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Before we can ascertain the level of geological ignorance or acumen of any of the scriptural geologists, we must define what constituted a competent geologist in the early 19th century.
Having considered some of the historical background and social, intellectual, and spiritual context in which the scriptural geologists opposed the old-earth theories, we must look at one more issue to properly understand the debate. Before we can ascertain the level of geological ignorance or acumen of any of the scriptural geologists, we must define, as best we can, what constituted a competent geologist in the early 19th century. How do we distinguish a “real geologist” from a “quasi-geological theologian” at this time? What qualified a person to critically evaluate geological arguments for an old earth? In answering these questions we will see that some of the scriptural geologists were very competent to judge old-earth theories.
In his mapping of the field of geological competence, the respected historian of geology Martin Rudwick broadly defined geological competence as the ability to deliver reliable information or ideas on the subject. But measuring such competence in the 1820s and 1830s was and is difficult, partly because the definition was not static or suprahistorically absolute,1 but was being progressively refined as geological development approached 1850. Therefore, Rudwick said, “to talk of a geological ‘community’ at the time of the Devonian controversy [1834–37] is misleading on many counts, not least because it suggests anachronistically a strong-boundaried professional group marked by standardized training and certification, with only the uninitiated lay public outside.”2 He went on to say that therefore “the formal hierarchies of position and influence are by no means coincident” with what he termed “the informal and tacit gradient of attributed competence.” 3 Rudwick described three zones of this gradient of attributed competence in the mid-1830s (see figure 1 on page 49).
Zone 1 was the small group of “elite geologists,” who were characterized by a primary commitment to geology (rather than some other science), high activity in the affairs of geological institutions and in practical fieldwork, and significant production in the publication of geological information. Most importantly, they considered themselves, and others considered them, to be the competent arbiters of the most fundamental questions of geological theory and methodology. According to Rudwick, this class included not only the most well-known geologists (Sedgwick, Murchison, De la Beche, Lyell, Greenough, Buckland, Conybeare, Phillips, and Darwin), but also the non-geologists, Whewell and Humboldt, because of their weighty achievements in other sciences and their appreciable work in geology.
|Name (year)b||Date of creation||Gen. 1:1c||“Day”||Gen. 1:14 Sun-Day 4d||Flood||Josh. 10:12e||Ps. 19:5-6f||Ps. 96:10g|
|Ainsworth (1639)||4004 B.C.||Day 1||24 hr||nc||global||nc||nc-a||nc-a|
|Richardson (1655)||4004 B.C.||Summary||24 hr||nc||global||lm||rh||nc|
|Stackhouse/Gleiga (1817/1737)||ages ago?h||nc||24 hr||nc||global||lm-h||nc||nc|
|Patrick (1809/1738)||4004 B.C.?i||nc||24 hr||created||global||lm, nc-a||nc||nc|
|Gill (1809/1763)||4004 B.C.||Day 1||24 hr||created||global||lm-h||nc-a||nc-a|
|Purver (1764)||4004 B.C.||Summary||24 hr||nc||global||lm-h||nc-a||nc-a|
|Dodd (1765)||4004 B.C.||Day 1||24 hr||created||global||lm-h||nc-a||nc-a|
|Henry/Blomfield (1810/1765)||~4000 B.C.||Day 1||24 hr||created||global||lm, nc-a||nc-a||nc-a|
|Brown (1816/1777)||4004 B.C.||Day 1||24 hrk||created||global||nc||nc-a||nc-a|
|Geddes (1792)||ages ago||Summary||ages||appeared||myth||myth||nc||nc|
|Priestley (1803)||ages ago||nc||ages||appeared||global?||lm, nc-a||nc||nc|
|Fuller (1806)||4004 B.C.?||nc||24 hrk||created||global||nc||nc||nc|
|D’Oyly/Manta (1817)||4004 B.C.||Summary||24 hr||created||global||lm-h||nc-a||nc-a|
|Hornea (1818/1856)j||4004 B.C.||nc||24 hrk||nc||global||nc||nc||nc|
|Clarkea (1836)||4004 B.C.||nc||24 hr||created?||global||lm-h||la||law-unbroken|
|Scotta (1841/1812)||4004 B.C.||nc||24 hr||created||global||lm-h||nc-a||nc-a, law-unbroken|
Zone 2 was what Rudwick termed the “accomplished geologists.” This zone contained two different groups. One comprised those scientists whose primary commitment was to some other science in which they were regarded among the elite, but their scientific judgment impinged in an auxiliary way on geology. They did little or no geological fieldwork and did not publish much, if anything, on the subject. Men in this category of “accomplished geologists” included the botanists Lindley and Brongniart, the fish expert Agassiz, and the conchologist Sowerby. The other group of “accomplished geologists” was comprised of men who were primarily focused on geology and were expert on a particular geographical region, group of strata, or group of fossils. Their geological opinions were highly regarded by the elite geologists, but in matters of theory their judgments were only respected on points where the elite had less expertise.
