Giant Book of the Month Club

by Kieran Healy on February 20, 2006

The phenomenon of “Biblically Correct Tours”: is much in the news recently. (P.Z. Myers has a “summary”: Essentially, a creationist named Rusty Carter leads people on tours around museums chatting away about how dinosaurs and people lived together, how the world was created in seven days, and how the earth is only six thousand years old, _ad nauseam_. So I thought I’d mention Martin Rudwick’s new book, “Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution”:, a (very, very large) history of how scientists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries figured out that the earth was very, very old. Certainly much older than six thousand years. The problem of the age of the earth is a good one partly because because it’s so tangible, partly because it’s a good story (the French and English scientists are great, and Thomas Jefferson gets a look-in as well), and partly because it was solved[1] more than two hundred years ago. Richard Fortey “reviewed the book”: in the LRB (subscription req’d) recently. He begins the review with an anecdote:

bq. … as I had anticipated, a caller from Kentucky duly declared that the world had been created in seven days, and what did I have to say to that? I invited the caller to ask himself whether, when his grandfather used the words ‘in my day’, he meant one particular day, or rather a season or a phase of life. I went on to say that the biblical ‘days’ could be better understood as whole eras, domesticated by a familiar terminology in order to make them comprehensible. Had I but known it, the same argument had already been thoroughly rehearsed by French naturalists more than two hundred years earlier. My creationist caller was restating a position which was already unfashionable in the late 18th century.

People like Rusty Carter make you appreciate scholars like Rudwick — not to mention the Enlightenment.

[1] I mean, it was established that the earth wasn’t just a few thousand years old. Sorry for the unclarity.

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a crank’s progress » the Enlightenment: fun while it lasted
02.20.06 at 6:47 pm



Dominic Murphy 02.20.06 at 3:25 pm

And while we’re at it, a further plug for Rudwick’s earlier masterpiece, “The Great Devonian Contorversy”.


roger 02.20.06 at 3:47 pm

The online liberty library — an invaluable Internet resource — has put up John Stuart Mill’s pa James’ History of India. A minor classic. Galbraith, when he was appointed ambassador to India by JFK, read it as preparation — which shows that Galbraith must have been one of the weirder ambassador’s ever. Anyway, Mill’s thesis is that India was a place of barbarism for thousands of years that is being salvaged through British pluck and charity and overwhelmingly superior civilization (contrary to 18th century sentimentalists, who discerned aspects of the highest culture in India, Mill thinks of the “Hindus as little removed from that of half-civilised nations”).

In one inadvertantly comic moment, he shows just how barbarous the Hindoos are by showing that they believe that the world has existed for millions of years:

“The present age of the world according to the system of the Hindus, is distinguished into four grand periods, denominated yugs. The first is the Satya yug, comprehending 1,728-000 years; the second the Treta yug, comprehending, 1,296,000 years; the third the Dwapar yug, including 864,000 years; and the fourth the Cali yug, which will extend to 432,000 years. Of these periods the first three are expired, and, in the year 1817, of the Christian era, 4911 years of the last. From the commencement, therefore, of the Satya yug, to the year 1817, is comprehended a space of 3,892,911 years, the antiquity to which this people lay claim.”

Mill, of course, is laying this out for our grim utilitarian contempt — since, as we all know, the world is 50,000 years old. Newton proved it.


Barry Freed 02.20.06 at 5:15 pm

chatting away about how dinosaurs and people lived together…

There’s a truly brilliant and utterly hilarious Bill Hicks routine on this very topic that you must hear if you don’t know it.


rollo 02.20.06 at 5:21 pm

The logical fallacy of False Dilemma
“…if both claims could be false, then it cannot be inferred that one is true because the other is false…”
is lurking somewhere at the periphery of this very smug yet anxious victory.
Irrational boobs with a spiel of obvious junk take advantage of people whose credulity is not only encouraged but has been developed and rewarded all their lives; irrational boobs get slapped down repeatedly and slowly the forces of reason prevail.
The corollaries are never witnessed, but they’re hammered home behind the scenes just the same.
As with the atomized assaults of Christianity, where one phalanx does yeoman work stifling scientific advancement and proseltyzing bigotry, while another organizes charitable relief and opposes wars of oppression – the forces in play are indefinite and disappear when analyzed too closely.
Science proud and forthright displays its hard-won evidences, discreetly never mentioning the atrocities that brought some of its most amazing truths to light.
Religion itself does nothing as a monolith. Science itself does nothing as a monolith.
Creationists are full of shit, therefore the universe is an inanimate void to which we owe nothing.
What’s been lost, in the aftermath of the struggle against the aggressive nonsense of the delusional, is less easily measured than the age of rocks.


Rasselas 02.20.06 at 5:28 pm

From time to time I wish we could come up with a better reference than “The Enlightenment” to denote our moral and intellectual superiority to talk radio callers, because it seems a bit vainglorious. Perhaps something like “The Desk Lamp” would do.


Backword Dave 02.20.06 at 6:03 pm

IIRC, and some scholarly CT reader should know, there was a point in the early 20th century when geologists agreed the age of the earth was around 2 billion years old, and Edwin Hubble and a few other astronomers thought the age of the universe was roughly one billion years.

Happily, scientists tend to ingnore experts in other disciplines, and there were no cries of “Heresy”, riots, or the burning down of rival labs. I doubt anyone was refused tenure or even publication rights for believing the “wrong” one.

