AAPG Site Search | Home > EXPLORER > Archives > May 2000 > Sermons in Stone
Those of you who recall the words with which the banished duke seeks to reassure his companions in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," will at once identify the source of my title:
For the last 15 years my wife and I have lived "exempt from far West Texas at the public haunt." We have made our home in far West Texas at the base of the Capitan Reef in the Guadalupe Mountains. We are alone, without servants, without telephone or television, and our nearest neighbor is 10 miles distant.
Many of you have visited McKittrick Canyon, which cuts through the Capitan Reef near our home, forming lofty rock walls of fascinating interest to geologists. If you are acquainted with McKittrick Canyon and the Guadalupes, and the abundance of rocks displayed by them, you will understand how our life there may have impressed on us the sermons that are to be read in stones.
But rocks became significant to me long before I came to live in the Guadalupe Mountains.
More than 30 years ago I found myself addressing a group similar to this audience, gathered in a church in Houston, and my subject then, as now, was "Sermons in Stones."
On that occasion I had endeavored to show that the story of creation, as recounted in the first chapter of Genesis broadly interpreted, accorded essentially with modern geological theory of the origin and evolution of our planet. This accordance seemed to me to be a fact, despite the widespread conviction at that time that modern science, particularly geology, and orthodox religion were in violent conflict. My own view at the time was that Genesis was pretty good geology.
"If I as a geologist," I told my audience, "were called upon to explain briefly our modern ideas of earth origin and the development of life on earth to a simple, pastoral people, such as the tribes to whom the book of Genesis was addressed, I could hardly do better than follow rather closely much of the language of the first chapter of Genesis." I then proceeded to draw a parallel between the account of creation in Genesis and our own modern theory of earth origin and evolution.
The first chapter of Genesis embodies a magnificent cosmic narrative: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth was without form and void: And darkness was upon the face of the deep." We, too, picture a "beginning" when "The earth was without form and void;" a time when the dense cloud of our primitive atmosphere permitted no light from the sun to reach the earth's surface.
"And God said, Let there be light." It is significant, I think, that the distinguished British astronomer, A. C. B. Lovell, delivering the Reith Lectures for 1958 over the British Broadcasting Corporation network (The Listener, Vol. IX, No. 1551, December 16, 1958) spoke of the "Modern Evolutionary Theory of the Origin of the Universe," saying: "The probable condition of intense radiation in the primeval atom is entirely consistent with the Divine command: "Let there be light."
There is a further parallel between Genesis and modern geology in the respective accounts of the origin of the oceans and the emergence of the continents: "And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together into one place and let the dry land appear." Compare these words with the description of the incipient ocean by James Dwight Dana, in his Manual of Geology. This text book, published in 1879, was still the preferred text book, in American universities when I began my geological training in 1905. Dana says of the first seas: "The first waters were all salt, and the oceans one, the waters sweeping around the sphere in an almost unbroken tide."
Again, Genesis and modern theory agree on the order in which life appeared, on earth, with the lowest forms coming first: "Let the earth bring forth grass." What simpler form of life would the shepherds of Biblical times know than grass? It is noteworthy, also, that the ancients placed the first life, grass, on the land. We, too, picture the earliest life as appearing on land, not in the sea, although, early life, once established in the sea, evolved for geologic ages before it came later to dominate the land.
Then follows in the Genesis narrative the appearance of life in the sea: "Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life." After that came the birds: "The fowl of the air that fly above the earth." Still later, came higher life on land, including mammals; "cattle and creeping things and beast of the earth after his kind." Modern geology interprets the record to show this same order in evolution.
And finally, on the sixth day, God created man, "To have dominion over all the earth."
