"We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end"

Creationists have been strangely quiet today, their silence all the more odd because it's Bishop Ussher Day! According to Young Earth Creationist dogma the world just celebrated it's 6,011th 6,010th birthday (or a formless, empty Earth just celebrated it's birthday, the job not being finished until a few days later, of course), the creation week beginning the night prior to October 23, 4004 B.C. We know this is preposterous now, of course, but in Ussher's time figuring out the date of the Genesis narrative was big business, many theologians using various sorts of numerology in an attempt to make the Bible seem consonant with history. Indeed, it is a tragedy that so many hold on to a date known to be incorrect, pushing coconut-crunching dinosaurs into the Garden of Eden just so that they "do not have to think about things they do not think about."

Anything I say about the complete lack of any evidence for an earth 6,011 6,010 years old has already been said, however, and probably much more eloquently at that, so instead I'll leave you with this quote from Gideon Mantell's 1854 book Medals of Creation (although Mantell was, in turn, quoting the passage from Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, the prose originally attributed to a 13th century Arabic manuscript);

"I passed one day by a very ancient and populous city, and I asked one of its inhabitants how long it had been founded? 'It is, indeed, a mighty city,' replied he; 'we know not how long it has existed, and our ancestors were on this subject as ignorant as ourselves.' Some centuries afterwards I passed by the same place, but I could not perceive the slightest vestige of the city; and I demanded of a peasant, who was gathering herbs upon its former site, how long it had been destroyed? 'In sooth, a strange question,' replied he, 'the ground here has never been different from what you now behold it.' 'Was there not,' said I, 'of old a splendid city here?' 'Never,' answered he, 'so far as we know, and never did our fathers speak to us of any such.'

"On revisting the spot, after the lapse of other centuries, I found the sea in the same place, and on its shores were a party of fishermen, of whom I asked how long the land had been covered by the waters? 'Is this a question,' said they, 'for a man like you? this spot has always been what it is now.'

"I again returned ages afterwards, and the sea had disappeared. I inquired of a man who stood alone upon the ground, how long ago the change had taken place, and he gave me the same answer that I had received before.

"Lastly, on coming back again, after an equal lapse of time, I found there a flourishing city, more populous and more rich in buildings than the city I had seen the first time; and when I fain would have informed myself regarding its origin, the inhabitants answered me, 'Its rise is lost in remote antiquity - we are ignorant how long it has existed, and our fathers were on this subject no wiser than ourselves.'"

More like this

Your title is interesting Brian, since Ussher's proposed date for the origin of the planet is in fact far more scientific than Hutton's. At least it's testable. For all we owe to Hutton, modern geologists have a lot more in common with Ussher in their efforts to reconstruct a reasonable chronology for the earth rather than arm wave about 'no vestige.'

Amid the chortles and guffaws today, I reread SJG's classic Ussher apologia: "A Fall in the House of Ussher"! I'm no NOMAist, but it's important to remember that we don't get very far judging 17th century scholars by 20th century standards.

I love the sequencing of geologic transition in the passage.

Especially the disappearance of the all traces of the city.

It is funny how through modern science fiction (especially American based sci-fi) the misconception of cities existing for centuries and centuries after their construction has become a popular misconception. In various films and TV shows landmarks of today are seen in next to pristine condition sometime in the far future among the future buildings. Yet it wont be so.

As part of a fun research project with the museum education department I worked at years ago we had to answer the question In 1 million years what evidence, if any, of modern intelligent human society will still exist?. There were 3 groups of us charged with finding this. Free pizza and beer for the group with the most pieces of plausible hypothetic evidence.

Our group won due to my thinking outside the box or rather the planetary surface. I won it for us on satellites, space garbage, and moon landing leftovers which escape the processes of eroison (other than asteriod impacts and space dust) and many of which are in stable orbits. Not totally plausible, but the geologist judge said the logic was fair, and likely a few of the thousands of satellites would have a stable orbits that long.

