The Age of the Earth:

From 4004 BC to AD 2002

Edited by C. L. E. Lewis and S. J. Knell


The age of the Earth has long been a subject of great interest to scientists from many disciplines, particularly geologists, biologists, physicists and astronomers. This volume, The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002, brings together contributors from these different subjects, along with historians, to produce a comprehensive review of how the Earth’s age has been perceived since ancient times. Touching on the works of eminent scholars from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, it describes how concepts of the Earth’s history changed as geology slowly separated itself from religious orthodoxy to emerge as a rigorous and self-contained science. Fossils soon became established as useful markers of relative age, while deductions made from geomorphological processes enabled the discussion of time in terms of years. By the end of the nineteenth century biologists and geologists were fiercely debating the issue with physicists who were unwilling to give them the time needed for evolution or uniformitarianism.

With the discovery of radioactivity, attempts to calculate the Earth’s age entered a new era, although these early pioneers in radiometric dating encountered many difficulties, both technical and intellectual, before the enormity of geological time was fully recognized. This effort affected both the theory and practice of geology. Geochronology was largely responsible for it maturing into a professional scientific discipline, as increasingly refined techniques measured not only the age of the rocks, but the rate of processes which now elucidate many aspects of the Earth’s evolution.

Even today the Earth’s chronology remains a contentious topic — particularly for those dating the oldest rocks — and it is implicated in debates surrounding our hominid ancestors, the origins and development of life, and the age of the universe.

The Age of the Earth: from 4004 bc to AD 2002 will be of particular interest to geologists, geochemists, and historians of science, as well as astronomers, archaeologists, biologists and the general reader with an interest in science.

  1. Page 1

    The age of the Earth has been a subject of intellectual interest for many centuries, even millennia. Of the early estimates, Archbishop Ussher’s famous calculation of 4004 bc for the date of Creation represents one of the shortest time periods ever assigned to the Earth’s age, but by the seventeenth century many naturalists were sceptical of such chronologies. In the eighteenth century it was Nature that provided the record for Hutton and others.

    But not all observers of geology enquired about time. Many, like William Smith, simply earned a living from their practical knowledge of it, although his nephew, John Phillips, was one of the first geologists to attempt a numerical age for the Earth from the depositional rates of sediments. For more than fifty years variations of that method prevailed as geology’s main tool for dating the Earth, while the physicists constrained requirements for a long timescale with ever more rigorous, and declining, estimates of a cooling Sun and Earth.

    In 1896 the advent of radioactivity provided the means by which the Earth’s age would at last be accurately documented, although it took another sixty years. Since that time ever more sophisticated chronological techniques have contributed to a search for the oldest rocks, the start of life, and human evolution. In the attempt to identify those landmarks, and others, we have greatly progressed our understanding about the processes that shape our planet and the Universe, although in doing so we discover that the now-accepted age of the Earth is but a ‘geochemical accident’ which remains a contentious issue.

  2. Page 15

    That order should govern the nature of the world is an idea not confined to England, though the history of science in this country demonstrates again and again that a conception of Divine Order lay at its heart. To people of earlier days, want of order implied confusion, displacement, derangement, time out of joint, even the presence of malevolent power – ‘when the planets in evil mixture to disorder wander’. The divine scheme revealed by scripture was a frame and support for Earth science. It told an indisputable story of an ordered beginning, a diluvial reordering, and a future end in dissolution. It was a story backed by secular law, and no thinking person could have been unaware of it. Yet ‘when’ and ‘how’ were legitimate questions, answered in detail by hexaemeron writers. It is an educational curiosity in England that a particular Biblical chronology drawn up in 1650 accompanied scriptures printed for use in schools until 1885 – a matter of consequence to the history of all geological thought in this country.

