Re: Historical Q: Darwin and Kelvin

Adam Crowl (
Fri, 12 Nov 1999 19:33:10 PST

Hi Al and ASA,

John Barrow and Frank Tipler have a good summary of this argument and the
response to it in their "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle"... Apparently
as the fossil record became better known, and good geological estimates for
the age of the Cambrian were made, the decreasing age of the Earth [down
from 400 myr to just 10 myr], as estimated by the physicists, became
untenable. By 1900 very few were taking Kelvin seriously anymore and
radioactivity very quickly proved their intuitions true.


>From: Allan Harvey <>
>Subject: Historical Q: Darwin and Kelvin
>Date: Fri, 12 Nov 1999 12:23:11 -0700
>A query for the history-minded out there ...
>I've just finished a book a friend gave me called "Scientific Blunders"
>(subtitle "A Brief History of How Wrong Scientists Can Sometimes Be") by
>Robert Youngson (Robinson Publishing, London, 1998).

>Unfortunately, the book seems riddled with errors -- when the writing was
>about things I knew about the writer got a lot of things just plain wrong.
>One area in which I suspect Youngson goofed
>up is relevant to this listserv, concerning the effect of William Thomson's
>(later Lord Kelvin) calculations of the age of the Earth to the acceptance
>(or lack therof) of Darwin's theories.
>Youngson says (p. 29):
>"Darwin was shocked, because Thomson's figure for the age of the earth
>eliminated the possibility that his theory of evolution could be correct.
>There simply would not have been time for the geological processes on which
>Darwin's theory was based to have occurred. If Thomson was right, the
>must have been created with a ready-made geology. Archbishop Ussher's date
>of 4004 BC could be right."
>He then tells of Darwin's son George verifying Thomson's calculations, and
>then tells how those calculations were underestimates because of incorrect
>assumptions about how the Sun worked and because he was not aware that heat
>was generated in the Earth via radioactivity. The overall picture he
>is one in which Kelvin had scored what even Darwin perceived as a near
>knockout blow against evolution, and that the theory was only saved by the
>discovery of radioactivity.
Nuclear energy was actually predicted by geologists who couldn't believe the
Earth & Sun were as young as claimed. One suggested that atoms in the
extreme conditions of the sun's core might undergo transformations as yet
unknown to produce energy... he was right.

>Is this characterization anywhere near the truth? Kelvin's age
>gave about 100 Myr, a factor of 45 less than the current best number. But
>was enough known about the "speed" of evolution in the late 19th century to
>say that 100 Myr would not have been enough time for Darwin's postulated
>evolution to have happened? Certainly the more time the better for Darwin,
>and if Kelvin had come up with 100,000 years that would have been a huge
>blow to Darwinism. But was 100 Myr really low enough to discourage Darwin
>and temporarily turn scientific opinion against evolution? Or has Youngson
>gotten things wrong here as well?
>| Dr. Allan H. Harvey | |
>| Physical and Chemical Properties Division | "Don't blame the |
>| National Institute of Standards & Technology | government for what I |
>| 325 Broadway, Boulder, CO 80303 | say, or vice versa." |

Darwin was discouraged but he also had some rather high estimates for the
Earth's age. The Cretaceous he put back to before about 300 mya I think.
Charles Lyell's own estimate was closer to the mark [~ 80 mya] and nowadays
we know that speciation can be VERY rapid... hundreds of species of chiclid
fish in Lake Victoria evolved in the last 13,000 years. Evolution can be
quick, but the Earth's own changes are now known to be SLOW... and
adaptation tracks those changes.


Get Your Private, Free Email at