Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

by Martin J. S. Rudwick


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Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters by Martin J. S. Rudwick

Earth has been witness to mammoths and dinosaurs, global ice ages, continents colliding or splitting apart, comets and asteroids crashing catastrophically to the surface, as well as the birth of humans who are curious understand it all. But how was it discovered? How was the evidence for it collected and interpreted? And what kinds of people have sought to reconstruct this past that no human witnessed or recorded? In this sweeping and magisterial book, Martin J. S. Rudwick, the premier historian of the earth sciences, tells the gripping human story of the gradual realization that the Earth’s history has not only been unimaginably long but also astonishingly eventful.
Rudwick begins in the seventeenth century with Archbishop James Ussher, who famously dated the creation of the cosmos to 4004 BC. His narrative then turns to the crucial period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when inquisitive intellectuals, who came to call themselves “geologists,” began to interpret rocks and fossils, mountains and volcanoes, as natural archives of Earth’s history. He then shows how this geological evidence was used—and is still being used—to reconstruct a history of the earth that is as varied and unpredictable as human history itself. Along the way, Rudwick defies the popular view of this story as a conflict between science and religion and reveals that the modern scientific account of the Earth’s deep history retains strong roots in Judaeo-Christian ideas. 
Extensively illustrated, Earth’s Deep History is an engaging and impressive capstone to Rudwick’s distinguished career.  Though the story of the Earth is inconceivable in length, Rudwick moves with grace from the earliest imaginings of our planet’s deep past to today’s scientific discoveries, proving that this is a tale at once timeless and timely.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226203935
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/22/2014
Pages: 392
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Martin J. S. Rudwick is professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego and affiliated scholar in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. His many other books include Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution and Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform, both also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Earth's Deep History

How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

By Martin J. S. Rudwick

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-20409-3


Making History a Science


"Time we may comprehend: 'tis but five days elder than ourselves." So the 17th-century English writer Sir Thomas Browne summarized, almost casually, the profound question of the ultimate origin of our world, our species and time itself. In the age of scientific giants such as Galileo and Newton, most people in the Western world, whether religious or not, took it for granted that humanity is of almost the same age as the Earth. They also assumed that not just the Earth, but the whole universe or cosmos, and even time itself, are scarcely any older than human life.

The opening chapter of Genesis, and of the Bible, set out a brief narrative in which Adam ("The Man") had been formed on the sixth day of creative action, after five days of preparation and before God completed a primal week by resting on its Sabbath day. Browne and his contemporaries did not need a repressive Church to bully them into accepting this as a reliable account of the most distant past (and anyway, in a Christendom fractured by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, there was no single all-powerful body capable of enforcing any such belief). It seemed obvious common sense to them that the world must always have been a human world, apart from a brief prelude in which the props necessary for human life had been put on stage: Sun and Moon, day and night, land and sea, plants and animals. A world without human beings would have struck them as utterly pointless, except as a brief setting of the scene for the human drama to come. So they took it for granted that Genesis gave them an authentic account of the world's earliest origins. It came, they believed, from the hand of Moses, the only ancient historian to have recorded the earliest ages of the world; and the very first phase of that history—before any human being had been there to witness and remember it—could only have been disclosed to Moses (or to Adam before him) by the Creator himself. To cap it all, nothing in the world around them seemed obviously to suggest that its history had been otherwise.

Browne and most of his contemporaries, educated and uneducated alike, took it for granted that the history of humanity was of almost the same length as the history of the natural world. But far from thinking these histories were very short, and the Earth very young, they regarded both as extremely long, relative to brief human lives of, at best, some "three score years and ten." History was plotted on a scale of the "Years of the Lord" (Anni Domini, AD) that had elapsed since Jesus's birth, which was treated as the uniquely pivotal moment of divine Incarnation. Since that point in time and the time, some thirty years later, when the Roman official Pontius Pilate had ordered Jesus's execution, more than sixteen centuries had passed into history. This was a very long span of time by any human standard; the study of the Romans and their highly respected Latin literature fully deserved its title of "Ancient History." Yet the scale of "Years Before Christ" (BC) stretched even further back, past the ancient Greeks and their equally admired literature, to the obscure earliest ages for which the only surviving records were widely believed to be those in the Bible. Most historians reckoned that the primal Creation itself must be nearly three times as distant from the Incarnation as the Incarnation was distant from their own day. In total this amounted to an almost inconceivably lengthy history of the world. Some fifty or sixty centuries seemed more than enough time for the unfolding of the whole of known human history and also therefore for the natural world, the stage on which it had been played out. The world's beginnings put even the "Ancient History" of the Greeks and Romans into the shade.

When one of these 17th-century historians calculated that the week of Creation had started on a specific day during the year 4004 BC, the date could be questioned, and was, but the precision aimed at was not. Nor was the order of magnitude thought to be an underestimate. This particular figure was published by James Ussher, an Irish historian whose powerful patron and great admirer had been King James I of England (James VI of Scotland). Shortly before that monarch's death, he appointed Ussher to be Archbishop of Armagh and head of the established Protestant church in Ireland, though as it happened the scholar spent most of his later life in England.

In modern times, Ussher and his date of 4004 BC have been much scorned and ridiculed. But Ussher was not a religious fundamentalist in the modern mold. He was a public intellectual in the mainstream of the cultural life of his time. His work doesn't deserve to be treated as a joke like those in 1066 And All That, the classic spoof history in which the English national story is studded with unmistakeable Good Kings and Bad Kings, Good Things and Bad Things. Ussher's 4004 BC was not, in its time, a Bad Thing. On the contrary, what it represented was in some important respects a thoroughly Good Thing. Ussher's view of world history may seem so far removed from the modern scientific picture of the Earth's deep history that there can be no possible link between them, except as irreconcilable alternatives (which, in the eyes of modern fundamentalists, both religious and atheistic, is just what they are). In fact, however, what 17th-century historians such as Ussher were doing is connected without a break with what Earth scientists are doing in the modern world. Ussher is therefore a good starting point for understanding the origins of our modern conception of the Earth's deep history. Moreover, once Ussher's ideas are under stood in the context of his own time, their superficial similarity to modern creationist ideas of a "Young Earth" is transformed into a stark contrast. The creationists, unlike Ussher, are out on a limb, and a precarious one at that.

In the 17th century Ussher was just one of the many scholars, scattered across Europe, who were engaged in the kind of historical research that was called "chronology." This was an attempt to construct a detailed and accurate timeline of world history, compiled from all available textual records, both sacred and secular, including records of striking natural events such as eclipses, comets, and "new stars" (supernovae). Other chronologists criticized or rejected many specific details in Ussher's timeline, but most of them shared his broader aims, and his compilation illustrates very well what they were all trying to do.

Ussher published his Annals of the Old Covenant (Annales Veteris Testamenti, 1650–54) near the end of a long and highly productive scholarly life. He wrote it in Latin, which ensured that it could be read by other scholars elsewhere: Latin was the common international language of educated people throughout Europe, just as English is today around the world. Ussher's two massive volumes were entitled Annals because they summarized year by year what was known of events in world history; or at least he assigned each event to what he judged to be its correct year, and described them all in strict temporal order. So his book began with Creation at 4004 BC. But it extended forwards right through the BC/AD divide and the years of Jesus's life, as far as the immediate aftermath of the Romans' utter destruction of the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. From Ussher's Christian perspective, this marked the decisive end of the "Old Covenant" linking God specifically with the Jewish people. So his chronology traced the course of world history as far as the first few years of God's "New Covenant" with the new people of God—in principle global and multi-ethnic—represented by the Christian Church.

Ussher's world history embodied the best scholarly practice of his time. Chronology fully deserved its status as a historical science (using that word in its original sense, which is still current except in the Anglophone or English-speaking world). It was based on a rigorous analysis of all the ancient textual records known to him. These were mostly derived from sources in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Half a century earlier, the French scholar Joseph Scaliger, the greatest and most erudite chronologist of them all, had also used those in several other relevant languages such as Syriac and Arabic. But even Scaliger knew only a little about sources further afield, for example from China or India, and the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered. Nonetheless, chronologists had available to them a massive body of multicultural and multilingual evidence. From all these varied records they extracted dates such as those of major political changes, the reigns of ancient monarchs, and memorable astronomical events. They then tried to match them up, often across different ancient cultures, and to link them together in a continuous chain of dated events. (The science of chronology is not extinct: the results of modern chronological research are on display in our museums, wherever artifacts from ancient China or Egypt, for example, are labeled with dates BC or BCE; all such dates are derived from similar correlations between the histories of different cultures.)

