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Was geology the first science to inject history into the natural world?

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My Earth’s Deep History (Chicago, 2014) is an attempt to summarise historical research on what I see as an unduly neglected theme of outstanding importance in the longue durée of the natural sciences: the reconstruction of the past history of nature, and of our human place in it, as opposed to (or at least, in contrast to) time-independent causal explanations of natural processes and events. I argue that this historicisation was first attempted in the science that came to be called ‘geology’, and that it later spread to other natural sciences. My book was designed to be accessible to the ‘general reader’ and has not yet been widely reviewed by historians of the sciences, so I would like to get the seminar’s reactions to its main arguments. I start with C17 chronologists such as Scaliger and Ussher, whom I treat as serious world-historians; and I argue that C17 naturalists such as Hooke and Steno exemplify a crucial transposition of the chronologists’ historical methods and concepts from human history into the natural world. I regard the late C18 and early C19 as the pivotal period (which is why I focussed on it in most of my earlier and more detailed books), because it was then that naturalists such as Cuvier – and specifically those then newly called ‘geologists’, such as Buckland and Lyell – worked out in practice how to interpret natural evidence in detail and comprehensively in terms of nature’s history (and Darwin, initially a geologist, later transposed this into the organic world). I conclude with the period from the later C19 to the present, arguing that new radiometric dating methods, for example, were significant less for expanding the Earth’s timescale than for giving precision to a new picture of the Earth’s eventful history, with mobile continents, mass extinctions, global ice ages, an evolving atmosphere and so on. In the late C20 Earth scientists adopted a still wider perspective in which the Earth’s history became just one instance of diverse planetary histories, and geology’s historical methodology was transposed into (or at least, it was paralleled in) astronomy and cosmology. (I treat modern American ‘young-Earth’ creationism as a sideshow closely analogous to flat-Earthism, and I relegate it to a brief appendix.)

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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