Worlds before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform

July 24, 2008

Historians of science are often accused of triumphalism and Whiggism for documenting a progressive narrative flow towards a greater "truth". But the able historian can decipher a path towards a deeper, testable understanding of phenomena in the material world without falling prey to the arrogance of scientism or denigrating the work of those who, along the way, "got it wrong".

Martin Rudwick makes it clear in this second volume of his magisterial exposition of "geohistory" that he understands the potential criticisms and is prepared to go full steam ahead. The result is a thoroughly engaging and utterly sympathetic treatment of the notable figures who laid the foundation for modern geology in the period between 1820 and 1845, their inspirations and intellectual triumphs, and their stubbornly held misconceptions.

Ironically, a central element in the story is progression itself: the late 18th and early 19th-century discovery that not only was the Earth very old but that the fossil record showed a marked advance from simple (early) to complex (later) organisms. This trend paralleled the pattern of the Great Chain of Being, if one read it, as did Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (Philosophie Zoologique, 1809), from the bottom up rather than from the angels and man down.

Another popular stick with which to beat the historian of science is to deny the legitimacy of developing a theme of conflict between science and religion because, in the 18th and 19th centuries at least, the scientists were also clerics. This is to miss the blindingly obvious point that the conflict was not between disciplines but within individual minds and souls, as it was for many scholars in the story told here.

As in Rudwick's first volume, Bursting the Limits of Time (2005), one of the strengths and delights of Worlds before Adam is Rudwick's exposition of the work of continental scholars such as Ami Boue, Alexandre Brongniart, Jules Desnoyers, Jean-Baptiste Elie de Beaumont and Louis-Constant Prevost as well as the more familiar Anglophone workers. Rudwick begins with a reprise of his first volume, with Georges Cuvier as the character who literally and figuratively provided the transition between the "old" geology and the "new", and between the Earth as structure and as history.

Nonetheless, the central figure is Charles Lyell, a lawyer who studied with William Buckland at Oxford, and who at age 30 took up geology full time. It is perhaps significant that Lyell, along with Henry de la Beche (artist, wit and first director of the Geological Survey), was one of the new breed of geologists who were not clerics. Rudwick convincingly confirms Lyell's crucial role in the development of geology as Earth history and does so by giving equal emphasis to his inspirations and to his blind spots. Among the latter, while clerics/geologists such as Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge warily accepted the progression hypothesis, Lyell rejected it, along with what Lamarck saw as its inevitable consequence - evolution. Instead, Lyell took James Hutton's view of the Earth as a balanced, cyclical system (erosion, deposition, uplift) and turned it into a strange world view in which extinct creatures such as ichthyosaurs and mastodons would eventually appear again.

The story ends with Louis Agassiz's demonstration of a European Ice Age, dealing the final blow to the Mosaic flood theorists. With their highly individualistic flair and immense erudition, this volume and its predecessor are not just essential reading for any scientist; they are also landmark volumes in the history of ideas and a brilliant scholarly achievement.

Worlds before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform

By Martin Rudwick
University of Chicago Press
800pp
£25.50
ISBN 9780226731285
Published 1 July 2008

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