William Buckland in Retrospect 


B1, 4515 Varsity Drive N.W. 
Calgary, Alberta T3A 0Z8 Canada 

From: PSCF 42 (March 1990): 34-38.

The Reverend Dr. William Buckland (1784-1856) profoundly influenced the historical sciences of geology and paleontology as an Oxford professor during most of the major controversies-neptunist/plutonist, catastrophist/uniformitarian, glacial, and creation/evolution. His theology remained orthodox, while his perspectives adapted to the latest developments in science. Now known as "the last of the great diluvialists," often identified with creationism, Buckland actually opposed radical "Flood geology" and represented a transition from diluvial catastrophism to modern geology, even anticipating Darwin's arguments in some important respects, through perception of progressive creation which manifested common design. He referred to "missing links" in an opposite sense to subsequent anti-evolutionary usage, emphasizing intermediate flora and fauna of past and present. 

A Church of England priest whose doctorate was in divinity, the Reverend Dr. William Buckland (1784-1856) became Reader in Mineralogy and Geology at Oxford University, in 1813 and 1818 respectively (Hallam 1983, p. 41). Having studied geology with Professor John Kidd (1775-1851) during the neptunist/plutonist controversy (Faul and Faul 1983, pp. 114, 119), "the last of the great diluvialists" led mainstream catastrophism for more than a decade, through the catastrophist/uniformitarian debate. Although Buckland initially correlated geologic evidence with the Flood story in Genesis, even his earliest works (1820; 1823) recognized an immense time scale, stratigraphic column, and fossil succession. He applied the analogy between past and present processes (James Hutton's uniformity principle) to the entire planetary history, rather than only to a post-Creation or post-Flood interval. However, he considered that "diluvial" strata represented revolutionary breaks in the sequence, requiring supernatural intervention. Catastrophists assumed that massive inundations had punctuated the earth's history: events too drastic to explain by reference to observed processes. Buckland's former student, Sir Charles Lyell, insisted that natural processes at approximately present rates had to account for all strata; he called this extremely empirical view "uniformitarianism." As Henry Thomas de la Beche observed amid the arguments: "The difference between the two theories is in reality not very great; the question being merely one of intensity of forces, so that, probably, by uniting the two, we shall approximate nearer to the truth" (de la Beche 1831, p. 32; quoted by Gillispie 1951, pp. 139, 140; Hallam 1983, p. 54). Modern geology developed from the synthesis, and not from one side's victory over the other.

When Buckland wrote his Bridgewater Treatise (1836; 1837) he attributed all inundations to natural causes; he had also given up the biblicist correlation. This work's extent of appeal to supernatural agency was in the teleological argument expressed in terms of progressive creation (cf. Paley 1805, in Ruse 1988, pp. 46-49).

In 1840, Louis Agassiz convinced William Buckland that "diluvium" was best explained by glacial effects. The quaint-looking Oxford professor who wore top hat and academic robes in the field accepted Pleistocene ice age interpretation more quickly than such progressive colleagues as Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin (Faul and Faul 1983, pp. 142-143, 169). Today, Buckland's works are scarcely examined (pages remained to be split when I borrowed his 1823 and 1837 books!). Although his insights could support scientists in debates, his obsolete opinions are more likely to be quoted by creationists who advocate the radical diluvialism of Buckland's opponents from the 1820s, the "Mosaic" or "Scriptural geology" faction (Armstrong 1988, p. 155). For example, Alfred Rehwinkel cited 1823 arguments for a universal Flood, based upon Pleistocene cave deposits (Rehwinkel 1951). Buckland's objections to evolutionary theories available in his time-that they did not account for "retrograde development, from complex to simple forms," contemporaneous first appearance of diverse organisms, or co-existence of different orders of complexity (1837, pp. 293-294, 395-396)-are still applied against Darwinian views (cf. Daniel M. O'Hara's March 18, 1989 letter to Arthur N. Strahler, reporting on a British debate).

While creationists have tended to identify with Buckland and reject his colleagues William Smith and Georges Cuvier as evolutionists, his later work was much more evolutionary than anything by those contemporaries. Pre-Darwinian transition occurred during Buckland's career, reconciling biblical interpretation with historical sciences, using traditions derived from St. Augustine: these resolutions were not the later compromise presumed by Henry Morris (Morris 1985, p. 39). In fact, Darwin modified William Buckland's arguments for common design: homology (1837, pp. 201, 213-214, 233) as well as balance between predators and prey (1837, p. 293) were cited (Darwin 1859). Parallels are recognizable despite a paradigm shift, just as laminations from shale can be traced in slate.