If we interpret the term day merely as a period of time, remembering that with the Creator "A day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day," the six days of creation take on something of the sequence our principal modern units of geologic time display. Geologists start with the Cosmic era, when "The earth was without form and void" corresponding to the first day of Genesis; there follows primordial time, when the earth's crust became rigid and the oceans and continents took form, corresponding to the second day. The third day, when the lowest form of life appears in the Biblical account, may be equated roughly to our Paleozoic era. The account of the fourth and fifth days in Genesis is confused. It does not correspond closely to our fourth and fifth major periods, Mesozoic and Cenozoic time. But the sixth day, when man appears, does correspond closely to our Psychozoic, or final division of geologic time.
Geology Vs. Religion
I shall not pursue further tonight the analogy I once thought I saw between ancient and Modern ideas of creation. The truth is that the modern theory of earth origin which I presented to my audience 30 years ago Chamberlain and Moulton's planetesimal hypothesis is no longer modern! Today we perceive fatal defects in this once persuasive theory. Science has acquired so many new facts concerning the earth, the solar system, our galaxy and the universe since my first "Sermon in Stones" was written, that geologic thought, has been sharply modified. This new knowledge makes Chamberlain's hypothesis untenable. In other words, the Biblical account of creation still stands, but the geologist's theory of earth origin has changed. I hasten to add, however, that the new changed theory of modern geology still accords remarkably well with Genesis.
Science is like that. Dogma finds no place in it. No scientific theory is sacrosanct. New facts inspire scientists to devise new hypotheses and to demolish old ones.
As a matter of fact, geologists have usually avoided conflict with religion. Earth scientists have been so steeped in their orthodox religious views that they have often permitted these views to influence their scientific thinking. They have at times warped their own observations in their endeavor to accommodate them to the accepted tenets of religion. A recently published study, Genesis and Geology, by Charles Gillispie, stresses this tendency of geologists. Early geologists, Gillispie contends, were wont to "regard nature from a theological point of view." The difficulty, he concludes was not a conflict of science with religion, but rather of "too much religion in science" the dominance of religious doctrine and dogma over scientific thought. For 2,000 years, Gillispie asserts, the compatibility of geologic theory with religious doctrine has been a prerequisite for its acceptance and, indeed, for the safety of its originator.
This deference to orthodox religion has characterized the writings of many eminent geologists. Benjamin Silliman, perhaps the earliest American geologist, who was trained in Edinburg in 1805-06, together with his pupil, Edward Hitchcock, later president of Amherst College, came to believe that geology reveals "a great system of benevolence and wisdom. God pointed creation to the benefit of for whom all was established."
Edward Suess, a foremost German geologist at the end of the 19th century, devotes the long first chapter of his monumental, four-volume masterpiece, The Face of the Earth, to documenting the Biblical account of the deluge. He not only confirms its occurrence but he explains its cause and fixes its date and its position. He practically fits it into Bishop Usher's time scale which begins with the year 4004 B.C.
Sir Charles Lyell, one of England's greatest geologists, in his Elements of Geology, first published in 1838 but still in wide use at the end of the 19th century, describes the geologic record as "The time throughout which it has pleased our Omnipotent and Eternal Being to manifest His creative power."
And Charles Dwight Dana, whose Manual of Geology I have already cited, "Believing in the unity and wisdom of the Divine plan" observes that the "Idea of system --- and of progress through the ages --- instead of being atheistic, is the only view of the history of life that is consistent with its Divine origin."
The geologists I have just quoted all belong to an earlier generation, but western science is still obliged to defend itself against the charge that its findings are colored by its religious or idealistic predilections. An eminent Soviet astronomer recently wrote: "The development of astronomy in capitalist countries is hampered by the idealistic world outlook that prevails there. Some western astronomers directly repair to religion." By contrast, he continues, "Cosmogony in the U.S.S.R. is based on the firm materialist traditions of Russian science."
