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Thursday, February 1st, 2007
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The Seashell on the Mountaintop

by Alan Cutler

Sermons in Stone

A review by Oren Harman

[Ed. Note. This review discusses the contents and context of two books: The Seashell on the Mountaintop and The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of Earth's Antiquity.]


"Vast...horrid, hideous, ghastly ruins." These are not the words of an observer of a latter-day war zone or a witness to the effects of an ecological disaster on a city of yore. Rather, it was the typical reaction of the seventeenth-century tourist when chancing upon...the Alps! If this seems surprising, then consider also the pronouncement of Thomas Jefferson that there exists a riddle "beyond the investigation of human sagacity." Had Jefferson been referring to the conundrum of human consciousness, or the problem of free will, or perhaps the confounding paradox of a benevolent, all-powerful God who allows evil in this world, we would be remiss in expressing our confusion. But the elusive puzzle too great for the powers of the human mind was the mystery of seashells embedded in stones atop mountains nowhere near the sea -- what Jefferson called "the origin of shells in high places." And what about the equally astounding admission by Isaac Newton that the universal laws of mechanics that he had painstakingly described were doubtless suspended in the beginning of time to accommodate God's twenty-four-hour, six-day adventure of the creation of the world? That the world was born on October 23, 4004 B.C.E., was an obvious certainty to the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, in his Annales Veteris Testamenti, in 1650.

It is all exceedingly strange to us. But two wonderful popular renditions of the history of geology, by Alan Cutler and by Jack Repcheck, take us back in time, geological and historical, to a world very different from the one we live in today. The story that holds the key to unlocking such curiosities of human understanding, it turns out, is a story conceived layer upon layer, in which the appearances of stones and ridges and fossils, the rise and fall of cities and empires and professions, the vicissitudes of mundane and celestial politics, and the evolution of human knowledge all function in the same manner: as palimpsest maps of time.

Yeats yearned for the "Land of Heart's Desire,/Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,/But joy is wisdom, time an endless song," and probably men and women of all ages have shared his desire. But the notion that time functions for humans as it does for the earth is actually a modern concept, and it owes much to the two men whose stories are told so vividly in these two little-big books. That humankind has a history was clear to Aristotle and to Aquinas and to Luther, but that the Earth had a history was another matter altogether. Wrinkles on the face of an old man are a testament to long years of love and disappointment and anger and hope, but could the same thing be said of "wrinkles" on the face of the Earth? If God created a perfect Earth, could the present state of the natural world really be a key to its past?


Nicolaus Steno was born Niels Stenson in Copenhagen in the winter of 1638, a decade before the Peace of Westphalia would finally bring some quiet to a Europe ravaged by war. Contemporary observers of the debates between creationists and evolutionists, or between advocates of stem-cell research and their foes, might be surprised to learn that science and religion were not always at loggerheads, but rather nestled very comfortably in centuries past into a cohesive and reassuring worldview sanctioned by scripture, belief, and observation. Centuries before the word "scientist" was coined (this happened in 1840), alchemists, experimental philosophers, natural historians, and natural philosophers plumbed the depths of the observable world, searching out the patterns and forces that would have been put in place by a benevolent God. The heroes of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century were almost all devout Christians; the chance to demonstrate the regularity of the universe as conceived by a merciful deity was a tempting prospect for a clever young lad growing up at the time, and the dutiful Steno kindled to the challenge.

Just a short decade after having enrolled at the University of Copenhagen to study medicine, Steno was lauded in the great capitals of Europe as one of the finest anatomists of his age. "Neither a butterfly nor a fly escapes his skill," an admirer wrote, having watched Steno dissect the eye of a horse at the Sorbonne's prestigious École de Médecine. "He would count the bones of a flea -- if fleas have bones." It is to Steno that we owe the discovery of the duct that supplies saliva to the mouth, and also of the tear-producing glands. It was Steno who challenged the prevalent notion that muscles act by the ballooning of their entire mass, rather than from the contraction of their fibers. (This idea was rejected at the time, re-discovered by physiologists a century later, and re-affirmed at the molecular level in the 1980s.) Steno was also the man who discovered that females of live-bearing species produce eggs, just like eggproducing species: anatomists had previously assumed that mammalian female eggs were simply degenerate testes.

