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Nicolas Steno: The saint who undermined creationism

Celebrated with a Google doodle on his 374th birthday, Nicolas Steno set in motion a revolution that would ultimately unseat the Bible as an accepted scientific authority on the age of the earth. Now he is on the path to Catholic sainthood. 

By / January 11, 2012

Water flows from melting glacier in the Swiss Alps. The 17th century scientist Nicolas Steno, celebrated by Google on his 374th birthday, was the first to propose that older rocks lie deeper in the ground than younger ones.

Denis Balibouse/Reuters/File

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Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Nicolas Steno. Even though the 17th century Danish anatomist and geologist made a number of discoveries that are now seen as self-evident – namely, that the heart is a muscle that pumps blood, that tears are formed in the eye, that fossils are the remains of living organisms from previous geologic eras, and that older rocks tend to lie deeper in the earth than younger ones – his legacy, like the mysterious stones that he examined, have since been obscured by layers of historical sediment. 

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Perhaps some of Steno's obscurity arises from his failure to fit into a narrative that science and religion are adversaries. Unlike Galileo, whom the Catholic church famously threatened to torture if he did not recant, Steno was embraced by the Vatican. Yet his discoveries set in motion a revolution that would ultimately unseat the Bible as the authority on the age of the earth.

Steno's geological breakthrough came in 1666, when, serving as a researcher for the Grand Duke of Tuscany in Florence, he was given the opportunity to examine the head of a great white shark. The young anatomist was struck by the similarity of the shark's teeth to curious objects found embedded in rocks throughout Europe. Steno concluded that those objects actually were the teeth of ancient sharks, deposited there when the continent lay beneath the ocean.

Published in 1669, the principles in Steno's 78-page text, "On Solids," are still taught in geology classes today. Science writer Alan Cutler sums up the thesis in his 2003 biography of the scientist, "The Seashell on the Mountaintop,"  

The backbone of his system was a simple but tremendously powerful idea. Recognizing that the layers of rock that entombed fossil shells were made by the gradual accumulation of sediment, he realized that each layer embodied a span of time in the past. He saw no way to measure the number of years or centuries involved, and was loathe to speculate, but it was clear that the layers, one on top of the other, formed an unambiguous sequence: The lowest layer had been formed first, the highest last. Depending on their fossils and their sediments, the layers recorded the succession of seas, rivers, lakes, and soils that once covered the land. Geologists call Steno’s insight the "Principle of Superposition." It means that, layer by layer, the history of the world is written in stone.

A decade earlier, James Ussher, an Anglican archbishop in Ireland, published his Biblical chronology of the world. By adding up the reigns of the kings and lifespans of the patriarchs and comparing them with the dates of known historical events, Ussher concluded that the world came into existence on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC.

Ussher's proposed date of creation was close to that calculated by his contemporaries, including such luminaries as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton. Some pointed to 2 Peter 3:8, which states that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." This ratio was tied to the six days of creation in the book of Genesis, leading them to conclude that the total lifespan of the world was 6,000 years. When Ussher published his chronology, he convinced a significant portion of Europe's leading scholars to conclude that the universe had just 342 years to go.

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