Ray to Lhwyd in 1695 continued: Fossils and the Flood

Nodule containing fern fossil (click for larger image)

The same letter of Ray’s to Lhwyd in 1695 that I posted recently goes on to explain Ray’s feelings about the new flood theories that were being promoted in the late 1600s and some observations on fossils.    The letter reveals Ray’s reading of the prevailing interpretation of the flood narratives of Genesis in his day.    His use of an argument about the time of year in which the Flood came on the earth likely will strike you as strange but there was much speculation at the time about the time of year when creation, fall, and the Flood took place.   More comments below the quote.

John Ray from a correspondence with Mr. Edward Lhwyd on April 8 1695.   The quote is from a publication of Ray’s letters  (Further Correspondence of John Ray)  edited by Robert W. T. Gunther and printed for the Ray Society in 1928.

I would gladly see Mr. Beaumont’s Hypothesis of wch he gives us a hint in his confutation of Dr. Burnet’s Theory of the earth p. 30, where he tells us, that he is of opinion that there is no mountain on ye earth now, that is an original mountain, or that existed when ye World first rose, & concludes with Aristotle that ye Sea & land have changed places, & continue to doe; & that he thinks it not possible for any man, fairly to solve ye Phaenomenon of marine bodies found in mountains, by any other Principle.  You see he also proves his Hypothesis by bringing us to an Impossibility of solving the Phaenomena in an other way; and yet Dr. Woodw[ar]d hath invented another.

It were not difficult matter, I  believe, to furnish him with argum[en]ts more than he could readily answer agst his Hypothesis of Antediluvian plants, raised from those impressions upon Cole-slate resembling the leaves of plants; but I am not sufficiently qualified for such a task, as having never seen the varieties of them, nor the places where they are found, & their other Accidents.  Your Argumt would be valid against him, were the world we render prevailed to be understo0d of increaseing’: but expositors understand it only of continuing upon ye Earth without abatement so long; wch makes rather for his Hypothesis. But the other particular concerning the unnecessarinesse of continuing the rain upon ye Earth to 40 days if ye World were dissolved in lesse than half that time holds good.  But he commits another mistake in ye time of ye commencing of the Floud, wch he supposes to be in ye Spring, whereas it was, according to ye best expositors, in ye Autumne.  For Tigri wch answers to our September was accounted the first moneth of ye civil year, so ye 2d moneth answered to our 8ber. True for indeed the Ecclesiasticall year began in March, of wch beginning the deliverance out of Egypt was ye occasion.  (This being not the old beginning disused in Egypt, & taken up again, as he would have it.)  Not withstanding wch ye civil year began as of old it did in September.  One or two things let me ask you , whether the impressions be all of leaves or parts of leaves smooth & extended, or crumpled & folded up.  For if they be all extended & smooth without any folds, plaits or wrinkles it is an unanswerable proof that they never were the impressions of Plants.,  And seeing the leaves of every plant have two different superficies, whether the two contiguous laminae of slate, between wch such leafes of Plants are supposed to have layn, have two different impressions, one of ye superior, the other of ye inferior surface of ye leaf.  That the leaves, at least many of them, are of Plants not now to be found either wild or cultivated with us, you tell us in your Additions to Flintshire: where also you take notice of this work we are discoursing of, & give a favourable character of its Author.

Fossil fern leaves

Ray’s comment that “if they be all extended & smooth …. is an unanswerable proof that they never were the impressions of plants”  refers to the continuing discussion that Ray maintains with Lhwyd about the nature of fossils. Lhwyd was one to argue that fossils represented natural shaped stones that mimicked many feature of living things but did not represent the remains of those living things.  Here Ray is pointing out to Lhwyd that if all of the leaf shapes that Lhwyd is reporting to have seen are all perfect in their nature including not showing a top or bottom (“two superficies”) then they could not really be the impressions of plants. To Ray, if there were signs of different sides and if these rock leaves looked torn, folded, etc.. then they should be considered the remnants of  past real leaves that were deposited in a “natural” way.    The picture to the right shows a number of fossil fern leaves (fronds).   Most of the fronds are right side up but there is on on the right side that is shows the bottom side up.  Also, many of the fronds have damage or are folded over.   The picture at the top is a fern fossil from a nodule split into two part, Ray and others discussed fossils that had this appearance. The symmetry and etched appearance led many to suggest these fossils were saltations which they (including Lhwyd himself) likened to the growth of ice crystals on a glass plane.  The fractal appearance suggested the possibility of an inorganic origin. Fossils such as the fern assemblage below are much more difficult to explain in this manner.

Lastly, Ray eludes to the touchy subject of extinction here.  Some of the leaves observed as fossils couldn’t be assigned to living leaves.  This was a problem at the time because the idea of extinction still seemed to fly in the face of a creator caring for his creation. The usual way to explain these fossils, if they were excepted as fossils at all, was to suggest that maybe there are places on earth where the leaves that the fossils represent still live but that they are now locally extinct.  Not long after Ray this explanation would become far less useful as the world was explored and it became more and more apparent that most of the fauna and flora in the fossil record does not have a living member.   For some at the time of Ray, the idea of fossils that represented things that could not be found at that time, was further evidence that the fossils didn’t represent actual remains of living things but were just “sports of nature” that had the appearance or mimicked living things.

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