Buckland's investigation of Pleistocene animal remains began at Kirkdale Cavern, Yorkshire, in 1821, extended to caves throughout Europe, and resulted in Reliquiae Diluvianae (1823). This exhaustive study earned him the Copley Medal. He distinguished "diluvium" from younger alluvium as well as older, consolidated strata, discerning a diagnostic assemblage which included mastodons and mammoths. Because Siberian examples preserved in permafrost retained woolly coats, he reasoned that these animals could have lived in a cold climate, rather than being derived from the tropics (1823, pp. 39-45). Their worldwide distribution argued for a universal cataclysm, which he then assumed to have been the biblical Flood (1823, pp. 170-177). Surmising that bears and hyenas had used Kirkdale Cavern as a den, Buckland tested his idea by importing a live hyena in order to compare such features as gnawed patterns on bones.

He realized that the only human remains which he encountered in Pleistocene or older strata represented intrusive modern burials or other later additions to assemblages. Buckland even distinguished a specimen attached to a stalagmite from a Gibraltar cave as much younger than "diluvial" fauna (1823, pp. 164-173). Absence of human evidence became one reason for catastrophists' abandonment of correlation with Genesis (Hallam 1983, pp. 51-52).

Ironically, some creationists now cite allegedly Miocene human skeletons from Guadeloupe, which Buckland understood to be modern burials probably dating from a 1710 massacre (1837, pp. 104-105; Strahler 1987, p. 472). Similarly, Carl Baugh's Creation Evidences Museum near Glen Rose, Texas boasts a supposedly Cretaceous human skeleton. One of two skeletons discovered in southeastern Utah, it was purchased from Lin Ottinger's Moab Rock Shop, and has been dated at 200-300 years (Hastings 1985, 1986; Armstrong 1989a, p. 34). Ottinger wrote me a letter on April 20, 1989, stating: "I never indicated to anyone [that] they lived in the Dakota Formation in which they were found."

The Reverend Dr. John Fleming opposed Buckland and Cuvier for attributing geological 

The quaint-looking Oxford professor who wore top hat and academic robes 
in the field accepted Pleistocene ice age interpretation more quickly than such 
progressive colleagues as Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.

phenomena and mass extinctions to the Flood, whereas the text indicated only a placid rise of waters and no monument except the rainbow (Fleming 1826). Buckland accepted the criticism, together with evidence that allegedly diluvian faunas "existed through more than one geological period preceding the catastrophe by which they were extirpated," and concluded that his postulated event was more likely "the last of the many geological revolutions that have been produced by violent irruptions of water, rather than the comparatively tranquil inundation described in the Inspired Narrative" (1837, p. 95, note). His catastrophism had been muted, aligned with actualism and removed from biblicism, before he chose glacial theory.

"It must be candidly admitted that the season has not yet arrived, when a perfect theory of the whole earth can be fixedly and finally established, since we have not yet before us all the facts on which such a theory may eventually be founded," Buckland wrote, "but...we have abundant evidence of numerous and indisputable phenomena, each establishing important and indisputable conclusions; and the aggregate of these conclusions, as they gradually accumulate, will form the basis of future theories, each more and more nearly approximating to perfection" (1837, p. 12).

The disappointment of those who look for a detailed account of geological phenomena in the Bible, rests on a gratuitous expectation of finding therein historical information, respecting all the operations of the Creator in times and places with which the human race has no concern; as reasonably might we object that the Mosaic history is imperfect, because it makes no specific mention of the satellites of Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn, as feel disappointed at not finding in it the history of geological phenomena, the details of which may be fit matter for an encyclopedia of science, but are foreign to the objects of a volume intended only to be a guide of religious belief and moral conduct. (1837, pp. 14-15)

Buckland responded to criticisms from "Mosaic geology" advocates-the forerunners of George McCready Price's tradition (Price 1923; i.e., Whitcomb and Morris 1961):