By far the greater part of Ussher's evidence, like that of other chronologists, came not from the Bible but from ancient secular records. Not surprisingly, his sources were most abundant for the more recent centuries BC, and tailed off rapidly as he penetrated into the more remote past. For the very earliest times they were extremely scanty and almost confined to the bare record in Genesis of "who begat whom" in the earliest generations of human life. This makes it clear that Ussher's main objective was indeed to compile a detailed history of the world, and not primarily to establish the date of Creation or to bolster the authority of the Bible in general. Ussher treated the Bible as one historical source among many, even if it was also, from his perspective, the most valuable and reliable of all.


Like other chronologists, Ussher adopted the sophisticated dating system that had been devised by Scaliger. The Frenchman had constructed a deliberately artificial "Julian" timescale from astronomical and calendrical elements. It provided a neutral dimension of time, as it were, on which rival chronologies could be set out and compared. It was not just a convenient device; it also highlighted the crucial distinction between time and history. Time itself was just an abstract dimension measured in years; history was all the real events that had happened in the course of time. What any chronologist claimed as real history could be plotted, on a baseline of the Julian scale, as "years of the world" (Anni Mundi, AM) counting forwards from Creation, or as "years before Christ" (BC) counting backwards from the Incarnation, from which the "Years of the Lord" (AD) were counted forwards. Research on chronology was powered by an intellectual craving for quantitative precision. This was characteristic of the age, and not confined to projects such as chronology. It was even more prominent in the natural sciences, for example in the contemporary work of astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. In both kinds of investigation, quantitative precision was valued more highly than ever before.

Like cosmology, however, chronology was a highly controversial kind of research. Producing a dated timeline of events was fraught with problems of incomplete, ambiguous, or incompatible records. At one point after another, chronologists had to use their scholarly judgment to decide which records were the most reliable, and how they could most plausibly be linked together in an unbroken timeline. Consequently, there were almost as many rival dates for each important event as there were chronologists proposing them. This was particularly true for the date of Creation itself. Ussher's 4004 BC was just one proposal in a crowded field ranging (according to one survey) from 4103 BC to 3928 BC. Scaliger, for example, had decided on 3949 BC, and Isaac Newton—a keen chronologist among many other things—later settled for 3988 BC. Ussher, like some other chronologists though not all, claimed a very precise date indeed, namely the start (at nightfall, according to Jewish timekeeping) of the first day of the first week after the autumn equinox; this marked the Jewish New Year equivalent to the Christian year 4004 BC. At the time, complex calendrical and historical reasoning made this kind of precision a perfectly respectable ambition, however bizarre it may seem to us.

It is only by historical accident that Ussher's 4004 BC has become the best known of all such dates and now the most notorious, at least in the English-speaking world. Almost half a century after Ussher's deatha scholarly English bishop included a long string of Ussher's dates among his own editorial notes in the margins of his new edition of the "Authorized" or "King James" translation of the Bible into English, which had originally been published with the authority of Ussher's royal patron back in 1611. Ussher's dates remained there, by custom or inertia, in successive editions of the Bible in English, right through the 18th century and most of the 19th, although they were never formally authorized by either church or state. Darwin and his English contemporaries, for example, would have grown up seeing 4004 BC printed on the very first page of their family Bibles. Many young or uneducated readers, not understanding the role of an editor, assumed that the date was an integral part of the sacred text, and they respected or even revered it accordingly. Only in 1885 were all Ussher's dates—by then long obsolete, in historical as well as scientific terms—omitted from the margins of the new "Revised Version" of the Bible. This was the first complete English translation to incorporate the greatly improved linguistic and historical understanding of the texts that was the fruit of biblical research by Jewish and Christian scholars since the time of Ussher (and King James). Readers of the Bibles placed by the Gideons in hotel bedrooms had to wait even longer, until the late 20th century, to be relieved of the implications of 4004 BC. In contrast, marginal dates did not usually feature in Bibles in other languages, so people outside the English-speaking world were generally spared this disastrous misapprehension that the exact date of primal Creation had been fixed by divine, or at least ecclesiastical, authority.


