Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the garden in Eden.

Reimagining Natural History through Genesis and Geology

The Beginning

Following the impact of geology and paleontology in the early 19th century, evolutionary theories challenged the story of human origins recounted in sacred texts. By rendering humankind a product of nature, rather than divine creation, evolutionists broke down the barrier between human spirituality and the mentality of “survival of the fittest”. In this section I will describe the beginning of natural history in the 18th-19th centuries, as a recognition of the deep history of time propelled by paleontology and geology and furthering the relationship between science, religion, and human understanding.

New and Old Earth

Before the discovery of modern geology in the 19th century, the primary creationist belief was that the earth and universe were relatively young-10,000 years or less, based on the creation story of Adam in the Bible.  The view further considered the earth as historically static; the only significant event changing the surface of the earth was Noah’s flood, found in Genesis.

George Cuvier (1739-1862) , a French geologist was part of the first generation of geologists that went out and studied the structure of the earth. He created maps of layer forming cliffs in France, noticing that rock layers are very different kinds of rocks and a lot of these rocks contained ancient fossils. His research and investigation of these rocky layers implied that the surface of the earth has changed over generations and is more dynamic than previously believed. Cuvier found a limestone layer -seashells- creating evidence for a much older earth than the biblical chronology described in Genesis.

Georges Cuvier's Rock Layer Sketch, 1811.
George Cuvier studied and sketched rock layers in Paris. His 18th Century discoveries brought new calculations of the earth’s age.

The idea catastrophism was developed because of the new discoveries of the earth’s surface. This theory holds that the earth’s features are a result of earlier events which molded the surface to what it is now. Dinosaur bones and newly discovered vertebrae were discovered in the 1840’s around various parts of Europe and the globe. Elephant bones were excavated in the tropics, raising questions about the different fossils and their placement in specific locations on earth. The topic of extinction raised a theological problem: Since God created everything, then God created that species of animal, so why would God let them disappear?  The 1890’s, however, verified that the extinction was real and Cuvier and his excavations created a new form of field study, paleontology, the study of fossils.

The Big Fossil Animal, an image and description by Cuvier.
The “big fossil animal” (later named Mosasaur hoffmanii) from Vol. III, Cuvier’s “Ossamens Fossiles”. The Maastricht Mosasaur was the first giant prehistoric reptile to be found and described by science. It prompted enlightenment scholars to consider that the world might once have been populated by different creatures to those found today.

The Present in the Past

Charles Lyell, a British geologist, inspired by Cuvier’s current claims, traveled through Europe to find more evidence of gradual change. He observed rock layers, finding evidence of consistent rise and fall of sea levels through layers of rock and sand. Lyell introduced the process of uniformitarianism.  Uniformitarianism deduces that in order to understand the past, you can only use processes that can be observed changing the earth today. Processes such as erosion, earthquakes, and floods.

Thus, the changes in the earth’s crust during geological history have resulted from continuous and uniform processes. From this theory, Lyell concluded that the earth must be incredibly old for these rock formations to occur. From his research, Lyell also viewed the history of Earth as being vast and with no direction. Lyell revolutionized a new geologic history and created a powerful agenda for viewing the history of the Earth through connections in the present and the past.

Frontispiece of Principles of Geology, the most important book written by Lyell Frontispiece of Principles of Geology, the most important book written by Lyell The Theory of Uniformitarianism
The Frontispiece of Principles of Geology, the most important book written by Lyell. Lyell observed geology in action — such as lava erupting from Mount Etna, or rivers depositing sediment — and understood that these same processes explained the existence of mountains, valleys, and other landforms.

Genesis and Glaciers

Louis Agassiz was a Swiss biologist and geologist. Because of his location in Switzerland, he was able to see features of the earth that geologists in other parts of the world could not. He was specifically interested in glaciers, the slow movement of snow and ice. He watched masses of ice move down the mountains and reshape the earth’s surface. This new insight into glacial patterns became significant evidence that these mounds, defined as moraines, influenced the shape of the surface under them. In the 1830’s, he saw the evidence of great glaciers that would have covered much of Europe and North America and, therefore, was the first to suggest the possibility of an Ice Age. Therefore, the Ice Age animal fossils being discovered provided even more evidence that there was a major climate change and species became extinct because of this.