And so it is that, today, with the testimony I have just cited (and a wealth of additional evidence confirming its validity) before me, I am no longer concerned, as I was 30 years ago, lest the public conclude that the revelations of the science of geology might weaken or destroy our religious faith. Instead I recall the sentiment expressed by Lord Acton: "In politics as in science the church need not seek her own ends. She will obtain them if she encourages the pursuit of the ends of science, which are truth; and of the state, which are liberty." Paraphrasing Lord Acton, I would say that religion, in its attitude toward the science of geology, need not seek its own ends. It will obtain them if it encourages the ends of geology, which center on a complete knowledge of the nature and history of the earth and of life on earth.
Geology Aids Religion
Dean Inge has written that religion is the "chief portion" of the "art of living" but he protests, the art is difficult because we live in a world "we do not understand." Is it possible that our studies of earth science may so improve our understanding as to permit geology to re-enforce religion as the "chief portion" of the art of living? What is it that geologists have discerned in their study of the earth and its creatures which has so frequently inspired in them a response with a religious coloration? Are there literally "Sermons in Stones" which tend to clarify for the geologists the meaning of existence, his place in the universe and his responsibility as an individual?
"The true introduction to human history," said Dana, "is earth history." Looking at earth history, the geologist sees, first, a primitive earth lifeless, without form and void. Then life appears the simplest, single-celled organisms, utterly at the mercy of their environment. But through time something we call progress asserts itself; life expands; it multiplies; it becomes more complex; multi-cellular; more competent; it differentiates: New forms appear; they spread from the sea to the land and into the air. Yet it is all one process. All the myriad creatures are related; one great stream of life, flowing down through time.
"Nothing in the whole genetic history of the earth," says T. C. Chamberlain, "was more distinctive than the first appearance of living organisms." While these organisms display "a subtle factor not distinctly betrayed in earlier modes of evolution," yet this factor "may have been there." There are, Chamberlain thinks, "Intimations of something of the kind in the complexity of even inorganic combinations." In other words, Chamberlain implies, life may be innate in the rocks themselves.
In Chamberlain's words, what the geologist sees most vividly when he probes with understanding into the records of life on earth is a "gradation from the seemingly insentient and merely physiological, as embodied in the lowest order of living beings, to the earliest types of sentient life, and thence on to the highest manifestations in the thinking world, a gradation which is so intimate as to bind the whole into one indivisible process."
And Chamberlain adds, "The emergence of what we call the living from the inorganic and the emergence of what we call the psychic from the physiologic, were at once the transcendent and the transcendental features of the earth's evolution."
It is these "transcendent and transcendental features of the earth's evolution" that so impress the geologist when he examines the record inscribed in the rocks; this magnificent procession of life through the ages, extravagantly diverse in its myriad individual forms, but absolutely single in continuity and overall structure; starting with the lowly amoeba and culminating in homo sapiens. In the past, evolution has proceeded blindly. Change has taken place solely as response to environment. Now, in man, life has achieved consciousness. It has acquired spiritual values. It controls its environment and modifies it at will. It plots its own course into the future. And modern man stands at the helm!
Has this geologically recent ascent of man to his present position of dominance been achieved by the glib formula "Survival of the fittest," interpreted to mean the supremacy of the law of "Tooth-and-claw?" Is this the standard of ethical values to which humanity must adhere in the future? Even a glance at the geological record reveals clearly that these questions must be answered in the negative.
Consider only the most recent significant step in evolution, "The emergence of what we call the psychic from the physiologic." This step is dramatically recorded in the changed facial lineaments of man himself over the latest and briefest of evolutionary stages; in the differences between the physiognomy of primitive man and that of modern man a change that has occupied hardly one ten-thousandth of the total time-span of life on earth.
Primitive man was characterized by a flattened skull of relatively small cranial capacity, a retreating forehead and chin, heavy, massive jaws, and a short, thick neck. Modern man, by contrast has a typically near-vertical forehead, a domed occipital region, relatively large cranial capacity, a slender neck, jaws of reduced size and a marked eminence of chin.
