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.

The battle-lines drawn up between darkness and light, between Burnetian Biblioatry and Huttonian love of truth, are mainly mythic, and historians of science have been saying so for years. It is hard, however, to persuade scientists to take historians seriously, and that is why it is especially pleasing that so distinguished a scientist as Stephen Jay Gould has chosen to take up the cudgels in the cause of demythologising the history of geological time. What makes his book so stimulating – apart from the fact that this volume is every bit as energetic, engaging and expert as the other half-dozen volumes of history he has miraculously brought out in so short a time-span – is that it goes well beyond routing the remnants of the ‘Genesis versus Geology’ legend. Indeed, Gould treats the short time-scale/long time-scale dichotomy as something of a side-issue, probing instead into the philosophies of time, the economies of terrestrial force, advanced within rival geological paradigms. Gould highlights templates of time which are radically distinct, but also points to some striking affinities. Two images dominate his analysis.

One is the metaphor of time as an arrow. In this, time begins at one specific instant – say, the fiat of the Creation of the World within the Christian schema. It shoots forward in a Newtonian straight line, irreversibly, irresistibly. Each geohistorical event occupies its own unique point upon this line of time. Time then ends. In geological terms, this dictates a directional pattern. Events come once and once only in a unique sequence (be they the days of Creation, the life-span of a species or great epochs such as Ice Ages). This vision of time as an arrow had been cardinal to the Christian theology of sacred history at least since St Augustine’s eschatology. It lies at the heart of Burnet’s theory of the six stages of terrestrial history stretching from Creation to Parousia.

Opposed to linear time is the cyclical model. In this, time is always active, ever in motion: but eventually, as with the planets in their orbits, its workings bring about a return precisely to the initial point of departure. It is the law of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. This notion is central to many mythologies in the topos of the eternal return, and it surfaces in ancient Greek philosophy as the Great Year, which encompasses all apparent change or mutability within the confines of a comprehensive unchanging order. Precisely this idea of the cycles of time governs the Huttonian or Lyellian ‘uniformitarian’ theory of the indefinitely old Earth, ceaselessly recycling itself through natural processes of decay and re-creation, an endless civil war of the elements, land-masses and oceans, tropics and poles, balanced ultimately in perfect equilibrium.

But, Gould contends, it would be superficial to identify the Sacred Theory exclusively with time’s arrow, and uniformitarian geology with the cyclical. For something like the interpenetration of opposites can also be seen. Burnet’s essentially directional theory, properly interpreted, has within itself a core of circularity, for all change proceeds from God and to God returns, the sequence of the final acts of Earth history presenting almost a mirror-image reprise of its early scenes.

The same dialectic holds in reverse form for uniformitarian geology. Lyell can offer startling visions of Nature giving repeat performances (‘then might those genera of animals return ... the huge iguanadon might appear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea’). Yet his geology also allowed that the fossil record showed constantly shifting populations of flora and fauna, approximating towards the present. And in the end, after great heartache, he came to accept the evolutionism of his friend Charles Darwin whose ‘branching tree’ model of time at least bears close affinities to ‘time’s arrow’ in its unidirectionality.

The point is, argues Gould, that neither the ‘time’s arrow’ nor the ‘time’s cycle’ metaphor offers us on its own an adequate way of seeing the processes and patterns of Nature in change. By drawing on the two models, it is evident that both Burnet and the mature Lyell recognised this. So it is time to stop pigeonholing them in saints-and-sinners history (a genre which Lyell himself did so much, unfortunately, to stimulate). Rather we should pay tribute to all these geo-philosophers for grappling mightily with the mind-boggling problems of conceptualising change and stability on the globe, past, present and future.

And here – to return to my opening remarks about waging present wars with historical armies – Gould has his own fish to fry. For, wearing his palaeontologist’s hat, he has contended that the extreme gradualness of change postulated by the Lyellian uniformitarian model, still such an article of faith amongst today’s geologists, is dogmatic and runs counter to the evidence of the rocks. Elements of the directional, even catastrophic vision suggested by the ‘time’s arrow’ metaphor deserve incorporation (Gould calls his own Earth-history vision ‘punctuated equilibrium’). Single metaphors may blinker the mind no less than single vision.

To borrow a phrase Darwin used about his Origin of Species, Gould’s book is one sustained argument, exhilarating, illuminating, challenging. Avoiding the crass Whiggish habit of awarding points for ‘breakthroughs’, it follows the comparative anatomical method of revealing the integrated skeleton of thought articulating a text, and, in doing so, communicates Gould’s joy at communing with the great minds of the past. But his case is not without its problems. For one thing, he writes rather blithely – as in his title – of the ‘discovery’ of geological time. What does this mean? He himself shows great antipathy to simplistic notions to the effect that geology is a matter of replacing error or ignorance by just looking at the rocks and ‘finding out’ truth. Too many geologists and historians of geology have been too naively empiricist for too long. All science involves theory, and theory is freighted with metaphor. But if we accept all that, as we must, is ‘discovery’ the metaphor that Gould really wants to use when discussing changing conceptions of time?

