The Color of Dinosaurs

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A sentence in Chateaubriand’s Genius of Christianity, truly one of the masterworks of apologetics, caught my attention recently: “God might have created, and doubtless did create, the world with all the marks of antiquity and completeness which it now exhibits.”

He stated this in the course of arguing that, for all we know, the Biblical account of the world’s age, about 8,000 years, could be actually true.  The difficulty posed by fossils and rock strata, he said, was easily dismissed and “has been solved a hundred times” on that principle.

Understand that Chateaubriand’s book almost single-handedly reversed the remaining anti-clericalism of the French Revolution.  It inspired Victor Hugo and other great lights of the next generation to “become like Chateaubriand” and prepared the ground for the Catholic “intellectual renaissance” in France a few decades later.

But here he was adamantly affirming a “New Earth” hypothesis, which many in our generation regard as fringe lunacy. Worse, he supposed it was obviously true.

I thought about the principle of the matter.  Which was “better” to create: something that begins entirely “new” and develops after it is created, or something that is created “old” already, with a past that is only implicit, not itself created?

We have a bias toward the former, I think, but why?  Solely from familiarity with Darwin?

Surely, we must concede that God has the power to create something that carries a history with it already.  Moreover, it wouldn’t be deceptive for Him to do so.   We concede that God might create a mature human being, as Adam was supposed to be.  But a mature human being presupposes a conception, development, and childhood.  These would have to be solely attributed, not actually pre-existing, in the case of an Adam.

We concede that God might create fine wine, as at Cana, and yet without having created first its terroir, blending, and long maturation — all necessary to a fine wine.  The wine at Cana was exquisite but not deceptive.

There was a debate in the Middle Ages over the indeterminacy, from a scientific standpoint, of whether the universe was created by God “in time.”  This indeterminacy arises most sharply given cyclical processes in nature.  Take procreation for example.  In an Aristotelian universe, procreation is a repeatable process stretching forward indefinitely into the future.  Procreation is how a species of animal, as a kind, can achieve immortality and imitate God, in the only way it can – so says Aristotle explicitly.


But an animal’s existence stretches back into the past indefinitely, just as much on the same principle.  If revelation then tells us that, no, this cycle began “in time” about 8,000 years ago – fine, we accept it as true – but then we must concede (so a medieval philosopher might put it) that the first created animals carried along with them an infinite, attributed past.

Artists have no difficulty in accepting a creation with an implicit past.  Novels don’t need to begin with the protagonist as a conceptus.  In many clever novels, the past is deliberately set as a puzzle to the reader as much as to the characters, and part of the fun of reading it is trying to figure out precisely which past is correctly attributed.  Such is any mystery novel, and such was Dorothy Sayers’ view of creation.

Implicit and attributed pasts will surely be present in the New Creation.  Martyrs will show marks of their martyrdom, the tradition holds, not simply martyrs whose bodies remain incorrupt.

On balance, I think we must hold that to create beings with an implicit past is actually better.  It is more nuanced and cleverer.  It assigns more good to the creature.  It implies creatures with signification as well as being.

One somewhat dizzying thought is how close to the present time Chateaubriand’s conjecture might be extended.  Bertrand Russell used to claim that there was no way for someone to tell whether he had just begun to exist five minutes ago.  Everything would look exactly the same.

This kind of argument has greater force if I am an isolated Cartesian conscience, and memory is subjective; also, if one thinks that a private universe might just unaccountably jump into existence without a cause.

But if we are speaking about genuine creation, the act of a person, and like Chateaubriand we take “a people” such as the Jewish nation to be the unit of remembrance and memory to involve an objective relationship to what is, then the line can be drawn no later than their collective memory.  Evidently, too, the nature of time would need to be rethought, presumably along the lines of Book XI of St. Augustine’s Confessions.

One fascinating upshot of Chateaubriand’s approach is that the nature of scientific explanation of the past is re-conceived, and, by extension, all scientific theory.  Science really does become the attempt at reconstructing the intention of God from whatever “signification” is implicit in Creation.

This reconstruction will have indeterminacy exactly where, by design of course, that signification does not allow any determinate inference.  My teacher W.V. Quine used to deride counterfactuals because such indeterminacy could not be eliminated from them: “Take, for instance, the possible fat man in the doorway; and again, the possible bald man in the doorway. Are they the same possible man, or two possible men? How do we decide? How many possible men there are in that doorway? Are there more possible thin ones than fat ones?”

And so on. But one might raise similar objections about anything left unsaid or not implied by a novelist.

So, when a created object’s past is attributed, whatever could be definitely inferred would count as “science,” while much might remain indeterminate.

Chateaubriand’s conjecture, although exhilarating, has the sad upshot that, if true, dinosaurs did not actually exist.  Reconstructing them becomes a kind of game.  And if the evidence does not allow an inference to their color, they had no determinate color, and every boy is free to imagine whatever color he wishes.


*Image: Chateaubriand Meditating on the Ruins of Rome by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson, c. 1810 [Musée d’Histoire de la Ville et du Pays Malouin, St. Malo, France]

You may also enjoy:

St. John Paul II’s All Creation Rises to New Life

Robert Royal’s Following Which Science?

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.