If you remember from last week’s post, we started by discussing Nicolas Steno, and his idea of the principle of superposition – that rock layers form by sediments settling on top of each other. You may also remember that although he believed in superposition, he still believed that most of the geological record was the result of the Biblical flood described in Genesis.
After Steno, there were many who started to doubt exactly how the Bible described the flood. Some, for instance, suggested the flood was extremely calm, and caused no new geology at all. Others suggested it was a local flood. Others still denied it ever happened, and suggested that the rocks had to form very slowly over time. One of these men was a Scotsman, James Hutton. He coined the concept of ‘uniformitarianism’ – the idea that the present was the key to the past. In other words, the entire geological record had to be explained by processes happening today, so a global flood was completely out of the question!
Uniformitarianism under James Hutton never really caught on, but it was extremely popularised by another Scotsman, a lawyer by the name of Charles Lyell. Lyell published a several-volume book, labelled, ‘The Principles of Geology’. His logic was simple. If the idea of superposition put forward by Steno was true, then the bottom layer got there first, the top layer got there last. If all of geology had to be explained by processes observed today (no worldwide flood), then we observe it takes huge amounts of time to lay rock layers down under normal conditions. If this was true, then the bottom layer did not only get deposited first, it was also older than the top layers. In fact, Lyell hypothesised that the layers represented millions of years worth of time. Bang! All of a sudden, the earth was now millions of years old!
Almost all of the examples used by Lyell to ‘prove’ his ideas have been disproved and rejected by geologists long ago. But his legacy, the idea that the earth is millions of years old, and that geologic processes must take vast amounts of time to work, lives on. And the worst part, was that he only had one agenda. Not to be scientific, but to at any cost “Free the sciences from Moses.” Lyell’s main purpose in popularising the concept of an extremely ancient earth was simply to discredit the Bible, and cause less people to believe it – despite the actual evidence saying otherwise.
Lyell left a legacy that still greatly affects science today. But perhaps the biggest and most damaging legacy he left were actually the foundations on which his protege built upon. You may never have heard of Charles Lyell before, but you’ve almost certainly heard of his main student – Charles Darwin.