  3. Page 25

    The Theories of the Earth formulated by the English scholars Thomas Burnet, William Whiston and John Woodward at the end of the seventeenth century circulated widely within the continent of Europe during the first decades of the eighteenth century. These theories established a sequence of physical conditions of the Earth according to the chronology outlined in the Book of Genesis, emphasizing two main stages: the Creation and the Deluge. Although the authority of the Biblical account of the age and early history of the Earth was normally accepted at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the continental reception of English Theories of the Earth varied. This was due to the complexity of the European context which since the 1660s had produced the theories of René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Athanasius Kircher, as well as Nicolaus Steno’s dynamic view on the development of the Earth’s surface. Steno emphasized the importance of the interpretation of rock strata in the field for reconstruction of the Earth’s history. He also carefully avoided contradicting the Biblical account and associated the Deluge with one of the geological stages identified in his history. Nevertheless, the Stenonian heritage stimulated some Italian scientists – such as Antonio Vallisneri, Luigi Ferdinando Marsili, and later Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti and Giovanni Arduino – to presuppose, within the results of their researches, an indefinitely great antiquity of the Earth. Theoretical models linked to Biblical chronology included those of Emanuel Swedenborg in Sweden and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland, while in France, Benok De Maillet proposed a Theory of the Earth which was censured by the Church because of its possible implications regarding the eternity of matter. Among European scholars of the first decades of the eighteenth century, the Stenonian heritage (notably the necessity of fieldwork in a regional context) and the global Theories of the Earth were equally influential.

  4. Page 39

    During the eighteenth century many naturalists and philosophers became persuaded of the great antiquity of the Earth, and of the promise that knowledge of the Earth’s past and development could be built up through investigations of natural terrestrial features. In common with most geological issues of the time, these opinions rose to prominence to a considerable degree in connection with the so-called Theories of the Earth. This paper discusses some interconnections between Theories of the Earth and the emerging enterprise of geological field investigation, as they related to efforts toward establishing relative ages of geological phenomena. It considers in particular the two rather different Theories of the Earth offered by Buffon in 1749 and 1778, respectively. While the earlier one (Théorie de la Terre) emphasized principles for extracting physical knowledge of the Earth’s configuration through empirical investigation, the latter theory (Époques de la Nature) drew attention to the project of organizing knowledge about the Earth around a directional sequence of periods. The central impulses of Buffon’s two conceptions of the Earth were combined in actualistic field investigations by geologists of the late eighteenth century, Nicolas Desmarest in particular, which contributed significantly to the establishment of methods for determining distinct stages or sequences of the Earth’s past.

  5. Page 51

    Jean-André de Luc (or Deluc) (1727–1817), who first proposed the term ‘geology’ almost in its modern sense, was one of the most prominent geologists of his time. His ‘theory of the Earth’, published in several versions between 1778 and 1809, divided geohistory in binary manner into two distinct phases. The fossiliferous strata had been formed during a prehuman ‘ancient history’ of immense but unquantifiable duration. Then the present continents had emerged above sea-level in a sudden physical ‘revolution’, at the start of the Earth’s ‘modern history’ of human occupation. De Luc argued that the rates of ‘actual causes’ or observable processes (erosion, deposition, volcanic activity, etc.) provided ‘natural chronometers’ that proved that the ‘modern’ world was only a few millennia in age; and he identified the natural revolution at its start as none other than the Flood recorded in Genesis. So ‘nature’s chronology’ could be constructed from natural evidence, to match the well-established historical science of chronology based on textual evidence from ancient cultures. De Luc’s natural chronology was restricted to the recent past, but it provided a template for later geologists to develop a geochronology extending into the depths of geohistory. The historical importance of de Luc’s work has only been obscured by the myth of intrinsic conflict between science and religion.