Zone 3 was the “amateur geologists,” men and a few women whose geological knowledge was restricted to a very localized area. This group included country gentlemen and ladies, physicians, lawyers, and clergymen with intimate knowledge of the area near their homes, as well as government officials, military officers, and others whose jobs took them to isolated parts of the world. Their knowledge was trusted by the elite only at the strictly “factual” level.
The elite geologists regarded only themselves as competent to propose the most fundamental, theoretical, or global claims to geological knowledge.Within these zones of attributed competence, the elite geologists regarded only themselves as competent to propose the most fundamental, theoretical, or global claims to geological knowledge.4 Beyond these three zones lay the general public. The geological statements of people in this category (which included quarrymen and miners) were never accepted as reliable until checked and corroborated by those with recognized geological competence.
As enlightening as Rudwick’s discussion of these three zones is for understanding geological competence in the mid-1830s during the Devonian controversy, there are at least six reasons to conclude that this analysis is not obviously applicable to the assessment of the geological competence of the scriptural geologists to critically evaluate the arguments in favor of an old earth.
First, although Rudwick accurately describes competence relative to the famous “Devonian controversy” of 1834–37,5 his study does not enable us to adequately place people who were not involved in that debate, such as William Smith, Robert Bakewell, and leading American geologists, who were recognized by many geologists to have broader and deeper knowledge of geology than the “accomplished geologists” (and even the “elite geologist” Whewell), but who were not considered to be in the elite category.
Second, Rudwick pictured diagrammatically (see figure 1) the fact that some of the scriptural geologists were included within the class of “amateur geologists,”6 whom the leading geologists at the time of the Devonian controversy “regarded as at least modestly active and competent in geology.”7 However, it would be difficult to prove in 1822 (after the scriptural geologist George Young had published four scientific journal articles on geology and his Geological Survey of the Yorkshire Coast, in which he objected to old-earth theory) that Young was any less active in geological fieldwork and geological reading or any less capable of geological theorizing than Sedgwick, Buckland, or Lyell (or Smith, Cuvier, Hutton, or Werner), especially given the great amount of exposed strata in Yorkshire which represented a major portion of the secondary formations and were right at Young’s doorstep.
Third, to say that experts in other scientific fields (with little or no fieldwork or publications in geology) were more competent than scriptural geologists (who did both activities) is to imply that social standing in the scientific establishment and general scientific reasoning ability were far more important criteria of geological competence (at least in the minds of the geological elite) than actual first and secondhand knowledge of geological phenomena. But this is a strange definition. On this basis, the scriptural geologist Andrew Ure should be ranked higher in geological competence than George Young, a conclusion most inconsistent with the facts (as will be shown) and the actual opinions of the recognized geologists of the time.
Fourth, this definition of competence was determined by a small group of “elite geologists,” some of whom gained their elite status before they themselves had achieved a high level of geological competence. Sedgwick, for instance, attained the prestigious position of Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge in 1818 when, by his own admission, he knew very little about the subject and had done virtually no fieldwork.9
Fifth, the definition does not objectively reflect a person’s knowledge of geological literature, and his intellectual ability to understand geological arguments and evaluate the logical soundness of induction from agreed-upon geological facts.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the authors of the catastrophist and uniformitarian theories of a very old earth constructed those theories and presented their geological evidence in defense of their theories long before the Devonian controversy illuminated and developed a more restrictive definition of geological competence. Hutton, Werner, and Cuvier (along with Buff on and Laplace, both non-geologists) were the chief authors of the old-earth view.10 But at the time they proposed their theories they were not very geologically competent by the standards of the mid-1830s. Furthermore, while the Devonian controversy involved very technical discussions, it was not introducing or finally establishing the old-earth theory, but only hammering out details within the old-earth interpretive framework, and therefore only one or two scriptural geologists even made mention of the Devonian controversy. In the late 1810s, when the old-earth view was firmly established in the minds of geologists at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, and Edinburgh, other institutions of higher education, the Geological Society of London, the provincial philosophical societies, and in similar institutions on the European continent, Hutton, Werner, and Cuvier would have only satisfied Rudwick’s criteria of “amateur geologists.”
