For centuries the established European view, based on the Bible, held that the Earth was created in seven days and that all life had been created during that time. The Bishop of Armagh (N. Ireland) had calculated the precise date of the Creation: October 23, 4004 B.C. Although absurd to the modern mind, eminent thinkers such as Newton and Kepler accepted this creation myth. So ingrained in the human imagination was the Biblical creation, that it took a very long time to convince even many of the best minds in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Several individuals, independently analyzing geological strata, laid the groundwork for a more accurate dating of the Earth and the establishment of the science of geology. The findings of these early scientists later influenced Charles Darwin as he developed his theory of evolution.
One of the first to develop a scientific theory of the age of the Earth was Horace-Benedict de Saussure of Switzerland in the 1700s. Saussure spent years studying rock formations in the Alps and speculating on how the Alps had originated. He came to realize that the Alps were very old and therefore the Earth must be much older than the generally accepted age of some 4000 years.
In approximately the same period, A Scottish physician and polymath, James Hutton, was making a detailed study of rock formations in his country. Like Saussure, Hutton’s knowledge of chemistry and also meteorology greatly enhanced his study of rocks. In 1785, he presented his detailed findings to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Hutton argued that the center of the Earth was hot, that land had risen from the sea over eons, and that rocks formed over great periods of time. His analysis of the patterns of rock layers (in which older layers were sometimes found on top of younger layers) and rock formations clearly indicated a dynamic planet where rock formations shifted and changed over millions of years. Hutton was part of the intellectual elite of Edinburgh, and his ideas were respected in that group, if not endorsed. However, the wider scientific community and the general public did not appreciate Hutton’s rejection of the Biblical story.
While Hutton worked out his theory in Scotland, a British surveyor, William Smith, was analyzing the geological strata of England and areas of Wales and Scotland. In a project that took decades. Smith produced meticulous maps of the geological strata and collected abundant fossils as he did so. Although he was a self-taught man from a very humble background, Smith realized as he worked that the idea of a young Earth was a myth. He also understood that the fossils he collected represented extinct forms, although religious orthodoxy held that the Creator would not have permitted extinctions. Smith’s ideas were difficult to refute considering the mass of evidence he presented. He published his first partial map in 1799, followed in 1815 by the first real geological map of England, Wales and part of Scotland.
Because of his modest social position, Smith was easily exploited by plagiarizers of his work. Financially ruined, he ended up in debtor’s prison, and after his release was homeless and had only sporadic work for years. But his story ended happily. In the early 1820s an aristocrat, John Johnstone, intervened on Smith’s behalf, and finally, in 1831, he received full recognition by the Geological Society, which named him the “father of modern geology.”