The Ultimate Question

The sun-centered solar system model began to attract converts and the Church started to realize that it would look foolish if it continued to oppose what a majority of the world viewed as reality.  In the Eighteenth Century it relaxed its position on scientific inquiry and a new era of intellectual freedom opened.  Despite advances in biology, chemistry, mathematics and even physics, one question remained the elephant in the room that everyone ignored: how was the Earth (and, by extension, the universe) created?  There were two main reasons for avoiding this question.  First, science confined itself to explaining natural phenomena and the creation of the Earth was widely viewed to be supernatural and therefore beyond the ken of science.  Secondly, poking around in this area might, it was thought, upset the mutual respect and relatively stable truce that existed between science and religion.  No one wanted a return to Galileo’s time.

Actually, the question was even narrower than how the Earth was created.  Most scientists still accepted the Biblical version of creation by God, reducing the question to when did God create the Earth, not how or even did He.  Scholars combed through the begats of Genesis, counting years trying to set a precise time for In the beginning.  The markers in the Bible are sufficiently vague that differences of a few thousand years showed up.  Alfonso X of Castile determined a date of 6904 B.C. while Johannes Kepler found a more recent date of 3992 B.C.  Probably the most thorough search was made by James Ussher who later became Archbishop of Armagh.  He used agents in the Middle East to search out and obtain ancient Biblical texts so as to reduce errors caused by translation.  He made a huge effort to link Old Testament chronology to that of the secular world.  Eventually he discovered that Nebuchadnezzar, who is mentioned briefly in Second Kings, is also mentioned by Ptolemy in a list of Babylonian kings.  He was thereby able to anchor at least one Biblical date to a non-Biblical historical record.  Ussher arrived at an age of 4004 years for the Earth.  He went even further and declared that the creation began at 6:00 p.m. on October 22, 4004 B.C.  His date was accepted by the Church of England and was included in the King James version until into the Nineteenth Century.

Science was generally happy to accept Ussher’s date mainly because there was no evidence to the contrary.  However, when Charles Darwin proposed his theory of evolution by natural selection, it soon became apparent that this theory could not fit into a world that was only a few thousand years old.  Natural selection is an agonizingly slow process, one that could not possibly have resulted in the complex life forms found on Earth today in less than 6,000 years.  Science could not afford to ignore Darwin’s theory.  Yet it couldn’t accept the theory and the age of the Earth, so it turned to a scientific examination of the age of the Earth.

Victorian geologists used what they calculated the rate of sedimentary deposits to be to arrive at an age of several million years.  Lord Kelvin assumed that the Earth began as a molten ball and calculated it would take 20 million years for the Earth to cool to its present state.  A few years later John Joly began by assuming the oceans started out pure and calculated how long it would take to arrive at their present salinity, resulting in an age of about 100 million years.  In the early 20th Century scientists were able to use radioactivity to estimate the age to be 500 million years.  Refinements in this technique led to an estimated age of over a billion years by 1907.

The dating game was on.


2 thoughts on “The Ultimate Question

  1. I had a literature class in high school that was led by a very educated and very eccentric teacher. It was here that I first heard the postulation that the earth was created in 4004 BC on a Tuesday. That has stuck with me since as one of the most ridiculous things that I have ever heard. But in the absence of better information, it was a theory at least.

  2. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that an old man claimed that the earth rode on the back of a giant turtle. When asked what supported the turtle, he said “another turtle.” When asked about that turtle, the old man replied, “I know where you’re going. It’s turtles all the way down.” I guess that’s a theory too.

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