  6. Page 67

    Smith first described himself as ‘land surveyor and drainer’ in his 1801 Prospectus but then as ‘engineer and mineralogist’ in his first book of 1806. His several careers are discussed with an attempt to shed new light on his pioneering career as ‘mineral surveyor’ (a term invented by his pupil, John Farey, in 1808). The trials for coal with which he was involved can be divided into two: those in which he used his new stratigraphic knowledge in positive searches for new coal deposits; and those where his stratigraphic science could often negatively demonstrate that many such searches were doomed to failure. These latter attempts were being made in, and misled by, repetitious clay lithologies, which resembled, but were not, Coal Measures. Smith was the first to show how unfortunate it was for such coal hunters that the British stratigraphic column abounded in repetitious clay lithologies. It was also unfortunate for Smith that many of the founding fathers of the Geological Society were unconvinced of the reality or the utility of Smith’s discoveries. Its leaders at first did not believe he had uncovered anything of significance and then simply stole much of it. The development of Smith’s stratigraphic science in the world of practical geology remains poorly understood, but the legacy of his method for unravelling relative geological time and space was one of the most significant of the nineteenth century.

  7. Page 85

    In 1841 John Phillips proposed that there were three great periods of past life on the Earth, namely the Palaeozoic, the Mesozoic and the Cainozoic, terms which are still used today. This was by no means Phillips’ sole contribution to geochronology and this paper examines his evolving views on it over a span of forty years. In the 1820s he adopted the Deluge as a notion which reconciled Genesis and geology. From the 1830s he adopted a liberal Christian position, which saw attempts at such reconciliation as futile and dangerous, and incurred the wrath of so-called scriptural geologists. From 1853 to his death, Phillips was a public figure as successively deputy reader, reader, and professor of geology in the University of Oxford. He was also president of the Geological Society from 1858 to 1860. The publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859) not only provoked him to reaffirm his liberal Christian beliefs but also induced him to give greater attention to geochronology as a weapon to be used against Darwinian evolution.

  8. Page 91

    The Marquis of Salisbury’s 1894 address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science sparked an important development in the debate on the age of the Earth. It led John Perry, a physicist, to produce the first mathematical rebuttal of Lord Kelvin’s calculations, which had since 1862 functioned as an argument against the theory of evolution by natural selection. Perry wished to affirm the independence of geology from physics, keeping each branch of science to its proper domain. With the support of his mathematical friends, Perry tried privately to induce Kelvin to modify his views. This effort failed, however, and the discussion became public in Nature. Perry supported his calculations with Heaviside’s new mathematical methods, and also with empirical data, though these were later undermined by Kelvin’s experiments. Perry was uncomfortable with his position as Kelvin’s critic, however, because he held his old teacher in great esteem. Although Kelvin never stopped believing that the Earth was too young for natural selection to have taken place, geologists and biologists responded very positively to Perry’s results, and no longer felt they had to justify their conclusions to physicists. The answer to ‘Had Lord Kelvin a right?’, ultimately depended on one’s scientific politics.

  9. Page 107

    John Joly (1857–1933) was one of Ireland’s most eminent scientists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who made important discoveries in physics, geology and photography. He was also a respected and influential diplomat for Trinity College, Dublin, and various Irish organizations, including the Royal Dublin Society. Measuring the age of the Earth occupied his mind for some considerable time – a problem he was to address using a diverse range of methods. His sodium method of 1899, for which he is best known, was hailed by many as revolutionary, but it was later superseded by other techniques, including the utilization of radiometric dating methodologies. Although Joly himself carried out much research in this area, he never fully accepted the large age estimates that radioactivity yielded. Nevertheless, Joly’s work in geochronology was innovative and important, for it challenged earlier methods of arriving at the Earth’s age, particularly those of Lord Kelvin. Although his findings and conclusions were later discredited, he should be remembered for his valuable contribution to this important and fundamental debate in the geological sciences.

  10. Page 121

    Arthur Holmes (1890–1965) was a British geoscientist who devoted much of his academic life to trying to further the understanding of geology by developing a radiometric timescale. From an early age he held in his mind a clear vision of how such a timescale would correlate and unify all geological events and processes. He pioneered the uranium–lead dating technique before the discovery of isotopes; he developed the principle of ‘initial ratios’ thirty years before it became recognized as the key to petrogenesis, and he wrote the most widely read and influential geology book of the twentieth century. But despite all this, much of his contribution to geology has gone unrecognized in the historical literature. This paper attempts to redress this omission, to dispel some of the myths about Holmes’ life, and to trace his contribution to the development of the geological timescale.

