Before evolution, the first dangerous idea, was of course deep time. Espoused by geologist James Hutton and further developed by Charles Lyell, they claim it was this heretical thought that gave Darwin the springboard to formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection. What's ironic is that, the earliest discoverers of deep time were actually opposed to evolution.
|William "Strata" Smith|
What he never realized was that his valiant efforts would change the perceptions of the world we live in forever.
Geologists began pondering the observations from the fossil record. What did this mean? When did these creatures live? If they were brought aboard Noah's Ark, why have none survived to this day? Most importantly, why were they so well sorted, from layer to layer? How could Noah's flood sort the fossils with such precision?
Bear in mind the notion of a global flood had already taken a beating almost a century ago, during the exploration of the Americas. Naturalists (many whom were also members of the clergy) struggled to explain a) the enormous diversity of animal life, particularly in the Amazon basin b) the origin of native Americans.
A particularly salient (and mildly amusing) question posed by Sir Thomas Browne was in this quote:
"How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange"
In which he ponders why, if native American Indians were descendants of Noah who dispersed at Babel, why did they decide to bring rattlesnakes, but forgot the horses? Another pressing problem was that Genesis only described the creation of one land, so to speak. Yet enormous continents existed that were completely separated from the rest of Europe.
But I digress. As you can see, the idea of a global flood and a young clockwork Earth was being increasingly challenged by the fossil record. Remember, this was long before James Hutton's ideas became popular and Charles Lyell first published his book, the Principles of Geology.
Lamarckism went against everything the Christian church taught, so enter brilliant distinguished scientist, Georges Cuvier, founder of modern anatomy. A man of wanton erudition, he had already come to realize a vast number of species in the fossil record were extinct. He noted the degree to which fossils were sorted according to strata, and was the first to recognize that elephant fossils found near Paris were distinct from living elephants we see today, or even the skulls of Siberian mammoths, and hence categorized them under a distinct species, the mastodon. He was the first to identify fossils found in South America belonged to a giant sloth, now known as Megatherium. And hence, he came up with the theory of catastrophism. Earth, he argued, had underwent a series of divine creations, succeeded by catastrophes which resulted in extinction events. The global flood, occurring about 4000-5000 years ago, was simply the most recent of them, he argued. In doing so, he utterly dismissed evolution and affirmed the theory of divine creation.
Cuvier's ideas were monumental. It helped found the modern field of palaeontology and formulate the idea of extinction events.
Lamarck soon fell out of favour. In fact, after Lamarck died, penniless, Cuvier wrote a eulogy to him. Although at first glance, it seems to be honouring Lamarck's contributions to natural history, Stephen Jay Gould noted that Cuvier was subtly denigrating Lamarck.
|The Cenozoic Age of Mammals. Image from|
However, Cuvier's ideas on species' fixity and repeated catastrophes opened the idea that the Earth was far older than 6000 years, contrary the Ussher-Lightfoot chronology. Many theologians still struggled with this issue and eventually came up with the "gap" theory which explained there was a vast period of time which separated the events of Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. That way, a global flood and a young age of Man's existence was still tenable. Nevertheless, even this idea would be challenged in the future.
Conclusion: As you can see, even the most ardent opponents of evolution advocated an ancient Earth. The innate sorting, the striking differences in anatomy of fossils were vital in proving that our Earth is far older than the official date of creation. Joel Duff of the Natural Historian has an excellent series on 19th century scientists as well.
See them here:
The Earth on Show
William Buckland Grappling With Deep Time
Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den: A Challenge to a Young Earth
Mary Anning: Plesiosaurs, Pterosaurs and the Age of Reptiles
Next up: the geology of James Hutton and Charles Lyell, and the Reverend William Buckland's admission of error.