European views on terrestrial chronology from Descartes to the mid-eighteenth century
Published:January 01, 2001
Ezio Vaccari, 2001. "European views on terrestrial chronology from Descartes to the mid-eighteenth century", The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002, C. L. E. Lewis, S. J. Knell
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The Theories of the Earth formulated by the English scholars Thomas Burnet, William Whiston and John Woodward at the end of the seventeenth century circulated widely within the continent of Europe during the first decades of the eighteenth century. These theories established a sequence of physical conditions of the Earth according to the chronology outlined in the Book of Genesis, emphasizing two main stages: the Creation and the Deluge. Although the authority of the Biblical account of the age and early history of the Earth was normally accepted at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the continental reception of English Theories of the Earth varied. This was due to the complexity of the European context which since the 1660s had produced the theories of René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Athanasius Kircher, as well as Nicolaus Steno’s dynamic view on the development of the Earth’s surface. Steno emphasized the importance of the interpretation of rock strata in the field for reconstruction of the Earth’s history. He also carefully avoided contradicting the Biblical account and associated the Deluge with one of the geological stages identified in his history. Nevertheless, the Stenonian heritage stimulated some Italian scientists – such as Antonio Vallisneri, Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, and later Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti and Giovanni Arduino – to presuppose, within the results of their researches, an indefinitely great antiquity of the Earth. Theoretical models linked to Biblical chronology included those of Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland, while in France, Benok De Maillet proposed a Theory of the Earth which was censured by the Church because of its possible implications regarding the eternity of matter. Among European scholars of the first decades of the eighteenth century, the Stenonian heritage (notably the necessity of fieldwork in a regional context) and the global Theories of the Earth were equally influential.
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The Age of the Earth: From 4004 BC to AD 2002
The age of the Earth has long been a subject of great interest to scientists from many disciplines, particularly geologists, biologists, physicists and astronomers. This volume, The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002, brings together contributors from these different subjects, along with historians, to produce a comprehensive review of how the Earth’s age has been perceived since ancient times. Touching on the works of eminent scholars from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, it describes how concepts of the Earth’s history changed as geology slowly separated itself from religious orthodoxy to emerge as a rigorous and self-contained science. Fossils soon became established as useful markers of relative age, while deductions made from geomorphological processes enabled the discussion of time in terms of years. By the end of the nineteenth century biologists and geologists were fiercely debating the issue with physicists who were unwilling to give them the time needed for evolution or uniformitarianism.
With the discovery of radioactivity, attempts to calculate the Earth’s age entered a new era, although these early pioneers in radiometric dating encountered many difficulties, both technical and intellectual, before the enormity of geological time was fully recognized. This effort affected both the theory and practice of geology. Geochronology was largely responsible for it maturing into a professional scientific discipline, as increasingly refined techniques measured not only the age of the rocks, but the rate of processes which now elucidate many aspects of the Earth’s evolution.
Even today the Earth’s chronology remains a contentious topic — particularly for those dating the oldest rocks — and it is implicated in debates surrounding our hominid ancestors, the origins and development of life, and the age of the universe.
The Age of the Earth: from 4004 bc to AD 2002 will be of particular interest to geologists, geochemists, and historians of science, as well as astronomers, archaeologists, biologists and the general reader with an interest in science.