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MARGINALIA

Rereading Darwin

Science now takes for granted the importance of forces and time spans we can’t perceive directly

Robert L. Dorit

2012-01MargDoritFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageTwo centuries before Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, Bishop James Ussher calculated the age of the Earth. To do so, the Primate of All Ireland (time has given his title a certain irony) carefully mined the Old and New Testaments for genealogical information that might lead him back to the date of Creation. In so doing, he concluded that the Earth was only about 5,600 years old. It’s easy to ridicule the bishop and his date, but to do so misses a larger point. Ussher’s approach was rigorous—even elegant—and he seemed to understand that the Earth’s age could only be inferred through careful observation of evidence. What doomed his result—and, indeed, many a conclusion in science—were faulty assumptions. The bishop, who took as an axiom that the biblical account of Creation was literal, painstakingly did the math attendant on the notorious biblical begats. He then dutifully added to his tally the five days that separated the creation of the Earth from the creation of human beings, and arrived at the exact date of Creation: October 23, 4004 B.C. Of course, he was wrong.




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