The most significant of these facial changes is the pronounced growth of the forebrain the seat of the higher mental faculties. This higher brow is the change that marks the latest stage of the emergence of the psychologic from the merely physiologic. This development of psychic faculties in man has proceeded hard in hand with a quickening of the social instinct; the tendency altruism and mutual aid; in short, this change marks a keener striving for what we call "I culture"; for spiritual values. It heralds an accelerated growth of man's soul.
These are the changes that mark men's recent, sudden advance to the head of the long procession of life through time. To a geologist they appear to be the prime causative factors in that advance.
Previously, as a member of the animal kingdom, man had not excelled in strength, or speed, or size. Physiologically, he was weaker than many of his fellows and he was but indifferently adapted to his environment. He did not rise to dominance through brute force. It was the growth of his intelligence; his tool-making propensity; his social instinct; his resort to mutual aid and to altruism; his gradual establishment of an effective even though imperfect "brotherhood of man" that finally enabled man to survive and to rise to supremacy.
Geologically speaking, the period of man's dominance over his environment has been, so far, of only the briefest duration. Man first became a weapon-making creature perhaps a million years ago. But, according to James Breasted's The Dawn of Conscience, the time men began to feel the power of conscience to such a degree that it became a potent social force was only 5,000 years ago. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Essay on Politics says: "We think our civilization near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock-crowing and the morning star. In our barbarous society the influence of character is in its infancy."
A Geologist's Ethics
I believe that out of the science of geology we can derive ethical rules of conduct. The record of man's rise through Psychozoic time seems to me to constitute an adequate basis for at least a rudimentary system of what might be called natural ethics. Such a system could be made to serve, I think, as a general guide to the conscious social or cultural evolution which must largely determine the future of mankind.
Of course, a mere code of ethics alone will not assure order in the society of man. As Christians we all know that it is our duty to "Turn the other cheek." But who among us does so? Do we, as a nation or does any other sovereign nation base policy today on the principle of brotherly love? The Scriptures surely teach the policy of non-resistance that identifies the pacifist. Yet resolutions issue currently from authoritative Christian sources in this country deploring pacificism and defending war in a "righteous" cause as justifiable. I assume that most of us here tonight regard ourselves as Christians. But I am confident that a poll would reveal no single Pacifist in this audience or anywhere else in Texas. If, contrary to my prediction, we should find one, I would expect him to prove to be more geologist than Christian.
Not only is the mere formulation of a general code of ethics in itself futile. It is complicated by the fact that the individual conscience, as we have just observed, the rise of conscience is a very recent evolutionary phenomenon. Conscience is as yet very unevenly developed among men. The conscience is more enlightened in the individual and his ethical precepts are higher as his intelligence, education, culture and understanding increase. What is right for you, therefore, may be wrong for me, or vice versa. Each of us has developed, and is duty bound further to develop to the utmost, his own unique conscience with his own standards of conduct. Each of us, then, must adhere to his own code of ethics.
In these circumstances, I shall refrain from any attempt to formulate a geologist's code of ethics. Nevertheless, in closing, I make bold to propose a general rule of conduct. I believe many geologists would applaud it for the guidance both of individuals and of sovereign nations. I must confess, however, that it was first enunciated more than a century and a half ago and that its author was not a geologist! It is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative which may be stated as follows:
"Act according to such principles as you could wish to be erected into universal law. Act in such a manner, therefore, as you could wish all men to act."
The categorical imperative may be interpreted as our own golden rule divested of all personal bias and rendered wholly objective. It has also been stated in the following words:
"So act as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or another, always as an end, never as a means."
Kant holds the highest moral precept to be: Do your duty. For each individual the voice of duty is the voice of his own conscience. It follows that each of us must invariably obey his own conscience.
One final word from Kant: "There is nothing in the world can be unreservedly regarded as good, except a good will. Good will is supreme in the individual whose volition and conduct spring not from love, or personal inclination, or fear, but from a sense of duty."