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Cosmogenesis (8) : The Nebular Hypothesis

Sequel of the preceding post Cosmogenesis (7) : The Date of the Creation

The Nebular Hypothesis

The ancient Babylonians had a different idea of how the world began. They believed that it had evolved rather than being created instantaneously. Assyrian inscriptions have been found which suggest that the cosmos evolved after the Great Flood and that the animal kingdom originated from earth and water. This idea was at least partially incorporated into a monotheist doctrine and found its way into the sacred texts of the Jews, neighbors and disciples of the Babylonians. It was also taken up by the early Ionian philosophers, including Anaximander and Anaximenes, and by the Stoics and atomists.

A portrait of Democritus (460-370 BC), the founder of atomistic theory.
A portrait of Democritus (460-370 BC), the founder of atomistic theory.

Democritus developed a theory that the world had originated from the void, a vast region in which atoms were swirling in a whirlpool or vortex. The heaviest matter was sucked into the center of the vortex and condensed to form the earth. The lightest matter was thrown to the outside where it revolved so rapidly that it eventually ignited to form the stars and planets. These celestial bodies, as well as the earth itself, were kept in position by centrifugal force. This concept admitted the possibility that the universe contained an infinite number of objects. It also anticipated the 19th century theory of the origin of the solar system, known as the nebular hypothesis, according to which a “primitive nebula” condensed to form the sun and planets.

The idea of universal evolution had a strong influence on classical thought and developed in various directions during Greek and Roman times. In the first century BC Lucretius extended the theories of atomism and evolution to cover every natural phenomenon[i] and argued that all living things originated from earth. Two centuries later, in his medical treatise On the Use of the Parts of the Body[ii], the Greek physician Galen (Claudius Galenus) expressed the essentially Stoic view that matter is eternal and that even God is subject to the laws of nature: contrary to the literal interpretation of the Genesis story, he could not have “formed man from the dust of the ground”; he could only have shaped the dust according to the laws governing the behaviour of matter. The Church Fathers, who insisted that the Creation was instantaneous, rejected any sort of evolutionary theory; to them the ideas of the Stoics and atomists were heretical.

In the second half of the 16th century the idea of universal evolution began to be incorporated into the new system of scientific thought resulting from the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes and Newton. According to Descartes, for example, space consisted of “whirlpools” of matter whose motion was governed by the laws of physics. Newton, with his theory of universal attraction, was accused of having substituted gravitation for providence, for having replaced God’s spiritual influence on the cosmos by a material mechanism[iii]. A new view of the world had nevertheless been established, whereby the workings of the universe were subject not to the whim of the Almighty but to the laws of physics – it was an irreversible step. Continue reading

Cosmogenesis (7) : The Date of the Creation

Sequel of the preceding post Cosmogenesis (6) : The Creation in the Renaissance

The Date of the Creation

None of the traditional myths gives a precise date for the Creation. The very idea of putting dates to the history of the world seems to have been foreign to the mentality of the ancients. For them the origin of the universe was simply a notion which helped them to understand the separation of reality into two regions: formless chaos and cosmic order. It was the Jewish/Christian preoccupation with time as a linear process which prompted the question: when was the Creation? From then on the greatest theologians (from Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century to James Ussher, Irish prelate and archbishop of Armagh, in the 17th century) and scientists (from Kepler to Newton) would attempt to provide the answer.

For centuries the only clues were to be found in the Bible, which was thought to be able at least to provide an upper limit to the age of the world. From studying the Bible, the vast majority of scholars put the date of the Creation at around 4000 BC, the most common method of calculation being to count the number of generations between Adam and Jesus. St Luke[i] and other commentators list 75 generations, which at approximately 50 years per generation make 4000 BC a plausible date. This reasoning was accepted until the 18th century, even though Ronsard ended his Hymn to the Sky of 1555 with the words: “Your beauty is such that I simply cannot believe / It is but four or five thousand years since your beginning.

More precise estimates gradually appeared. According to the theologian and historian the Venerable Bede in the eighth century and Vincent de Beauvais in the 13th, the Creation took place in the spring.

Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
Depiction of the Venerable Bede from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In his historical treatise Annales Veteris Testamenti, a Prima Mundi Origine Deducti (Annals of the Old Testament, Traced Back to the Origin of the World) of 1650, James Ussher attempted to determine precisely the dates of the great biblical events by checking them against historical facts and astronomical phenomena. According to his calculations the first day of the Creation was 23rd October 4004 BC (beginning at midday) and Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on Monday 19th November, Noah’s Ark went aground on the summit of Mount Ararat on 5th May 1491 BC, and so on.

Similarly, in 1642, the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, John Lightfoot, an eminent Hebrew scholar, stated that “heaven and earth, centre and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant” and that “man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 BC at nine o’clock in the morning.”[ii] Continue reading