Lateral and terminal moraines of a valley glacier, Bylot Island, Canada.
Moraine is the name for raw glacial debris, the rock that is loosened and carried by glacial ice, then deposited where the ice melts. This view of a moraine shows the immense amount of rock and debris that a glacier plows in front of it or pushes off to the side. Moraines are an example of geologic change overtime.

The discoveries and theories of this new historical geology announced that the earth’s history can be read through rock layers. Geology became increasingly important because the evidence was impossible to reject and could be studied by anyone, anywhere. The history of the earth is, however, still short and incomplete. However, these discoveries proved that the earth had many more secrets revealed about its ancient past. The clear evidence of a much older earth was nearly impossible to reject. However, this theory was highly threatening to the creation story in Genesis. If the earth was vastly older than anticipated, how could the earth still have been created in a seven-day period?  Thus, with new geological evidence, there had to be a way to reconcile seven-day creation, ideas from the Old Testament and old earth discoveries.

Geology in Gods Defense

The Creation of the Animals
The Creation of the Animals, illustrated by Raffaello Sanzio in the 16th century.

Towards the end of the 18th century, most of the public was aware of geology as a new field of study and thought. For the vast majority of Christians, geology was not a major problem. A majority of Christians accepted theories such as the Gap Theory or the Day Age theory that were put forth by believers who still accepted Genesis but also accepted these new geological implications.

Gap Theory

Thomas Chalmers, a minister in Scotland in the 1800’s, devised the Gap Theory, which said the days of creation are literal 24- hour days, but between the first verse where God creates the earth, there is a gap between then and when God creates what is in and living on earth. He pointed out that the Bible is not a geology-oriented text and therefore does not need to describe the long history of the earth. In relation to the dinosaurs and the ice age, he proposed that those are not relevant to human history, so that is why they are not mentioned in the Bible.

Another prominent proponent of the Gap Theory was Edward Hitchcock, and an American geologist and evangelical Christian who advocated the gap theory. He came out with the Scofield Reference Bible in 1870. This was a standard Bible with footnotes in Genesis about what geologists are saying and advocate the Gap Theory, claiming this way geology challenges Genesis but does not cause a problem.

Scenes from Genesis
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is one of the most influential artworks of all time and a foundational work of Renaissance Art. Painted directly on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the masterpiece depicts key scenes from the Book of Genesis.

Day Age Theory

Hugh Miller, a geologist and evangelical Christian, additionally proposed an alternative way to accommodate modern geology into scripture. He argued that the creation days in Genesis are not 24-hour days but rather represent vast geological periods of time. This was called The Day Age theory. He saw that in the descriptions of the creation days, there were more sophisticated animals in later days and humans were created later. The Bible, therefore, generally gives us an accurate description of creation.

The Scriptual Geologist

A third group that accepted both geological evidence and Genesis, called themselves the Scriptural Geologists. This group were not actually geologists but believed that the Bible says what it says and means what it says. This group interpreted scripture with the least amount of creativity and claimed all of Genesis is true and correct. They continued to believe that the earth is not old. Their response to why there were rock layers was that God made fossils and rock layers to make the earth appear it was older than it actually was. However, this raises a theological problem of its own: Why would God try to trick humans in that way?  Is he a deceiving God? Their response was that God is not actually a deceiver but has a plan we do not understand.

The Religious Resistance

The Seven Day Adventist

The Seven Day Adventists
The Seventh-day Adventist prophetic time chart from 1863, about the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Adventists believe in the infallibility of the Scripture.

New discoveries of modern geology created alternative views on evolution and dismissed nature as being sacred. Human behavior shifted, and the idea of what it means to be a human being arose. Modern theories on humans and their position on earth have shifted into ideas such as humans potentially being hardwired biologically for religion and that evolution itself produced belief in God. The end of the 19th century was a time of religious turmoil. People were losing faith in traditional religion. The Seven Day Adventists were created when a woman named Ellen White sustained a head injury and started to see visions. She claimed that she saw the creation of the world by God, and that those days were 24-hour days. This vision, she says, showed that there was no big gap and that Genesis had to be taken literally.

