Sharks’ Teeth

Steven Mithen

  • Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters by Martin Rudwick
    Chicago, 360 pp, £21.00, October 2014, ISBN 978 0 226 20393 5

I chose the perfect place to read Martin Rudwick’s book: the Isle of Islay, off the coast of Western Scotland. The archaeology of Islay is a long-standing interest of mine, especially the earliest traces of human settlement, which my excavations suggest took place 12,000 years ago or very soon afterwards. That’s nothing compared to the age of the bedrock of the island, much of which is Precambrian, dating to 1.8 billion years ago. For years I’ve walked across that bedrock with my mind fixed on the human past, neglectful of the rocks and the way they came to be dated and embedded in the history of the Earth. And so my New Year’s walk across the Lewisian Gneiss, the sandstones and the dolerite dykes of the island, was enriched by Rudwick’s demonstration that the science of such rocks is every bit as important as archaeology in defining who and what we are. Rudwick is the pre-eminent historian of earth sciences, and Earth’s Deep History, a grand sweep from the 17th to the 21st century, is a thrilling story of discovery and debate, insight and interpretation.

Archbishop Ussher is the starting point. In his Annals of the Old Covenant (Annales Veteris Testamenti, 1650-54), Ussher drew on the genealogies in the Bible to trace the date of Creation to 4004 bc. I recall my university tutor’s ridicule: Ussher had even specified a date in mid-October. But Rudwick offers a more considered view, explaining that Ussher was simply deploying the best scholarly practice of his time. Today’s earth scientists may use radiometric dating, but they are driven by the same motive as Ussher: the quest for an accurate and detailed chronology.

Rudwick emphasises the positive, or at least unobstructive, role of religion since Ussher, correcting the received idea that the 19th century in particular saw a great ideological clash between science and religion. The Bible was not a barrier to scientific thought: instead, Rudwick argues, the coherent sequence of events described in Genesis pre-adapted European culture to think about Earth and life on Earth in a similar historical way. As early as the 17th century it was recognised that each ‘day’ in the Creation story might represent something far longer, preparing the way for the notion of geological epochs. Many scholars were aware of the difficulties of interpreting texts written in ancient languages. Rather than seeking to demonstrate the literal truth of Genesis, geology would amplify or clarify the biblical account. In this way, one could be both a devout Christian and a scientist, as William Buckland and Adam Sedgwick, the two leading British geologists of the 19th century, were. Of course, biblical literalism resurged periodically, notably in the US. But the majority of scientists just got on with their geology, leaving others to worry about its implications for religion. What they were revealing about the sheer scale and unanticipated strangeness of the Earth’s long history was often treated as welcome new evidence for God’s Creation.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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