ESSAY REVIEW: A RANKEAN VIEW OF HISTORICAL GEOLOGY AND ITS DEVELOPMENT -WITH AUTHOR'S RESPONSE


Şengör A. M. C.

EARTH SCIENCES HISTORY, vol.28, no.1, pp.108-134, 2009 (Journal Indexed in SCI) identifier

  • Publication Type: Article / Review
  • Volume: 28 Issue: 1
  • Publication Date: 2009
  • Title of Journal : EARTH SCIENCES HISTORY
  • Page Numbers: pp.108-134

Abstract

Bursting the Limits of Time, subtitled The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution, by Martin Rudwick embodies an attempt to show how historical geology emerged at the end of the eighteenth century by imitating the Judeo-Christian historiographical tradition. This tradition, Rudwick argues, attempts to reconstruct a unique history by the relicts and testimonia without recourse to general laws or models. Rudwick thinks that a similar project was initiated in geology by such men as de Luc and Cuvier, one relying on physical chronometers provided by geological processes and the other on the succession of life through the ages, using comparative anatomy of fossil animals as a basis. I think this interpretation of how historical geology emerged fundamentally flawed for two reasons: ( 1) no historical reconstruction is possible without recourse to preconceived models because of the incompleteness of the record; ( 2) because decoding the past of the Earth had already become possible by understanding the processes that governed it. That understanding had grown mainly through the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries when rules of sedimentation and the nature of igneous bodies, making a comprehension of cross-cutting relationships possible, became clear and religion stopped being a menace to a proper appreciation of natural history. When religion lost its authority, it became permissible to assume that past events had not been necessarily different from present events, which made model building feasible. Contrary to Rudwick's assessment, de Luc contributed nothing of lasting value to this development, mainly because his avowed goal in doing geology was to vindicate the veracity of Genesis. By contrast, Cuvier made long distance correlation of sedimentary sequences possible by essentially inventing biostratigraphy and cleared the path for a testable, detailed global Earth history. The laudation accorded to him by Rudwick for this feat ( but not for 'bursting the limits of time', for that had already been accomplished by others like Hutton) is fully deserved. Rudwick's attempts to argue that religion was not a threat, but, rather, a help for the development of geology in the late eighteenth century is not borne out by the evidence, which he reviews inadequately.