Er, Kieran: “partly because it [the age of the earth] was solved more than two hundred years ago.” No, it wasn’t. The scientifically accepted figure (4.5 billion years) is much more recent.


Kieran Healy 02.20.06 at 6:07 pm

Er, Kieran: “partly because it [the age of the earth] was solved more than two hundred years ago.” No, it wasn’t. The scientifically accepted figure (4.5 billion years) is much more recent.

Yeah sorry, I meant solved with respect to the question “Is the earth only a few thousand years old?” I should have been clearer.

I know about the issue wrt the earth appearing to be older than the universe.


des von bladet 02.20.06 at 6:43 pm

Well Belgium is only 175 years old and what on earth would be the point of a world without Belgium, eh?

(Oh, and I just looked up “Krazy” Lord Kelvin in the ‘Pedia and it turns out he was up for 100,000,000 years, which is an Older sort of Young as Earths go, for sure.)


Kieran Healy 02.20.06 at 7:01 pm

I don’t care what they say I can’t stay in a world without Belgium.


Comet Jo 02.20.06 at 10:16 pm

So what Rusty Carter is saying is that the Bible really means “eras” when it says “days”? What exactly is the evidence for this? And what does “era” mean in a biblical context anyway: are biblical eras defined by the fossil fauna they contain? Frankly, the idea that the bible “really means” eras when it says days seems about as plausible as Velikovsky’s suggestion that the parting of the Red Sea was really caused by a planetary conjunction. Maybe the bible is a collection of myths and we shouldn’t think of uncovering its meaning as finding the real events to which it refers in a distorted fashion, but rather as understanding the conceptions of the world and human beings embodied in its narratives. I mean, nice to out-argue the fundamentalists, but should we really be pleased to do so with an argument which is as ignorant of social scientific understandings of religion as the fundamentalists are of natural scientific understandings of the physical world?


Kieran Healy 02.20.06 at 10:44 pm

I’d guess that when Rusty says six days, he means six days.


Amy 02.20.06 at 11:21 pm

I don’t think he has ever cared about civil liberties – he sees his

job as protecting us, not protecting our liberties.


roger 02.21.06 at 12:40 am

I think he means work days, actually. Now, as we know, Jehovah lived in the Pre-Reagan era, and back then, in those factories where they made universes and such, the unions were so strong Jehovah probably put in a frenchy day – seven hours tops! Luckily, now that we have a flexible work force and an economy that has got government off its back, Gods have been farmed out to making universes in factories in China, and they put in 36 hour days. Productivity is going up, profits are going up, and the price of universes is going down. It makes me excited and Friedmanish inside.


rollo 02.21.06 at 12:48 am

Maybe the bible is a collection of myths, but then maybe myths aren’t just fairy tales.
In fact I’ll just say that straight out.
Myths aren’t just fairy tales.
In fact, even fairy tales aren’t just fairy tales.
Both myths and fairy tales are stories.
Stories in this culture at this time are entertainment, a trivial luxury.
Yet stories are the language of a culture, the way it speaks to itself. This culture has trivialized itself nearly to the point of extinction.
Myths are a place to store and carry the inexpressible. To communicate across generations things that can’t be compressed into homily and formula.
Or maybe they just were at one point in the ignorant primitive past, and maybe now we’re ready for the naked truth of existence unmediated by superstition and magical thinking.
Maybe this time the abyss will wink when we look into it.


Comet Jo 02.21.06 at 1:39 am

Sorry–I meant to begin “So what *Richard Fortey* is saying is that the Bible really means “eras” when it says “days”?


bad Jim 02.21.06 at 3:20 am

With respect to #10: I didn’t think that Kieran was old enough to remember that song. I’d curse him for putting it in my mind’s ear if it hadn’t evanesced in a moment.

Gould, in Questioning the Millennium, tells us that the 6,000 years thing (like Bishop Ussher’s chronology) derives from (@) the 6 days of creation, (ß) an offhand remark from Paul that a thousand years were but a day to God, and ((c)) a tradition that there would be exactly 6K years between the creation and the second coming.

Try as I might, I can’t convince myself that God prefers base 10.


maidhc 02.21.06 at 3:40 am

Does Biblically Correct Tours offer a round-the-world cruise? Or “to the edge and back”?


chris y 02.21.06 at 4:08 am

Jim, God prefers base π. This is a fundamental tenet of my faith and I will behead anybody who argues.


Ginger Yellow 02.21.06 at 6:53 am

The LRB review, and presumably the book it reviews, is really good for providing an international perspective on the history of geological time. Mainly because of Gould’s Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, I’d grown up thinking it was pretty much Brits all the way along -Hutton, Lyell etc. It was refreshing to see the other side.


Backword Dave 02.21.06 at 7:31 am

Bad Jim; no he doesn’t. 6 X 8 = 42 (in base 13).

Douglas Adams insisted that he did not write jokes in base 13, of course.


Matt McIrvin 02.21.06 at 9:17 am

I don’t think the “day-age” approach (which indeed has a long history) is all that satisfactory as a means of reconciling Genesis and science; you still have to deal with all the details being different. The 19th and 20th-century day-age theorists tended not to believe in evolution.


Matt McIrvin 02.21.06 at 9:21 am

…Incidentally, various pages on mention that the day-age approach was actually the most popular form of creationism among American religious fundamentalists before the late-20th-century resurgence of ICR-type Flood geology.

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