So in order to assess the geological competence of the scriptural geologists to critically evaluate the catastrophist and uniformitarian theories of an old-earth and the evidences presented in favor of those theories, we must also look at geological competence in the light of some additional possible criteria as seen in the lives of those who, all agree, were competent geologists, such as Charles Lyell and William Buckland, two of the greatest British geologists of the 19th century, as well as others.
In terms of education, Buckland, son of a clergyman, studied classics at Oxford from 1801–05 in preparation for his ordained ministry. However, his real interest was in science, particularly geology, and he learned much from the writings and lectures on mineralogy and geology by Dr. John Kidd, an Oxford University chemistry professor and a founding member of the London Geological Society.11
Buckland took his first geological tour in 1808 alone in the countryside of Berkshire and Wiltshire, and soon after began to give an annual eight-lecture series on mineralogy (from 1813) and on geology (from 1819). Lyell studied at Oxford and later Lincoln’s Inn to become a lawyer, which was his vocation until 1828. While at Oxford he attended Buckland’s eight geology lectures in the springs of 1817 to 1819. Sometime before 1826 he had read Robert Bakewell’s Introduction to Geology12 and John Playfair’s Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory, the latter of which had a significant influence on the development of his own ideas about the history of the earth.13
Some people in Britain had studied mineralogy or chemistry as a background for their geological investigations. This was particularly true of the Scots. They had geological instruction at Edinburgh University much earlier than Oxford and Cambridge, and Robert Jameson, one of their most prominent geologists, was an alumnus of the German institute, Bergakademie Freiberg, where the famous old-earth mineralogist, Abraham Werner, taught from 1775 to 1817.14 But Buckland and Lyell had a more limited educational background in the subject area. Their expertise came predominantly through self-education. It was the same with other leading British geologists of the 19th century. George Greenough, the first president of the Geological Society of London, trained in law. Roderick Murchison, who was significant in working out the Devonian and Silurian systems of strata in the 1830s and 1840s, had a military education. In fact, it is said that he chose to learn stratigraphical geology because it did not require the academics of mineralogy. Henry De la Beche similarly had a military education. He eventually headed up the geological survey of Britain for the government and led the efforts to found the School of Mines in London.15 As noted earlier, Adam Sedgwick admitted that he was practically ignorant of geology when in 1818 he was elected to the Geological Society and to be Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge. What he did know of geology came from reading, not field experience, though this quickly changed after 1818.
William Fitton, who later became president of the London Geological Society, was rather emphatic on this matter of education, when he defended the society in 1817, saying:
It has been remarked by critics that the want of education is sometimes of advantage to a man of genius, who is thus free to the suggestions of invention, and is neither biassed in favour of erroneous maxims, nor deterred from the trial of his own powers by names of high authority. On this principle it is evident that the members of the Geological Society have derived great benefit from their want of systematic instruction. At the time of its formation there was, in fact, no English school of mineralogy where they could imbibe either information or prejudice. They were neither Vulcanists nor Neptunists nor Wernerians nor Huttonians, but plain men, who felt the importance of a subject about which they knew very little in detail; and, guided only by a sincere desire to learn, they have produced, with a rapidity that is truly surprising, publications of the greatest interest and importance upon the subjects to which they have devoted.16
So while university studies in chemistry or mineralogy were seen by some as helpful, they were not necessary to be regarded as a competent geologist in the 1820s and 1830s. In fact, professional training in science generally did not become established until the late 1840s.17 In any case, it will be seen in subsequent chapters that many of the scriptural geologists had just as great a desire and intelligence to learn as any founding member of the Geological Society or other “elite” geologists.
