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History of science: Pursuing the primordial

Nature volume 515, pages 340341 (20 November 2014) | Download Citation

Ted Nield ponders a history of how European science came to grasp Earth's age.

Earth's Deep History: How it Was Discovered and Why it Matters

By

University of Chicago Press: 2014. 9780226203935

Three things annoy Martin Rudwick about how the history of Earth science is portrayed. He scorns monoglot provincialism, caricatures that pit science against religion — and hero-worship. So I hope he forgives the fact that in 1977, at 21, I made a pilgrimage to London to hear him speak at the Geological Society, and to ask him to autograph my copy of his Living and Fossil Brachiopods (Humanities Press, 1970).

Frontispiece from Museum Wormianum (1655) by antiquary Ole Worm, showing his cabinet of curiosities — a collection of fossils and other natural artefacts. Image: Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Rudwick had just switched from studying palaeontology and functional morphology — which uses engineering principles to make sense of the sometimes perplexing three-dimensional geometry of fossil skeletons — to the history of science. In this he has forged a second, even more distinguished career. Because the subject is also an enthusiasm of mine, I have followed his work with an appreciation that remains undimmed after reading his latest book, Earth's Deep History.

This traces the origin of historical science in the seventeenth century, when the things we see around us in nature came to be seen as 'monuments', pregnant with historical meaning, like archaeological relics. With his talent for encapsulating pre-modern mindsets, Rudwick deftly explains how ideas of natural history were embedded in cultural history. He concentrates on thinking in the late eighteenth century, not only in Anglophone countries but, crucially, also in mainland Europe — especially France. The book's premise, which has been used before by Rudwick and others (including the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould), is that humanity's discovery of Earth's immense age is a step in science's progressive removal of humans from the centre of things. First our planet was relegated to mere third rock from the Sun; then humans were transformed from the pinnacle of God's creation into twigs on an evolutionary bush.

Rudwick's early brachiopod book drew on material originally expounded in papers, and in this respect Earth's Deep History is its cousin. In 2005 and 2008, respectively, Rudwick published his magisterial tomes Bursting the Limits of Time and Worlds Before Adam (both University of Chicago Press). These burst the limits of my briefcase and contributed to my upper-body strength. It is therefore welcome that their arguments have been condensed into a more portable account of the human appreciation of time. Unlike many authors (including Charles Darwin) whose big books were conceived as 'sketches' for never-completed longer works, Rudwick has sensibly done things the right way round.

Beginning with Irish Archbishop James Ussher's 1650 publication of a chronology suggesting that the world began on 23 October 4004 BC, Rudwick shows how, by the eighteenth century, Western culture had long accepted that Earth had been around for millennia. Ussher was not alone: Isaac Newton played the same game, suggesting a date of 3988 BC. Rudwick is at pains to emphasize that Ussher was a serious chronologist who did not deserve his post-Darwinian ridicule. What these chronologies show is that humanity was at that time assumed by all to have been part of the Universe from its inception.

“The image of emergent science heroically struggling against obscurantist religion is a fiction.”

Rudwick goes on to reveal how natural philosophers such as Jean-André Deluc and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer in Switzerland arrived at a truer picture. In attempting to reconcile scriptural and other textual evidence with that slowly emerging from nature's monuments, they came to realize that Earth had had a long prehistoric existence for which there was no documentary evidence. Yet far from being stifled by what had gone before, they were profoundly aided by the work of traditional, historical and antiquarian scholars working in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The image of emergent science heroically struggling against obscurantist religion is a fiction conjured by post-Darwinian revisionism and militant atheists, Rudwick insists.

Later natural philosophers, reading nature as innately historical, saw further. For Darwin, species were not finished objects in neat taxonomic boxes; they represented the cut ends of historical threads, linking all to the origin of life. Most people today would categorize Darwin as a biologist, but his view of species derived from his geologist's instinct that all things embody a historical narrative. The realization that much of Earth's history was not just prehistoric but prehuman gave birth to what we now call deep time. The book concludes with a relatively breezy scamper through the subsequent history of Earth science, taking in the 1960s and 70s arrival of its grand unifying theory, plate tectonics.

Reading Rudwick's prose is a pleasure, but this is not a 'popular' book. Rudwick provides little human interest behind the names, so if these do not already conjure up real human beings with lives and idiosyncrasies, he offers scant help. Indeed, he has few good words to say about the stylistic compromises of popular histories. I find this a trifle ungallant. Superior art, for all its academic shortcomings, engages more minds than the diligent knight on his charger of scholarship ever will.

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  1. Ted Nield is the editor of Geoscientist magazine in London. His latest book is Underlands (Granta).

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