  11. Page 139

    In North America, prior to the Second World War, discussions on the age of the Earth were a minuscule part of the geological literature, as demonstrated by the small number of papers indexed to the subject in bibliographies. Indeed, during the first quarter of the twentieth century, there were few general papers on this topic circulating among those geologists who dealt with sedimentary rocks and fossils; nevertheless, evidence is provided that many geologists were aware of the ‘debate’ going on in Britain.

    As the methodology for determining the length of geological time dramatically changed during the four decades represented here, so too did the evolution of ideas about the age of the Earth. These can conveniently be divided into three time periods: before, during and after the discovery that radioactivity could be applied to the dating of rocks. The first section reviews the attitudes of geologists in America to the age of the Earth in the 1890s. It is followed by their reactions to the discovery of radioactivity. The third part discusses two major publications on the age of the Earth which reflect the ultimate acceptance, by geologists, of the long timescale revealed by radioactivity. Because much of the early work on radioactivity was being done in Europe, American geologists were marginally later than their British counterparts in accepting the concept of radiometric dating, but by the end of the period under consideration they led the field in geochronology.

  12. Page 157

    Estimates of the Earth’s age have had significant impacts, not only on geology but also on biology, astronomy and biblical creationism. In the 1930s and 1940s, the age of the universe as estimated from the expanding universe was less than 2000 million years, but the age of the Earth as estimated from radiometric dating was perhaps as great as 3000 million years. Astronomers responded to this contradiction in at least three different ways. Some cosmologists favoured Georges Lemaitre’s relativistic model, in which the universe remains about the same size for an indefinite period of time before starting its present stage of expansion. Since theories of the origin of the solar system that were popular in the early 1930s assumed an encounter between the Sun and another star, it seemed plausible that the Earth could have been formed around this epoch of ‘cosmic congestion’. Edwin P. Hubble, generally regarded as the founder of the expanding-universe theory because of his discovery of the redshift-distance law, doubted that redshifts are actually due to velocities, and seemed to prefer a non-expanding model, though he emphasized that the correct interpretation of the redshifts of distant galaxies was still an open question up until the time of his death in 1953. Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold proposed a ‘steady-state’ cosmology: the universe has always existed, so there is no conflict between its (infinite) age and that of the Earth. The discrepancy was finally resolved in the 1950s when astronomers revised their distance scale and boosted the age of the universe to 10000 million years or more. The current agreement between geologists and astronomers again leaves creationists with no scientific support at all for their claim that both the Earth and universe were created only about 10 000 years ago.

  13. Page 177

    Ages in the range 3.6–4.0 Ga (billion years) have been reported for the oldest, continental, granitoid orthogneisses, whose magmatic precursors were probably formed by partial melting or differentiation from a mafic, mantle-derived source. The geological interpretation of some of the oldest ages in this range is still strongly disputed.

    The oldest known supracrustal (i.e. volcanic and sedimentary) rocks, with an age of 3.7–3.8 Ga, occur in West Greenland. They were deposited in water, and several of the sediments contain 13C-depleted graphite microparticles, which have been claimed to be biogenic.

    Ancient sediments (c. 3 Ga) in western Australia contain much older detrital zircons with dates ranging up to 4.4 Ga. The nature and origin of their source is highly debatable. Some ancient (magmatic) orthogneisses (c. 3.65–3.75 Ga) contain inherited zircons with dates up to c. 4.0 Ga. To clarify whether zircons in orthogneisses are inherited from an older source region or cogenetic with their host rock, it is desirable to combine imaging studies and U-Pb dating of single zircon grains with independent dating of the host rock by other methods, including Sm-Nd, Lu-Hf and Pb/Pb.