Steno died in 1686, at the age of forty-eight. The above achievements would have been incredible for any scientific career, but they turn fantastical when we learn that Steno was ordained as a minister in 1675 at the age of thirty-seven (and actually stopped working in science two years earlier) and that he is remembered today not for being a great anatomist, but rather as the father, or the proto-father, of the science that would one day call itself geology.

He never finished his medical studies in Copenhagen; he traveled to Amsterdam and then to Leiden to do so. It was a doctor's duty at the time to know something about stones. Cutler relates how crystals of topaz pressed against a wound were believed to stop bleeding, or iron-ore hematite to ward off diseases of the blood. And so it is not all that surprising that following a three-month stay in religiously pluralist Amsterdam, where he met and befriended Spinoza, Steno wrote his first scholarly paper on the subject of hot springs.

Traveling through the great seats of learning of his day, Steno began to feel uneasy about the natural and mechanical philosophies taught at the universities. Heirs of the Middle Ages, these hallowed halls of learning were erected to preserve knowledge, not to create it. Centuries of tradition handed down from the ancients could hardly be fallible; but what the eye could see might well be an illusion, prey to tricks of the mind and follies of the heart. As an anatomist, this became clear to Steno early on. He recognized that, as Cutler writes, "dissection was the art of opening up flesh to reveal what Galen said was supposed to be there. If what was found did not match the text, it was an embarrassment to the dissector, not to Galen."

The greatest blow to Steno's scientific idealism came care of the pineal gland of a human cadaver. Mechanism and skepticism were two virtues of the Cartesian mechanical philosophy close to Steno's exacting scientific heart, but Descartes had constructed his philosophy of man on the premise that humans differed from all other living things because they had souls, and could therefore not be treated as mere devices whose motions and behavior could be accounted for by his mechanical philosophy. In On Man, Descartes appointed the tiny nut-shaped pineal gland, nestled peacefully in the center of the brain, to be the seat of the human soul. The gyrations of this gland, he wrote, could account within his physics for the effects of the immaterial soul on the material body.

The only problem, as Steno's sharp eye grasped, was that the anatomy of the pineal gland did not accommodate any such gyrations. The tiny nut was fixed and immobile, like a large granite outcrop in the ground. The mechanical philosophy of Descartes was the pinnacle of scientific achievement of the day, yet Steno, hunched over some corpse, grasped that the followers of Descartes were just as dogmatic as those of Galen had been. They saw what they wanted to see. Perhaps what was practiced by men of science was not scientific enough, from the anatomy theater to the alchemical laboratory to the natural expanse of the heavens. Disillusioned by what he took to be the facile standards of the science of his day, Steno turned from uncovering layer upon layer of human and animal flesh to probe a different kind of gradation -- that of the endless and mysterious strata of the layered Earth itself. Traveling to Florence in 1665 to join the disciples of Galileo at Ferdinando d'Medici's famous Accademia del Cimento, he passed through the Alps and the Apennines on his way to becoming "an anatomist of the world."


Schools of thought in human history, like strata in geological time, come layered one atop the other. When Aristotle grappled with the problem of "the origin of shells in high places," he harked back to a pre-Socratic tradition that imagined an ancient ocean covering the entire world. The waxing and waning of such a mammoth sea was part of the "vital process" of a world with no beginning and no end. Seashells in mountains were simply deposited there over unfathomable tracks of immeasurable time. But Christian men of science at the gates of the seventeenth century could not allow such a pagan view. Only God was eternal to the Christian mechanist; time had direction, a beginning and an end. All of scripture would be nonsense if the world itself was, as Aristotle said it was, eternal.

