Monday, September 24, 2007

Don't know much about geology

I'm reading Voyage of the 'Beagle' as a travel or adventure book, not as a science journal. But one aspect of Darwin's scientific background is striking to me. Darwin is in the first generation that could take the concept of "deep time" for granted, that did not have to argue about whether the age of the earth was in the thousands of years, or the millions. The latter position had won the field, and then some. I think even the debates between the Neptunists and Vulcanists were over by the point Darwin was working.

So Darwin and his colleagues were out in a world with this new, powerful way of seeing things. Literally seeing - a rock or riverbed looked different to someone trying to deduce its million-year history. Combine this with the Linnaean system, and the flood of specimens and descriptions brought back by travellers from all over the world. Explanations were suddenly available for all sorts of phenomena that had been mysteries for centuries. People were looking at animal and plant physiology, geology, oceans and currents, fossils, almost everything, with new, wide-open eyes. It must have been an incredibly exciting time to be a natural scientist.

I thought Stephen Baxter's short book on James Hutton (Age of Chaos) was an excellent amateur introduction to deep time. Amazing to think of great intellects like Johnson or Hume, Johnson pious but indifferent to whether the world started 6 or 10 or 100,000 years ago, Hume dismissing the traditional chronology as nonsense, but neither with any idea, any imaginative conception, of the truth, of an earth that is 4.5 billion years old.


  1. I know you're all focusing on one specific timeframe with the reading project, but some really interesting takes on this very subject can be found in "One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead" by Clare Dudman, which is fiction and modern and about Alfred Wegener, the father of the idea of Continental Drift...and the stupendous John McPhee compilation "Annals of the Former World," encompassing his books from "Basin and Range" through "Assembling California." I think you'd enjoy these. Because you have so much time on your hands for going off on a tangent to read a thousand or so pages on something pretty arcane...but fascinating, nonetheless.

  2. Goethe insisted that the study of geology was something like the beginning of all knowledge. The "Italian Journey" and especially "Poetry and Truth" have a surprising amount of descriptions of rocks and drainage basins and that sort of thing. McPhee is clearly the guy to read for the modern emulator of Goethe.

  3. The opening of Michener's "Centennial" divided my household when I was growing up. Mom thought that 100 pages of geology was a boring slog to start an engrossing story of people. Dad contended that any good historian would obviously start with the rocks, and he was dismayed that they reduced the first 100 pages to a voice-over pargraph or two in the mini-series. When I finally read the book, I agreed with Mom on plot contruction, but Dad in principle.

    Each time I teach "The evolution of evolutionary thought" (a cute-ness used by almost all textbook authors, which I hate, because, among other things, I spend a great deal of time defining evolution very specifically as it applies to biology class, and don't think it helps comprehension to use a different sense of the word in the same chapter) in Bio 101, I find myself emphasizing the role of the geologists (and, incidentally, Malthus) more and more.
    Darwin and Wallace just could not have viewed the world in the way they did without the dramatic shift in thinking about the nature of the earth and of time that Hutton, Smith, Lyell and all brought about.

    Which I guess is a very long-winded way of stating that I agree with you.