Otherwise the traces are sparse to none existent. Cement erodes and breaks down. Water systems by populated areas eventually flood them, erode them, and or bury them. That is assuming humans just go extinct and leave the city standing unscavenged by other humans hmmmm sounds kinda like a certain biologic preservation process all of a sudden

Anyways the only means we and the other groups could find indicating a modern city was:

the possible fossilization of human remains from a grave yard in which case the placement and arrangement of the bodies should raise good future palaeontologists flags when collecting and mapping them. Also a wooden coffin might fossilize tipping them off to humans being a little smarter than the average bear (or possible lead to theory of cube like carnivorous trees that existed in grid like colonies eating humans LOL)

and nearly causing my teams lose another team with a former garbage man among its ranks came up with unusually concentrated remains from either a garbage dump (which our judge only gave partial marks to after the arguments were made of unlikely rapid burial and intentional distance from water sources) or scrap yard. The scrap yard after quick consulting with the museums geologist was given a point as the metal of all the cars and other machines would theoretically erode and dissolve into anomalous ore nodules. I argued unsuccessful that assumed a number of factors on the part of the new species examining this evidence (do they use metal? and if enough cities from our time produced these nodules would they be seen as anomalous in this layer? granted at the time I wasnt fully thinking in stereographic terms yet. Theyd be seen as unique to the 2nd millennium formation and thus be anomalous compared to the rest of geologic time).

Anyways that was a tangent. I just have such a fond memory of that activity, and the findings tie in nicely with the tale of the changing landscape.

Can you tell I have a massive assignment due in tomorrow and I'm writing all this in my break? Way more fun to talk about non applicable science than what I'm supposed to ;p

Point I guess is happy earth put together by flying spaghetti monster day too!

I have always found it kind of amusing that the supposed creation was on my birthday, just almost 6,000 years earlier. . .seems like I should get a special cake or something. ;)

What about a nuclear waste dump? There might be enough long-halflife material around, coupled with unusual concentrations of rare isotopes to look suspicious.

I'd imagine sediment cores that sample the Anthropocene epoch would contain all sorts of interesting geochemical anomalies- so whatever else we're doing, we're really freaking out any far-future, non-human geologists. As well as depriving their society of all the oil and gas, of course.

Anne-Marie: special enough for you?

Good point, Neil. The quoted text primarily reminded me of Hutton's words, and you're right that Ussher's work at least put forward a testable hypothesis. Still, I wonder what it must have been like for Hutton and others who tried to come up with an age of the earth during earlier centuries, the only thing being absolutely clear being the antiquity of the earth. Thanks for keeping things in perspective, though.

I agree with Chris, as well, that we've put so much junk in the ground that we would leave some traces, even if towering skyscrapers eventually crumble. I suppose it all depends on the time scale that we're talking about (when are these hypothetical future non-human geologists looking at earth), but I wouldn't doubt that we would leave fossils behind as well as some vestiges of technology/civilization, even if such evidence was sparse. The name escapes me at the moment, but there was a book published just this summer about what would happen if humanity disappeared in a hypothetical "tomorrow," Barbie and Ken in a landfill somewhere probably outliving cities and other more prominent features. Indeed, what would remain of toxic waste dumps, landfills, and other such features would likely puzzle any future species investigating the planet, even after there was nothing left on the surface.

The fossil history of mammals is, to a large degree, the history of "the tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth" (to quote David Marjanovic). If post-human palaeontologists find remains of teeth that have been worked on or manipulated by a dentist - or some bones that show the remains of medical treatment - this would be a pretty good proof for the existence of a civilization.

"As part of a fun research project with the museum education department I worked at 'years ago' we had to answer the question 'In 1 million years what evidence, if any, of modern intelligent human society will still exist?'"

Scientific American had a feature on this very topic not too long ago:

It's 6010, not 6011, since there was no year 0. (Not that the difference in one year is significant with respect to the real age of the planet.)

