Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lyell and Darwin

Which two 19th century scientists most impact the contemporary creationism discussion, and what did they propose? Most would name Charles Darwin first, along with his theory of evolution: All living things have naturalistically descended from simpler, pre-existing forms over very long time frames.

Not as many would name Charles Lyell, who formalized the principle of uniformitarianism, a concept still important within the discipline of geology. It states that geological laws and processes operating today have always operated on earth; the present is the key to the past. Gradual events observable today such as erosion, sedimentation, glaciation, and plate tectonics, among many others, have been operating on our earth for millions of years, slowly and steadily shaping our planet. Uniformitarianism demands passage of immense time.

An important caveat must be mentioned. A common misconception of recent creationists is that old earth creationists are uniformitarianists who explain the shaping of the earth only by the geologically slow, gentle processes generally prevailing today. This, they claim, automatically leads to belief in evolution. In reality, old earth creationists accept the reality of many significant earth-changing catastrophic events over the vast span of earth history. These include huge meteorite impacts, massive global glaciation, large scale regional flooding, and extensive, prolonged volcanism. Old earth adherents believe in the constancy of natural laws governing geological processes. But they do not believe all these processes proceeded slowly or at a constant rate.

Evolution also demands immense time frames. Uniformitarianism provides that time. Both concepts are anathema to young earth creationists, who comprise perhaps 40% of America’s population, most of whom are found in evangelical churches. Old earth and evolution are perceived to be conjoined in the same belief system by this large group of 40%. Lyell and Darwin, therefore, are often mentioned as partners in originating a belief structure which undermines the Bible and destroys a biblically-based belief system.

The picture is not so simple. Many thoughtful Christians who honor God’s word subscribe to the doctrine of geological uniformitarianism, a bedrock principle for interpreting the history of our planet. But their belief in a very old earth does not bind them to belief in evolution. The sometimes heated disagreement and suspicion young and old earth creation adherents feel is a palpable reality.

Charles Lyell’s February 25, 1875 obituary in The New York Times stated, “He lived and died a Christian believer.” Other sources describe him as “a devout Christian.”

A study of the history of this discussion holds many surprises. Christians have embraced many different positions on the creationist belief spectrum. There are abundant reasons for this divergence of belief. Lyell and Darwin passed from the scene over a century ago, but the fallout from their proposals has lingered. In several upcoming posts I will discuss the twists and turns of beliefs held within the church community for the past dozen decades.