Ray’s observations of the changing coastline around Britain and his excavations of fossils in different soil levels led him to question the Bible’s account of creation, and in particular the idea of Noah’s great flood. ‘Now that ever the water should have covered the earth to that height as to exceed the tops of the highest mountains, and for a considerable time abode (stay) there, is hard to believe, nor can such an opinion be easily reconciled with the Scriptures. If it be said that these shells were brought in by the universal deluge in the time of Noah, when the mountains are covered, I answer that the deluge proceeded from rain, which was more likely to carry shells down to the sea, than bring any up from it’.
Unlike most of his contemporaries he was prepared to accept that his observations and evidence conflicted with the widely held theory that all creatures had been created ‘in the beginning’ and were still in existence. He commented: ‘The first and most probable opinion is that they were originally the shells and bones of living fishes and other animals bred in the sea’. His views were revolutionary at a time when the commonly held belief was that the earth dated from approximately 5,000 BC and that fossils were formed in nature as imitations of shells or fishes rather than the real thing but Ray observed: ‘Nature makes nothing in vain … Nature never made teeth without a jaw, nor shells without an animal inhabitant, nor single bones, no not in their own proper element, much less in a strange one’. This was a reference to the fact that he had found fossil shells in the middle of Germany, at least 200 miles from the sea.
In Miscellaneous Discourse, his work on fossils, he also pondered the possibilities of a future world-wide flood, massive volcanoes and the extinction of the sun, subjects which must have led to much discussion among his peers. The work, when published in English in 1692, quickly sold out and a second edition appeared a year later, with more details and new illustrations.
Following in his footsteps …
Science now knows the earth is at least 5,000 million years old and can date fossils accurately.