Kelvin Was Not a Creationist

Creation Evolution Journal
Title: 
Kelvin Was Not a Creationist
Author(s): 
Stephen G. Brush
Volume: 
3
Number: 
2
Quarter: 
Spring
Page(s): 
11–14
Year: 
1982

In their current efforts to persuade the public that their doctrine is a "science," creationists are seriously embarrassed by their failure to find any significant amount of support in the scientific community. Henry M. Morris, director of the Institute for Creation Research, has attempted to make up for the absence of reputable modern creationists by publishing a list of famous scientists of earlier centuries who were allegedly creationists. In his article, "Bible-Believing Scientists of the Past," he writes: "At least we creationist scientists can take comfort in the fact that many of the greatest scientists of the past were creationists."

Since Morris's list was used recently by two witnesses testifying in favor of a creation-science bill in the Maryland legislature and seems to be regarded by some people as evidence that creationism is not anti-science, it would be advisable to scrutinize its documentation. Unfortunately, Morris offers none at all in his article, although he claims to have compiled "biographical data concerning both their Christian convictions and their scientific contributions." His recently published book, Men of Science, Men of God, fails to provide the necessary documentation.

One might suppose that anyone who publishes the flat statement, "In each case, the scientists listed were strict creationists," would be prepared to provide supporting evidence. Not so. Dr. Morris was unable, when asked in correspondence, to give any creationist credentials for one of the most prominent scientists on his list.

The British physicist, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), appears on the list four times, more than any other scientist, because he is credited with founding two disciplines—energetics and thermodynamics—and with making two notable inventions or discoveries—the absolute temperature scale and the trans-Atlantic cable. While the accuracy of some of these scientific developments may be disputed, there is no question that Kelvin was one of the outstanding physicists of the nineteenth century. But was he a creationist?

Kelvin did provide one strong argument against Darwin's theory of evolution: he estimated the age of the earth to be less than 100 million years, on the assumption that it has been cooling down from a hot molten ball with no internal generation of heat to replace that lost by conduction and radiation into space. Since Darwin had (somewhat carelessly) suggested that geological periods might

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last upwards of 300 million years, the impression was created that there had not been enough time for the slow process of evolution by natural selection to work. But there was nothing in Darwin's original theory that fixed a rate of evolution, and thus its validity did not depend on any particular time scale.

As is well known (to everyone except creationists), Kelvin's estimate of the age of the earth is much too small, because he was unaware of the presence of radioactive minerals that generate enough heat to replace most or all of what is lost. In any case, Kelvin's lowest estimate for the age of the earth was much more than a million years, so he cannot be counted a supporter of the creationist doctrine that the earth is less than ten thousand years old.

Nevertheless, it is not even true that Kelvin rejected biological evolution; he gave it qualified support and rejected creationism on at least one occasion. This was a presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1871. In this address, Kelvin asserted that life cannot arise from dead matter but can only proceed from life.

How, then ... did life originate on the earth? Tracing the physical history of the earth backwards, on strict dynamical principles, we are brought to a redhot melted globe on which no life could exist. Hence, when the earth was first fit for life, there was no living thing on it. There were rocks solid and disintegrated, water, air all around, warmed and illuminated by a brilliant sun, ready to become a garden. Did grass and trees and flowers spring into existence, in all the fullness of ripe beauty, by a fiat of Creative Power? Or did vegetation, growing up from seed sown, spread and multiply over the whole earth? Science is bound, by the everlasting law of honor, to face fearlessly every problem which can fairly be presented to it. If a probable solution, consistent with the ordinary course of nature, can be found, we must not invoke an abnormal act of Creative Power. (Basalla. Coleman, and Kargon, pp. 125-126)

Having thus rejected the doctrine that life was suddenly created in its present form, Kelvin proposed instead that seed-bearing meteoric stones from another world started life on earth. He evaded the question of the origin of life on other worlds by postulating that such worlds of life have existed "from time immemorial."

Kelvin then accepted the hypothesis that present forms of life have evolved from these seeds:

From the earth stocked with such vegetation as it could receive meteorically to the earth teeming with all the endless variety of plants and animals which now inhabit it, the step is prodigious; yet, according to the doctrine of continuity, most ably laid before the Association by a predecessor in this chair [Mr. Grove], all creatures now living on earth have proceeded by orderly evolution from some such origin. (p. 127)

Kelvin quotes part of the last paragraph of Darwin's Origin of Species (the famous "tangled bank" passage), adding that he sympathizes with the general

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idea of evolution but cannot accept the particular mechanism of natural selection proposed by Darwin. He mentions John Herschel's objection that this mechanism is "too much like the Laputan method of making books (by random combination of words) and that it did not sufficiently take into account a continually guiding and controlling intelligence. This seems to me a most valuable and instructive criticism. I feel profoundly convinced that the argument of design has been greatly too much lost sight of in recent zoological speculations." Thus Kelvin insisted that, while evolution may have occurred, it has been guided by the "intelligent and benevolent design" of a Creator (p. 128).

I conclude that Kelvin's views are precisely those now designated "theistic evolution"; by no stretch of the imagination can they be called creationist in the modern sense. I have asked Dr. Morris if he has any evidence that supports his claim that Kelvin was a creationist, in the light of the contrary evidence provided by the 1871 address. So far, he has been unable to supply any. I would therefore suggest that his entire list (with one exception) be treated with some skepticism.

Morris also argues that creationist beliefs did not hinder these great scientists in their scientific work. Of course this claim is vacuous until it is demonstrated that they actually were creationists. But in at least one case a creationist scientist was hindered by such beliefs. Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), the Swiss-American scientist who appears twice on Morris's list (as founder of glacial geology and ichthyology), was an outspoken opponent of evolution. His creationist views led him to misinterpret geological evidence in Brazil as showing Amazonian and hence worldwide glaciation. Such a global ice age would have severed all genetic relations between past and present life, he thought, and required that the present forms be specially created after the ice receded (Carozzi, 1973). Needless to say, this idea is not considered valid by modern glacial geologists—or even by modern creationists!

So Morris's efforts to show that creationist ideas are not a hindrance to scientific discovery seem to collapse when we examine the facts. Yet even if Morris had been right about all of his exemplars, unearthing these "creation scientists" from the past would prove nothing. Egyptians built the pyramids while thinking the earth was flat; Hippocrates knew nothing of the germ theory of disease; Kepler believed in astrology; and Newton practiced alchemy. Their ignorance and errors might not have hampered their major discoveries but might have prevented them from making others. Because they did not have access to the body of knowledge available today, we can understand their shortcomings. This same understanding, however, cannot be extended to modern-day creationists, who have no such excuse.

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Bibliography

Basalla, George; Coleman, Williams; and Kargon, Robert H. (eds.) 1970. Victorian Science. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Carozzi, Albert V. 1973. "Agassiz's Influence on Geological Thinking in the Americas." Archives des Sciences. 27:1:5-38.

Morris, Henry M. January 1972. "Bible-Believing Scientists of the Past." Impact, No. 103.
———. 1982. Men of Science, Men of God. San Diego: Creation-Life Publishers.

About the Author(s): 

Dr. Brush is a professor in the Department of History and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Copyright 1982 by Stephen G. Brush

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.