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Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform January 14, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in EWP Book Club.
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Worlds Before Adam (Chicago, 2008) by Martin J.S. Rudwick is the cumulative synthesis of a distinguished career and a prolegomena for the future efforts of historians. Worlds Before Adam (WBA) is a narrative of the “reconstruction…of an eventful geohistory, which is in fact congruent with what geologists in the twenty-first century accept as valid.” Rudwick’s account begins with Baron Cuvier and “culminates” in the formulation of glacial theory, which included the “utterly unexpected inference of an exceptional and drastic Ice Age in the geologically recent past.” This inference, more than any other, Rudwick argues, “forced geologists to recognize the contingent character of geohistory as a whole” (7.) (Page numbers throughout are to WBA.) Rudwick notes that the narrative framework “will convey the strong sense of unity of purpose and scientific progress that participants experienced” (8.)

The narrative presented in WBA is a continuation of Rudwick’s Bursting the Limits of Time, which traced the “gradual development of the practice of geohistory within the sciences of the earth.” In the eighteenth century, Rudwick argued in Bursting the Limits of Time, geohistory was “an infrequent and marginal feature of scientific research.” Within a few decades, geohistory became the “defining element” of the new science of “geology.”  Geology “became the first truly historical natural science”  by “deliberately transposing methods and concepts from the human sciences of history itself.” The hereto obscure, mysterious, and unfathomably deep prehistory of the earth in the late eighteenth century began to be conceived as “reliably knowable” (2.) The scientific research described in Bursting the Limits of Time demonstrated that it was “feasible in principle to gain reliable knowledge of the earth’s history long before the earliest human records” (6.) In the early nineteenth century, the concern of WBA, geologists  took the historical approach “for granted” and were thus able to “reconstruct systematically and in detail what course geohistory had in fact taken….” (6.) WBA takes as its “starting point” the sense among practitioners that the “earth’s deep or prehuman geohistory could in principle be reconstructed almost as reliably as…the history of the ancient Greeks and Romans.” While Bursting the Limits of Time was given to the inquiry of the “sheer historical reality of the deep past, WBA has as its focus both the geohistorical and the causal” (3.) Geologists addressed the causal once they could take the historical reality of geohistory for granted.

Rudwick makes no claims to having written a comprehensive account of geohistory during the “Age of Reform,” nor does he wish to narrate every development in geological research. Thus, WBA is self-consciously limited in its goals and conclusions. Rudwick’s policy has been to “trace and analyze those topics that were either innovative or exemplary” (italics throughout are his) and to argue that such topics represent a much larger body of research. As importantly, Rudwick wishes to rectify what he considers, rightly, I think, the “overwhelmingly anglocentric and anglophone bias in much of the historiography of geology.” Lastly, Rudwick’s focus is once again on “the work and interactions of the leading scientific figures” rather than “amateur naturalists or the general reading public.” Rudwick defines a “leading scientific figure” as an individual undertaking work of “international significance.” The limiting of discussion to leading figures is “without apology” as the book is “an elitist account of certain aspects of the science of geology at one of its most innovative periods.” Rudwick notes, correctly, that while “studies of popular science have their rightful place in scholarly work on the history of science…they are no substitute for the study of the original scientific research that gave the popularizers most of their raw material.” For Rudwick, “there is therefore a strong case for giving as much historical attention to elite science as to popular science, if not more.” Such an account of the central narratives and of the basic arguments undertaken during this period of development and innovation in the earth sciences is an “urgent necessity” since research in this area is “still quite patchy and often seriously defective” (4.)

The body of the text gives due weight to the central arguments, rhetorics, and social and institutional contexts of the leading figures of English and French geohistory, with superb chapters and sections on Baron Cuvier, Charles Lyell, and John Murchison, as well as lesser known figures as Prevost, Scrope, and von Buch, and Boue. The majority of the text may justifiably be read as an account situated in the history of ideas and the institutional contexts of those ideas. Of particular interest is Rudwick’s superb description of Lyell’s contribution to the reconstruction of geohistory and the reception of his ideas, which makes up the third as well as the beginning of the fourth section of the work . The conclusion returns to the historiographic and sociological problematics that most concern Rudwick.

The opening pages of the “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” attend to the role and constituency of the elite as well as to the role of professionals in the discipline of geology. Rudwick rightly points out that though his account narrates the claims of elites, their work (such as Lyell’s) was “made possible by a gradient of lesser figures.” Elites relied upon fossil hunters and aristocrats with cabinets, but Rudwick considers them distinct from both classes of “amateurs” since the claims of elites were “tested most rigorously and effectively.”  Moreover,  the production of elite geohistorical knowledge was an international enterprise. The internationalism of geology was made possible by improvements in transportation, the development of scientific institutions, and by the “rapidly expanding network of scientific periodicals, each of which was routinely reprinted, translated, or at least summarized the more important contents of others” (536.)

While underscoring the international and institutional aspects of the formulation of geohistorical knowledge, Rudwick also underscores the epistemic, local character of geological labor and learning. All of the geologists surveyed in WBA “were strongly oriented toward the particular, toward the importance of seeing particular specimens in museums and particular localities in the field with (their) own eyes.” Regarding the dynamic between prior opinion and observation, Rudwick notes, “the opinions of geologists were decisively changed by seeing crucial specimens and localities for themselves.” “Fieldwork” was then not just “a symbolic activity establishing a geologist’s stamina or virility.” The labor undertaken in the field was the site of the “primary evidence that demanded interpretation and understanding.” The evidence of the field “often ran counter to earlier expectations and required awkward or even painful adjustments of belief.” For Rudwick, though geologists had preconceptions and saw their specimens in a specific light, they nonetheless were willing to change their minds. For Rudwick, the geohistorical episteme was malleable and subject to verification. (556.)

Rudwick is adamant that the roots of “modern,” even twenty-first century geohistory, lie with the advances made by Lyell and Cuvier. The history of early nineteenth century  geology is one of progress, according to Rudwick. Rudwick argues against the revisionist account of nineteenth century geology which sought to diminish Lyell contribution. Much to his own surprise,  Lyell does indeed loom large in the reconstitution of geohistory. Rudwick found that “in writing my narrative, and trying in a sense to relive the debates of the time, I found the sources compelling me to give Lyell much of his traditional prominence” though on “strictly geological grounds rather than just those of his influence on Darwin’s later evolutionary theorizing” (560.) The narrative over the course of Bursting the Limits of Time and WBA should have the cumulative effect of demonstrating “how the course and character of geohistory did become more reliably and fully knowledgeable” (561.) This accumulation of knowledge and refinement of methodology occurred through the consolidation and transmission of knowledge rather than through antagonism of competing sides. Rudwick’s account of the growth and production of geohistorical knowledge emphasizes the emergence “of an interpretation not anticipated by either side: genuinely new knowledge, to which both sides have contributed” (563.)

Rudwick’s account is a fine and welcome example of a narrative presentation that demonstrates a firm knowledge and understanding of the interaction of ideas and arguments with their contexts. Like many excellent works, Rudwick’s narrative conceals a great deal of methodological and conceptual sophistication. Rather than burden his narrative with, for example, an account of the subjectivity of the fact, Rudwick brackets such a problematic to the conclusion. His discussion of the effect of the field, his rejection of a purely symbolic role for fieldwork, his stress on the international and local contributions to the production of geohistorical knowledge, and his emphasis on the development of knowledge through unexpected synthesis rather than through conflict, are all complex additions to our understanding of the sociology and historiography of the development of geohistory.

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