The hunters and what they found

Martin Rudwick

In recounting the geological history of the Earth, historians tend to, unless they are clearly hostile to the role of Christianity in the West, find a place for religion amongst the narrative that otherwise elevates the role of scientific inquiry as if it has always been a kind of autonomous, ahistorical pursuit. Usually the concession is made that the story of Galileo is more complex than that of the lone, rational scientist against the superstitious might of the Church, and that some of the earlier ‘scientists’ were actually clergy too. Martin Rudwick, one of the finest historians of science, is unusually generous, or just simply more willing to examine the history closely and not jump to conclusions based on modern stereotypes or ideology. In his latest book, something of a condensation of the massive but intriguing material in his two-volume history of eighteenth and nineteenth century geology and paleontology, he seems even keener to give credit to reverence for the Bible and the theology of an ordered universe for giving impetus to scientific inquiry.

Even though Earth’s Deep History is relatively short, he manages to avoid simplifying the narrative, and distinguishes between varying strands and validities of inquiry and their varying receptions within the Church (not that the book is a history of ‘the Church and science’ – it’s focus is on the people who went hunting amidst the rocks, and the theories they came up with to explain what they found). And like Peter Harrison, he is wary of applying the term ‘scientist’, with its modern connotations, to those working in these fields two hundred and more years ago.

Rudwick suggests that study of the Biblical flood encouraged detailed study of the rocks, which in turn encouraged careful thinking about the geological timeframes. He also suggests that, rather than being hopelessly blinkered by Scripture, figures such as Bishop James Ussher, the biblical chronologist who came up with the date of Creation as 22 October 4004 BC, or William Paley, famous for his watchmaker analogy for the likelihood of a Creator, were simply using the evidence at hand – the Bible, which they had their reasons to believe was historically verifiable and therefore accurate – to extrapolate theories of how the world works – a thoroughly scientific procedure. And the evidence around them, such as diluvial deposits were clear evidence of the Flood (even if later there were varied explanations, such as the radical notion of distinct periods of cooler global climates).

Of course scientists don’t all agree with each other either, and Rudwick also details the arguments over steady-state or catastrophist explanations for geological features, and over the fixity or otherwise of the continents, where Alfred Wegener, an unrecognised-in-his-own-lifetime pioneer if ever there was one, pushed against the continental-sized rigidity of scholarly opinion opposed to the (supposedly) preposterous idea that whole continents could move about like boats on a lake. (Wegener also, before his time, recognised the craters on the moon as meteor-created rather than of volcanic origin, the latter being the theory that persisted until the 1960s.)

Rudwick brings up all manner of intriguing little episodes and facts, including that many Christians opposed the idea of extinction because a compassionate God would be unlikely to make an effort creating species that he then let die out. Ever-generous, Rudwick suggests that Charles Lyell’s opposition to catastrophic explanations (that are unable to be witnessed around us today) nevertheless paved the way for acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theories, which of course relied on the accumulation of many miniscule changes over vast periods of time.

 

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