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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

Letters to "Nature" on the Age of the Earth
(1892-1895): S458, S460, and S513

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: Before radiometric dating, workers could only guess at the absolute age of the earth. One of the few ways to approach the problem involved trying to calculate rates of surface erosion, and what that meant in terms of the thicknesses of the rock units that had built up. In three letters to Nature in the 1890s Wallace tried to clarify his views on the matter. Original paginations indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S458AND.htm

The Earth's Age (S458: 1892)

    [[p. 175]] I am glad that Mr. Hobson1 has formulated his difficulty as to the measurement of geological time by the comparative rates of denudation and deposition, because it shows that I cannot have explained my views as clearly as I thought I had done; yet on again reading over pp. 217-223 of "Island Life," I can hardly understand how he has missed the essential point of the argument. Fortunately, there is no dispute as to the data, only as to the conclusions to be logically drawn from them.

    Mr. Hobson says that I account for a deposit of 177,200 feet (the supposed thickness of all the stratified rocks) over an area of 3,000,000 square miles (the estimated area over which at any one epoch stratified rocks are being deposited) in 28,000,000 years (the deduced estimate of known geological time); and then adds: "Whereas, what has to be accounted for is an area of 57,000,000 square miles of the same thickness" (my italics). This seems to me a most amazing misconception; for it means that every single formation and every stratum or member of each formation, was deposited to the same average thickness over the whole land surface of the globe (area 57,000,000 square miles)! And this implies that at every successive period, from the Laurentian to the Pliocene, the conditions of denudation and deposition were totally different from what they are now, since at the present time it is demonstrable that the area of deposition of continental debris is only a fraction of the whole continental area. It implies further, that during each geological period the whole of the existing land area must have been, either at once or in rapid succession, sunk beneath the sea in order to allow of its being all covered with each successive formation--an amount of repeated upheaval and depression which hardly the most extreme convulsionist of the old school would have postulated. I cannot make the matter clearer, and trust that on further consideration Mr. Hobson will admit that his objection is invalid.

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The Earth's Age (S460: 1893)

    [[p. 227]] The first part of Mr. Hobson's letter alone requires notice from me, as the latter part characterizes as absurd the views of those eminent geologists who have estimated the total thickness of the sedimentary rocks, and seems to assume that such writers as the late Dr. Croll and Sir Andrew Ramsay overlooked the very obvious considerations he sets forth.

    As regards myself, he reiterates the statement that when geologists have estimated the total thickness of the sedimentary rocks at 177,200 feet, they mean that this amount of sediment has covered the whole land surface of the globe; that, for example, the coal measures, the lias, the chalk, the greensand, the London clay, &c., &c., were each deposited over the whole of the continents, since it is by adding together the thicknesses of these and all other strata that the figure 177,200 feet (equal to 33 miles) has been obtained.

    Mr. Hobson concludes with what he seems to think is a reductio ad absurdum:--"Dr. Wallace's calculation leads to the absurd result that continents are growing nineteen times as fast as materials are produced to supply their growth."

    But the apparent absurdity arises from the absence of any definition of the "growth of continents," and also from supposing that the growth of continents is the problem under discussion. The question is, as to the growth in thickness, of sedimentary deposits such as those which form the geological series. These deposits are each laid down on an area very much smaller than the whole surface of the continent from the denudation of which they are formed. They are therefore necessarily very much thicker than the average thickness of the denuded layer, and the ratio of the area of denudation to the area of deposition, which I have estimated at 19 to 1, gives their proportionate thickness. If Mr. Hobson still maintains that he is right, he can only prove it by adducing evidence that every component of the series of sedimentary rocks has once covered the whole land-surface of the globe; not by assuming that it has done so, and characterizing the teaching of all geologists to the contrary as absurd.

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The Age of the Earth (S513: 1895)

    [[p. 607]] In Dr. Hobson's letter on this subject, he confuses the argument by the introduction of a new factor (never alluded to in the former discussion, or in my theory as stated in "Island Life"), the bulk or volume of the matter deposited. This has nothing whatever to do with the practical problem, because it is admittedly impossible to form any estimate of the total bulk of all the stratified rocks of the earth during all geological time; while it is equally impossible to form any estimate of the total bulk of the denuded matter, since we have no clue whatever to the number of times the same areas have been again and again denuded. But the maximum thickness of the same rocks, compared with the average rate of denudation, and the coincident maximum rate of deposition, do furnish materials for an estimate, since they can all be approximately determined from actual observation; and the result is what I have given. If Dr. Hobson had referred to the former discussion he would have avoided imputing to me "fallacies" which I never made. I never said a word about "equal bulks" of material being deposited in less time than they were denuded. But, as the only available data are those of thickness, not bulk, then it is clear that, if the area of deposition is one-nineteenth of the area of denudation, the rate of deposition of a known thickness of rocks will be nineteen times as great as the known rate of denudation. It was necessary for me to point this out when first discussing the subject, because one eminent writer had made the rate of deposition less than the rate of denudation, because the water-area is greater than the land-area of the globe; while an eminent geologist has quite recently taken the rates of denudation and deposition as being equal. If, however, the area of deposition is very much less than the area of denudation, which is now admitted to be the fact, then the rate of deposition per foot of thickness will be many times greater than the rate of denudation.

    I should not have thought it necessary again to state this very obvious conclusion, had not Prof. Sollas, while so clearly pointing out Dr. Hobson's misconception as to the area over which the maximum thickness of the strata extended, omitted to refer to the confusion he has now for the first time introduced into the problem, by references to the bulk or volume of the sedimentary rocks, a factor which all previous writers have seen to be wholly beyond even an approximate determination.

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Editor's Note

1. Bernard Hobson [b. 1860], British geologist.

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