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.

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