    Initial Nd, Hf and Pb isotopic ratios of ancient orthogneisses are essential parameters for investigating the degree of heterogeneity of early Archaean mantle. The simplest interpretation of existing isotopic data is for a slightly depleted, close-to-chondritic, essentially homogeneous early Archaean mantle; this does not favour the existence of a sizeable, permanent continental crust in the early Archaean.

    By analogy with the moon, massive bolide impacts probably terminated on Earth by c. 3.8–3.9 Ga, although no evidence for them has yet been found. By c. 3.65 Ga production of continental crust was well underway, and global tectonic and petrogenetic regimes increasingly resembled those of later epochs.

  14. Page 205

    In the early twentieth century the Earth’s age was unknown and scientific estimates, none of which were based on valid premises, varied typically from a few millions to billions of years. This important question was answered only after more than half a century of innovation in both theory and instrumentation. Critical developments along this path included not only a better understanding of the fundamental properties of matter, but also: (a) the suggestion and first demonstration by Rutherford in 1904 that radioactivity might be used as a geological timekeeper; (b) the development of the first mass analyser and the discovery of isotopes by J. J. Thomson in 1914; (c) the idea by Russell in 1921 that the age of a planetary reservoir like the Earth’s crust might be measured from the relative abundances of a radioactive parent element (uranium) and its daughter product (lead); (d) the development of the idea by Gerling in 1942 that the age of the Earth could be calculated from the isotopic composition of a lead ore of known age; (e) the ideas of Houtermans and Brown in 1947 that the isotopic composition of primordial lead might be found in iron meteorites; and (f) the first calculation by Patterson in 1953 of a valid age for the Earth of 4.55Ga, using the primordial meteoritic lead composition and samples representing the composition of modern Earth lead. The value for the age of the Earth in wide use today was determined by Tera in 1980, who found a value of 4.54 Ga from a clever analysis of the lead isotopic compositions of four ancient conformable lead deposits. Whether this age represents the age of the Earth’s accretion, of core formation, or of the material from which the Earth formed is not yet known, but recent evidence suggests it may approximate the latter.

  15. Page 223

    The assumptions underlying the models used in the literature for obtaining the age of the Earth from terrestrial lead isotopes are severely violated by the complex evolution of the Earth, particularly the extreme chemical fractionation occurring during crust-mantle differentiation. Young conformable lead deposits are isotopically very similar to young sediments, the erosion products derived from the Earth’s most highly fractionated large-scale reservoir, the upper continental crust. Therefore, ancient conformable lead deposits are also likely to track continental compositions rather than the composition of any truly primitive reservoir.

    Although the specific enrichment mechanisms during crust formation are both extreme and quite different for U and Pb, the net enrichments in the crust, as well as the corresponding depletions in the residual mantle, are on average very similar for the two elements. It is because of this geochemical coincidence that the time-integrated U/Pb ratios of conformable lead deposits, which integrate and average large volumes of crustal lead, are very close to average mantle values. For the same reason, the isotopic evolution of these conformable lead deposits follows an apparently (nearly) closed system evolution path of a 4.4 to 4.5 Ga-old U-Pb system rather closely, even though that system was actually very far from remaining chemically closed during its history. From these considerations I conclude that terrestrial Pb isotopes do not furnish a suitable tool for determining a refined estimate of the age of the Earth within the broad bounds of 4.4 and 4.56 Ga limits, which are given by other types of evidence, such as the ages of meteorites, the Moon, and the formation intervals of the Earth’s core and atmosphere derived from the decay products of short-lived, now-extinct nuclides.