But then how to explain such unnatural natural phenomena as seashells found on mountains? The biblical flood was one option, yet the shells looked like those of saltwater species, and the flood was a consequence of fresh rain falling from God's sky. Besides, how could so many seashells be spread so widely in such a short time, when the biblical flood, after all, was said to have lasted no more than a year? More difficult still was the problem of chronology. If the solid earth and all its rocks were formed during the six days of God's creation, how then could seashells find themselves embedded within rocks, if the deluge occurred long after these had already been formed? Luther's sola fide sola scriptura provided the impetus for a new kind of religious natural thinker not prone to solving such mysteries through metaphor and exegesis, but rather through a tough-minded look at what was there. But the puzzle was difficult. Aristotle's waxing and waning may have been true if time were eternal, but it made little sense in a six-thousand-year-old world. What were these organic shapes within rocks, and how, on God's earth, had they got there?

Neoplatonists and Hermetic philosophers found little in these questions to shake their understandings. Since the character and the nature of living things were not determined by their biological properties, but were emanations of ideas from the celestial realm of eternal forms, it stood to reason that some of the seashells should get caught in their downward motion on the mountaintops, which were, after all, the closest physical entities to the heavens. But for an increasing numbers of observers and thinkers such a theory would no longer suffice. "The delight the Renaissance mind took in all forms of paradox and illusion," Cutler writes, "was slowly being replaced by a more sober rationalism. Mysticism was out, mechanics were in." The great English experimentalist Robert Boyle now wrote that "the works of God are not like the Tricks of Juglers or the Pagents that entertain Princes." The works of God were lawful, and it was the task of the man of science to find and describe them.

Figuring out the problem of shells in rocks meant figuring out the ultimate nature of matter itself, and about this, too, layers of human judgment had deposited over the ages. For the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, all matter was at base water, and the solid earth merely a hardened crust formed over a primeval ocean, and earthquakes the result of the shifting of this crust on the waters below. Empedocles some years later added air, fire, and earth to the basic elemental fray, but it was the Roman Lucretius who finally came up with the essential and reductive theory of all. In On the Nature of Things, Lucretius described the natural philosophy that would see itself revived once again in the gilded age of the Renaissance, when the books of the ancients were re-printed and re-read by a growing intellectual middle class.

Atomism was the notion that all observable events and forms were the result of random collisions between unseen elemental particles, called atoms, from the Greek for "indivisible." But as Cutler skillfully relates, atomism presented a grave problem for the Catholic Church in the form of the Eucharist: if atoms were immutable, how could sacred transformations of matter ever really occur? Lacking a solution to this difficulty, early modern natural philosophers refashioned Lucretius's atomism into the "corpuscular" theory of matter, retaining the rudiments of the theory but dropping the theological and metaphysical difficulties by abandoning the speculation on whether such atoms or corpuscles were divisible or indivisible. Matter was an affair of pure geometry, and as Kepler (and Plato before him) knew, God was a geometer.

Pantheists, such as Steno's friend Spinoza, thought that minerals and rocks could grow just like plants and animals. The great seventeenth-century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, one of the most famous men in the world of his time, spoke of lapides sui generis, or self-generated stones, that grew and gave birth, and even came in varieties female and male. This is how Kircher, the church's scientific retort to Galileo, explained the otherwise anomalous appearance of shells (mollusks were created on the fifth day) in rocks (created on the third day): a "plastic spirit" emanating from God constantly permeates the world, spontaneously generating all kinds of wonders, such as flies in putrid meat and shells and fossils in already created crusts of earth and stone. Voltaire later preferred this explanation to the otherwise laughable alternatives that he himself concocted, that shells in high places were either the remains of snacks discarded by alpine travelers or ornamental badges lost by wandering pilgrims.

