation for mass exterminations at the so-called K-T boundary, the result of a meteorite hitting the earth (a large meteorite hit the earth in the vicinity of the Yucatan Penninsula about 65 million years ago). I think the objection was that these theories appeared to be a threat to a uniformitarian viewpoint. Maps of active volcano sites that are included in Lyell’s books clearly trace the outlines of the major tectonic plates, and evidence provided by Lyell and his contemporaries for the movements of large land masses might have suggested the existence of tectonic plates even as early as the mid-19th century; yet the conclusion was delayed for over a century.

    17 Hitchcock, p. 31-35

    18 See Appendix A for a discussion of the problem of heat energy.

    19 Hooke, cited in Lyell, Principles, p. 31 and Edward Hitchcock, Religion of Geology, 1851.

    20 Hitchcock, ibid. p. 35.

    21 C.I. Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible, 1917. Note 2 on Genesis 1:1 (creation of the heavens and the earth) states, “The first creative act refers to the dateless past, and gives scope for all the geologic ages.” Similarly, Scofield states that the word “day” may be understood to mean other than 24 hours (Note 1,2 on Genesis 1:5) and adds, “Each creative ‘day’ was a period of time marked off by a beginning and ending.”

    22 Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, (1st Ed. 1871) Vol. 1 p. 570 favorably cites James Dana’s Manual of Geology as an authority.

    23 Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique published in 1809 was an early proponent of progressive development, or evolution as it is known today.

    24 Hitchcock wrote in 1851, “As instruments have been improved, and observations have become more searching, the supposed cases of spontaneous generation have diminished, until it is not pretended now that it takes place except in a very few tribes, and those the most obscure and difficult to observe of all living things.” Religion of Geology, p. 262. By implication, as instruments improve and can penetrate those “most obscure” crevices, spontaneous generation will be seen to be a chimera.

    25 Lyell, Principles, p. 549.

    26 Lyell, Ibid.

    27 Edward Hitchcock, The Religion of Geology, 1851, p. 142. There were two lines of proof available to 19th century geologists: direct measurement of the distance along a longitudinal line between two latitudes (the distance increases toward the poles); and measurement of changes in the rate of a pendulum , measured at different latitudes (Paris and the Cayenne Islands in the first instance -- a difference of 2 minutes, 28 seconds per day), related to small changes in the gravity caused by different radial distances to the center of the earth. For an early discussion, see W. Mullinger Higgins, The Earth: Its Physical Condition and most Remarkable Phenomena, Harper, 1858, p. 25ff andp. 33. The pendulum observations were published by M. Richter about 1650. Among others, Mason and Dixon made such measurements in 1763, in connection with the surveys of the Mason-Dixon line that defines the southern border of Pennsylvania. For a treatise on the Figure of the Earth, see http://www.mala.bc.ca/~mcneil/somerville/11.htm.

    28 Ibid, p. 275.

    29 Hitchcock, pp. 35-39.

    30Buckland, Ibid. p. 61.

    31 William Paley, Natural Theology, 1802 – reprint Harper 1840, 2 vols. Vol. 2, Ch. XXV p. 143.

    32 Ibid. p. 272.

    33 Lyell, Principles, p. 560.

    34 Buckland, ibid. p. 109.

    35 Ibid. p. 442, 445.

    36 Ibid. p. 107.

    37 See David C. Bossard, The Chemical Buildingblocks of Life, IBRI Research report #50, available at http://www.ibri.org.

    38 For example, the relative abundance of isotopes of carbon differs if the carbon is inorganically produced or has passed through the chemistry of life. This isotopic analysis of early rocks indicates the very early presence of life, even though fossils are not present.

    39 Lord Kelvin, On the Secular Cooling of the Earth, 1862.

    40 James Dwight Dana (1813-1895), Manual of Geology, Fourth Edition 1896, p. 1026.

    41 Rev. William Buckland, D.D. Geology and Mineralogy, considered with reference to Natural Theology, 2nd. Ed. 1837. This argument is repeated in Edward Hitchcock, Religion of Geology, 1851, p. 22, “It is probably the prevailing opinion among intelligent Christians at this time, and has been the opinion of many commentators, that when Peter describes the future destruction of the world, he means that its solid substance, and indeed that of the whole material universe, will be utterly consumed or annihilated by fire. This opinion rests upon the common belief that such is the effect of combustion. But chemistry informs us, that no case of combustion, how fiercely soever the fire may rage, annihilates the least particle of matter and that fire only changes the form of substances…Has Peter, then, made a mistake because he did not understand modern chemistry? … [No,] He no where asserts, or implies, that one particle of matter will be annihilated by that catastrophe.”

    42 Ibid. p. 304ff.

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