Forgotten Falsifications pt 2: Extinction

Another looming intellectual development was about to shake the foundations of creationist theory even more strongly than the discovery of antipodean peoples. In 1665, Robert Hooke published his humble little book Micrographia, which is mostly a collection of descriptions of scientifically interesting objects under the microscope. In this book, a theory was proposed that would utterly change biology and theology alike.In Hooke’s day, the received theory of fossils was that such objects were mere “jokes of nature”; a result of vital forces that had been somehow misplaced inside rocky matter. But Hooke’s new theory, which was soon to become the orthodox view, was that fossils were the impressions of once living creatures, now preserved as rock. This meant that fossils, rather than being curious anomalies, were in fact important records of the history of life. This new theory of the origin of fossils leads to a new problem – if fossils are records of life’s history, why do we fail to recognise so many of the species represented? How come so many fossils are of unrecognisable species?

The British naturalist John Ray had an idea about this. Perhaps these unrecognizable species had actually vanished from the earth. Ray was the first naturalist to consider extinction as a genuine possibility. It was a theologically troubling idea. In 1693, he wrote (travels to the low countries) that the possibility that some species had become extinct went against the principle of divine providence which is “especially concerned to preserve and secure all the works of creation.” God had gone to such great lengths to specially create every kind of animal and to save two of every kind of animal on the Ark. Why should Noah, or God for that matter, go to such great lengths, if later, entire species are allowed to vanish? Indeed, Ray later rejected the reality of extinction as theologically untenable. He imagined that eventually the majority of the unrecognized species would be found elsewhere on the planet. This seemed perfectly sensible, since most of the known fossils were of small marine creatures and botanical specimens, such as trilobites and belemnites. The idea was that, as time progressed, our explorations of the new worlds would go further and deeper, and these unrecognizable species would be found in the deepest oceans, the darkest jungles and vast deserts. The world was still, in so many ways, exotic and unknown.

But a hundred years after Hooke and Ray, not only had foreign continents been well explored by Europeans, they had even been settled. They were no longer exotic; they were home. By 1750, The burgeoning settlement of Philadelphia had a settler population of 25,000 people, and Lima had over 50,000. Australia and New Zealand had been charted, and their European settlement was not far away. It’s in the light of this growing familiarity with distant continents that the French naturalist Buffon infamously endorsed the theory, in his histoire naturelle, that some fossils must represent species that no longer exist. And in 1798, Buffon’s compatriot Cuvier published a paper in which he showed that fossil elephant bones did not represent any known elephant, but a totally different species, the mammoth. These mammoths were no longer found in Europe, and they were simply too large to have gone unnoticed anywhere else. Extinction was now accepted as a fact, ironically, almost exactly as the mascot of extinction the dodo was pushed over the brink. One notable detractor from the theory was Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the United States, who had a vast collection of mastodon bones and was convinced that such creatures would eventually be found in the wild west. He wrote that the bones exist; therefore the animal has existed.. . . If this animal then has once existed, it is probable . . . that he still exists.’ Although a deist, Jefferson’s presumption was based largely on his theological conviction that a god had created the world and continued to uphold the creation in, largely, its original form.

The problem of explaining whether a benevolent God would allow extinction gave way to the new problem of explaining why he allowed it. After all, Genesis 1:25 reads ‘God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.’ Species were thought to be immutable, divinely fixed elements of the natural world, as immutable as the elements of the periodic table. If the creation truly was good, why had so much of it disappeared?

Of course, extinction is a well known fact nowadays, and it is known all too well that we humans have been responsible for a great deal of it, especially recently. Indeed, it is a very surprising fact that there was a time that the reality of extinction was seriously doubted for theological reasons. It is just an obvious fact about the world, and a part of every modern person’s background knowledge, and this includes creationists. Yet the fact that the discovery of extinction was theologically troubling is forgotten, and the major young Earth creationist organisations, such as the Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis, put no effort into explaining extinction. Indeed, none of the major young earth or old earth creationist organisations worldwide take extinction to be a serious problem. The history of its discovery, and the blow that was dealt, are completely forgotten.

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