Some Catholics, including a few “traditionalists” with public reputations and followings, have adopted what is known as the “young earth hypothesis,” the idea that the world is not billions of years old but only thousands. Like their Fundamentalist counterparts, they contend that this position is mandated by Scripture and is substantiated by science.
Their belief could be shrugged off as mere eccentricity, but it is worth discussing because they do Catholics no favor by arguing publicly as they do. They may garner for themselves Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame, but in the process they bring the Church into disrepute. Things are tough enough for Catholics nowadays, particularly in America. We do not need to be weighed down with this new baggage.
The stance of these young earth proponents brings to mind James Ussher (1581–1656), Anglican archbishop of Armagh and vice chancellor of Trinity College in Dublin. He is best remembered for The Annals of the World, a treatise giving a scriptural chronology that was incorporated into an edition of the Authorized (King James) Version, thus receiving a kind of Protestant imprimatur. Ussher’s calculation of the age of the earth put the first day of creation as Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. To arrive at that date he tallied the ages of people named in Genesis and other Old Testament books, assumed there were no gaps between their lives (each “begat” indicating a direct father-son relationship), and worked backward from known dates in ancient history.
Although Ussher is not used as an authority by today’s Catholic young earthers, their way of approaching Scripture is reminiscent of his. A literal interpretation of the Bible is the first one that a reader should consider—but it is not always the right one, as the Catholic Church repeatedly has taught. Sometimes an allegorical, poetical, or other interpretation is proper, while a too-strictly literal interpretation can lead one astray.
For Ussher the theory of evolution was a non-issue because he lived long before it was proposed. Today’s Catholic advocates of a young earth, and their Fundamentalist counterparts, are not interested in the age of the earth for its own sake. Their opposition to evolution is really what impels them. They are convinced that evolution is erroneous, and that conviction leads them to oppose anything that might seem to give the theory a foothold. They think that an old earth implies evolution and that a young earth implies no evolution—or at least that an old earth would allow time for evolution, while a young earth would not. They argue that evolution is false, so the earth must be young.
This is sloppy thinking. If evolution could not have occurred over the last 6,000 years, is there some dynamic that insists it likely would have occurred if the time in question were 60,000 years or six million years or six billion years? Where is the dividing line? Even if one works from the position that evolution is a false theory, there is no evident reason to plump for the young earth hypothesis. One does not need to posit a young earth to argue against evolution.
Before saying anything further, a distinction should be drawn between evolution and Darwinism. Evolution is the idea that living things have altered over time, for the most part becoming more complex and specialized. Darwinism is the generally accepted mechanism for evolution. It purports to explain how evolutionary change could have come about. One might posit a mechanism other than Darwinism, but Darwinism certainly is the preferred theory—so much so that in many minds evolution and Darwinism are synonyms.
There is ample justification to doubt the factuality of Darwinism (see for example the writings of George Sim Johnston, Michael Behe, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, and Michael Denton). It is possible for someone who accepts evolution to reject Darwinism; he could accept the result but not the proffered means. Inasmuch as there is no real alternative to Darwinism on the table, the odd result would be someone who says he accepts evolution but rejects the mechanism to effect it. It would be a kind of scientific agnosticism. My sense is that those who reject Darwinism tend to be at best agnostic about evolution itself, and most of them conclude not only that Darwinism is unworkable but that evolution, through whatever mechanism, did not occur.
My argument is not about evolution or its mechanism. It is about how the rejection of evolution and Darwinism has resulted in a problematic approach to Scripture and science by Catholic promoters of a young earth. They begin with the idea that these theories are erroneous and, to protect their position, conclude that they must adopt the young earth hypothesis.
In this they are wrong, but how does one prove them wrong? No doubt there are multiple ways, but let me offer an indirect and quite personal refutation. It is not so much scientific as affective, not so much conclusive as indicative.
More than four million people find themselves on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon each year, looking across the miles-wide chasm. It is an impressive sight, but, from the rim, one simply cannot have a proper appreciation of the immensity of what the eye is taking in. When Indians showed the first Spanish explorers the Grand Canyon, they tried to hike down to the Colorado River but got only part way, stymied by cliffs. (Some say the Indians were reluctant to reveal to the strangers the few trails leading all the way down.) The Spaniards did go far enough to get a view of the river—which, they concluded, was only six feet wide. They could see that it was a long way from where they were to the bottom, but they had no sense of how long it really was. Their eyes fooled them. They thought the rushing river was only as wide as a man is tall.
From today’s observation points on the rim, one gets a better sense of the Grand Canyon’s size than from any photograph, but otherwise one is no better off than the long-dead Spaniards. Still the eyes are fooled. From nowhere at the top can one g.asp rightly the magnitude of what is being observed. Not until one descends into the depths of the Grand Canyon can the proportions be appreciated.
This tremendous gorge varies in depth. The further downriver one goes, the less deep it is, until, outside the national park, the river enters Lake Mead, where the cliffs are tall but not remarkably so. Further downriver still, where the Colorado forms the border between California and Arizona, the banks are only a few feet high, and the river is wide and lazy. In the eastern portion of Grand Canyon National Park the distance from the rim to the river is as much as a mile. Where I backpacked recently the drop was only a few hundred feet less.
