jump to navigation

Hump-Day History: Karl Alfred von Zittel and his History of Geology and Paleontology June 27, 2009

Posted by Christopher Donohue in Uncategorized.
Tags: ,

Karl Alfred von Zittel ( September 25, 1839January 5, 1904) was a German paleontologist.  Henry Fairfield Osborn, the geologist, zoologist, and eugenicist, who authored, in 1936 the two volume, The Proboscidea: A Monograph of the Discovery, Evolution, Migration and Extinction of the Mastodonts and Elephants of the World, as well as Man Rises to Parnassus, eulogized von Zittel as one of the most “distinguished advocates of paleontology.” It was no exaggeration, according to Osborn, to say that “he did more for the promotion and diffusion of paleontology than any other single man who lived during the nineteenth century.”

Von Zittel, “while not a genius”, nonetheless possessed “untiring industry” as well as “critical capacity” ( Science, N. S., Vol. XIX. ) What then were von Zittel’s achievements?  First among them was the multi-volume Handbuch der Palaeontologie, issued between 1876 and 1890.  While the progress of paleontology in the nineteenth century was “prodigious,” according to Osborn, it was nonetheless, “scattered through thousands of monographs and special papers,” a “hopeless labyrinth to the student.” Such was the state of knowledge, detail without system, that it was impossible for even the expert “to gain a perspective view of the whole subject.”  Von Zittel’s Handbuch der Palaeontologie was a feat of organization and collection.  Added to this textual achievement was von Zittel’s apparently fantastic collection of natural historical specimens which he assembled at Alte Akademie of Munich.  This collection, assembled from all over the world, illustrated the course of the  ” evolution of plants and of invertebrate and vertebrate animals.”

It was small wonder that Munich accordingly became “the Mecca of paleontologists, young and old.”  Such community was fostered by von  Zittel due in large part to his “exceptionally charming and magnetic personality.”  He  was also exceptionally generous with both his time and his natural historical specimens.  Von Zittel’s legacy and fame were secure as he could count among his students “all the younger American, most of the German, and many of the younger French and Austrian paleontologists.”

There were two types of innovations in nineteenth century natural history, ethnology, palaeontology, and geology: those of system and those of methodology and instrumentation.  Von Zittel fits within the scheme of systems innovation by functioning as an organizer of scientific labor and scientific personality. By arbitrating disputes and by cataloging and distilling scientific knowledge, von Zittel ensured that paleontology progressed  closer to a store of  systematic and useful knowledge, essential to its status as a science. Osborn’s eulogy was exemplary of the progressive sensibilities which accompanied the process of disciplinary formation in the United States and Europe in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the opening decades of the twentieth.

Von Zittel, in his own writing (Geschichte der Geologie und Paläontologie bis Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts), underscored how the achievements of science were outside of the realm of politics, being a phenomenon of the advancement of civilization and the cosmopolitanism of theoretical reason.   “All civilized nations shared in the development of the natural sciences,” von Zittel began, and the questions of most importance to the development of paleontology and geology “are in no way affected by political frontiers.”  As importantly, the research and contribution of any one member of this vast intellectual community was only to be judged, Zittel believed,  when held “in balance with the general position of research at the time and with the discoveries and advances made by other geologists irrespective of nationality.”

Von Zittel’s view of the progress of the natural sciences was then historist, judging a contribution according to its emergence within a particular  historical context.  As importantly, von Zittel,  embracing the form of positivism’s account of the sciences, but without political radicalism, divided the history of  scientific knowledge into pre-critical and scientific phases, “ancient” and “modern.”  The speculative era of science, though it contributed a number of “noteworthy observations,” mostly consisted of hypotheses and  lasted roughly from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the second half of the eighteenth century.  This era culminated with the cosmologies of Laplace, Cuvier, and Immanuel Kant.

Under the rule of the former, science was defined by numerous competing cosmologies.    The natural sciences, according to von Zittel, had their roots in cosmological systems.   Describing this growth and development, achieved before the critical break of a ‘heroic age,’ and the advent of a stricter grounding in empirical judgement, was far less problematic than accounting for the “greater and greater specialization and branching of science which took pace during the later half of the nineteenth century” (History of geology and palaeontology to the end of the nineteenth century, by Karl Alfred von Zittel; translated by Maria M. Ogilvie-Gordon. London, W. Scott, 1901, v-vi.) This specialization and the difficulties it presented for not only the growth of scientific knowledge but also for the presentation of a useful narrative history was the same encountered by William Whewell in his History of the Inductive Sciences (1857.)  With both authors, the essential problem was the elucidation  of an overall synthetic framework that could serve as an organizing and predictive principle for the progress of the science.  Without such, in both history and practice, science would become a disparate account of facts and curiosities, as there could  be neither science without system nor history without narrative.   


No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: