Friday, May 28, 2010

Age of the Earth—How Old is it? – Part I

Anciently, in the pre-scientific world view, the issue of the age of the Earth was a theological question, and that of the Universe not addressed at all, unless combined with the Earth’s creation. The account in Genesis was not required to stand up under rational analysis because the theological perspective did not require physical agreement. It was simply not part of the attitude.

As science progressed, however, rational explanation was desirable. In 1640 Ussher developed his famous calculation that the Earth was created in 4004 BC, accepting the Biblical account at face value, relying on the Biblical genealogies and on extant historical records. He implicitly assumed that the world was created much as it is now. However, three years earlier, Descartes produced a cosmogony that was highly influential for more than a century by retaining the biblical dates, but attempted to discern a physical history of the Earth. His account was plausible by the standards of the Science of his times; however it quite definitely did not match the Biblical account of a completed creation in six days.

During the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Catholic Church dictated most aspects of life in Europe and European colonies, and had control of religious affairs and strongly influenced politics, science and most aspects of everyday life. However, as new discoveries were made in the fields of natural science, many people began to deviate from the standards that had been in place for centuries. In the 1700's belief in a 6000-year-old Earth began to crumble. Attempts to calculate the age of the Earth from physical considerations yielded estimates that ranged from Buffon’s 75,000 years to de Maillet’s several billion years.

The physical models of the time were open to question and somewhat naïve, but the geological evidence was gaining acceptance. In this new thinking, many areas of the Earth had alternated between being dry land and covered by seas, that there had been extensive slow sedimentation, that the mountains had not been created in situ as is, but had a long history of slow deformation, and that long periods of erosion had shaped the Earth everywhere.

However, all scientists did not agree with this thinking, and four years after Buffon’s reports, Jean de Luc, who today is considered a transitional between the armchair speculation of the seventeenth century and the hard-nosed empiricism of the nineteenth century, accepted the biblical account, including the Noachian flood—but importantly, he assumed that the six days of creation were six long periods of indefinite duration.

By the early 1800's it was generally accepted that the Earth had a long history. Its age, however, was scarcely settled. Uniformatarians believed the Earth to be very old while Catastrophists disagreed with the kind of change and the rate of change that had occurred over that long history. There was no single estimate of the Earth's age, despite various attempts establish sedimentation rates and other geophysical phenomena.

However, the question that was (and is) never asked about the age of the earth, and the only one that really has any bearing on the issue is this: “Is the earth itself very old, or are just the parts that make it up very old?” Upon the answer to this hangs the very balance of our religion and understanding of the earth’s organization. This will be answered in the next post.

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