The New Geology textbook was published in 1923 by Price, to convince the public to look at the Bible literally again. The book made two major claims. The earth is young and the Biblical flood produces all the evidence needed to believe in a young earth. Price was the beginning of the major push back religious groups had against geology and other large scientific discoveries and theories at the time. There was a need for alternative science for those who did not want to accept the new geological evidence of an old earth. Price created the Deluge Geology Society that supported the Biblical flood and young earth but collapsed because of debates within the group about how old the solar system is. This is a large example of how opposing mainstream science in an attempt to solve a conflict, raises separate conflicts of its own.

The Intelligent Designer

In addition to groups created specifically to address the age of earth, the Alternative Science theory of the Intelligent Designer was created. This states that earth’s design could only have come about through an intelligent design. The belief was that everything could not be purely natural and was related to the random chance theory. This alternative theory states that the cause of the big bang could not be natural, and the origin of life cannot be from natural causes. They also argue, for example, that DNA is so complex it cannot just be the result of a random chemical reaction. Additionally, this group of advocates believe that the origin of consciousness cannot be from nature, because the human mind is so complex it could not have developed in the natural process of evolution. This theory avoided the use of the word God. They accepted the discoveries of modern geology, but this was a last chance to find some way of defending the Gods’ role in the universe. With all the new sciences becoming much more complex, this was a way to make sure people still believed there was a need and use for God.

The Evidence for Human Evolution

Darwins finches
Drawings from Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. The Galapagos finches are one of the first well known examples of evolution and natural selection.

Charles Darwin and Naturalism

In the nineteenth century, the English naturalists Charles Darwin (1809-82) reimagined the living world in the image of a competitive, industrial Britain. He abandoned the Bible as a scientific authority and explained the origin of living things by divinely ordained natural laws. Charles Darwin studied and dropped out of the medical program at Edinburgh University. With the direction of his father, Darwin then studied at Cambridge University to train for the Church of England. Deciding there was nothing in them he could say he believed, Darwin shifted his focus again to a study that would change life as we knew it; geology. In 1828, Darwin studied under John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgewick; both radical geologists and thinkers. His growing fascination and studies with Sedgewick landed Darwin a position aboard the H.M.S Beagle, a geological research expedition in the Galapagos islands.

Darwin’s infamous research in the Galapagos provided evidence for an evolutionary process of development in which the human species was a part of. In the Galapagos, Darwin found evidence that new species were produced when populations became separated in isolated locations and subject to new conditions. In these circumstances, several different species could be produced from an original form. Darwin theorized that the theory of natural selection could explain how separated populations might change to their new environments. Thus, the making of different populations is essentially “random” based on location and the result of a “struggle for existence” among all species.

Evolutionary Theory

Evolutionary theory has always been seen as a major area in which science and religion interact, because of its influence on our ideas about the origin of the world. It additionally impacts the human mind because of its effects on our belief in God and his interaction with his creation. Inspired and informed by the impact of geology and paleontology, in the early nineteenth century, evolutionary theories challenged the story of human origins described by sacred texts.

The Darwinian theory of evolution was less romantic than the traditional story of human creation, creating a controversial issue. The traditional view remains that humans are divinely created and humans were created as such. The theory of natural selection declares that struggle and suffering are essential driving forces of natural development and the root cause of our own origin. Natural selection suggests, like geology, that the earth and what lives on it has a long and complex history of development. Darwin’s studies advanced the position of geologists by exploring the age of the earth through species and their evolution.

The impact of Natural History

Natural history has been forever entwined in intricate ways with the theological and philosophical assumptions of the diverse cultures and periods in which it developed. Its interpretation has been profoundly influenced by the gradual transformation of the classical and early Christian view of nature into the modern conception of a dynamic and evolving world. The scientific developments of geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, and anthrolopogists in the 18th and 19th centuries, reimagined the relationship between scripture and science. Developing sophistication in the understanding of our ecological system gradually reinforced a natural theoretical independence of Christianity. Natural history developed to include everything from the study of biology to geology to the anthropological development of culture and the human condition to adapt.

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