de Maillet's Diminution of the Sea as a Failed Scientific Clock

By Calvin Krogman

During the 17th and 18th Century, the Catholic Church dictated most aspects of life in Europe and European colonies. Obviously, the Church had control of religious affairs, but it also strongly influenced politics, science and most aspects of everyday life. However, as new discoveries were made in the fields of natural science, many people began to deviate from the standards that had been in place for centuries.

Among the new knowledge gained in natural sciences were developments in physics, astronomy, and chemistry. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was also a strong influence in the new direction of biological studies. Perhaps the earliest deviations from the conventions of Church teachings began in the field of geology, more than 100 years before the Origin of Species.

Benoit de Maillet (1656-1738) was a French diplomat to many areas throughout the Mediterranean region of Europe. During his travels, de Maillet observed many interesting things about the sea level surrounding him, primarily that, over time, it was becoming lower. Evidence of this could be seen by ancient cities, such as Carthage and Alexandria, having seaport structures several feet above the level where they should be. Through his observations, de Maillet came to two assumptions that were necessary to approximate an age for the Earth: 1) at some point in time, the Earth's surface was entirely covered by the ocean, and 2) that sea levels have receded at a constant rate over time (National University of Singapore 2000).

Of course, during an era when the Catholic Church dominated most facets of life, de Maillet realized that his work would be met with harsh opposition. He avoided this conflict in two ways. First, his book Telliamed (de Maillet spelled in reverse) was not published until ten years after de Maillet's death. Secondly, instead of reporting his observations scientifically, Telliamed is written as a work of fiction, a conversation between a French missionary and an Indian philosopher, Telliamed. Through Telliamed, de Maillet describes his theory for the age of the Earth (Lenski).

In Telliamed, the philosopher describes how his grandfather had noticed the diminution of sea level at a young age. He had also noticed shells and other marine fossils on high hills and mountain sides. By setting up an observation post at the edge of the sea, and then taking measurements over 75 years, Telliamed's grandfather estimated that the sea was receding at a rate of three inches per century. Given these numbers, de Maillet offers (through Telliamed) that the Earth must be at least 2 billion years old for the Earth to be in its current state (Dalrymple 2004:28-29).

Today, there are objections to de Maillet's theory whether you believe in "young-Earth" creationism or "old-Earth" evolution. From the scientific standpoint, several objections to de Maillet's theory can be made. First, it is likely that the Earth's surface has never been completely covered by the ocean. Also, de Maillet's observations were mainly of the Mediterranean Sea, where sea levels were receding. However, at that same time in other areas on Earth, sea level was actually increasing. In fact, one of today's greatest scientific fears (global warming melting the ice caps) would result in a dramatic increase in sea level (National University of Singapore 2000). Thus, it can be assumed that sea level increase or decrease rates have indeed fluctuated over time, perhaps best demonstrated by various Ice Ages. Thus, sea levels experience cyclic periods of rise and decline, and they are not as a clock.

For a process to be considered an accurate geologic clock, it must meet four specific criteria. 1) It must undergo an irreversible process. As mentioned above, the diminution of sea level is not irreversible, as these levels fluctuate frequently. 2) Processes must occur at a relatively uniform rate. While de Maillet's observed a "uniform" decline of 3 inches per century, that rate was not uniform at the worldwide level. That rate has also changed over time. 3) The initial condition must be known. In this case, the initial condition of the Earth being completely covered by water, is only an assumption, and is likely not the case. 4) Their must be an observable final condition. In this case, it is difficult to determine if there is, was, or ever will be a "final" state of sea level. It is likely that this condition will never occur. Thus, de Maillet's proposed method for dating the Earth fails all four of our conditions for a geological clock.

What de Maillet observed was likely local geologic uplift, rather than a global drop in sea level. Many places along fault lines experience this type of uplift. In the United States, areas in California experience such uplift. Many mountain regions, such as the Himalayas, also experience geologic uplift.

Wave-Cut Platform Diagram

From the young-Earth standpoint, de Maillet's age of at least 2 billion years is in strong contrast to the 6,000-10,000 year age for the Earth believed in by many creationists. From the theological standpoint alone, this is enough for young-Earth creationists to disregard de Maillet's age.

However, one of de Maillet's assumptions coincides with a belief in creationism, that the Earth was at one time covered entirely by water. In the Bible, this event occurs as part of the Flood of Noah (Young). However, this is where the similarities end. If the Flood of Noah did occur, one could assume that the highest point on Earth, Mt. Everest, would be the first thing to break the surface of the ocean in the recession of a global flood. At a height of more than 29,000 feet, and at a rate of 3 inches per century, it would take the peak of Mt. Everest 11.6 million years to reach its current height above sea level. If sea levels have declined at a constant rate since the flood of Noah, the minimum age for the Earth would be 11.6 million years, plus whatever time elapsed between Creation and the Flood of Noah.

  1. Dalrymple, G. Brent. Ancient Earth, Ancient Skies. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA. 2004. 247p.
  2. Lenski, Richard E. Some Thoughts and Readings on the History and Philosophy of Science. Accessed: Oct. 18, 2005
  3. National University of Singapore. 2000. Huxley's review of Origin of Species. Accessed: Oct. 17, 2005.
  4. Revision Centre. 2004. GSCE Geography- Wave Cut Platforms. Accessed: Oct. 24, 2005.
  5. Young, Davis A. Scripture in the Hand of Geologists. Accessed: Oct. 20, 2005.