To return, however, to Ussher's century: his and other chronologists' efforts to compile rigorously precise "annals" of world history were a means to what most of them regarded as a more important end. Quantitative precision was intended to help yield qualitative meaning. Chronologists wanted to give precision to what they saw as the overall shape of human history, by dividing it into a meaningful sequence of periods. The primary division represented by the traditional dating system of years BC and AD was just such a distinction, for it separated the old human world before the Incarnation from the radically new human world which—from a Christian perspective—that unique event had first brought into being. But Ussher, like other chronologists, also subdivided the millennia of BC history, by defining a sequence of decisive events or "epochs," which in turn marked out a sequence of distinctive "ages," "eras," or periods. Ussher identified five significant turning-points between the mega-events of the Creation and the Incarnation. These ranged in time from Noah's Flood to the ancient Jews' deportation into exile in Babylon. Adding the period since the Incarnation, world history could then be divided into a sequence of seven ages. These were often taken to match, or echo symbolically, the sequence of seven "days" in the week of Creation itself. So the whole shape of world history was deeply imbued with Christian meaning.

In the 17th century, then, world history was pictured qualitatively as a sequence of distinctive periods bounded by particularly significant events, each of which chronologists tried to date accurately on a quantitative timescale. All this history was taken to be, most importantly, one of cumulative divine self-disclosure or "revelation," but it was also largely human history. The non-human world of nature was treated for the most part just as a setting for the human drama, an almost unchanging background or context for human action and divine initiative. Only occasionally did events in the natural world feature prominently in accounts of human history, either sacred or secular. In the sacred story, for example, the waters of the Red Sea had retreated temporarily, enabling the Jewish people under Moses' leadership to make their Exodus from Egypt and gain their freedom. Equally conveniently, or providentially, the Sun "stood still" for an embattled Joshua (though what exactly that meant was much debated); later still, Jesus's birth and death were said to have been marked by, respectively, a new star and an earthquake.

Only at two points did the natural world feature still more prominently, right in the foreground of the sacred story. These two points were the Creation itself, and Noah's Flood. In the 17th century, each was the focus of a distinctive kind of historical commentary, which to a limited extent enlarged the scholarly study of texts with materials drawn from nature.


Excerpted from Earth's Deep History by Martin J. S. Rudwick. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

1. Making History a Science
The science of chronology
Dating world history
Periods of world history
Noah’s Flood as history
The finite cosmos
The threat of eternalism

2. Nature’s Own Antiquities
Historians and antiquaries
Natural antiquities
New ideas about fossils
New ideas about history
Fossils and the Flood
Plotting the Earth’s history

3. Sketching Big Pictures
A new scientific genre
A “sacred” theory?
A slowly cooling Earth?
A cyclic world-machine?
Worlds ancient and modern?

4. Expanding Time and History
Fossils as nature’s coins
Strata as nature’s archives
Volcanoes as nature’s monuments
Natural history and the history of nature
Guessing the Earth’s timescale

5. Bursting the Limits of Time
The reality of extinction
The Earth’s last revolution
The present as a key to the past
The testimony of erratic blocks
Biblical Flood and geological Deluge

6. Worlds Before Adam
Before the Earth’s last revolution
An age of strange reptiles
The new “stratigraphy”
Plotting the Earth’s long-term history
A slowly cooling Earth

7. Disturbing a Consensus
Geology and Genesis
A disconcerting outsider
Catastrophe versus uniformity
The great “Ice Age”

8. Human History in Nature’s History
Taming the Ice Age
Men among the mammoths
The question of evolution
Human evolution

9. Eventful Deep History
“Geology and Genesis” marginalized
The Earth’s history in perspective
Geology goes global
Towards the origin of life
The timescale of the Earth’s history

10. Global Histories of the Earth
Dating the Earth’s history
Continents and oceans
Controversy over continental “drift”
A new global tectonics

11. One Planet Among Many
Exploiting the Earth’s chronology
The return of catastrophes
Unraveling the deepest past
The Earth in cosmic context

12. Conclusion
Earth’s deep history: a retrospect
Past events and their causes
How reliable is knowledge of deep history?
Geology and Genesis re-evaluated

Creationists out of Their Depth
Further Reading
Sources of Illustrations

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