  16. Page 237

    To reconstruct the history of the Earth we need to know what happened and when – events and their dates – and we should like to know how it happened and why – processes and their rates. To date a historical event we need a timescale for reference – a calendar – and a means of placing events in this timescale – a clock. Direct access to the primary physical calendar, of time measured in years by means of elemental radiometry as clock, is possible in only a minority of geological problems. By far the richest historical source in the Phanerozoic Eon has been the stratigraphical analysis of sedimentary rocks by means of fossils, the approach pioneered by William Smith. The succession of fossil biotae found in the rocks is used to construct the calendar of relative time, the familiar geological calendar defining the standard chronostratigraphical timescale still in process of refinement today. Rocks are then dated through time correlations with this scale by means of their guide fossils (yon Buch) as clocks. The power to measure the rates of geological processes then depends on the time resolution achievable by means of fossils, the time intervals between distinguishable events, the finesse of the calendar.

    The present-day state of play is reviewed, both in the refinement of the geological calendar and the finesse that has been attained. Comparison of the geological calendar with our familiar human historical calendar reveals some illuminating parallels as well as some important differences. Illustrative examples are taken from the Jurassic Period (170 Ma bp) and its ammonites as clocks.

  17. Page 253

    Modern developments in the Earth sciences have revealed, for the first time, how our planet actually ‘works.’ For biologists, they have brought a fresh understanding of the interwoven histories of the physical and the living worlds. In turn, new biological discoveries show how early in Earth’s history life arose and how it was able to flourish even under the apparently hostile conditions of the young solar system. In particular the high ocean temperatures following meteor impacts would not have precluded the successful progress of so-called hyperthermophilic prokaryotic organisms.

    The early problems which evolutionary biologists faced, when presented with estimates of the age of the Earth as a few tens of millions of years, have now been replaced by arguments concerning mechanisms underlying the variable rates and patterns of evolution.

    Life and the Earth have reciprocally interacted over billions of years and repeatedly planetary processes have led to mass extinctions whose dramatic results can be seen in the fossil record even though the details of such events remain problematical. So far mass extinctions have resulted in increased opportunities for the survivors; the current human-induced extinction is unlikely to do so.

  18. Page 265

    One of the most serious past difficulties facing realistic tests of evolutionary models for modern human origins was the lack of widely applicable dating procedures that could reach beyond the practical limits of radiocarbon dating. Moreover, the amount of fossil material that had to be sacrificed to obtain a conventional radiocarbon date meant that human fossils could generally only be dated indirectly through supposedly associated materials. Because of these limitations, the transition from Neanderthals to modern humans in Europe was believed to have occurred about 35 000 radiocarbon years ago, but detailed reconstruction of the processes involved (for example, evolution or population replacement) was not practicable. In the Levant, the transition period from Neanderthals to modern humans was believed to lie only slightly beyond this 35 000-year watershed. Elsewhere, in Africa, east Asia and Australasia, the chronology for modern human origins was even more difficult to establish. However, over the last fifteen years, radiocarbon and non-radiocarbon physical dating techniques such as luminescence and electron spin resonance have been increasingly refined, leading to a revolution in our understanding of the timescale for human evolution, particularly for the last 200 000 years. Although each dating method has its own strengths and weaknesses, the picture that now emerges is one of a gradual evolution of Neanderthal morphology in Europe, in parallel with a similar evolution of modern humans in Africa. Modern humans also appear surprisingly early in the Levant (c. 100 ka ago) and Australia (c. 60 ka ago). However, many uncertainties still surround the process of establishment of our species globally.

  19. Page 275

    This paper attempts to set the Earth in a cosmic perspective. It discusses the Sun’s life cycle in the context of stellar evolution, and the ideas of stellar nucleosynthesis, as an explanation of the origin of the atoms on the Earth. Current ideas on how planetary systems form are mentioned, along with data on recently discovered planets around other stars. The origin of matter itself can be traced back to a ‘Big Bang’: corroboration of this model comes from the microwave background and from observed helium and deuterium abundances. There is now a concordance between stellar ages and the cosmic evolutionary timescale inferred from cosmology, from which we derive an age for the universe. Recent progress brings into focus a new set of questions about the ultra-early universe. Until these can be answered, it will remain a mystery why the universe is expanding in the observed fashion, and why it contains the measured mix of atoms, radiation and dark matter.

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