Even on the gentlest Grand Canyon trail, a rim-to-river hike is an all-day adventure. The trail is relentlessly downward, as sore thighs and twitching knees attest. For hour after hour one switchbacks down terraced layers of rock and across long slopes. First there is the Kaibab Formation, 300 feet thick. Then comes the Toroweap Formation, equally thick. Beneath that are the Coconino Sandstone and the Hermit Shale. On reaching the base of the latter, one has lost a total of 1,400 feet. Then comes the 700-foot-thick Supai Group, which consists of various sorts of rock. After that is the Redwall Limestone, which is up to 500 feet thick and the base of which marks the halfway point. Some layers consist of sheer cliffs, like the Redwall. Others layers are made of debris or sharply eroded, softer rock and are canted at about 45 degrees. The Tonto Platform, about a thousand feet above the river, is the closest one comes to the horizontal, but it undulates constantly and is never truly level.
To reach the South Bass Trail, which is the one I took in my solo Lenten hike, one leaves Grand Canyon Village and drives westward 30 miles on a deeply rutted dirt road, crossing part of the Havasupai Indian Reservation and a corner of the Kaibab National Forest. After parking my Jeep at the trailhead, I descended the trail through Bass Canyon and reached the Colorado River in about seven hours.
My desired campsite was occupied by a party of eleven—the only other people on the trail that day and the next—so I proceeded downriver until I found, at the base of a steep and rocky slope, a secluded beach that afforded room for my tent but not much more. I was in what is called the Granite Gorge, where the Colorado is confined within precipitous walls of igneous rock. The muddy waters ran deep and swift a few feet from me. Had I waded out to the main current and tried to swim, I would have been propelled relentlessly downstream, through the Shinumo Rapids, and washed ashore quite lifeless at Lake Mead. Not even Johnny Weismuller could have survived the Colorado River here.
On my hike out—prudently done over two days, although hikers seeking a purgatorial experience try to do it in one—I camped at the base of the Redwall, 2,600 feet below the rim. From there I could see, far up Bass Canyon, a massive crest topped with isolated trees. It was not the rim but only the top of the Supai Group. Not until I neared the top of that layer would I be able to see, again high above me, the true rim. My second night’s camp was next to a field of boulders, any one of which could crush a car. Further across Bass Canyon were boulders so large they could crush a large building. All these were small compared to the Redwall cliffs from which they had dislodged.
The typography of the side canyon, like the typography of the entire Grand Canyon drainage, is an artifact of erosion. That erosion comes not from wind, which has no erosive power unless it carries along bits of sand (and even then its erosive power is so weak as to be nil), but from water. In the Southwest water is scarce, so erosion is imperceptibly slow.
Most of the trails into the Grand Canyon are old. Some were made by Indians in the distant past and hardly have been used since. Others, such as the one I was on, were based on paths the Indians had taken but were dug out mainly by nineteenth-century prospectors. A close examination of century-old photographs shows the trails looking today just as they looked then. They pass the same boulders, sidestep the same protuberances, have the same pitch. Trails, having abraded and dusty surfaces, are more susceptible to erosion than are surrounding boulders and cliffs, but there is scant evidence of erosion of these trails over the last century.
As evening came on, I rested in my tent beneath the darkening Redwall, engaging in a thought experiment. Assume that in the last century the rock fastnesses around me had been carved down by an inch, an amount compatible with the photographic evidence and likely too generous. This is not an inconsiderable amount of change. It would represent, from the innumerable and miles-long side canyons, the equivalent of whole mountains of debris going down to the Colorado and being flushed down river (at least as mountains are measured east of the Mississippi River).
In the part of the Grand Canyon where I was, the drop from the rim to the river was 4,600 feet, or 55,200 inches. If one inch were lost per century, it would have taken 5,520,000 years to form the Grand Canyon. (This is within an order of magnitude of the figure geologists give. For my purposes here, this rough approximation is sufficient.)
Now consider advocates of a young earth. They claim the earth is only 6,000 years old. If so, for the Grand Canyon to be as deep as it is, it would have to have been worn away not at one inch per century but at 920 inches per century. In those century-old photos, instead of trails with no apparent change, we should see trails entirely washed away, not a trace left. But that is not what has happened.
This is a desiccated landscape, where lizards scurry around barrel cacti and where bushes are far apart because their roots grab jealously what little subsurface moisture there is, crowding out competitors. In such an environment there is not remotely enough water to do the job. Instead of intermittent streams, each side canyon would need constantly flowing torrents if nine inches of rock were to be worn away each year.
Lying in my sleeping bag, staring up at the Redwall, contemplating the massiveness and solidity of it all, I knew viscerally that what I saw was not formed recently. It could not have been. I did not have to engage in the thought experiment to realize that, of course. The hike from rim to river and back again contained its own internal testimony. Anyone with open eyes and aching feet had a proof that was strong even if not syllogistic. I had no need to know with exactitude how old the earth is, but the rocky halls about me testified that it is far older than 6,000 years—or even a hundred times that.
Proponents of a young earth will not accept what I say here as determinative. They will scoff, but it is unlikely they have camped where I camped or been awed by what awed me. Like the Spanish explorers, they wish to see properly, but they have the proportions wrong. A night by the Redwall would do them good.