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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Dark Abyss of Time

The Dark Abyss of Time

Paolo Rossi

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn convincingly argues that the hearts of learned men are often hardened against pesky things like evidence and facts.  Existing theories often persist long after the evidence is stacked heavily against them, because the men (and historically, it has almost always been men) who hold them are unable to forsake the fundamental tenets upon which their worldview rests.  So instead of adapting their principles to fit the evidence, they adapt the evidence to fit their principles.  One of the stories of The Dark Abyss of Time is the story of just how pliable that evidence can be in the hands of sufficiently stubborn learned men.

The Dark Abyss is ultimately about the discovery of prehistory by Europeans — the centuries that it took them to realize that there could be such a thing as prehistory.  Most of us take this for granted now: the world existed before humans started writing things down.  But for the biblical literalist of the sixteenth century (ignoring, for the moment, the biblical literalist of today), there could be no such thing.  In the beginning was the word.  In six days, god created the world and set Adam upon it.  A few generations later, Moses wrote down the Pentateuch.  For the literalist, the old testament was an accurate, infallible, gapless historical document from the moment god decided to make a world.

But then there were problems.  European explorers passing through the high mountains of Asia find things that look the shells of aquatic snails, but made of stone.  What are they?  Stones that coincidentally formed in the shapes of snails?  Snails that washed up on the mountain during the flood of Noah and then somehow turned to stone?  Then there were problems of chronology: the Bible allowed for about seven thousand years of geological history, and human history was co-existent with of the entirety of that, minus the first five days.  And yet the Egyptians had ten thousand years of written records.  The Chinese had twelve thousand.  The scholars adapted: the Egyptian kings were not sequential, but reigned simultaneously in different parts of Egypt.  The Chinese dynasties exaggerated their chronology to give the appearance of antiquity.  In short, everyone but the Jews and Christians were liars.

But then there were purely conceptual problems.  Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, had two sons.  Cain took a wife.  Cain killed his brother and then hid.  Where did he get the wife?  From whom was he hiding?  Much ink was spilled arguing these issues.  Maybe Cain married an angel.  Maybe there was a race of men before Adam, and the Adamites married into them.  Maybe incest was A-OK with God in those days, and the life spans of men declined because of inbreeding.  For hundreds of years, accusations of heresy and indignant claims of orthodoxy were bandied about by men who just couldn’t accept that the world just might be more than seven thousand years old.  Like geeks arguing about canon at a Star Wars convention, they fought tirelessly to invent and maintain a story that was at least internally consistent, even if it discounted the historical records of other nations, relegated the fossil record to accidents of geology, and postulated that New World people had lost the ability to manipulate metal because they had moved too far from Jerusalem and lost the god-given light of reason.

We could laugh.  But we shouldn’t.  I went to junior high school in the 1980s, and was taught the seven-thousand-year biblical chronology as scientific fact.  I learned that fossils were created by the devil to mislead us.  In 2004, my own home school district of Dover, Pennsylvania voted to require the teaching of “intelligent design” in ninth-grade biology classrooms (and got their collective asses handed to them in Federal court).  Today, the Creation Museum in Kentucky charges $24.95 at the door to see models of Adam and Eve hanging out with (vegetarian) velociraptors.  The lesson of The Dark Abyss is that worldviews are incredibly resilient.  Facts and evidence don’t necessarily matter the way we might expect, and there’s always a way to explain away the parts that don’t fit.