Bursting the Limits of Time, The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution by Martin J. S. Rudwick. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. $45.00 hardcover; 708 pp; 8 page index; 47 pages of sources including primary and secondary as well as places. The book is illustrated throughout with historical black & white artwork and drawings.
One's first impression of Bursting the Limits of Time is awe based on its size and the sheer volume of information. Rudwick recognizes the intimidating size of this work and offers suggestions in the Introduction as to how a reader might gain the most from the book without a word for word reading. General readers may choose to adopt some of his suggestions but serious students and historians will want to read all that is written.
Bursting the Limits of Time covers some 40 years just before, during and after the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. This period saw some of the most dramatic changes in the understanding of earth sciences as a well as some of the major political upheavals of the time. Why is the French Revolution important to this story? The 18th century Enlightenment put France at the hub of rational scientific thinking. Most all scientific works were published in French and all of the great thinkers of the age had to work in French to become widely known. The French Revolution and subsequent isolation during the Napoleonic Wars made study and communication difficult.
Savants were the intellectual elite of the time and were usually of higher social class. Those that worked for a living had monarchs or governments supporting their efforts. Savants were from many countries but considered themselves to be associated through a "Republic of Letters." Much communication was by necessity through letters with an occasional visit on extensive tours. These then are the early researchers in geology as well and the subject of this work.
Rudwick begins the tales of these early geologists beginning with the ascent of Mt. Blanc by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure in 1787. In these early days geology as a term describing what we know as the science today was not in existence. Savants of the day considered parts of geology in fairly narrowly defined areas. Some fell under the heading of "philosophy" which included the study of the natural world and natural history as a descriptive science of natural "things." "Physics" on the other hand dealt with the causes of how things came to be. So there were four areas of study, three in Philosophy (Natural History) and one in Physics.
The first subject in natural history was mineralogy as a descriptive science that included rocks, minerals, and fossils. Most people of this time recognized fossils as remains of once living creatures. Direct study of specimens was done in public or private museums. Since travel was not always possible to far away museums, savants created drawings of the fossils and sent them via letter as "proxies" of the specimens creating virtual museums.
Savants recording geographical features were a part of the geological sciences as well. The aforementioned Saussure was one such geographer whose later work encompassed more matters in the total of geology.
A third branch of the budding geology was geognosy. This study concerned itself with mining and the three dimensional structure of rocks and their relative positions. The relationships of overlying or underlying strata were noted but the connection to time was not considered, that coming into play somewhat later.
The last of the four early study areas of geology was physics. This was not the physics we studied in school but a more generic study of causes - why were marine fossils found on mountains, how were valleys formed, what caused rock strata to fold?
Early forays into explaining the earth did not consider applying time relationships to the observed data as a means to reconstruct earth history. Many considered this to be too speculative. The savants realized that more data was needed. This is not to say that these scholars were believers in a young earth. They reasoned that the earth had a much longer history than the Biblical version then in vogue but knew better than to speculate without facts. Also, as Rudwick explains, "Contrary to later historical mythmaking, the sciences of the earth were not engaged in any significant conflict with religious beliefs, and many of the relevant savants were themselves religious people." (Bursting the Limits of Time, p. 641). And, "If, at certain times and places, some guardians of orthodoxy grew alarmed at the new scientific claims about the vast timescale of the world, it was not always because those claims contradicted the literal sense of Genesis; religious authorities were, quite properly, more concerned with theology and its practical applications than with the literalism of the crude kind adopted by modern fundamentalists." (Op. Cit. p.117).
Jean-Louis Giraud-Soulavie, a French naturalist and one time parish priest, studied volcanic formations around Vivarais. He was able to note that the volcanic lava formations there had occurred in some time sequence since they overlapped one another. He could not determine the timescale for these deposits but did calculate that the valleys took some 6 million years to form after the last eruption through natural erosional processes. The existence of older basalts indicated to him that the earth had an even longer history. Soulavie's ideas were doubted by others who felt that rapid erosion by a deluge - possibly one of many and not necessarily the Noachian event - could have produced the same effect. Deluges and tsunamis were invoked as possible cause for many geological features as the destructive effects of tsunamis at least were known historically.
Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier studied much of the area around Paris and was able to incorporate causes into his documentation of the formations. He recognized formations of sediments laid down in shallow water as different from those laid down in successively deeper water. Lavoisier even proposed how such deposits could be laid down simultaneously at varying distances from the shore. He further deduced that the build up of these sediments over time and area had been caused by oscillations in sea level so that identical sediments were widespread in their distribution. The original diagrammatic explanations made by Lavoisier are reproduced on pages 112 - 113. Although produced in 1789, these drawings look much like those in modern texts on sedimentology. Unfortunately for the geological sciences, Lavoisier met an untimely end during the Terror of the French Revolution, losing his head to the guillotine.
Many of the savants delved into the aspect of "geotheories " or "theories of the earth" that attempted to explain how the earth formed and changed from the beginning to the present. Count Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon based one of the more prominent geotheories on a constantly cooling earth and the principle that observable earth processes could be used to explain all features of the modern world. His theories incorporated explanations for the layering of rock formations and the existence of different animal types across formations of differing age. Buffon visualized earth history as a sequence of epochs all characterized by different environments and fauna as a result of the continual cooling of the earth.
Buffon's theory was contrasted by that of Jean-André de Luc. De Luc considered himself a "Christian philosopher" (Op. Cit. p.151) but was not a biblical literalist as Rudwick explains. While providing no theory for the formation of the earth as Buffon had done, de Luc also discounted granites and other non-fossiliferous formations from the Primary formations (Pre-Cambrian). He explained the fossiliferous Secondary formations (all those except the most recent) as having been formed as a past world including land and seas. Further, these ancient lands and seas were transformed by a "Revolution" wherein the Noachian Flood brought the previously submerged modern continents above sea level (explaining marine fossils on modern mountains). In presenting his theory in such fashion de Luc did not support a literal reading of the Biblical Flood story although it may seem as such. He did believe that the Bible had recorded an actual naturally caused event. So de Luc's theory was a two stage before flood after flood model. It is interesting to note here that de Luc first proposed the term "geology" as descriptive of earth studies and analogous to "cosmology" as the study of the heavens (Op. Cit. p. 134).
During the eighteenth century other historians were reconstructing human history by excavation and analysis of ancient civilizations. One of the more important contributions happened with the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii. Once general excavation and looting of artifacts as treasure was halted in favor of collection and recording for study, much more was understood about the ancient cultures. The savants studying geology realized that these same methods could reveal the history of the earth as fossils became the geologists' analogue to the archaeologists' artifacts. As Rudwick explains on page 195, "Along with other kinds of natural evidence, fossils could then, in principle, be used to construct a geohistory for those long spans of prehuman time, which - it was hoped - could be linked to the more recent and familiar history of the human race."
Using fossils as the relics of earth history was not uncontroversial at the time. The earth had large unexplored regions including the depths of the oceans that could hide living creatures equivalent to the known fossils. Louis Jean Marie Daubenton had evaluated teeth and bones from Big Bone Lick and concluded that the remains belonged to an elephant-like creature while the teeth were related to hippopotamus. Since North America was largely unexplored he did not support the idea that these creatures were extinct. The Englishman William Hunter later analyzed a more complete fossil assemblage from Big Bone Lick. Hunter termed the remains "American incognitum" and decided, based on the teeth, that this was a carnivorous animal related to elephants. Unlike Daubenton, Hunter felt that this was a truly extinct creature. Thomas Jefferson was another who felt this animal was probably alive in the western parts of the continent.
Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck emerge as important figures during the later part of the period covered in Bursting the Limits of Time. Cuvier especially garners extensive coverage by Rudwick as he was arguably the most important figure of his time. Lamarck is best known for his theory that species were in a constant state of flux and that they transformed over time from one into another. Known as "transformism" or the transmutation of species, this idea precluded any thoughts of extinction. Cuvier's study of Egyptian mummified animals, which were known to be ancient, convinced him that transformism was not possible as the mummified remains were identical to modern forms of the same animals. Cuvier is known best as a "catastrophist" believing that various extinctions had occurred by catastrophe throughout earth history.
During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had been isolated from much of the scientific world in Europe. After the wars, William Buckland became one of the dominant contributors. Buckland's excavation and analysis of Kirkdale Cave became important to the discussions of earth history. Kirkdale was described as a hyena den based upon the fossils found within. Evaluation of the geological context convinced Buckland that the den had been occupied prior to the Noachian Flood and filled by that flood with "diluvial' materials of water worn sands and gravels. In an 1822 letter to Cuvier Buckland states: "the perfect Harmony of all the Circumstances of this Cave and their Confirmation of each other & of the 2 important facts of the Mosaic deluge & truth of the Antediluvian Mosaic Chronology render these by far the most interesting geological Phenomena I have ever met with." (Op. Cit. p.627). Rudwick explains that Cuvier was in support of a diluvial event at the dawn of human history but his belief was based upon historical data from diverse ancient cultures with variously dated flood myth stories. Cuvier's publication of 1812, Ossemens fossiles, Researches on Fossil Bones, explained his position. The Englishman Robert Jameson translated Cuvier's work into English, re-titled it, Theory of the Earth, and distorted Cuvier's views to appear as if he supported the Biblical Flood story.
Readability - General readers college level and up.
On the Upside - An easy and fascinating read. Bursting the Limits of Time will be enjoyed by those whose primary interest is geology and paleontology but general historians will benefit too. This is so well researched and documented that it will be a source book in itself as an aid to other historians. Illustrations are well placed and supportive of the text.
On the Downside - Over 700 pages and more than a quarter million words makes this a very long book that may unfortunately cause some readers to shy away.
Overall Rating - Despite the length, I found Bursting the Limits of Time to be fascinating. Rudwick has made a potentially dry subject into a very readable account of the people and times when geology emerged as a science. I have merely scratched the surface of what Rudwick covers and hope that this little bit inspires you to seek out this book.