Eighty-Plus Theories, Part 4

Ken Ham, via Wikimedia Commons

“In the year 1806 the French Institute enumerated not less than eighty geological theories which were hostile to the Scriptures; but not one of those theories is held to-day.” In part 1, I explained that Luther Tracy Townsend’s Collapse of Evolution (1905) attributes that sentence to “the eminent geologist, Professor Charles Lyell,” but found it, apparently, in Albert Barnes’s The Progress and Tendencies of Science (1840) instead. In part 2, I added that Barnes included a footnote to Lyell’s Principles of Geology later in the same paragraph, which probably misled Townsend into thinking that Lyell was the authority for the claim about the eighty-plus geological theories. And in part 3, I traced the claim instead to Georges Cuvier, who alluded to eighty-plus geological theories in 1806, but conspicuously didn’t describe them as “hostile to the Scriptures.”

There is, I have to admit, a faintly antiquarian tinge to the discussion thus far: I started in the early twentieth century and worked my way back to the early nineteenth century, which is not exactly what anyone would call progress. It’s tempting to work slowly forward from there, because there’s clearly a story to be told about how the eighty-plus geological theories, which Cuvier mentioned only as reflecting a problematic lack of methodology, came to be described as “hostile to the Scriptures” and how the description became a standard trope in creationist writings. (It’s perhaps significant that it appears in Arthur T. Pierson’s “The Testimony of the Organic Unity of the Bible to its Inspiration,” one of the essays in The Fundamentals [1910–1915].) But I will refrain, and instead cut to the chase: Answers in Genesis invoked the eighty-plus theories as recently as 2012.

Yes, Ken Ham and Bodie Hodge write, in their How Do We Know the Bible is True? (2012), “In the year 1806, the French Institute of Science listed no less than 80 historical/archeological/geological inaccuracies found in the Bible.” There are, of course, at least five inaccuracies in their own claim. (First, it was not the French Institute of Science; it was the Institut National. Second, it was the report of a committee, not a statement from the organization itself. Third, the report referred to, but failed to list, eighty-plus items. Fourth, the items referred to in the report were not described as inaccuracies but merely as “geological systems.” Fifth, the relationship of the systems to the Bible was not discussed.) No reference for the claim is provided in How Do We Know the Bible is True? so there’s no telling for sure where Ham and Hodge found it.

Ham and Hodge continue, “By 1940, every single accusation on the list was proven to be wrong, such that today not a single item is held to be inaccurate.” Since there was no such list, they’re trivially wrong, but the specificity of the date suggests that they’re relying on a particular source published around 1940—or a particular event that occurred in 1940. I’m just speculating here, but could they be thinking of William Floyd’s 1940 lawsuit against the creationist Harry Rimmer as vindicating Biblical inerrantism? As I explained in passing in “A Ringer in the Contest,” Rimmer famously offered $100, later increased to $1000, to anyone who could demonstrate a scientific error in the Bible; Floyd, a freethought writer and editor, claimed to have demonstrated five (and later, as he developed his case further, fifty-three) such errors, tried to collect, and sued.

According to That Lawsuit Against the Bible (1940), Rimmer’s own narrative of the case, in 1939 the New York Herald-Tribune published a brief note about a planned series of talks by Rimmer in New York, which included the sentence “He offers one thousand dollars for a scientific error in the Bible.” Floyd argued that the note constituted a bona fide offer, which, with his acceptance and compliance, created a contract that Rimmer then failed to honor. But although the note may have been based on Rimmer’s publicity copy about the talks, the copy included the proviso “Conditions [of the offer] stated nightly.” Since Rimmer was not responsible for the omission of the proviso from the note, which was published without his knowledge or consent, there was no contract, or so his lawyer argued. The judge found the argument convincing and ruled for Rimmer.

Rimmer was not averse to declaring the case to have vindicated Biblical inerrantism: the trial “ended in legally establishing the position of all who hold that the Word of God is inerrant,” he claimed, and perhaps that claim lodged in Ham and Hodge’s memories. But in fact, Rimmer won the case on narrow legal grounds. And none of the expert witnesses called to the stand by the plaintiff—three liberal members of the clergy (including Charles Francis Potter, who advised Darrow about the Bible during the Scopes trial) and the vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Atheism—was competent to testify about science, as Rimmer delightedly observed. There apparently were no expert witnesses called by the defendant. As far as I can tell, there was no testimony addressing, much less disproving, the eighty-plus geological theories.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.