But a pious Lutheran such as Steno could hardly accept that things had their own life, even if it was imbued by God. After all, the creative powers of nature might ultimately lead to belief in a nature that is self-creating, leaving God aside. So a new breed of seventeenth-century thinkers, mostly Protestant and devout, rejected animism and embraced corpuscles and mechanical philosophy instead, giving a soul to man and a spirit to God and the angels, and judging all else to be nothing but inert, dumb matter. These mechanists offered physical explanations for the formation of the solar system and the movements of the planets. And so it was inevitable that scholars would begin to wonder if there might be laws that could explain the movements and histories on Earth itself, of mountains and oceans and ridges, and, ultimately, of living beings. Was it possible that unearthed fossils were remnants of species that no longer walked the Earth? Was not extinction overruled in a world of special creation by God? Why were there signs of volcanic activity in places with no human record of such catastrophe? Could there have been physical forces at work, changing the face of the planet, that no longer pertained today? Why, people wondered, was there obvious evidence of stratification in the ground if there was no history to the Earth? What, in God's name, would be the point? Nicolaus Steno wanted to find answers, and he went to Medician Florence to crack the mysteries of the Earth while holding on to the mystery of God.


That trees and seashells added layers as they grew was known well before Steno's time. That the earth itself was made of layers was apparent to the ancients as well. What Steno accomplished was not, strictly speaking, a feat of observation; he did not see with his eyes formations that others had failed to notice, something that James Hutton would do a century later. Steno's leap was to understand that the layering in the earth represented a sequence in which time had a direction. The sequence, in other words, was a chronology -- a map of how the earth had changed over time. This may seem trivial to us today, but it was absolute anathema to a seventeenth-century sensibility.

The key to turning the tide was Steno's insistence that science ask only questions that could be answered -- in his case "Which came first?" rather than "How long ago?" "If a solid body is enclosed on all sides by another solid body," Steno wrote in his seventy-eight-page masterpiece De Solido, in 1668, "the first of the two to harden was that one which, when both touch, transferred its own characteristics to the surface of the other."

It sounds simple, but it was this piece of logic that helped for the first time to distinguish between a quartz pebble embedded in a sedimentary deposit and a quartz vein following a fracture in the same deposit, or between an oyster nestled in a nook of a sandstone boulder and a cockleshell found in that same sandstone, having impressed its signature ribs on the surrounding stone. This novel notion of chronology -- the idea that from the present world vanished worlds can be awakened -- now spawned three simple and basic principles. First, the "principle of superposition" -- when a geological layer was forming, those layers observed above it today were not in existence; layers are laid in sequence. Second, the "principle of original horizontality" -- a layer's current orientation notwithstanding, it was once horizontal, since water is the source of all sedimentation, and water always arranges itself parallel to the horizon, no matter what cavity it fills. Steno knew that since the earth is not static but dynamic, strata often become vertical, or even completely overturned. How, then, could one know the proper sequence? By assuming, Steno answered, that when sediments are formed from water, the larger, weightier particles settle first, the flightier, smaller grains slowly settling on top. Sediments, by their internal structure, could serve as maps of their own creation. And so, third, there emerged the "principle of lateral continuity," which showed that just as tilted strata implied the movements of a dynamic earth, so too did "bared edges" of strata -- sudden breaks in an otherwise continuous layer -- imply that what is now a mountain had once been a valley. The Earth had a history that could be painstakingly deciphered by observing the forms apparent today.

These three principles are now referred to as "Steno's Principles" and are recited in their sleep by all first-year geology students. Their importance as, so to speak, the bedrocks of geological science derives from the scientific principle that Steno followed when deducing them centuries ago: science is the art of answering the answerable, not of imagining the imaginable. (Similarly, Newton comprehended this when he perceived that he could not discover the nature of gravity, but could instead devise a mathematics that unified the motion of the carriage with the revolutions of the moon.) Steno resolved to tackle what could be reasonably approached, setting in place the principles that would define for posterity the science of the earth.

