The French Connection
Western belief in ‘deep time’ first appeared in 17th and 18th century France
Most of us are familiar with the idea of long ages of millions of years that accompanies belief in evolution. It has been ingrained in the thinking of western culture for generations. It is not well known, however, that belief in ‘deep time’ actually developed in France in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, before spreading to Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.*
Early European scientists, such as Nicolaus Steno (1638–1686), had maintained a commitment to Scripture and they harmonized the Flood account with the geological evidence.1 There were a number of factors involved in the development of deep-time thinking in France. Following René Descartes’ (1596–1650) method of skepticism and doubt, the biblical account of creation and the Flood were denied a place in science, and fallen human reasoning became the arbiter of scientific knowledge.
However, when Jesuit missionaries brought knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism from South India and China back to France, this was allowed to feed into discussions about the age of the earth.
The Jesuit role
Jesuits are members of the Society of Jesus, a religious order within the Roman Catholic Church that was established in 1540 to oppose the Protestant Reformation. This meant opposing the Reformation principles of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture, which threatened ecclesiastical authority. Thus, in spite of a credal commitment to the Bible, at least some of their members were significantly involved at that time in a move against the authority of Scripture.
Furthermore, their willingness to accept various aspects of eastern religious philosophies from India and China into their thinking was disturbing even to many of their fellow Catholics, who saw it as compromising the Catholic faith itself. This was reflected in the so-called Chinese rites and Malabar rites controversies within Catholicism in 17th- and 18th-century France. Jesuit missionaries were blending certain traditional religious practices with Catholic rites, the purpose being to make Catholicism more acceptable in China and South India in order to gain converts.
This accommodationism was criticized by other Catholic orders, and at one point by Rome. The ‘Chinese rites’ practice was also strongly criticized by mathematician and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).2
The Jesuit Order had worked hard in establishing prestigious schools in the country, some of their students later becoming leading opinion-formers in France. Returning Jesuit missionaries, who brought knowledge of Hinduism and Buddhism with them, often taught in those schools. As a result, Hindu-derived ideas of ‘deep time’ were allowed to gain influence in western science, especially geology.
In the middle of the 18th century, there was growing agitation for revolution in France, and moves to undermine political and religious authority through subterfuge and the denial of Scripture formed part of this. Consequently, the actions of some of these Jesuits and their followers came under scrutiny on suspicion of deception and sedition. The Jesuit order was banned by the French king, Louis XV, in 1764, and more widely by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, before being reinstated in 1814.
Movers and shakers of French thought
Amongst the most notable French voices against scriptural authority and belief in the Flood in the 18th century were: Bernard de Fontenelle (1657–1757), Benoît de Maillet (1656–1738), Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694–1778), and Denis Diderot (1713–1784).
Bernard de Fontenelle
Fontenelle was trained at the Jesuit Collège de Bourbon, and for decades (1697–1740) he held the prestigious position of Secretary to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris. This allowed him to influence the development and direction of geological science in France in a way that undermined belief in the biblical Flood.
He had earlier written a book (1686) entitled Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds.3 Effectively a science fiction dialogue, it discussed space travel and the possibility of life on the moon and other planets. Fontenelle envisioned gradual alterations in nature occurring over hundreds of thousands of years, and his book was influential in preparing the French imagination for a different worldview over the subsequent century.4 One passage in the dialogue states:
Ought we to assert that what has lasted a hundred thousand times longer than we, must last for ever? No, ages on ages of our duration would scarcely be any indication of immortality. … True, I replied; nature does nothing abruptly, her method is to effect every alteration by such gentle graduations that it is scarcely perceptible to us.5
At the Royal Academy, he was tasked with offering his own summaries of the Academy’s official papers, notes and correspondence.6 But his summaries began to veer away from fully reflecting that research, and instead often incorporated his own views regarding the nature of the fossil record and earth history.7 Through this, he persuaded French academic society that a more ancient history of the world could be arrived at than the account given in Scripture.
For instance, the respected scientist René Réaumur, in the Academy’s Mémoires (1720), discussed the Falun layers of the Province of Touraine in France, consisting of numerous shells and shell fragments. However, Fontenelle used the occasion to deny evidence of the Flood, and argued instead for geological changes over longer periods of time. He thought the 7 m thickness of shelly layers required successive floods involving a gradually receding ocean over an extended period, and that life on Earth had long preceded mankind. None of these floods, he argued, could be attributed to the Mosaic account.8
Benoît de Maillet
Another significant influence of the middle of the 18th century was de Maillet’s edited book Telliamed (a reversal of his name).9 It was first published posthumously (1748) by the Jesuit priest Abbé Jean Baptiste le Mascrier, although draft copies had been circulating in Paris for a couple of decades. De Maillet had become a French diplomat, allowing him to travel to the Middle East where he became acquainted with other cultures and beliefs.
Telliamed argued the case for millions of years of change from the perspective of a Hindu sage against a French missionary. Earlier clandestine drafts had argued that the earth was at least two billion years old, correlating roughly with half a day of the Hindu creator god Brahma; the 12-hour day of Brahma is said to last for 4.32 billion years (during which period Brahma is awake), followed by a night of similar length.
