Augustine in Life Magazine.
...........in the opening spread the text provided a lyrical introduction to marvels of life through Deep Time. Tucked away, in the last paragraphs, was a reference to the supposed “conflict” between paleontology and religion. Mr. Barnett noted that the greatest philosopher of Christianity, Saint Augustine, pondered the wording of Genesis and came away with the pious suggestion that Creation had unfolded in a time frame more subtle and more complex than a simple seven-day calendar. I filed away that sentence.....it was counter-intuitive. Here was Lincoln Barnett, a noted writer on science (he did a kids’ bio of Einstein) citing a Church Father and a saint. My own church had a youth ministry pastor who despised the fossil record. He said repeatedly that all fossils were from Noah’s Flood and that there were no intermediate fossils bridging the gap between Classes. But Barnett and Life now gave me reason to believe that paleontology and serious church history just might be ok with each other.
Too many journalists today make the mistake of saying that Charles Darwin confronted the young earth creations in 1859, with his On the Origin of Species. And too many well-meaning atheists preach that bible-believers always, ALWAYS have tried to suffocate science. Not true. St. Augustine was, in fact, science-literate by the standards of 400 a.d. and a fine amateur astronomer. He broke with the popular Manichaean Sect because of science, not theology. He challenged a Manichaean leader on the prediction of eclipses. The Manichaean got his celestial calculations totally wrong. So St. Augustine stopped supporting the sect.
Augustine exposed the folly of astrology when it was still accepted as science by most learned folks. He used an experimental method: he observed estates where two children were born on the same day, one to the land-owner, the other to a slave. The astrological predictions failed to predict the difference in life outcomes. Augustine was no Jerry Falwell. He admitted that many of his flock were not well read in science and he urged them not to indulge in what I call “pulpit-pounding nincompoopery”. In other words, when non-believers have more science knowledge than you, don’t embarrass yourself.
Patron Saint of Petrifactions.
Augustine is the Patron Saint of Paleontology -- the only Church Father who helped dig fossil bones, near the North African city of Utica. The giant ribs and molars bore an uncanny resemblance to those of humans, except five times the size. We now know Augustine’s behemoth was a mastodon, probably Gomphotherium. Mastodon molars, when worn, look far more like giant primate molars than they do elephant molars. Therefore, Augustine concluded that the skeleton was from a gargantuan human -- perfectly reasonable given the anatomical data at the time.
The Life magazine allusion to Augustine came from his thoughtful book Toward a Direct Reading of Genesis. Anyone fascinated by the history of creation literature should read it (available in English translation). Augustine grappled with the meaning of the seven days of Creation. From the style of language, he concluded that the days could not mean simple 24 hour periods, but rather units of revelation. Each literary “day” was a snapshot of the purpose of earth, stars, trees and critters. Even though he did not read Hebrew and had to work with a botchy Latin translation, Augustine got the meaning of Genesis better than many a Southern Baptist seminarian today. Augustine’s exegesis that would find favor fifteen hundred years later in Lutheran and Catholic universities.
Museums started as sectors of universities and the first universities were supported by the Church, in the 12th and 13th century. Anatomical science too began at about the same time, encouraged by translations of Aristotle’s zoological work. A loud atheist might argue that medieval science would have been better if all the scholars at Oxford or Padua had been unbelievers and scoffers, but this fantasy ignores the flow of history.
Pious Paleontologists and Progress.
Back to transitive games of paleontology.....strata were mapped in three-dimensions beginning in the late 1700‘s. Geologists, most attached to universities, built up collections of fossils. Even the most pious paleontologist recognized that species changed dramatically up through the layers of rock. The succession of fossil faunas did seem to be a transitive game, at least for the Top Predator and Top Herbivore. Critters got better and better in fundamental sectors. Better lungs, better hearts, better legs for running. My fourth-grade mind would have fit well among the early stratigraphers in the late 1700‘s. They did see a progression in the fossil record, from lowly fish, to lowly reptiles, to the highest Class, the mammals. Nature seemed to ascend the ladder of complexity and efficiency.*
Quite a few of the early fossilists perceived a natural force that was used by the Creator to fulfill the grand plan. Such a view was Newtonian -- Newton explained how natural forces controlled the movements of the planets. And those natural forces were fulfilling God’s plan. Already by 1830 there were enough fossil discoveries to prove that the Past was extremely long, and that the modern fauna and flora was only the most recent of many successive faunas. Natural processes somehow governed the gradual modernization of the land and sea until conditions were right for the insertion of humans.
My all-time favorite pious paleontologist is the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, the first state geologist of Massachusetts, serving in the 1830’s and 40’s, and a combination biblical scholar, preacher and field geologist. He wrote a wonderful tract The Religion of Geology which explained the evidence for an old earth and a multi-layered creation. It was Hitchcock who unlocked the family tree of dinosaurs. The word “dinosaur” was coined in 1842 for a half dozen species known from bones.The skeletons were confusing. The early reconstructions showed flat-footed monsters with gargantuan forelimbs and five fat toes on all four paws. Hitchcock had no good skeletons but he did have Jurassic tracks, thousands of them, from a class of creatures that clearly dominated the large-bodied land vertebrate role. Hitchcock was flummoxed by the discrepancy between his track-makers and the textbook diagrams of “dinosaurs”. Hitchcock’s animals were neither flat-footed nor five-toed. Instead, they walked and ran on three big hind toes, exactly as did birds. His conclusion: “The Jurassic Period was ruled by gigantic ground birds, some as big as elephants.” Pretty good description of how we envision dinosaurs today.
Dinos-as-birds fills holes in transitive evolution theory. Birds are one of the two highest classes, the big-hearted warm-bloods. If Hitchcock was right, then we have an explanation about how dinosaurs and their close kin displaced the big, advanced mammal-like reptiles who preceded dinos as dominant big land animals in the Triassic. Dinosaurs “won” because they were more progressive.
And so....here we are, in the twenty-first century. Discoveries of Chinese dinosaurs covered with feathers vindicates the Reverend Hitchcock. Careful bed-by-bed excavation of Cambrian and pre-Cambrian rocks reveal the startling origin of many-celled creatures and the evolutionary explosion of body plans. Whom do we thank for over two thousand years of scientific advancement? Aristotle and his translators. University founders. Museum builders. Field surveyors employed by governments. Did religious folks help? Of course. Would progress in science have been faster if all the contributors were anti-religion? Would Isaac Newton have been a better physicist if he had been Richard Dawkins? Would Galileo have had more success with his telescope if he had been Christopher Hitchens? Would Christianity have been more pro-science if Augustine had the mindset of Daniel Dennett?
Silly questions. The culture of science developed in the real historical context of society. Give credit where credit is due.
* In college, of course, my prof’s pooh-poohed the idea that Darwinian processes generated a linear trajectory. In fact, Charles Darwin wrote a note to himself to avoid the terms “higher and lower”. Natural selection didn’t drive most populations to be “high class”. Selection merely favored the genes that gave greater net reproductive success in the immediate habitat. For most species, that sort of selection favored changes in antlers or horns, mating dances or courtship calls, parental care -- features that gave a temporary advantage in obtaining desirable mates and producing kids with higher reproductive success themselves. It was, in fact, rare to have selection favoring bigger hearts, lungs and brains except in a very few evolving lines. Those lines were the biggest land predators and herbivores.