Some have attempted to ascribe the formation of all the stratified rocks to the effects of the Mosaic Deluge; an opinion which is irreconcileable with the enormous thickness and almost infinite subdivisions of these strata, and with the numerous and regular successions which they contain of the remains of animals and vegetables, differing more and more widely from existing species, as the strata in which we find them are placed at greater depths. The fact that a large proportion of these remains belong to extinct genera, and almost all of them to extinct species, that lived and multiplied and died on or near the spots where they are now found, shows that the strata in which they occur were deposited slowly and gradually, during long periods of time, and at widely distant intervals. (1837, pp. 16-17)

The same objection applied to anyone still following John Ray's suggestion that the strata may have been deposited between the creation of mankind and the Deluge (Armstrong 1988, p. 154; 1989b, p. 106). Most fossils obviously derived from ages before human beings appeared. Geologic time could be reconciled with Genesis through day-age correlations, which Buckland considered to be allowable exegesis, although he objected that the order of appearance in strata did not match the order in Genesis 1 (1837, pp. 17-18). Therefore, he preferred the "gap theory" of Chalmers (1837, pp. 19-20; cf. 1820, pp. 31-32) "to express an undefined period of time" between the "beginning" and the creative days; "millions of millions of years may have occupied the indefinite interval" (1837, p. 21). All things had been created by the same God. Buckland was not speculating that any demonic creation had existed, as some gap theorists have done. The Hebrew words bara and asah, translated "created" and "formed" or "made," might be equivalent or might have different force, but neither one required the assumption that Creation was completely ex nihilo (1837, pp. 22-25). If the fossil record belonged to the gap interval, light had presumably existed prior to the evening when creative days began, then had been obscured for a while (1837, pp. 29-31).

Buckland cautioned, at the conclusion of his exegetical excursion: 

 After all, it should be recollected that the question is not respecting the correctness of the Mosaic narrative, but of our interpretation of it; and still further, it should be borne in mind that the object of this account was, not to state in what manner, but by whom the world was made. As the prevailing tendency of men in those early days was to worship the most glorious objects of nature, namely, the sun and moon and stars, it should seem to have been one important point in the Mosaic account of creation, to guard the Israelites against the Polytheism and idolatry of the nations around them; by announcing that all these magnificent celestial bodies were no Gods, but the works of One Almighty Creator, to whom alone the worship of mankind is due. (1837, p. 33; original emphasis)

Although he sometimes referred to "multiple" creations, these did not constitute entirely new beginnings but rather incremental "interferences" to refine the order and complexity through countless ages. All were within one plan, "parts of one great system of creation, all bearing marks of derivation from a common author" (1837, p. 61). The fossil record indicated "that the creatures...were constructed with a view to the varying conditions of the surface of the Earth, and to its gradually increasing capabilities of sustaining more complex forms of organic life, advancing through successive stages of perfection" (1837, p. 107). "Perfection" was used in a relative sense, often synonymous with "complexity," and "nothing can be called imperfect which fully accomplishes the end proposed: thus a Polype, or an Oyster, are as perfectly adapted to their functions at the bottom of the sea, as the wings of the Eagle are perfect, as organs of rapid passage through the air, and the feet of the stag perfect, in regard to their functions of effecting swift locomotion upon the land" (1837, pp. 107-108, note). 

Absence of human evidence became one reason for catastrophists' 
abandonment of correlation with Genesis.

 Lower orders "prevailed chiefly, at the commencement of organic life, but they did not prevail exclusively; we find...not only remains of radiated and articulated animals and mollusks...but ...the vertebrata also represented by the Class of Fishes" (1837, p. 115). Reptiles came later, along with footprints-"probably the first traces of Birds and Marsupialia" (1837, p. 115; his illustrations in Volume II actually show dinosaur tracks like those in Texas, including the elongate, plantigrade variety which contributed to the Paluxy "mantrack" allegations). Complex or higher orders "become gradually more abundant, as we advance from the older to the newer series;" but "the more simple orders, though often changed in genus and species...have pervaded the entire range of fossiliferous formations" (1837, pp. 115-116). "Repeated changes in species...in succeeding members of different formations, give further evidence, not only of the lapse of time, but also of important changes in the physical condition and climate of the ancient earth" (1837, p. 116). Gradual, progressive changes had been involved, yet not a simple "ladder" of development: squaloid and bony fish continued to co-exist, and there were cases of retrograde development; diversification from a few species and then subtraction, followed by further development and diversification (1837, pp. 293-294). The history of chambered shells among cephalopod mollusks showed "that it is not always by a regular gradation from lower to higher degrees of organization...many of the more simple forms have maintained their primeval simplicity, through all the varied changes the surface of the earth has undergone; whilst...organizations of a higher order preceded many of the lower forms of animal life" (1837, p. 312). Such "retrocession" seemed "fatal to the doctrine of regular progression, which is most insisted on by those who are unwilling to admit to repeated interferences of the Creative power, in adjusting the successive changes that animal life has undergone" (1837, p. 312, note).