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet)
The famous Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire also claimed that deep time was required for geological change. He commented in an anonymous letter to the Academy of Bologna in 1746 that:
Revolutions of thousands of millions of years are infinitely less in the light of the Great Architect of Nature, than to us that of a wheel which compleats [sic] its round in the twinkling of an eye.10
Voltaire also argued that fossil fish found on Alpine mountains were in fact food dropped by Christian pilgrims! However, Charles Lyell, though a strong opponent of the Mosaic account, thought Voltaire was arguing deceitfully, because Voltaire recognized that such fossil evidence strongly supported the biblical Flood account. He commented quite bluntly that:
The numerous essays written by him on geological subjects were all calculated to strengthen prejudices, partly because he was ignorant of the real state of the science, and partly from his bad faith.11
Voltaire even began to argue that the Hindu writings were more ancient and authentic than the Bible. However, again he misrepresented the truth. He praised the Ezour Veda (or Ezourvedam) as a valuable gift to Western nations, saying they were indebted to this eastern religion. But in reality, this was a latter-day forgery; the work of Jesuits, not an ancient text. It was in the form of a dialogue between two supposed Vedic sages, one a monotheist and the other a polytheist who conclude that Hindu polytheism is more or less monotheism in disguise.
Diderot was an agitator against the political and religious authorities and, at one time, was imprisoned for sedition. In his Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature (1754), he wrote:
… may not a philosopher, left to his own conjectures, suspect that, from time immemorial, animal life had its own constituent elements, scattered and intermingled with the general body of matter, and that it happened that these constituent elements came together … [and] that millions of years passed between each of these developments … ?12
The Jesuit-trained Diderot was well acquainted with Voltaire and gradually lost his faith, becoming a deist, then an atheist. He was tasked with editing a French Encyclopédie, a comprehensive work published from 1751 to 1772 to explain the world from the perspective of naturalism, and aimed at changing the thinking of French society.
Making the connections
In 17th and 18th century France, then, those who developed belief in deep time and gradual geological change were committed to removing the scriptural narrative of the Flood from geological science, initially because of the influence of Descartes. Sometimes this took place through underhanded, deceptive means. We’ve also seen that belief in millions of years of change arose as knowledge of Hinduism was brought into the thinking of French society, and this was allowed to inform science, whereas the Mosaic account was not. Furthermore, there was a growing desire in France for revolution against the existing political and religious order.
Belief in millions of years of geological change then spread to Britain in the late 18th century and early 19th century through men such as James Hutton, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin.
Many earth scientists are largely ignorant of the roots of belief in deep time, and this ‘French connection’ is not well known in modern geology. Certainly, this belief did not develop purely from studies of sedimentary rock layers.
References and notes
- Walker, T., Geological pioneer Nicolaus Steno was a biblical creationist, J. Creation 22(1):93–98, 2008; creation.com/steno. Return to text.
- Pascal, B., The Provincial Letters, Letter V, 20 Mar 1656, Trans T. M’Crie, University of Adelaide, Australia, 2005. Return to text.
- Fontenelle, Bernard Le Bovier de, Entretiens sur la Pluralité des Mondes; it went through many French editions. Return to text.
- Stott, R., Darwin’s Ghosts: In search of the first evolutionists, Bloomsbury Publ., London, p. 117, 2012. Return to text.
- Fontenelle, B., The Plurality of other Worlds, Gunning, E. (trans.), Paternoster-Row, London, pp. 129–141, 1803. Return to text.
- Rappaport, R., Fontenelle interprets the earth’s history; in: Revue d’histoire des sciences, tome 44, no. 3–4, pp. 281–300, 1991. This discusses the Histoire et Mémoires de l’Académie royale des sciences, Paris, annual volumes from 1699. Fontenelle wrote the Histoire. Return to text.
- Fontenelle, B., Histoire … , ref. 6, preface and p. 9, 1699 (Paris, 1702). Rappaport (ref. 6, pp. 282–283) writes: “He wrote in the Preface of the first publication, ‘we even took care on occasions of sowing our own clarifications to facilitate the reading of the Mémoires’” (my translation). Return to text.
- Fontenelle, B., Histoire…, pp. 5–9, 1720 (1722); in Rappaport, ref. 6, p. 297. Return to text.
- It was fully entitled: Telliamed, or Conversations Between an Indian Philosopher and a French Missionary on the Diminution of the Sea, and the Origin of Men and Animals (English translation); Le M.ascrier, J.B & Antoine Guers, J. (Eds.), Amsterdam, 1748. Return to text.
- Voltaire (Arouet, F.-M.), Dissertation on the changes that have happened in our globe, and on the Petrifications which are alleged as Proofs thereof, Letter to Academy of Bologna; in Smollett, T. et al., (trans.), The Works of M. de. Voltaire, vol. 18, London, pp. 243–256, 1762. Return to text.
- Lyell, C., chapter 4 of Principles of Geology (9th Edn), book 1, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia, pp. 54–55, 1854 (also in 1834 edition). Return to text.
- Diderot, D., Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature: and Other Philosophical Works, (Ed. Adams, D.) Clinamen Press Ltd, Manchester, p. 75, 2000. Return to text.