Earths Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

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This is a short book about a big subject: the discovery and reconstruction of Earth's own history. It is also, sadly, Martin Rudwick's last book. Over a career spanning nearly forty years and eight books all listed in the bibliography , Rudwick has become the most prominent historian of the earth sciences, and he distills a life's work into this book. As such, it is Rudwick's last best hope to make a great revolution in human thought widely known.

A generation ago, historians used to talk a lot about revolutions in science--paradigmatic shifts in astronomy, natural philosophy, chemistry, biology, physics, etc. Geology had no such sudden shift.

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Although some tried to elevate Charles Lyell and his uniformitarian Principles of Geology into that pantheon, Rudwick was among those scholars who relegated the unconformable Lyell back to the plane of normal nineteenth century gentlemanly specialists. In the process, Rudwick began to re-write the history of the earth sciences, and he became increasingly convinced that our understanding of the Earth had indeed undergone a great change--we discovered deep time a mind-boggling enlargement of scale from thousands to millions to billions of years and, more importantly, deep history an unpredictable and unimaginably eventful past for our Earth itself.

Earth's Deep History presents a brief account of this dramatic revolution. Rudwick begins his story in with James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, who calculated the Ussher's world history embodied the best scholarly practice of his time. Chronology fully deserved its status as a historical science using that word in its original sense, which is still current except in the Anglophone or English-speaking world.

It was based on a rigorous analysis of all the ancient textual records known to him. These were mostly derived from sources in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Half a century earlier, the French scholar Joseph Scaliger, the greatest and most erudite chronologist of them all, had also used those in several other relevant languages such as Syriac and Arabic.

How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

But even Scaliger knew only a little about sources further afield, for example from China or India, and the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs had not yet been deciphered. Nonetheless, chronologists had available to them a massive body of multicultural and multilingual evidence.

From all these varied records they extracted dates such as those of major political changes, the reigns of ancient monarchs, and memorable astronomical events. They then tried to match them up, often across different ancient cultures, and to link them together in a continuous chain of dated events. The science of chronology is not extinct: the results of modern chronological research are on display in our museums, wherever artifacts from ancient China or Egypt, for example, are labeled with dates BC or BCE; all such dates are derived from similar correlations between the histories of different cultures.

By far the greater part of Ussher's evidence, like that of other chronologists, came not from the Bible but from ancient secular records. Not surprisingly, his sources were most abundant for the more recent centuries BC, and tailed off rapidly as he penetrated into the more remote past.

For the very earliest times they were extremely scanty and almost confined to the bare record in Genesis of "who begat whom" in the earliest generations of human life. This makes it clear that Ussher's main objective was indeed to compile a detailed history of the world, and not primarily to establish the date of Creation or to bolster the authority of the Bible in general.

Ussher treated the Bible as one historical source among many, even if it was also, from his perspective, the most valuable and reliable of all. Like other chronologists, Ussher adopted the sophisticated dating system that had been devised by Scaliger. The Frenchman had constructed a deliberately artificial " Julian " timescale from astronomical and calendrical elements.

It provided a neutral dimension of time, as it were, on which rival chronologies could be set out and compared.

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It was not just a convenient device; it also highlighted the crucial distinction between time and history. Time itself was just an abstract dimension measured in years; history was all the real events that had happened in the course of time.

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What any chronologist claimed as real history could be plotted, on a baseline of the Julian scale, as "years of the world" Anni Mundi, AM counting forwards from Creation, or as "years before Christ" BC counting backwards from the Incarnation, from which the "Years of the Lord" AD were counted forwards. Research on chronology was powered by an intellectual craving for quantitative precision.

This was characteristic of the age, and not confined to projects such as chronology.

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It was even more prominent in the natural sciences, for example in the contemporary work of astronomers such as Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. In both kinds of investigation, quantitative precision was valued more highly than ever before. Like cosmology, however, chronology was a highly controversial kind of research. Producing a dated timeline of events was fraught with problems of incomplete, ambiguous, or incompatible records.

At one point after another, chronologists had to use their scholarly judgment to decide which records were the most reliable, and how they could most plausibly be linked together in an unbroken timeline. Consequently, there were almost as many rival dates for each important event as there were chronologists proposing them. This was particularly true for the date of Creation itself.

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Scaliger, for example, had decided on BC, and Isaac Newton—a keen chronologist among many other things—later settled for BC. Ussher, like some other chronologists though not all, claimed a very precise date indeed, namely the start at nightfall, according to Jewish timekeeping of the first day of the first week after the autumn equinox; this marked the Jewish New Year equivalent to the Christian year BC.

At the time, complex calendrical and historical reasoning made this kind of precision a perfectly respectable ambition, however bizarre it may seem to us. It is only by historical accident that Ussher's BC has become the best known of all such dates and now the most notorious, at least in the English-speaking world. Almost half a century after Ussher's deatha scholarly English bishop included a long string of Ussher's dates among his own editorial notes in the margins of his new edition of the "Authorized" or "King James" translation of the Bible into English, which had originally been published with the authority of Ussher's royal patron back in Ussher's dates remained there, by custom or inertia, in successive editions of the Bible in English, right through the 18th century and most of the 19th, although they were never formally authorized by either church or state.

Darwin and his English contemporaries, for example, would have grown up seeing BC printed on the very first page of their family Bibles. Many young or uneducated readers, not understanding the role of an editor, assumed that the date was an integral part of the sacred text, and they respected or even revered it accordingly. Only in were all Ussher's dates—by then long obsolete, in historical as well as scientific terms—omitted from the margins of the new "Revised Version" of the Bible. This was the first complete English translation to incorporate the greatly improved linguistic and historical understanding of the texts that was the fruit of biblical research by Jewish and Christian scholars since the time of Ussher and King James.

Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters

Readers of the Bibles placed by the Gideons in hotel bedrooms had to wait even longer, until the late 20th century, to be relieved of the implications of BC. In contrast, marginal dates did not usually feature in Bibles in other languages, so people outside the English-speaking world were generally spared this disastrous misapprehension that the exact date of primal Creation had been fixed by divine, or at least ecclesiastical, authority.

To return, however, to Ussher's century: his and other chronologists' efforts to compile rigorously precise "annals" of world history were a means to what most of them regarded as a more important end.

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Quantitative precision was intended to help yield qualitative meaning. Chronologists wanted to give precision to what they saw as the overall shape of human history, by dividing it into a meaningful sequence of periods. The primary division represented by the traditional dating system of years BC and AD was just such a distinction, for it separated the old human world before the Incarnation from the radically new human world which—from a Christian perspective—that unique event had first brought into being.

But Ussher, like other chronologists, also subdivided the millennia of BC history, by defining a sequence of decisive events or " epochs, " which in turn marked out a sequence of distinctive "ages," "eras," or periods. Ussher identified five significant turning-points between the mega-events of the Creation and the Incarnation. These ranged in time from Noah's Flood to the ancient Jews' deportation into exile in Babylon. Adding the period since the Incarnation, world history could then be divided into a sequence of seven ages.