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Laying the Foundations Evolution vs Design - Part 4

Moving forward with our historical narrative of the development and adoption of evolution by Western culture, an accounting for the secularization of science, not only in biology but also in astronomy, cosmology, geology, and other earth sciences must be given. Part three in this series examined a very small part of the history that led Western thought to doubt the Bible’s revelation of anything materialistic. This included the revelation of the origin of mankind, the planet, and generally anything found in the Genesis account of creation. Miraculous manifestations were considered mythological and humanism was replacing a reverence for God. For until the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, most sciences were based upon a Judeo-Christian foundation in Western thinking. Just as God had made all living creatures, in cosmology God had made the Universe. In astronomy God had made the earth, the sun, moon and stars.  In geology God had made an idyllic world that later became cursed by sin and death and made more chaotic, broken and distorted by the global flood of Noah. This great catastrophic flood could account for nearly every geological feature known at the time, from great canyons, to high mountain ranges, water was to be blamed for carving the landscape, creating massive fossil graveyards and drowning ancient cities to the depths of the ocean floor. Nevertheless, humanistic influences were growing among the ranks of the educated.  

The historical development of geology as a science can be traced to ancient philosophers, but in large part with the arrival of Christianity, Western civilization adopted a Noachian global flood model to account for the massive oceanic sedimentary rock formations that literally layered the surface of every continent explored.  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, during the Age of Reason, geology was developing as a scientific field.  Philosophers and secular influences that doubted biblical miracles were questioning the biblical revelation of Earth’s history. Education encouraged new philosophical ideas and the origin of geological formations was not isolated from scientific research. Novel ideas were brought to bear in the consideration of how and when rock formations were formed and when and how fossilization occurred. The time scales needed for sediments to deposit on the face of the planet and explanations for how the current landmasses could have been submerged under the ocean to allow for such deposition were of prime concern to the birthing of this new science. Was the flood of Noah the only explanation for the thousands of feet of marine sediment that now lay deposited and solidified into the rock that comprised most of the surface of the present landmasses? Was the biblical catastrophe to be believed? Did scientific methods suggest other processes were at work which may have demanded greater ages than the biblical 6000 years allowed?

For our purposes, I want to focus on the times and influences which led Charles Darwin to believe that living forms had developed from a common ancestor. For the most part, 150 years after Darwin, these are the same interpretations of the scientific evidences that led Darwin to propose biological evolution; the transmutation of life forms creating new species. While he did not know the means by which variation arose and without proof of intermediate ancestry (missing links), he largely depended on the novel conclusions of his peers in the geological sciences. Men like James Hutton (1726-1797) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who are now considered the Fathers of modern geology, were advocating great ages to the planet. Time was at least one of the factors Darwin needed for his proposition to be credible. A new geology that rejected the biblical flood model was coming into vogue and it added great ages to the planet’s existence to make sense of sedimentary geology.  Fossilization was said to have taken millions of years to occur and this at the bottom of the ocean. Without these great ages to earth geology, Darwin would have been at a loss to account for the time needed for the millions of generations required for living beings to transform from one form of creature to another. It was bad enough that he had no known scientific mechanism to explain the source of the variation he saw in living things let alone to demonstrate the existence of the required intermediates. In Lyell’s geology, Darwin found the time he thought was needed for his proposal to be considered possible.

To put this into an elementary perspective, Darwin needed to make his concept of evolution viable. Consider what changes would be required for something like a fish to change into a salamander or a salamander to transform into a lizard or for a lizard to transform into a mouse-like mammal. Although Darwin had no mechanism for how life forms gave rise to new variations, he could see that variations existed in every species.  In the breeding of dogs and of pigeons Darwin could easily note differences in the individuals born and bred. This variation when applied in natural setting, Darwin thought, may have given rise to some features advantageous to obtain food, hide from predators, outrun the competition and find a mate. Through time, the accumulation of such traits would become dominant in the specie until it had only a distant relation to the original form from which it came. For such changes to accrue by natural selection, great lengths of time were needed. Geology was primed to give Darwin the time he needed and hoping against hope provide fossil evidence of the intermediate life forms required to substantiate his hypothesis.

The influence of Hutton and Lyell on the science of geology held sway to a number of developing sciences not the least of which was the concept of biological evolution. Up until their contributions, numerous and brilliant minds were describing the same geological features as Hutton and Lyell observed by using the classic global diluvial model–Noah’s flood. For instance John Woodward (1625-1728) wrote a number of books based on his observations that sedimentary rock formations were laid down by marine (ocean) sediments but in a rapid layering across thousands of square miles creating multiple strata or flat layers of mud and muck. Once the oceans receded from off the land these layers hardened into rock. One of the earliest paleontologists of his time, Woodward described in his work Essay Toward a Natural History of the Earth, the powerful effect of the flood to pulverize pre-existing rocks, dissolve the crust of the planet and emulsify every living thing into “one confused mass” such that rock, sand, silt, clays, plants and animals were then deposited in layers such as we find them; fossils being the mineral remnant demonstrating the validity of his claim. The effects of gravity, fluid dynamics, weight, body size and density determined how the sediments were laid, one upon another to form the now rock solid tombs in which once living creatures were embedded. Woodward did not stop with these observations but proceeded to describe the formation of rivers, canyons, caves and the carving out of these sediments as post-flood geology and the impingement of volcanism and earthquakes that must have contributed to the catastrophic effects of the global flood on the surface of the earth. Many other diluvialists contributed to the scientific opinions inherently dependent upon the flood and wrote of their opinions as well.