I think the book referred to above is The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

Hold on. I'm not so sure that you are being fair to Hutton. His proposition (as I understand it) was that, given a long (not eternal) duration of the Earth, which his geology already showed, and given the cycling of the surface geology, which is all he expected at the time to accessable to humans, there was a strong likelihood that any "original" formations would already have been destroyed. Isn't that the case? I thought the oldest formations still existing were in Greenland at about 3.8 billion years old, some 800 million years after the Earth's formation.

And, of course, whether there is an existing original formation is testable by looking for features that would indicate its status as original. I don't think Hutton ruled the possibility out, he just thought it was unlikely.

I'm not trying to diminish Hutton's work or accomplishments at all, but from what I did understand he did hold a belief that the earth could be infinitely old. I'll have to look into it a bit more, but that's the general impression I have received from what I've read.

Pulling out my copy of Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, he describes Hutton's position (p. 92) as:

Hutton [believed] that Newtonian science required a pure vision of time's cycle for the mechanics of earthly processes, and that no event could therefore gain distinction in history. Hutton avoided [the dilemma of the incomprehensibility that true eternity imposes upon our understanding] with a brilliant argument that doubled as incisive methodology about what science can and cannot do. He held that time's cycle governs the earth only while it operates under the regime of natural laws now in force. These laws prescribe the cycle of the world machine and therefore provide no insight about beginnings and ends. Logic demands both beginnings and ends, but ultimate origins lie outside the realm of science. Some higher power established the current regime of natural laws at an unknowable time in the distant past, and will terminate this reign at an undetermined moment in the future -- but science cannot deal with such ultimates.

Thus, Hutton chose his most famous words with consummate care, though posterity has often misread him as an exponent of infinite time. We see "no vestige of a beginning" -- but the earth had an inception now erased from geological evidence by the cycling of its products through so many subsequent worlds. We discern "no prospect of an end" because the current regime of natural law cannot undo our planet -- but the earth will terminate, or change to a different status, when higher powers choose to abolish the current regime. With one stroke, Hutton both gained the benefit and avoided the dilemma of time's cycle in its pure form. He acquired the virtue (as he saw it) of a perfect, repeating system with no peculiarities of history to threaten the hegemony of a timeless set of causes; and he resolved [dilemma of eternity] by relegating beginnings and ends, the anchors that comprehension requires, to a realm outside science.

Thus, Hutton was not saying that that we could not know the past at all, only that there was a practical limit on what we can know because the evidence is wiped out -- much like evidence of the past is being wiped out at every subduction zone. There were other reasons Hutton was not a modern scientist (including the fact that he reached his conclusions about the cycle on a priori rather than observational grounds) but the idea that his theory was untestable isn't one of them. At a minimum we could observe the evidence for or against the cyclical processes and their nature and extent.

Thank you for referring us to this quote John; I recall reading this at one point although I did not think of it right away myself. There still seems to be a bit of a contradiction, though; Hutton's idea of cycles might be observable/able to be refuted or confirmed with enough time and evidence, but it appears that he was ultimately appealing (as Gould notes) to phenomena outside science. Like you've stated, then, Hutton's ideas are testable within the smaller question of cycles that the world may or may not go to, but the ultimate beginnings or ends of things are left mysterious. I think this was what was ultimately being drived at, and I definitely appreciate you making the effort to share Gould's passage here.

John Pieret quoted from Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle,(p. 92):

"Thus, Hutton chose his most famous words with consummate care, though posterity has often misread him as an exponent of infinite time. We see "no vestige of a beginning" -- but the earth had an inception now erased from geological evidence by the cycling of its products through so many subsequent worlds. We discern "no prospect of an end" because the current regime of natural law cannot undo our planet".

What does this mean? To state that "the current regime of natural law cannot undo our planet" sounds rather strange. Isn't it understood as a natural process that our sun will eventually stop working and lead to the destruction of our Solar System?

By Luciano Dondero (not verified) on 05 Nov 2007 #permalink