Certainly we would expect that a non-negotiable characteristic of a good geologist was his personal firsthand observations of the rocks, fossils, and strata of the earth’s crust. Buckland and Lyell both had ample experience here. Buckland regularly explored the geological features in the countryside and took students on field trips. He had an extensive collection of fossils and rocks, which he always used in his lectures. His most famous field work was related to the fossils found in the Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire and incorporated into his early apparent defense of the Noachian flood in Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823).18
Lyell, though a practicing barrister until 1828, spent some considerable time in the field before writing his Principles of Geology (1830–33). In the summer of 1823 he visited Paris and met the catastrophists Humboldt, Cuvier, and Brongniart and made some geological excursions in the area. In 1825 he went on geological field trips in southwest England and later with Buckland in Scotland. And he spent three months in 1828 in the Auvergne region of France with Roderick Murchison studying the river valleys. Many more trips followed as he gave up law and pursued geology on a more full-time basis. However, the original two-volume manuscript of his Principles was given to the publisher in late 1827, six months before he made his first major geological tour, which was through France and northern Italy.19
In addition to geological reading (or education) and field work, other criteria could be suggested which might be assumed to be necessary marks of a competent geologist, but which in a study of the recognized geologists of the 1820s and 1830s prove not to be essential.
1. A competent geologist need not be a member of the Geological Society of London.
William Smith, the “Father of English Stratigraphy,” was considered to be one of the best practical geologists in early 19th century Britain. But he was never a member of the Geological Society. In fact, many of the leading practical geologists (i.e., those involved in mining, building canals, railways and roads, and digging wells, etc.), such as John Farey and Robert Bakewell, were not members of the GSL and many of the early members and officers of the society were not geologists, even well into the late 1820s after its birth in 1807. Furthermore, Rudwick has estimated that at the time of the “Devonian controversy” (1834–37) only two-thirds of the competent geologists in Britain were members of the society.20
2. Being well-traveled, especially internationally, or having first-hand knowledge of the geology and geography of an area was not essential to write competently on geology.
John Macculloch was praised by Lyell as an excellent geologist, who had a lasting and powerful influence on geology and even on Lyell’s own thinking, even though Macculloch was a catastrophist and his two-volume System of Geology (1831) had many imperfections, including outdated information.21 Yet in defense of the fact that Macculloch based his System of Geology mainly on what he observed in Britain, he stated:
Geologists have been acused [sic] of founding theories upon single and favoured districts; yet have I drawn my chief illustrations from Britain? It is true: but there is no resemblance in the applications: as I can also justify this proceeding. Geological facts have no relation to geography: the Earth is everywhere of the same general structure. And I need not hesitate to say, that excepting volcanoes, and little more, this little island contains every fact in the world, with much that is almost peculiar to itself; and that more knowledge can be acquired from a careful examination of it, than from all the writings of all those who have prided themselves on the extent of their travels.22
Like the scriptural geologist George Fairholme, Lyell wrote on the causes and age of Niagara Falls in his Principles of Geology based on the writings of other reliable observers, long before he himself visited America (including the falls) in 1841–42.23 Nevertheless, Lyell discredited the great German mineralogist Abraham Werner because Werner made a universal theory of the earth based on very little personal knowledge of the geology of areas outside his native Saxony. Ospovat has pointed out, however, that James Hutton, forefather of Lyell’s own uniformitarian ideas, likewise traveled little outside his native Scotland.24 In fact, Hutton first published his cyclical theory of the earth in 1785 before he had studied any rocks in the field and he traveled very little outside Scotland to look for confirmation of his theory.25
Similarly, Georges Cuvier, who did not explore much geology outside the environs of Paris, based his Theory of the Earth (1813) exclusively on a study of the Paris Basin, or rather a study of the fossils found there by others, for he himself relied on others, primarily Alexandre Brongniart, for the geological information.26
3. A person did not need to be gainfully employed as a geologist in order to be considered a competent geologist in the 1820s and 1830s.
