Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

It has been suggested that every science makes one major contribution to human thought, but that every such contribution removes one more prop for human self-importance. In this view, which Stephen Jay Gould quotes at the start of Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, the discoveries in physics of Sir Isaac Newton finally laid to rest the notion that the Earth might be the center of the universe; the biology of Charles Darwin made it hard to believe that human beings were different in kind from the rest of the animal kingdom; and, later, the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud left it impossible to hope even that human beings were possessors of a basically rational mind. Organizing scientific history in terms of this progression of thought has its attractions, Gould argues, but it misses a crucial discovery and a crucial science, the science being geology, and the discovery that of “deep time.”

Without the demonstration that the Earth is (to human beings) almost unimaginably old, other sciences would themselves have been unable to develop. Darwinian evolution, for example, rests on the assumption that the chance processes of natural selection must have aeons in which to develop and to allow statistical advantages to change the shapes of species. Yet not long before Darwin’s lifetime—and to some extent during it—it was the majority opinion even among learned men that the Earth was something like six millennia old, a period of very much the same length as known human history. In contrast, modern science classes are given some image or other of human history that relegates it to the last second of the twenty-four-hour “day” which represents the age of the Earth, or that says, even more dismissively, that if the age of the Earth were to be measured as a traditional English yard, the distance from nose to outstretched fingertip, then one stroke of a nail file on the middle fingertip would erase the whole era of humanity.

This alternative image of “deep time” was created, Gould contends, by the early geologists. They pointed out the marine fossils high in landlocked mountains; they showed that the very shape of the Earth could only be explained by unbelievably long and slow processes of sedimentation and upheaval. Yet not only have their labors been generally underestimated, but they have also been seriously and increasingly misinterpreted by “textbook historians” who, instead of looking at geological works in their original form and against the background of their time, have preferred to fit them into elementary myths of scientific progress. Gould’s aims in this book are accordingly to trace the development of “deep time” and to restore proper credit to its inventors, but also to correct the textbook myths and to present the early geologists, not as villains and heroes, but as people grappling with their own doubts, uncertainties, and idiosyncrasies.

The organizing images of Gould’s book are those of “time’s arrow” and “time’s cycle.” Through the former (now by far the more familiar and dominant one in Western civilization), time is seen as a progression from one state to another, irreversible, one-directional. This view pictures history as evolutionary and progressive. Yet it has for millennia been just as attractive to take the view that “history repeats itself,” to see events coming round in cycles; this view has especially deep roots in Judeo-Christian tradition. While one may believe that neither image ought to have affected the way people look at rocks, Gould is convinced that even that apparently most materialistic activity was in fact conditioned by the preference that one early scientist after another had for “arrows” or for “cycles.”

Gould begins with the case of Thomas Burnet, whose Telluris theoria sacra, or The Sacred Theory of the Earth, was published in four volumes, first in Latin and then in English, between 1680 and 1690. The very word “sacred” in this title has been used to put Burnet in the wrong with the authors of “textbook history.” In this tradition, Burnet emerges as an apologist for Noah’s Flood, a foolish clergyman who—instead of going out and conducting experiments—based all of his views on misinterpretations of the Bible. Yet such a judgment, Gould argues, is gross injustice. In the first place, Burnet (though he was indeed a believer in the literal truth of Noah’s Flood) took a strictly scientific line of inquiry toward it. He was possessed by such basic queries as, Where had the water come from? for he realized that there did not appear to be enough water in the world to drown the land. Nor was he prepared to accept any miraculous explanation, either for the Flood or for the Creation, though this alternative was pressed upon him even by such a prestigious figure of “textbook science” as Newton, in letters which Gould is able to cite. It is true that Burnet was not yet ready to face the notion of “deep time.” He did, however, present forcefully the notions of change and of recurrence—most clearly, Gould suggests, in his symmetrical frontispiece, which displays Jesus standing above a succession of orbs illustrating the Earth’s history, best described as a...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, April 1, 1987, p. 1160.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, March 15, 1987, p. 442.

Library Journal. CXII, March 15, 1987, p. 84.

London Review of Books. IX, April 23, 1987, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times. June 2, 1987, V, p. 6.

Nature. CCCXXVI, April 30, 1987, p. 898.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, May 28, 1987, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, June 14, 1987, p. 35.

The New Yorker. LXIII, September 7, 1987, p. 105.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 17, 1987, p. 999.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, April 26, 1987, p. 1.