Voyage to oceanic origins sinks in historical currents

The Silent Landscape

January 14, 2005

The history of oceanography is a poor relation in the study of how our understanding of the Earth developed. There are many excellent studies of the history of geology, but telling the story of our knowledge of the two thirds of the planet under water (not to mention the water itself) has been strangely neglected, apart from the work of Margaret Deacon and Anita McConnell. The round-the-world voyage of HMS Challenger between 1872 and 1876 to study the oceans and seabeds from America to Africa, Australia, Antarctica and Asia is the exception.

Richard Corfield's book is not intended as another history of the expedition. The key word in his title is "wake". He follows Challenger in its voyage round the world in chapter-size segments. In each chapter, he provides an account of what the expedition did before describing the current scientific understanding of those parts of the oceans explored by Challenger . Corfield, an earth scientist, guides the reader through some interesting aspects of modern oceanography, which is the main strength of the book.

The problem is that Corfield is one of those scientists who do not apply the same standards of evidence to historical research as they do to scientific research. In part, this is due to the different type of research skills required. There is also a tendency for scientists to ignore the historical context of what they are writing about and to concentrate on the scientific content. Not understanding the context can lead authors into making avoidable howlers and providing simplistic notions of historical causality. Both are in evidence in this text. Corfield has Thomas Henry Huxley as head of the Royal Society in 1870 when he did not become president until 1883, while German organic chemist Justus Liebig is rendered as "Liebhes".

More seriously, the chief agent that Corfield assigns for causing the expedition to be mounted at all was "nothing less than a last chance to choose between God and Science". In other words, Challenger was sent to find evidence for the Darwinian view of evolution by natural selection.

Corfield implicitly suggests science was seen as directly antithetical to Christianity and cites the discussion on Darwin between Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce at the 1860 Oxford meeting of the British Association as evidence for this. Leaving aside the fact that there is not a single scrap of evidence that anybody in the 1870s cared about or even remembered the 1860 meeting, it was far from clear at that time that Christianity and science were so opposed.

It was clear that if humankind had been naturally selected from pre-existing species then there could have been no Adamic Fall, which would indeed render Christianity pointless. It was this that worried Wilberforce in Oxford. But there was no general agreement in the scientific community that natural selection was the mechanism and it was not until the 20th century, when evolution was merged with genetics, that the Darwinian synthesis became almost universally accepted. Thus in the 1870s, first-rate scientists such as William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) opposed the theory on thermodynamically based evidence and he forced Darwin, Huxley and so on to change it significantly.

All these undercurrents are missed by Corfield in his very traditional scientistic view of the conflicting relations between science and religion.

It is indicative of Corfield's lack of sensitivity to the historical context that he fails to recognise the significance of one of Challenger scientists, Wyville Thomson, writing a series of articles on the expedition for the Presbyterian magazine Good Words .

Corfield is an excellent and interesting communicator of his science, but his book shows that history is best left to historians.

Frank A. J. L. James is professor of the history of science, Royal Institution.

The Silent Landscape: In the Wake of HMS Challenger 1872-1876

Author - Richard Corfield
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 286
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 7195 6530 8

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