Genesis and geochronology:: the case of John Phillips (1800–1874)
Published:January 01, 2001
In 1841 John Phillips proposed that there were three great periods of past life on the Earth, namely the Palaeozoic, the Mesozoic and the Cainozoic, terms which are still used today. This was by no means Phillips’ sole contribution to geochronology and this paper examines his evolving views on it over a span of forty years. In the 1820s he adopted the Deluge as a notion which reconciled Genesis and geology. From the 1830s he adopted a liberal Christian position, which saw attempts at such reconciliation as futile and dangerous, and incurred the wrath of so-called scriptural geologists. From 1853 to his death, Phillips was a public figure as successively deputy reader, reader, and professor of geology in the University of Oxford. He was also president of the Geological Society from 1858 to 1860. The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) not only provoked him to reaffirm his liberal Christian beliefs but also induced him to give greater attention to geochronology as a weapon to be used against Darwinian evolution.
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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.