Buckland would not contend that everything was designed for human benefit; our advantage would be "incidental and residual," although "foreseen and comprehended in the plans of the Great Architect of that Globe, which, in his appointed time, was destined to become the scene of human habitation" (1837, p. 99). A footnote tells how little of the universe can be applied to human benefit: "Surely, he must have an overweening conceit of man's importance, who can imagine this stupendous frame of the universe made for him alone" (1837, p. 99, note; cf. Ray 1713, p. 414).

He may have originated the concept of "missing links," in an opposite sense to subsequent usage against evolutionary interpretation. Buckland emphasized that transitional fossils existed, intermediate between living taxa:

The study of these Remains presents to the Zoologist a large amount of extinct species and genera, bearing important relations to existing forms of animals and vegetables, and often supplying links that had hitherto appeared deficient, in the great chain whereby all animated beings are held together in a series of near and gradual connexions. 

This discovery, amid the relics of past creations, of links that seemed wanting in the present system of organic nature, affords to natural Theology an important argument, in proving the unity and universal agency of a common great first cause; since every individual in such an uniform and closely connected series, is thus shown to be an integral part of one grand design. 

The non-discovery of such links indeed, would form but a negative and feeble argument against the common origin of organic beings, widely separated from one another; because, for aught we know, the existence of intervals may have formed part of the original design of a common creator; and because such apparent voids may perhaps exist only in our own imperfect knowledge; but the presence of such links throughout all past and present modifications of being, shows an unity of design which proves the unity of the intelligence in which it originated. (1837, p. 114)

Remarking upon the subtle gradations between some species, Buckland noted their adaption to different habitats, and the fact that sloths and armadillos are restricted to nearly "the same regions of America that were once the residence of the Megatherium" (1837, p. 144). He cited Richard Owen's study of Nautilus pompilius to connect cephalopods, past and present, as apparent relatives (1837, p. 315). Living cycads "form an important link...connecting the great families of Coniferae, with the families of Palms and Ferns" (1837, p. 502).

Buckland was an empirical scientist as well as a capable theologian. He produced a monograph on coprolites, and gave three dozen specimens of the petrified excrement to the Philpot Museum in Lyme Regis, Dorset (the next town to his childhood home, Axminster, Devon; this author saw the display in 1985). Even coprolites went into his proofs of creation by design: Buckland declared that evidence of intestinal structure from these remains "supplies a new link to that important chain, which connects the lost races...with species that are actually moving around ourselves. The systematic recurrence...of the same contrivances, similarly disposed to effect similar purposes, with analogous adaptations to peculiar conditions of existence, shows that they all originated in the same intelligence" (1837, p. 201).

The brilliant eccentric kept a veritable menagerie at his house, together with countless rocks and fossils. Buckland's hyena disturbed the family's dinner guests by crunching one of the guinea pigs (Hallam 1983, p. 62, note 38)! The Bucklands experimented with exotic foods to such an extent that the professor boasted about having eaten his way through much of the animal kingdom. During his honeymoon visit to Palermo, Buckland was shown St. Rosalia's shrine, where he promptly shocked the priests by declaring that the bones were from a goat, not a woman. He also tasted alleged "martyr's blood" on the floor of a European cathedral and said, "I know what it is-bat's urine!" (Hallam 1983, p. 62, note 34).

All foibles aside, Buckland deserves to be read more widely, and remembered for integrating orthodox theology with the latest science. His inspired insights are as relevant today as they were in his time. 



The author thanks the Reverend Dr. Roland K. Harrison, Dr. Arthur N. Strahler, Dr. Ronnie J. Hastings, and Dr. C. Gordon Winder for comments and encouragement. 


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