This is not the place to pronounce the death sentence once more on empiricism, or to grant it a last-second reprieve. The doctrine seems as unbelievable, yet as indispensable, as ever. I for one am happy to go along with Dr Johnson’s anti-Berkeleyan view that the agonising experience of kicking a stone is proof enough of its existence. But if you can ‘discover’ stones that way, can you also ‘discover’ their age – whether they are Cambrian or Cretaceous – by the same sort of means? Or are we into a different order of epistemological enterprise? Given that the hundred-million-year antiquity of this bit of boulder is by no stretch of the imagination an object of immediate sense experience, might we not do better to think about ‘deep time’ in terms of metaphors redolent of naming, thinking, or even ‘inventing’, rather than in terms of finding?

To say this is not just mystification, meta-historicising, and it certainly isn’t a plea for throwing out the language of discovery altogether. It seems to me perfectly meaningful to speak of the discovery of America. Of course, statements like that need refining. It’s not clear, for one thing, that Columbus ‘discovered’ the New World, for he himself thought he’d beached in China. Moreover, it also makes good sense to speak of the ‘invention of America’. All the same, and at the end of all the philosophical quibbles, America is in a real sense an object of experience. And as such, ‘America’ does seem part of a different order of things from ‘Antiquity’. How notions of the latter sort (e.g. ‘deep time’) become objects of discourse requires close analysis, not least of linguistic uses themselves. In this respect, Gould’s argument takes us only so far.

He rightly insists that naive Baconianism will not do. We can’t explain the difference between Burnet and the uniformitarians by saying that the reverend gentleman failed to look at the rocks but the diligent Scotsmen did. Ideas may count for more than rocks. But Gould needs to say rather more about their different frames of thinking, where their different ideas all came from, and what designs, intellectually speaking, the various theorists had upon their readers. Gould offers us an analysis of the internal logical structure of three texts, spanning a century and a half. It is brilliantly done. But the ‘close reading’ technique ends up leaving great minds a mystery. Gould himself clearly knows the wider contexts – the deafening disputes between theists, deists and so-called atheists, about divine order pitched against divine miracle, about law versus providence, about decay and progress, revolution and evolution – within which it was hoped that theories about stones and fossils would score a palpable hit. But they become squeezed to the sidelines of his text, thus bolstering for his scientist-readers the myth of the scientist as the lonely hero.

This is a pity, because marginalising the general culture of thought means that Gould avoids fundamental confrontation with the critical objection to the notion of the ‘discovery’ of deep time: the claim that, far from being a ‘discovery’ made by the maturing science of geology, the idea of the awesomely old Earth was there in people’s minds all along. For, as Paolo Rossi has convincingly argued, the savants of the 17th century had no difficulty at all in thinking that the Earth was untold ages old – indeed, was eternal. Of course they entertained that possibility, for precisely that had been the teaching of the science of Antiquity. Their real need was to find adequate defences against such a possibility – not, crassly, because the Church instructed them to, but because they themselves could not square the idea of the indefinitely old globe with all their other conceptions of the order, purpose and meaning of Nature. For two centuries, ‘deep time’ was not being discovered but rather repressed and refuted.

Making this point requires us to undertake a certain re-locating of the pre-history or early history of geology. Metaphors of time must be seen, as by Gould, as ways of grasping the economy of Nature. But they were also – and here one wishes he had said more – weapons in the wars of truth that were being waged before, during and after the Enlightenment. Explicitly or implicitly crucial to such ideological battles were debates about the nature of man and his place in Nature. And the special dilemmas of fitting acceptable stories about human nature and human history within the key metaphors of time deserve more attention than Gould is able to give them.

The difficulty of making temporal sense of man within ‘deep time’ is peculiarly naked with Hutton’s work. Hutton’s steady-state theory rested upon the foundation of sufficient reason. Nature is timeless. Nothing in or on the terraqueous globe has ever really changed, because everything has always been perfect as it stands. Yet Hutton blatantly then plants mankind on the globe as the one exception, a creature of just a few thousand years’ history. We lack the evidence to know whether Hutton’s doctrine of mankind was sincere or a tactical ploy for public consumption. We do know that his junior contemporary (and possible plagiarist), George Hoggart Toulmin, in his geological speculations, made man coeval with the cycling Earth, and that he suffered execration or oblivion for his polemical consistency.

We know also that Lyell later reviled Toulmin for callously riding roughshod over the tender prejudices of the age in thus reducing man to Nature’s slave. One of the chief reasons why Lyell himself fought such a rearguard action against ‘time’s arrow’ was that he feared it must lead to Lamarckism and so ultimately destroy the dignity of man. Gould praises Lyell for the courage and ‘splendid honesty’ of his ultimate turnabout in finally accepting the historicity of life. Charles Darwin for one had less flattering terms for Lyell’s timid and tardy tergiversation. Overall, the problems of how to formulate anthropocentrically-meaningful myths of human history, and how to dovetail these with models of the order and history of Nature, surely disturbed the minds of these thinkers more than Gould’s analysis allows.

Gould sympathises with his theorists’ attempts to re-create the economy of the terraqueous globe within their own systems. We can equally warm to Gould’s endeavours to resurrect the minds of his protagonists. Works like this, powerful, persuasive and provoking, help remind us of the epic attraction which the investigation of Nature held for the noblest minds of earlier centuries. Gould shares with them – to use Charles Lyell’s phrase – ‘a bliss like that of creating’.