At the same time, other hypotheses were being offered which agreed in part with Woodward’s position. It was undeniable and still is that the oceans had inundated the land. This was and can be seen in the sedimentary nature of the rock layers that hold fossils. Oceanic deposition was required to account for the entire surface of the earth covered with sheets of sedimentary rock.  However, to James Hutton the numerous layers of sedimentary rock and often of different composition, i.e., silt, clays, conglomerates, appeared to him as repeated diluvial exposures of the continents. He proposed that the continents sank under the oceans only to rise again and this over great ages to allow for the slow deposition of sediments on the ocean floor. Great ages would be required to form the rock layers some hundreds and others thousands of feet thick. The sediments would, over vast stretches of time, claim the dead that were deposited from the rivers to the ocean only to petrify them when the rising of the continent exposed the muck layers to the air, cementing the sediments and all that were contained therein to rock.      

It was agreed that the surface of the earth could not be original since it was blanketed with many layers of oceanic sediments. For Hutton the land was made from the deposits of the ocean floor and this by slow and timeless means being required for the accumulation of so much debris.  Then the needed eons of time for a slow rise of the continents and exposure of the ocean bed to the atmosphere resulted in the concretion of sediment to rock. While the evidence of multiple layers of sedimentary rock composed of different substances might at first glance appear to support Hutton’s hypothesis, no natural phenomenon was or is known to cause the continents to sink and rise again. At least no formal mechanism has yet been put forth.

While Hutton, who, among others, proposed that sedimentary geology could be explained by great ages of slow submergence and resurgence of the continents, it was Charles Lyell who created a structural framework by which to communicate and to diagnose a sedimentary layer.  He did this by means dependent upon associating the types of marine shells found in a layer of rock with a particular sedimentary formation. Through his work he advanced the idea that sedimentary rock could be used to gain knowledge of earth history. By slow but progressive and monotonous processes taking millions of years, the formation of rock strata could be used as a timepiece and the organisms trapped in a specific layer typified the world’s ecology of that particular time. Geologic time became a nomenclature that typified Lyell’s hypothesis and highlighted the idea that the forces of nature seen in that day were the very means by which the history of the earth was laid down in the layers of rock. For Lyell, no form of catastrophic occurrence could account for the existence of geological formations.

It is of particular importance that the historical development of geology as a science is understood. Like biology, geology slipped from the hands of scriptural scientists to secular scientists. Revelation was outright rejected. For Darwin the opportunity to consider the slow transmutation of one life form into another was made available by Lyell’s work. Of the books Darwin took with him in his 5-year trip around the world the two most prized were the Bible and Lyell’s Principles of Geology. In consideration of the influence of other biologists of the time, including Darwin’s own grandfather, Lyell’s work literally gave Darwin the time (millions of years) he needed to consider the possibilities that transmutation of the species could account for the origin of speciation.

There remains to this day an absence for Darwin’s mechanism for transmutation of living forms as well as a complete ignorance of how continents dip down below the oceans and rise again.  Nevertheless, for a large part of the developing scientific community, the novelty of these ideas combined with the social quest for materialistic means by which to explain the existence of the world and life, pushed the Bible’s miraculous explanation of the world into the realm of mythology. Miracles do not explain how a thing comes to be. That is the nature of a miracle. Using the scriptures for guidance to materialistic mechanisms for the phenomenon of life and the existence of our universe is indeed vanity. However, the existence of the features of living things and the explanation for the origin of sedimentary formations are just two examples that cannot be rationally explained by scientific means without invoking some unaccountable process or mechanism that defies all sensibility to a secular hypothesis. It is not unreasonable to explain the existence of global patterns of sedimentary layers of rock by a global flood model.This is what is evident and the facts align with the hypothesis. It is not unreasonable to explain the existence of living beings by intelligent design since what we can comprehend defies our current knowledge of how molecules, cells and genetic programming exist otherwise. The existence of living things demands a designer; no other physical mechanisms make sense in light of what we have discovered. Secular science’s adoption of materialistic explanations only fulfills as Paul wrote:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Romans 1:19-21)

Without accepting the revelation of God concerning things that have no materialistic answer in themselves, and yet invoke unknown and unknowable processes to create an explanation otherwise, is futile thinking. What can be ascertained from the facts of life is clearly understood to be beyond physical means and mechanisms. To invoke processes like continental submergence and rising again seems a deliberate rejection of what is obvious—catastrophic diluvialism (the flood of Noah). This will become clearer as we look closer at the earth’s surface and examine the sedimentary rocks, fossil finds, underwater cities, the ocean floor including the mid-oceanic ridge, the frozen tropical forests of Antarctica and the strange finds in the artic regions of the world. 

