7. Hooked

Robert Hooke (1635-1703), for one, was skeptical about the famous physical scientist Robert Boyle wanting to absorb all the new scientific discoveries, especially the history of life, into the philosophy and message of The Holy Bible.

th  Robert Boyle

Hooke’s ideas supported Steno’s theory that fossils were spread by some kind of Flood. But that didn’t really say where they came from in the first place and it left out the possibilities that earthquakes from Plato’s power or waves from Bacon’s drowned Atlantis might have had something to do with them. The Flood would have scattered organic debris and shells randomly on the surface, while Steno expected it also to have led to evaporation of the sea and the sedimentation and stratification of its load of mud, sand and minerals. Hooke was eager to carry on with more detailed examinations and comparative observations, extending his microscopic studies of wood structure, and finding teeth from more shark species.

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Nevertheless, Ray and Hooke still worried about which, if any, fossils were organic. It was very easy to continue to believe the convincing and ever-popular story that the intricate designs of nature were all God’s plan and work. Whether by some kind of flood or maybe a miracle, it was relatively easy for God-fearing people to accept. The detail was a bit harder for any scientific alternative that needed evidence and that had to fit in with some other tight constraints. One was the need for extinction to account for unknown shells of ammonites and belemnites, and even Ray and Hooke had difficulty accepting that.

One thing they did accept seemed less simple then than it did a hundred years later in France. In 1691 Ray described his views on natural theology in The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation and talked of the “designfulness” of organisms. He was trying to justify the existence of God in response to the increase in deistic values. To the earlier orthodoxy this was some compromise but Ray was a Christian and this was his responsible compromise for further debate.

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Other advances in the early understanding how fossils came into being challenged many other naturalists trying hard to reconcile Genesis and the science. In the 1690s many remained insistent that fossils were inorganic, that they had come from the rock and even John Ray had no real evidence for anything else. All he could say to the sceptics was: “Yet methinks this is but a shift and a refuge to avoid trouble, there not being sufficient ground to found such a distinction.” Eventually he was forced to accept that some fossils, like the Italian tongue-stones, were from dead animals such as sharks because they were so like modern species. Not to give way completely he argued that ammonites and the bullet-shaped belemnites were nothing like modern forms and he pronounced them inorganic: “Nature doth sometimes [play] and delineate figures [purely for ornament]”

Ray settled back at Black Notley, his big questions unanswered, left alone to write about his floristic findings and to explain his arguments as part of God’s gradual improvement of Nature’s beauty. The work was published in 1691 as The Wisdom of God. In it he still could not make up his mind about the old question of where fossils came from, and by then they were being found from all over the place. Many people had noticed that specimens of tongue stones were only found in particular types of rock formation, suggesting that that kind of rock was necessary for their growth; or if they were from a shark, that both were formed together at the same time. Whichever way, it was hard to maintain the then popular role of the Creator, a world full of perfection; that seventeenth century hope of plenitude was being challenged. To some of Ray’s old friends the damage had been done: the status quo had been challenged and many establishment feathers of the old guard among the Cambridge clerics had been ruffled.

Hooke was going out on a limb from most of his friends and his thirst for enquiry and the testing of theories was soon refreshed by a new generation. Interest in design was going to run on, through Cuvier’s Paris of the 1800s and then across to Paley and Owen in England. The belief was based on the premise that just as God ordered the earth through the agency of the laws of physics and chemistry, so He ordered life through the agency of design and heredity.

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