Saturday, July 21, 2007

The sands of time

Here is a slab of 400-million-year-old Old Red Sandstone quarried from a nearby hill and placed here by the Kerry County Council as part of a seawall for Ventry Pier. On its face are beach ripples similar to those one might see any day at low tide on the sand flats of Ventry Harbor.

Beach ripples inside a mountain! How did they get there? In a journal entry for May 21, 1831, the fossilist Gideon Mantell recounts an expedition he made with the great geologist Charles Lyell to a quarry at Horsham, in southeastern England, where they observed slabs of ancient sandstone covered with ripple marks. He later described the ripples and their orign in an article for the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal. No one who has observed the action of waves on a living beach can doubt that the identical undulations in ancient sandstones were made by the same agency, Mantell asserted. He added: "Obvious as the cause of this curious appearance seems to be, yet it has been a subject of dispute among men of science, the mind being but too apt to seek for a mysterious agent, to explain effects which have been, and are still being, produced by some simple operation of nature."

Biblical literalists, in their commitment to their "mysterious agent," must provide some other explanation for the ripples in stone. A twist on the Deluge story, perhaps, or the standard creationist suggestion that when God created the world 6000 years ago he provided it with the evidences of a past it never had -- a navel for Adam, light already on the way from distant galaxies, and fossils and beach ripples inside of mountains.

Not all believers take the Genesis creation story literally. They accept the antiquity of the Earth and the scientific account of the universe's history. But they believe things no less fantastic than a six-day creation -- the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, say, or the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, or personal immortality. Surely, an all-powerful God who acts miraculously in the world would have no more trouble putting beach ripples inside mountains than in raising Lazarus from the dead. Which is to say, what's the point of picking and choosing among miracles, accepting science when the evidence is overwhelming, and invoking 2000-year-old "mysterious agents" when the sparsity of evidence allows some wiggle room?

A more consistent attitude is the one at the heart of the scientific way of knowing: There are no miracles to pick and choose between. Or, which is to say the same thing, there is only one miracle, and that miracle is the universe in all of its mystery and tentatively knowable glory.