"ENDLESS AND AS NOTHING"
Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunderstorm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring bells and fire off pistols.
-- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
If plants and birds and insects could be altered -- whether intentionally or not -- by human tinkering, then what of Earth itself? The answer to that question very much depended on the resolution of another: Just how old is the planet that most believed had been entrusted by its creator to man?
By the time Darwin died in 1882, scientists knew the world to be an ancient place with primordial roots, but it had not always been thought so. More than two centuries earlier James Ussher, the exiled archbishop of Armagh and one of the leading Christian scholars of his time, established a much briefer timeline. By totaling up the ages of the post-Adamite generations as set forth in the Bible, Ussher determined that Earth was created around noon on October 23, 4004 B.C. Moreover, Judgment Day, which would bring earthly time to an abrupt end, was thought by the archbishop to be close at hand, for signs and portents abounded.
The calculations of Ussher and those of a similar mind gave rise in geologic circles to the theory of creation known as catastrophism. At intervals in Earth's history, it was argued, all living things had been destroyed by great upheavals ordained by God -- floods, earthquakes, volcanoes -- each of which had