Hammers for Pipes

Richard Fortey

  • Bursting the Limits of Time by Martin Rudwick
    Chicago, 840 pp, £31.50, December 2005, ISBN 0 226 73111 1

On his release from jail, Gordon Liddy, the Watergate conspirator, set up as a radio guru, with a nationally syndicated show dispensing cracker barrel philosophy and a folksy view of the world. A few years ago, I found myself a guest on the show as part of a tour to promote a book I had written on the long history of life on Earth. Liddy’s avuncular manner belied his previous history, and he was apparently no creationist; but, as I had anticipated, a caller from Kentucky duly declared that the world had been created in seven days, and what did I have to say to that? I invited the caller to ask himself whether, when his grandfather used the words ‘in my day’, he meant one particular day, or rather a season or a phase of life. I went on to say that the biblical ‘days’ could be better understood as whole eras, domesticated by a familiar terminology in order to make them comprehensible. Had I but known it, the same argument had already been thoroughly rehearsed by French naturalists more than two hundred years earlier. My creationist caller was restating a position which was already unfashionable in the late 18th century.

Martin Rudwick traces the development of ideas about the way rock strata were formed – and over what period of time – through the writings and correspondence of learned men from the late 18th century to the early years of the 19th. His approach is Eurocentric, and with good reason. Scholars from Germany, France and Italy were in ready correspondence as part of what Rudwick terms the Republic of Letters. Mostly well-born, they were surprisingly undogmatic about the length of time that it had taken the Earth to be shaped: many of them assumed periods of great magnitude even in their early works, although they were reluctant to suggest actual figures. The correspondence moved between social equals, who didn’t necessarily worry about the theological implications of their speculations. French was the most common language for publication and discourse, and what Rudwick would regard as seminal shifts in understanding were often brought about by discoveries made in France, by Frenchmen. The Revolution stalled, but did not destroy, this national dominance. Even the term ‘geology’ was the invention of Jean-André de Luc.

Rudwick is almost neurotically concerned that we should not apply our modern view of geology to the work of the 18th century, when the subject simply didn’t exist. Instead, there were geognosts, like the celebrated Abraham Werner from Freiberg, who were interested in local rock structures and the practicalities of mining; there were Earth physicists, who speculated grandly from the comfort of their armchairs, hoping to find a system as comprehensive for the Earth as Newton had deduced for the heavens; and there were natural historians, with their cabinets of minerals and ammonites, then both thought of equally as ‘fossils’. The story of the birth of the science as we know it is one of learned men abandoning their pipes for the hammer, witnessing volcanic or sedimentary phenomena in the field and then circulating papers to their fellows, who might find travel to Auvergne or the Alps too arduous an undertaking at a time of rutted tracks and lawlessness.

For much of this story, Britain lay on the periphery; but this is not the version on which I was brought up, and which, I believe, still holds sway in much of the Anglophone world. A cartoon summary would go something like this. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Scottish genius James Hutton recognised that the Earth was of enormous antiquity, or, as he put it, showed ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’; furthermore, he correctly inferred the igneous origin of many rocks, unlike the Wernerians, who thought that these Primary rocks were first precipitated from a universal ocean. Hutton’s prose was opaque, but his champion John Playfair ensured that the wider world appreciated his message. Not long afterwards, William ‘Strata’ Smith produced the first good geological map, using characteristic fossils as guides to rock formations. After some difficulties in getting the map published, largely because this honest yeoman tangled with the toffs at the Geological Society, Smith was acknowledged as the ‘father of English geology’ and the geological timescale was born. As an aside, we are invited to sneer at Dean Buckland of Oxford, who interpreted the bones found in caves in Yorkshire as direct evidence of the biblical deluge, thereby kowtowing to the clerics of the time. Notwithstanding this diversion, English scientific triumphs lead logically to Charles Lyell and the foundation of the modern science of geology, eventually seeing off the Church in the Huxley/Wilberforce debate that set Darwinism on its inexorable course.

Rudwick demolishes this travesty of history. He shows that Hutton’s ‘eternalism’ was in a sense profoundly ahistorical, and had little direct influence outside Edinburgh. The geognosts educated in Wernerian traditions made real advances in understanding the three-dimensional structure of rock masses, which had an important part to play subsequently in regional geology. William Smith’s contribution was indeed original and important, but the delay in its publication meant that other work, particularly the mapping of the Paris Basin by Cuvier and Brongniart, not only anticipated his results, but also introduced a historical component that Smith lacked. The Frenchmen deduced a succession of past worlds where freshwater environments alternated with marine ones: an invitation to speculate on the nature and extent of geological time. Smith never touched such topics; at heart, Rudwick says, he was a geognost, not a geologist.

As for Buckland, it was he more than anyone else who brought the British back into the European fold with work of a stature comparable with that of the French. He connected the rocks of the London and Hampshire basins with those of Paris. He erected a standard for the ‘secondary’ rocks of the Dorset coast that still serves as a benchmark. His reconstruction of the ‘antediluvian’ habitat of hyenas and their prey deduced from bones and fossilised dung found at Kirkdale Cave in Yorkshire, was probably the most complete picture of a past animal community achieved up to that time: a contemporary cartoon shows Buckland, guttering taper in hand, surprising the hyenas in their lair. Ironically, the very solidity of his picture ultimately contributed to the demise of the diluvian theory. The Church seems to have been more of an obstacle in Britain than it was abroad: indeed, the English ‘translation’ of Cuvier’s great works by the Scotsman Robert Jameson emphasised the concordance of the geological and the biblical record far more than the original had. In short, the traditional British drama, with its heroes and villains, is a romanticised confection designed to put our national achievements at the centre of things. I wonder if it will survive Rudwick’s indefatigable scholarship.

