Wednesday, 30 May 2018

A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation

The rapid development of geology in the first part of the Nineteenth Century brought challenges to those who believed in the literal truth of The Holy Bible. Lyell’s Principles of Geology, published in three volumes from 1830-1833 [1] synthesised contemporary views on the accumulation of different strata over very long time periods, with the strata containing the fossilised remains of plants and animals. Clearly, the Earth was more than 6000 years old, as maintained by Christian Creationists, and believers were thus faced with a conflict that they needed to resolve.

In 1821, ten years before Lyell’s synthesis, W Welch of Plymouth produced his Reliogiosa Philosophia [2] and I am grateful to Dr Patrick Armitage of the Freshwater Biological Association for suggesting that I would be interested in Welch’s work. I had no knowledge of it before Patrick contacted me, although a copy is available as an e-book. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out anything about Welch except that he lived in Stonehouse in Plymouth and believed in the truth of everything written in The Holy Bible.

Reliogiosa Philosophia, subtitled A new theory of the Earth; in unison with the Mosaic account of Creation (thus the title of this blog post), opens with its dedication to Sir Humphry Davy, the President of The Royal Society (PRS):

Presuming on your well known regard for, and patronage of, the Arts and Sciences, I have taken the liberty to dedicate to you this first production of my pen, on a subject which has long engaged the attention of Geologists.

Should the present work meet your approval, it will afford me gratification, from a conviction that you would not bestow your approbation, unless you conceived the conclusions I have drawn to be founded on truth; and if my attempt to reconcile recorded facts in the book of Nature with the history of Creation, as given by Moses, in the Sacred Volume, prove successful, true religion and philosophy will be benefited; and as they are derived from the same source, they should be united to promote the same end.

I do not know how Davy responded to the book but, although Welch’s thoughts on the formation of the Earth are imaginative, they are also eccentric and it is unlikely that the PRS took them seriously.

Welch’s theory is this: the power and word of the Almighty, by the agency of fire, a union of the gases was effected, and which, in a state of Nebula, uniting, formed a globe of water, of much larger dimensions than the present earth, with its seas, now only encompassing our shores. These gases contained and combined all the principles of future matter.. ..a globe of water thus formed, became the emporium, or grand magazine; a union of stony particles probably then took place, which, when they became specifically heavier than the water, descended from every part towards the centre, and formed a nucleus, whilst the stony particles, in their descent, obtained from the diurnal motion, the form of a spheroid..

..The nucleus being of a nature suited to marine vegetation, plants were, by the creative power of the Deity, first produced, suited to the wants of testaceous and crustaceous animals. From these sources, I presume, the earth received its gradual increase:- that, in proportion as vegetables and animals have been produced, the layers or strata have been formed, and the waters lessened; and that, in the process of time, the earth approached towards the surface of the waters, when the long confined volcanic matter acquired a force superior to the resisting external pressure, burst the hitherto unbroken globe, raised the Continents with the Mountains, producing various phenomena..
Welch’s ideas on the formation of the Earth are summarised by an illustration in his book (see above). In propounding these views, he provides an explanation, albeit an extremely unlikely one, for the origin of the huge volume of water in the oceans covering so much of the Earth's surface: contemporary theories proposing that this water comes from comets, or from the release of water from crystalline rocks. Like Welch, we don’t know.

The development of rock strata described by Welch must have taken a lot longer than the few days demanded by the account in Genesis. He addresses this point [2]:

It may.. asserted by some persons, that the Almighty could as easily have constructed our Globe at once, and that the means here laid down are inadequate to the end. To the former I reply, that it would be a species of blasphemy to doubt his power; but that the point is, not what he could do, but what the book of Nature shews he has done; and to the latter position, it will appear obvious.. .. that the production of marine animals is incalculable, and that the myriads of millions in a globe of water, and which the Creator abundantly filled, to produce and execute his designs, by the shells cemented with decomposed plants making layers, and constantly forming into rock, tending in every part to raise the bed of the Ocean.

This is confusing, as Welch is a believer in Creation, yet appears to accept the idea of change over long periods of time – not of evolution, but of the formation of rock strata with their associated fossils. It certainly requires a lot of faith to accept the description given in Genesis.

Much of the rest of the book elaborates on Welch’s theory, but he also gives us an Appendix that shows us the power of his imagination [2]:

..we may safely infer, that the Deity would not have provided the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and the Herschel, or Georgium Sidus, with moons, (of no sort of utility to us,) unless he had intended to have placed beings on those globes, possessed with the faculty of vision, and capable of receiving and enjoying light, in a manner similar to ourselves; and it is more than probable, nay, it amounts almost to a demonstration, that not only the planets in our system are inhabited, but those in every other throughout the universe..

What is the basis for these assumptions? Is there any statement in The Holy Bible to support this extraordinary view? Did each of these myriads of planets, which had the same Creator, also have the same Jesus Christ?