Steno was a religious man. When Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politicus was published, attacking organized religion, Steno wrote him a letter to express his discontent: "You do not think there exists any certainty besides demonstrative certainty, and are ignorant of the certainty of faith which is above all demonstration." And then the man who championed asking questions that could be answered forsook scientific inquiry to be ordained as a minister of the church. "Beautiful is what we see," Cutler quotes his hero. "More beautiful is what we understand. Most beautiful is what we do not comprehend." Steno, as he told his scientific adversary and friend Kircher, was giving up science as a sacrifice to God. Becoming the titular bishop of Titiopolis, an ancient see somewhere in Asia Minor that had long been lost to the Turks and the exact location of which was not quite known (what was referred to by the church as in partibus infidelium -- in the land of the infidels), Steno died in 1686, free of any worldly possessions and professing the "agreement between Nature and Scripture." For Steno, the world was about 5,600 years old, so perhaps it is fitting that in 1988, 202 years after his death, he was beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 23 -- the very date Bishop James Ussher had carefully calculated for the creation of the world.


I once spent a carefree summer as a stagehand in one of the many theaters of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The particular theater I helped to construct was built inside an old gray-stone church called Greyfriars Kirk, its façade charred, like many an Edinburgh building, with the black soot of the industrial revolution. Little did I know at the time that beneath the earth in the kirk's backyard cemetery lay one of the great figures in the history of geology. Such is the nature of scientific and historical knowledge: like sediments and strata, it accumulates one layer at a time.

James Hutton was born in 1726, just forty years after Steno's death. But the world into which Hutton was born was as different from Steno's as limestone is from granite. Of Steno's day, Cutler writes, "The Renaissance had pretty much run its course. The convulsions of the Protestant reformation had mostly subsided. The Age of Enlightenment, on the other hand, was barely on the horizon. It was an awkward, in-between age -- reborn, reformed, but not yet enlightened." That might help to explain the apparent paradox of a man who showed that the Earth has a history, but who nevertheless insisted that it was only as old as the Bible said it was. Hutton, by contrast, was born into an Edinburgh very much at the heart of the new-old world. In the short span of Hutton's generation, the Scottish Enlightenment would produce Hume's philosophy and Smith's economics and Ferguson's sociology and Robertson's historiography and Watt's steam engine.

Scotland had been ruled for centuries by Jacobites, Catholic Highlander clansmen, the Scottish equivalent of feudal landlords -- the followers of James II, the Catholic monarch deposed in 1688. It was these very clansmen who on a dark night in July 1745 tiptoed down to a Western Highland beach to meet James II's grandson, Charles Stuart or Bonnie Prince Charlie, as he disembarked from a small frigate carrying himself and only seven followers in a bid to recapture the lost Stuart throne. By mid-September, Prince Charles marched into Edinburgh unopposed, and decided to push southward, leading his clansman army all the way to Derby, just 130 miles north of London. But when rumors of an English force of thirty thousand made their way to the Catholic camp, the clan chiefs forced their ambitious prince to capitulate.

As Jack Repcheck beautifully relates, the march back to Scotland was the beginning of the end for Stuart claims to the English monarchy, as well as the beginning of the end for Old Scotland. Quickly, Westminster dispatched the duke of Cumberland northward to destroy the fleeing clansmen, and the "harrying of the glens" became the name for the terrible pacification that ensued. English laws now stripped the clan chiefs of all authority; clan councils, the wearing of tartans, the playing of pipes, even the speaking of Gaelic -- all were outlawed. Highland culture became a thing of the past.

Edinburgh, on the other hand, was now free to accept back its Whig Presbyterians, a progressive merchant, jurist, and intellectual class largely descended from Lowland families in the territories south of Edinburgh and Glasgow that had been settled over the centuries by invading Normans, and then English, and with a strong interest in economic and academic ties with London. The Moderate Party of Presbyterian Whigs, William Robertson proclaimed, saw "industry, knowledge, and humanity linked together by an indissoluble chain." No surprise, then, that "Auld Reekie," as Edinburgh was called -- referring to the stench of chimneys and pollution, and an unusual system of waste removal (out the window) -- was increasingly described as the Athens of the North.

The young James Hutton enrolled to study at the University of Edinburgh in this atmosphere at the tender age of fourteen, unaware, most assuredly, that if, as Repcheck writes, "Copernicus took man away from the divine center of things," he would one day take man away from "the divine beginning of things." Hutton ended up studying medicine in the Paris of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, and finishing up in Leiden in 1749. Edinburgh would one day become a center of medical studies, but the continental capitals of learning still offered a lad with sincere pretensions the best training available. Cities and professions, like fossils, arrange themselves in historical layers; like dinosaurs, once-great seats of learning are forgotten; like small mammalian shrews, once-great seats of ignorance all of a sudden become exalted.

Hutton ended up forsaking his white robe for the gloves and boots of a farmer on a piece of inherited land, returning to Scotland after making a small fortune from a company that made sal ammoniac (used as flux in metalworking) from common coal soot. The next thirteen years were spent at his farm, Slighouses, learning and applying new methods of agriculture, and nursing an increasing curiosity in what was now called geology. Repcheck tells us that Hutton read the nine treatises on the Earth that encompassed all known geological thought of his day, among them Steno's De Solido; Thomas Burnet's The Sacred Theory of the Earth, a treatise of biblical Newtonianism; and William Whiston's New Theory of the Earth, which invoked comet collisions to explain the biblical deluge. Most interesting, perhaps, for it broke with biblical chronology (then considered one of the exact sciences), was Benoit de Maillet's anonymously authored Telliamed in 1748. Benoit's thinly veiled treatise (the title is his surname spelled backward) was the first ever to propose that the world was ancient -- about two billion years old. But Telliamed was not accorded much scientific respect, probably due to the fact that it was said to have been written by an Oriental philosopher following ancient Egyptian legend, who argued, among other things, that women and men originated from mermaids and mermen.

Buffon's thirty-four-volume Histoire Naturelle, which appeared in 1749, was a different story altogether; after all, Buffon was the intendant of the Jardin du Roi and a respected member of France's scientific elite. This did not stop the faculty of the Sorbonne from sending him a missive in the winter of 1751 informing him that fourteen ideas in his book had been found "reprehensible and contrary to the creed of the church." Repcheck tells us that the offending lines were these: "The waters of the sea have produced the mountains and valleys of the land -- the water of the heaven, reducing all to a level, will at last deliver the whole land over to the sea, and the sea, successively prevailing over the land, will leave dry new continents like those which we inhabit." Buffon, in other words, had suggested that God had not created the mountains and the valleys directly, but rather through the agencies of the waters of the seas and of the skies. He was made to (perfunctorily) recant.

"Things are made known only by comparison," wrote Hutton's biographer and close friend John Playfair, "and that which is unique admits of no description." Hutton was indeed a unique character, wearing clothes "often found in direct collision" with current fashion, and living unmarried with three spinster sisters until the very end of his life. He was particularly unique when it came to geology. Realizing that the erosion he witnessed daily on his own land carried grains of dirt into streams, which flowed into rivers, which flowed into seas, where the grains sedimented and eventually turned into rock, Hutton saw that there must be a mechanism for the restoration of soil, for otherwise the land would quickly become uninhabitable, a result that the believing Hutton could not reconcile with a benevolent God.

Intense heat and pressure at the core of the Earth would have to be the mechanism that accounted for the consolidation of sediments and their elevation from the seabed to replace the land that had eroded. The elevation could not be the result of receding waters of an ancient and vast ocean, as the German Abraham Gottlob Werner, the leading European geologist of the day, had claimed. For if this were so, all stratified rock would be horizontal, in the shape it had originally formed on the floor of lakes, seas, and oceans. But everyone knew that strata were often found in every degree of "fracture, flexure, and contortion." Forces from within, powerful but slow-working, would explain the formation and re-formation of land on Earth; shrinking and expanding waters just didn't seem up to the job.