If there is to be a central figure in the development of the research programme for ‘geology’, Rudwick would probably select Cuvier, an anatomist and palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Cuvier was also no mean politician, keeping his head, literally and figuratively, during the worst time of Thermidor, and building up an unrivalled study collection, all the while cultivating a worldwide network of correspondents to provide him with more information and specimens. Cuvier demonstrated that the large mammals that we would now attribute to the Ice Age belonged to species different from those living today. He did so by meticulous comparative anatomy, contrasting mammoth with elephant, cave bear with brown bear.

At almost the same time, relics yielded up from Karnak and Pompeii invited the archaeologist to reconstruct past societies in unprecedented detail – it was only a small additional step to use shells and bones as witnesses to the passage of time. Cuvier proved that the ibis in pharaonic tombs was the same species as that still living in Egypt; hence, as he also recognised, the extinct mammals belonged to an era even before that of early civilisation. His near-contemporary Lamarck believed that animals transformed from one species to another, while Cuvier preferred to regard the world of mankind and that of prehistory as entirely separate. He summarised global evidence of a historic inundation from many cultures, thereby combining geohistory with the scholarly discoveries that his fellow Parisians derived from historical relics. It’s possible that he regarded an apparent conformity with the biblical account as just one more piece of scientific evidence.

Away from the laboratory, the mapping of the region around Paris confirmed the historical reality of not just one vanished world, but several. Cuvier demonstrated that an ‘age of reptiles’ preceded an ‘age of mammals’. Seas came and went, and along with them their characteristic fossils. There were several ‘revolutions’, each mapping out a deeper segment of time. The evidence for the ‘revolutions’ could be traced not merely in England, but in Italy and the Alps – thanks to Cuvier’s scholarly correspondents. This correlation of strata testified to the pervasiveness of these historic events, of which the one that buried the mammoths and prepared the world for man was simply the last. Cuvier and his colleagues constructed time, as it were, rock formation by rock formation.

An incidental delight of Rudwick’s exemplary history is to learn about scientists who had previously been no more than names to me in my palaeontological studies of trilobites. The commonest trilobite from the famous Silurian rocks at Dudley is called Calymene blumenbachii, and here I learn that Blumenbach was one of the leading naturalists of his day, the author of a standard textbook, and one of those who introduced history into geognosy by clearly distinguishing past worlds from the present. Von Buch is another: his trilobite Ogygiocarella debuchii is to be found around the South Wales town of Llandeilo. From Rudwick I learn that he made seminal investigations into one of the oddest geological phenomena: erratics, those strange rocks often perched on hilltops. Von Buch was among those who determined the ‘mother lode’ from which they were derived – in some cases many miles away. They were used subsequently as evidence in support of the universal deluge. Now we know them to have been dumped as the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted away. It’s curious that the identity of these investigators should be frozen in the names of fossils which they only partly understood.

The creationists know none of this history. I visited the Grand Canyon not long ago, and there, in the bookshop in the National Park, it was possible to buy a ‘creation science’ account of the formation of one of the greatest geological sites in the world. The slow scour of today was evidently preceded by a catastrophic torrent that did the real business. Rudwick describes debates at the end of the 18th century relating to valleys around the ‘recent’ volcanoes of Auvergne. Surely, the feeble scratching of a river could not accomplish such deep scouring, some argued, unless time were immeasurably long. Worse, some of the volcanic flows cut by erosion looked quite ‘fresh’: how much greater the length of time required to erode still deeper ones. It is easy to understand why a catastrophic explanation had its attractions – then. The importance of Rudwick’s book extends beyond what it adds to the history of geology, for it shows how an appraisal of the true scale of geological time developed. Battles fought two centuries ago in the war to achieve a better understanding of human history were vital to the development of a scientific understanding of the world. What is so depressing about ‘creation science’ is the rejection of history: not just the history of the Earth, but also the history of intellectual inquiry.

The creationists aspire to go back to the time of the ‘Earth physicists’, who knew in advance what they would find because they had a theory in advance of their observations. The Grand Canyon is the least of it. Even some of the old, forgotten causes célèbres can be found on creationist websites today: Guadeloupe Man, discovered in 1812 and recognised within a few years as a modern man encased in calcium carbonate, gets yet another outing as proof that humans were present in very distant epochs, and that the geological timescale is therefore in error. It’s as if there were a phlogiston site, where oxygen deniers could quote evidence from 18th-century virtuosi to show that we are all mistaken about the air we breathe.

To describe Rudwick as ‘scholarly’ is rather like describing Mozart as ‘musically talented’. He is omniscient, and it’s greatly to be wished that this book becomes known beyond the ranks of historians of the recondite. His story stops just as Charles Lyell appears, to become one of the major players in geology, and he promises us a subsequent volume on the development of the ideas of this pivotal figure. In Lyell, we have a British scientist who genuinely earned his place in the pantheon.