Welch’s views on planets are fantastic, but nothing compared to what he has to say about the sun:

The Sun, which is evidently the most glorious orb in our system, has been very generally supposed to be a globe of fire; I shall, however, on this subject offer a few observations, and conclude the present essay by endeavouring to illustrate that not only the planets, but that our sun also, is probably the abode of intelligent and more exalted beings.. may.. reasonably inferred, that the source of our day is surrounded with a luminous atmosphere, suited by the Creator to his all-wise and beneficent purposes; and, that owing to a break or opening, which at times occur, we are enabled to perceive a part of his orb, and which, contrasted with the brilliancy of his luminous part, appears black, demonstrating that it is not a body of fire; it is, therefore, more than probable, that the sun is a suited habitation to superior and exalted beings.

I had never considered “sun spots” in this way and I wonder what Davy, and other readers grounded in science, made of Welch’s extraordinary theories. How did he develop them? Did they stem from a threat to his religious beliefs? I cannot answer these questions. However, it is worth pointing out that currently accepted theories on the origin of the Universe may seem equally preposterous in two hundred years’ time and we may have to accept that we will never explain what we observe. That acceptance provides a niche that religions exploit, yet it can be argued that religious explanations may be as valid as “scientific” ones when dealing with the unknown. Welch, however, seems just a tad wild in his metaphysical imaginings…

[1] Charles Lyell (1830 – 1833) Principles of Geology (three volumes). London, John Murray.

[2] W Welch (1821) Religiosa Philosophia. Plymouth, W. Byers.

Many thanks to Patrick Armitage for suggesting that I would be fascinated by Welch’s book – I certainly was, but probably not in the way that Welch intended.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Conscientious Objection

I worked at UCL in Bloomsbury for 23 years and, although I walked around the campus area to shop, to go to different lecture rooms and Departments, and for pleasure, I had never visited the garden in Tavistock Square, just a few hundred metres away from my office. Three days ago, I travelled into London from my home in Berkhamsted for a meeting and afterwards walked back to Euston Station past Tavistock Square On the spur of the moment, I decided to pop in and look around this lovely green space. In addition to the lawns and shrubs, there are interesting trees, including a cherry tree dedicated to those who were killed by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and among the monuments in the garden is an impressive statue of Gandhi. I was drawn to a large stone (see below, image from Wiki) that had been covered by white carnations, laid out singly in a rather striking way all over its surface. This stone bore a plaque bearing the inscriptions:

To commemorate men & women conscientious objectors to military service all over the world & in every age.

To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill. Their foresight and courage give us hope.

This stone was dedicated on 15 May 1994 International Conscientious Objectors’ Day

How interesting, then, that I decided to discover the Tavistock Square garden on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the day that the monument was unveiled. That explains the presence of the carnations and I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take a picture of it at the time (unfortunately, I don’t own a mobile telephone and wasn’t carrying a camera, or my iPad).

The monument set me thinking about what I would do if threatened by the need to fight and kill opponents. Firstly, I don’t think that I could take the life of another human being and, while I have killed mammals when I was younger, I’m not sure that I could now. That’s not to say that I respect all life forms, as I’m an enthusiastic killer of wasps and flies when they invade “my” space and I am an omnivore, so cannot object to killing of mammals by others. Secondly, I find it difficult to accept that war is inevitable and that killing opponents results in anything but pain. Of course, there are victors and vanquished (at great cost on both sides), but settlements are negotiable without resort to force.

A web search reveals the names of many famous objectors, especially during the First and Second World Wars, but large numbers of other citizens, who are less famous, followed their conscience and beliefs and refused to fight. Among famous conscientious objectors was Kathleen Lonsdale (see above) and her story has a personal ring for me as she worked for many years at UCL. She was a distinguished scientist who was raised as a Baptist (as I was), but became a Quaker as she believed in pacifism. Gill Hudson writes [1] that:

..Kathleen saw her life as scientist, Quaker, and mother as inextricably linked. She gave the Eddington lecture in 1964 and described how the practice of science, of religion, and of child rearing should be founded on common themes of scepticism and of knowledge gained at first hand.

She was a firm believer in Gandhian non-violent resistance and in civil disobedience. During the Second World War she refused to register for civil defence and when she refused to pay the fine for this was committed to Holloway prison for one month. Although she would have been exempt from civil service duties, it seemed important to her that she should make the point as a conscientious objector.

Not everyone has the courage of Kathleen Lonsdale and the Peace Pledge Union [2] provides support for conscientious objectors in the contemporary world.

In thinking about my views on conscientious objection, I find myself in a quandary. In my last blog post [3], I recalled the tragedy of the Harrowell brothers, just two of many millions who died prematurely while fighting for their country. I don’t know if they were enthusiastic volunteers in the Great War, or whether they were reluctant conscripts, but many would argue that their deaths, and those of many others, resulted, eventually, in the maintenance of civilised society. Certainly, many combatants show extraordinary bravery and sacrifice and I cannot belittle their contribution in allowing me to enjoy my way of life. However, I still think that I would be a conscientious objector, although who knows? I just hope that the situation does not arise where I have to make the choice.   

It surprises me that this series of thoughts all came about after a serendipitous detour into one of London’s squares, while strolling back to Euston Station to catch the train home. Should it?

[1] Gill Hudson (2010) Lonsdale [née Yardley], Dame Kathleen (1903-1971). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: