How Theology Begat Geology


Carl Zimmer suggests that religion and science coexisted easily in many Renaissance minds. The developing science of geology, for example, was influenced by 16th- and 17th-century understandings of the divine:

You don’t have to page through old books to see just how geologically-minded people in the Renaissance had become. Their paintings show us where their eyes turned when they looked at landscapes. And remarkably often, they turned to rocks. A number of the finest painters of the Renaissance incorporated exposed layers of rocks in their pictures – the fruits of careful observation. They were looking at the intricate effects of millions of years of geological change. …

“The world is not eternal,” declared the Jesuit priest Benito Pereira in the 1570s. “From its beginning to those days no more than five thousand six hundred years have elapsed.” It turns out, however, that many philosophers didn’t follow Pereira example very closely.

They accepted that the Earth had not existed forever, but they saw it as lasting far longer than a few thousand years. Some treated Noah’s Flood as a real geological event, but merely as the most recent of many great cataclysms. And for all the vigor of the Counter-Reformation, no one was burned at the stake for such claims.

Writers in Italy and elsewhere continued to develop ideas about the history of Earth. They investigated fossils more deeply, they thought long and hard about how layers of rock formed, and they considered how volcanoes and earthquakes shaped the planet. By the 1700s, the outlines of modern geology were emerging. But the proto-geologists of the 1700s didn’t see their work as a fundamental break from the past. Instead, they saw a seamless connection reaching back centuries.

(Image: Apparition of The Virgin to St Bernard, showing rocks in the background, by Filippino Lippi, 1486, via Wikimedia Commons)