Almighty Gould

Roy Porter

  • Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time by Stephen Jay Gould
    Harvard, 219 pp, £15.50, May 1987, ISBN 0 674 89198 8

Years ago Sir John Plumb declared: ‘The past is dead.’ He didn’t add: ‘long live history.’ But try as historians will to put the past behind them, others are always resurrecting it and abusing it for their own purposes. Take the mindless mouthings of ‘Victorian values’, the ‘good’ (or the ‘bad’) old days, the Dunkirk spirit, the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald – in all such sloganising, the ghosts of the past are conjured up to clinch arguments about the present. And in no field, paradoxically, is this ancestral magic so pervasive as in science – above all, in myth-making introductions to scientific textbooks. There the ritual incantation of deities and devils – with Galileo, Newton, Darwin worshipped on the one side, and Descartes, Lamarck, Lysenko anathematised on the other – provides exemplars to imitate and moral lessons to avoid. Each science, of course, boasts its own dramatis personae for the performance of these hagiographical and exorcistic rituals. Amongst geologists, the villain-in-chief, endlessly execrated, is the Rev. Thomas Burnet. Leading the heroes home are James Hutton and Sir Charles Lyell.

What was Burnet’s sin? He was the Judas who supposedly sold out geology to Scripture. In his Sacred Theory of the Earth – which appeared just before Newton’s Principia – Burnet denied what has become the central dogma of the modern geological imagination: the tremendousness of time. In his view, the Earth could not possibly be more than a few thousand years old, for it was decaying at such a lick that had it been of any noble antiquity, the continents would already have crumbled utterly into dust and detritus and disappeared into the sea. As for the future, the globe’s days, for the same reason, must equally be numbered.

Burnet argued his case from science and observation, but he also backed himself with the Bible. And for that sin, within the ‘Genesis versus Geology’ or ‘Scripture versus Science’ tales that still wag the scientific unconscious, Burnet’s whole scenario of Earth history, with its catastrophic crustal collapses and tidal waves, becomes an embarrassment, best disowned. Short time is anti-science.

In diametrical contrast, Hutton and Lyell, both Scots, writing respectively in the late 18th and the early 19th centuries, drew liberally upon the bank of time. When faced with interpreting the evidence of fossils and land-forms, their strategy was to be parsimonious with force (no catastrophes) but prodigal of time. They saw that adherence to the traditional short time-scale (Creation in 4004 BC, according to Archbishop Ussher) was mere Bibliolatry. It cramped science’s style. Make allowance for enough time, and miracles like the Universal Deluge, which clearly had no business in science, could be replaced as geological agents by the regular buffetings of the ocean against the cliff, or the drip, drip, drip of the river through its limestone bed: both of these forces slow but sure. The fall of the hours of Ussher permitted the billions of years, the indefinite time past and time future, demanded by Hutton (the ‘father of modern geology’) and his scientific heir and populariser, Lyell. Their vision was of gradual natural forces continuously at work within a steady-state globe. Their ‘deep time’ provided the foundations for modern geology just as infinite space had for the Newtonian world-picture.

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