If the cycle of the land described by Hutton in two invited talks to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785 was true, as everyone now understood, there arose the question of time. "As there is not in human observation proper means for measuring the waste of land upon the globe," Hutton proclaimed, "it is hence inferred, that we cannot estimate the duration of what we see at present, nor calculate the period at which it had begun; so that, with respect to human observation, this world has neither a beginning nor an end." The earth was so unimaginably ancient that Hutton would not even hazard a guess as to its age.

But unlike Steno, Hutton would actually demonstrate to the world something it had not yet seen. At Glen Tilt, he had found in the bed of the river gorgeous red granite veins frozen like lightning in the sedimentary black rock into which they had once gushed from below. This was ample proof that granite was formed by subterranean heat and pressure, but it did not yet prove Hutton's theory of cycles. Then, on a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1788, from a small boat beneath a rock exposure on the weather-beaten cliffs of Siccar Point, Hutton finally found it: a formation of vertical and horizontal sedimentary rocks, which left no doubt that what had happened was the result of the process of erosion, sedimentation, heat and pressure, elevation, and then erosion again, just as he had described. Knowing the modest rate at which deposits settle, it was immediately clear that what was being observed was the result of millions and millions of years of geology. "The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time," Playfair wrote. "We find no vestige of a beginning -- no prospect of an end" was Hutton's own poetic reaction. He had discovered, Bible and deluge and Methuselah aside, the awesome concept of deep time.

Hutton died in 1797, at the age of seventy. The early 1800s saw the founding of the Geological Society of Great Britain, and with it the strengthening of a group of "catastrophists" who, like Werner with his ancient ocean, continued to perform impressive mental acrobatics to try to fit the story of the Earth into the story of the Bible. Catastrophists now argued that volcanic forces, which they could no longer ignore, had been vastly more powerful in the past, so that measurements of geological dynamics today could teach little of what had come before. "None of the agents that she now employs were sufficient for her ancient works," the Frenchman Georges Cuvier wrote about nature. Once again, discounting the notion that present observation could explain the past helped to preserve a relatively young earth, keeping James Ussher's chronology in the margins of the King James Bible, and of the hearts and minds of men.

Finally, in the 1820s, the Scotsman Charles Lyell, following a visit to Siccar Point, resurrected Hutton's geology, this time for good. Lyell's principle of uniformitarianism -- the notion that present forces were exactly the same in the past -- became the bedrock of his gradualist geology, a geology that now took Hutton's cycle and deep time as givens. Charles Darwin took Lyell's Principles of Geology to read on the Beagle, and much has been written about his translation of Lyell's gradualism in the rocks to the gradual transformations in nature. So the intellectual epic stretching back in time -- from Lucretius and Aristotle through Steno, Descartes, Kircher, Spinoza, Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin; from Rome through Copenhagen through Amsterdam, Paris, Leiden, Florence, Edinburgh, and the Galápagos Islands; from paganism through Catholicism through Reformation through Enlightenment -- eventually tells its tale in wondrous and serpentine ways.

Geology describes a linear record with many a cycle within; time has an arrow, but it also travels in circles. And in life, as in the rocks, what goes around comes around: one of Hutton's closest friends, with whom he made many of his geological excursions and discoveries, was George Clerk-Maxwell, the great-great-grandfather of James Clerk-Maxwell, whose nineteenth-century studies of magnetism would play a role in the 1960s in providing scientific evidence for continental drift. This was the clincher for the long disregarded and disbelieved theory of plate tectonics proposed by Alfred Wegener earlier in the century, which now stands as the unifying theory of geology. I am pretty certain that Steno would have been shocked to learn of deep time and evolution and tectonics, and I am equally confident that Hutton would have been glad to witness such developments from his pastoral resting place behind Greyfriars Kirk. But I'd give a dinosaur fossil in mint condition to know what Steno and Hutton, the two forgotten fathers of the science of the Earth and each embedded in a world of his own, would make of the modern poet's great lines: "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past."

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