Worlds Before Adam

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Books have histories, just as the human race and the earth itself. In the past, Martin J. S. Rudwick devoted much of his career to the history of the natural sciences, through a study of a historical debate, The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge Among Gentlemanly Specialists (1985); a biography, Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes (1997); and an investigation of a specific period, Bursting the Limits of Time: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution (2005). The last book is the prequel to Worlds Before Adam. Indeed, Bursting the Limits of Time is the first volume and Worlds Before Adam is the second of an exploration of how a new field, geohistory, originated and developed. In the first volume, Rudwick concentrated on how scientists discovered that the earth had an immensely long history and that its “deep time” could be reconstructed just as historians had been reconstructing the “shallow time” of recorded human history. In this second volume, which can be read independently of the first, Rudwick focuses on how geologists attempted to discover the causes of the principal events of geohistory. He has chosen to study the accomplishments of important geologists, paleontologists, and glaciologists within the historical period after Waterloo (1815) and before the 1848 revolutions, hoping that they will epitomize pivotal historical trends, such as how a scientific approach to history was central and constitutive for the human as well as the earth sciences. He opposes this approach to certain traditional treatments that erroneously emphasized the conflict between science and religion, Genesis and geology.

Rudwick structures his book in roughly chronological order, though his thematic chapters often contain temporal overlaps. Each of the book’s four parts centers on the work of individuals whose discoveries or theories helped to clarify the long and complex history of the earth. Part 1 focuses on Cuvier, who wanted to “burst the limits of time” the way astronomers had “burst the limits of space.” Part 2 deals with those French and English geologists and paleontologists who developed ways of reading the story of the earth through its rock layers and the fossils they contained. Part 3 uses the life and achievements of Charles Lyell to illuminate both the strengths and the weaknesses of his uniformitarian system. Part 4 concludes with an account of how Louis Agassiz’s Ice Age theory presented a challenge to both uniformitarians and catastrophists, and how Charles Darwin was working on a theory of “descent with modification” that would provide a mechanismnatural selectionto explain the origin and development of all species of plants and animals.

A major theme of Rudwick’s book is the corrigibility of those observations, ideas, and explanations that are at the heart of the scientific enterprise. He realizes that there are no such things as theory-free facts. For example, Cuvier interpreted extinct creatures, which he had adeptly reconstructed from a paucity of fossil remains, in terms of his catastrophist theory, according to which the earth had, at times, experienced cataclysmic events that had caused mass extinctions and left behind misshapen and shattered strata. However, Cuvier recognized that the rock layers also told a story of long periods of relative tranquillity and of an age of reptiles that had preceded the age of mammals. Cuvier made use of the data gathered by such stratigraphers as William Smith, who saw his task as describing fossils that characterized certain strata, but he did not try to explain their causal origin or their place in geohistory.

Unlike early historians of the earth sciences, Rudwick understands that it is his duty to reconstruct the past on its own terms and not through the eyes of a twenty-first century geologist. So-called Whig historians evaluate the past through the present state of scientific knowledge, while dividing early scientists into heroes or villains, depending on how close their ideas mesh with accepted ones in the present. Rudwick will have none of this. Consequently, he treats William Buckland’s views of a worldwide deluge with the respect and the criticism that it garnered during his time. For instance, Cuvier visited Buckland in England where he interpreted a fossil of a lower jaw bone as coming from an extinct giant lizard, or megalosaurus. Unlike...

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Worlds Before Adam Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

History Today 58, no. 11 (November, 2008): 63.

Nature 454 (July 24, 2008): 406-407.

New Scientist 198 (June 21, 2008): 55.

Science 321 (September 12, 2008): 1447-1448.

The Times Literary Supplement, October 17, 2008, pp. 26-27.