Darwin needed time to make his hypothesis work. He also needed a source for the spontaneous origin of life and a source for genetic variation that today we know must be imparted as new information to the DNA molecule in order for evolution to be a potential mechanism for life’s development. Lyell gave Darwin the time needed for transmutation of species but at the cost of any known mechanism that could account for his own ideas of uniformitarian processes that shaped the land features of the planet. Lyell and Hutton and others could make up fascinating scenarios but no proof was to be found to support their hypotheses. Geology and biology were being explained by hypotheses that could not be tested. Fascinating stories were conceived but no hypothesis testing was possible.

Darwin did write a forceful and almost convincing strategy of how his natural selection process and the hosts of fossil finds in sedimentary rock might be related. He wrote more on the complete lack of transitional fossils found in sedimentary rock and explained in great detail why this was to be expected. Here he is quoted:

On this doctrine of the extermination of an infinitude of connecting links [missing links], between the living and extinct inhabitants of the world, and at each successive period [period of geological history] between the extinct and still older species, why is not every geological formation charged with such links? Why does not every collection of fossil remains afford plain evidence of the gradation and mutation of the forms of life? We meet with no such evidence, and this is the most obvious and forcible of the many objections which may be urged against my theory.Why, again, do whole groups of allied species appear, though certainly they often falsely appear, to have come in suddenly on the several geological stages? Why do we not find great piles of strata beneath the Silurian system, stored with the remains of the progenitors of the Silurian groups of fossils? For certainly on my theory such strata must somewhere have been deposited at these ancient and utterly unknown epochs in the world's history.

I can answer these questions and grave objections only on the supposition that the geological record is far more imperfect than most geologists believe. It cannot be objected that there has not been time sufficient for any amount of organic change; for the lapse of time has been so great as to be utterly inappreciable by the human intellect. The number of specimens in all our museums is absolutely as nothing compared with the countless generations of countless species which certainly have existed. We should not be able to recognize a species as the parent of any one or more species if we were to examine them ever so closely, unless we likewise possessed many of the intermediate links between their past or parent and present states; and these many links we could hardly ever expect to discover, owing to the imperfection of the geological record. Numerous existing doubtful forms could be named which are probably varieties; but who will pretend that in future ages so many fossil links will be discovered, that naturalists will be able to decide, on the common view, whether or not these doubtful forms are varieties? As long as most of the links between any two species are unknown, if any one link or intermediate variety be discovered, it will simply be classed as another and distinct species. Only a small portion of the world has been geologically explored. Only organic beings of certain classes can be preserved in a fossil condition, at least in any great number. Widely ranging species vary most, and varieties are often at first local,—both causes rendering the discovery of intermediate links less likely. Local varieties will not spread into other and distant regions until they are considerably modified and improved; and when they do spread, if discovered in a geological formation, they will appear as if suddenly created there, and will be simply classed as new species. Most formations have been intermittent in their accumulation; and their duration, I am inclined to believe, has been shorter than the average duration of specific forms. Successive formations are separated from each other by enormous blank intervals of time; for fossiliferous formations, thick enough to resist future degradation, can be accumulated only where much sediment is deposited on the subsiding bed of the sea. During the alternate periods of elevation and of stationary level the record will be blank. During these latter periods there will probably be more variability in the forms of life; during periods of subsidence, more extinction. (463-65, emp. added)

So it was clear at the time, and still is, that intermediate and transitional life forms were not to be found either living or in the fossil record. Darwin’s interpretation of the fossil record was clear:

Those who think the natural geological record in any degree perfect, and who do not attach much weight to the facts and arguments of other kinds given in this volume, will undoubtedly at once reject my theory. For my part, following out Lyell's metaphor, I look at the natural geological record, as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, in which the history is supposed to be written, being more or less different in the interrupted succession of chapters, may represent the apparently abruptly changed forms of life, entombed in our consecutive, but widely separated formations. On this view, the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished, or even disappear. (310-11)

His imagination was unfettered as he considered how the ages and ecology of local regions of the ancient earth must have been remarkable and made so by the physical properties of matter yielding to great ages of change resulting in the formation of the diversity of living things.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. (489-90)

For Darwin, death, disease, struggle and war were the means by which life developed. He had mankind in mind when he said that the laws of nature had “elaborately constructed…the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving.” And so began an argument that has not yet been settled in the minds of those who still care. Was it death that provided the driving force for the creation of life in its varied forms? Or was life authored by a Higher Power; death being the result of breaking the Laws of Nature’s Lord?


In part five of this series we must look at earth’s geology and geography and ask if the evidence accumulated since Darwin adopted Lyell is the result of any uniform processes that explains what we see. Mountain ranges, canyons, deserts, continental shelves, frozen ice caps, fossils, extinctions, flood plains, sunken cities, monoliths, the geologic column and many other features of geology must be considered. What hypothesis explains the planet’s current physical condition? Did Lyell have it right? Or was Woodward far ahead of his time in his scientific claim that all the surface of the earth reveals a catastrophic inundation of water upon the land—a claim already put forth by biblical authority.   


Works Cited

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. London: Clowes, 1859.