Murchison was an independently wealthy, retired military man, who did not take a job as a geologist until he replaced De la Beche in the 1840s in the governmental Department of Geological Survey. De la Beche himself initially did his geological work living off funds from his father, a plantation owner in the West Indies, before becoming a government geologist in the mid-1830s. Lyell was initially a lawyer by profession. Then for a short time he earned a little from geological lectures presented to a paying public. But for most of his life he lived off the royalties of his successful geological writings. George P. Scrope married into wealth, which funded his early geological research on volcanos and valleys in France and he spent most of his professional life as a member of Parliament from Stroud (for 35 years) before resuming geological work in his retirement. George Greenough, the first president of the Geological Society and active in geology for many years after that, was likewise independently wealthy.27 In fact, it was not until the late 1840s, in large measure because of the Devonian controversy, that we see the rise of the professional specialist (as opposed to the independently wealthy gentleman) in geology.28
4. A competent geologist in the early 19th century did not necessarily have a good knowledge of conchology.
One might think that this would be absolutely essential, since shells were by far the most common fossils found in the geological record and the most important fossils used to identify, correlate, and relatively date the strata in various locations. However, William Smith, who was recognized for having developed this technique for classifying the strata, said the following in 1817 about his Stratigraphical System of Organized Fossils:
Errors in [my] stratified arrangement can be corrected by those only who are locally acquainted with the strata, and the numerous organized Fossils they contain. On this principle I have ventured, without much knowledge of Conchology, and with weak aids in that science to give the outlines of a systematic arrangement [of the geological record].29
Similarly, Lyell based his uniformitarian theory largely on the fossil shells of the tertiary, but he did not start studying conchology until 1830, the year Volume 1 of his Principles of Geology was published and two years after the theory was firmly fixed in his mind.30
5. Finally, and perhaps most important to note, for a person to be considered competent in geology it did not mean that he was unbiased and unaffected in his geological theorizing by non-scientific considerations.
Nicholaas Rupke has argued persuasively that Buckland’s catastrophist geology was significantly influenced by his involvement in university and social reform. Speaking of the reform going on in Britain at the time, Rupke wrote:
The geological notion of progressive earth history cannot be separated from this historical milieu. The progressivism of the English school [of geology, of which Buckland was a leader] was formulated at a time when the idea of progress was becoming a major determinant of cultural expectation in English society.31
In other words, the perceived progressive nature of the geological record was used as a basis for, and to some extent shaped by, the idea that man and society were improving.
Lyell likewise was not a purely objective observer of the geological facts. A number of recent historians of science and geologists have shown that politics, economics, and deistic (or unitarian) theology had a significant bearing on the interpretation of geological formations given by Lyell (and Scrope, upon whom Lyell heavily relied).32 In his discussion of Lyell and the uniformitarian catastrophist debate in the 1820s and 1830s, geologist Derek Ager, a leader in the 20th century renaissance of geological catastrophism, remarked:
My excuse for this lengthy and amateur digression into history is that I have been trying to show how I think geology got into the hands of the theoreticians [uniformitarians] who were conditioned by the social and political history of their day more than by observations in the field.33
American old-earth geologist, Edward Hitchcock, argued that both the French geologists and Lyell had a hostility against the Bible, which very much affected their interpretation of the Noachian flood and the geological evidence.34
So, the definition of geological competence was not fixed in the 1820s and 1830s as geology matured as a science and certainly, as Rudwick has shown, there was a gradient of competence. But the level of competence necessary for proposing or debating a detailed stratigraphy of a particular region within the old-earth framework (such as in the Devonian controversy of the mid-1830s) was much higher than that needed to propose the old-earth framework and state its supporting evidences (in the years 1790–1815) or to criticize those theories and arguments, as the scriptural geologists did. Upon consideration of further criteria than those proposed by Rudwick, it may be argued that a competent geologist in the 1820s and 1830s was one who devoted a significant portion of his time to firsthand observation of the geological formations in the field and was knowledgeably conversant with current geological literature, facts, and theories. If, added to these, his field observations were not just regional, but national or international in extent, if he published his research in reputable scientific journals and/or books, if he was a member of one or more scientific societies, if he had personal contact with recognized geologists, if he added new facts to the pool of geological knowledge, if he earned his living from his geological work, etc., then so much the better. But these latter attributes were not necessary in the 1820s and 1830s to qualify as a competent geologist who was able to critically evaluate the theories of an old earth and the geological evidences adduced as proof of those theories.
These considerations assist in the evaluation of the Genesis-geology debate and the part which the scriptural geologists played in it. As we will see, George Young, John Murray, William Rhind, and George Fairholme were quite competent in geology (possessing even some of the extra characteristics mentioned above) and had as much or more first and secondhand geological knowledge than some of those categorized by Rudwick as accomplished, or even elite, geologists. It will also be shown that some of the other scriptural geologists were better informed geologically than was (or is) generally acknowledged by their critics.