Today, a 19th-century geologist struggles with the
creation of the earth. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
December 23, 1856, three
years before Darwin published his Origin of
Species: That night, 54-year-old Hugh
Miller, a well-known, highly-regarded Scottish
geologist, went to his study with a blinding pain
in his head. He wrote an agonized letter:
Dearest Lydia, -- My brain burns ... and a
fearful dream rises upon me. I cannot bear the
horrible thought. God ... have mercy upon me.
Dearest Lydia, dear children, farewell. My brain
burns as the recollection burns. My dear, dear
Then Miller directed a bullet into his chest. It
cut his pulmonary artery at the root and killed him
That same day, he'd finished correcting proofs for
his last book, The Testimony of the
Rocks. I have an American edition of that
book -- a lovely old work, thoughtful,
well-illustrated, and ponderous. It has paragraphs
that run to five pages in length.
Miller's life lay between two worlds. Raised in the
19th-century fundamentalism of the Scottish
Presbyterian church, he took up geology just when
the old biblical chronology of creation seemed to
be caving in. Throughout his life he struggled with
the account in Genesis. His last book was his
He made six epochs of the six days of biblical
creation. He detailed each one with his vast
knowledge of geologic and fossil formations. It was
conservative stuff by our lights. No hint of
evolution. No question about the biblical flood.
Still, he was seen as dangerously liberal for
stretching 24-hour days into geologic epochs.
He studied the size of Noah's ark and decided it
wasn't big enough to hold all the species.
Therefore, the flood could not have been
world-wide. It was a ceremony of compromise. And he
finished by saying, "I know not of a single truth
that militates against the minutest [details of
Despite that, he also says something that shows
profound good sense. He says of people who "have
sought to deduce from [the Bible] what it was not
intended to teach -- the truths of physical
science, -- they have fallen into extravagant
But this night before Christmas Eve, 1856, Hugh
Miller suffered another attack of some terrible
mental illness. He suffered soul-curdling
nightmares, and he imagined his brain was being
eaten away. So he wrote that wrenching note and
Three years later, Darwin published his theory of
evolution, and the science-religion wars of the
late 19th century went into high gear. Miller was
brushed aside. Also brushed aside was his perfectly
sane reminder that the Bible was never meant to be
-- a science textbook.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Miller, H., The Testimony of the Rocks.
Boston: Gould and Lincoln, 1867 (first edition,
See also various encyclopaedia articles on Hugh
Miller. The Testimony of the Rocks was
published over and over until 1897. A modern
edition came out in 1980. My old 1867 edition was
yet another treasure yielded up by Detering
Bookstore in Houston.
From The Testimony of the
Quoted in a memorial statement to Hugh Miller
From The Testimony of the
Miller's Representation of an English Mammoth
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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