How Geology Miscast Its Most Important People

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987. 219 pp. $17.50. Spring comes and spring goes, and comes once again—"Time's Cycle." Each spring is unique, and so is marked—"Time's Arrow." Our experience with time is of cycles and of arrows, yet they interweave and confuse. Neither is right, neither is wrong. We accept them, and we overlook them. Geological time, its enormousness and h

May 4, 1987
Jere Lipps
Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1987. 219 pp. $17.50.


Spring comes and spring goes, and comes once again—"Time's Cycle." Each spring is unique, and so is marked—"Time's Arrow." Our experience with time is of cycles and of arrows, yet they interweave and confuse. Neither is right, neither is wrong. We accept them, and we overlook them.

Geological time, its enormousness and humankind's place in it, is the great intellectual contribution of geology. In his latest book, Stephen Jay Gould shows us how its discovery embraced both time's cycle and time's arrow, and how, because these metaphors went unrecognized, we misinterpret geologic time's discoverers. We have cheered and booed the wrong peopie and made "cardboard history."

Gould selected only three main historical works for scrutiny: Thomas Burnet's Sacred Theory of the Earth (1680-1690), James Hutton's Theory of the Earth (1795) and Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-1833), plus short discussions of Nicolas Steno's Prodromus (1669) and the sculpture of James Hampton (1964). Hampton? Yes, a janitor from Washington, D.C., who constructed a monumental "throne of heaven," with which Gould exemplifies the power of time's cycle and time's arrow on human thinking. The great geological thinkers of the past were not the only ones who struggled with these metaphors; common men do too.

Gould's style will be familiar to his readers—the historical snippets, the dichotomies, the odd and unusual, the common, the startling, and the contrary are all here. His device now is to focus on illustrations associated with these past authors that reveal their cycles and arrows of time.

Burnet is usually considered a "bizarre freak of pseudo-science," because of his wonderful story of Earth's cycle from origin to fate. Yet, as Gould shows, he used natural evidence to modify scriptural accounts when it was appropriate, and he differed little in his methods from others of the time.

Hutton, the founder of modern geology, actually did little field work, as geologists have been taught, in advance of writing his Theory of the Earth, according to Gould. Most people who have read Hutton's original recognized that his world machine, constantly renewing itself and falling into disrepair again, was non-directional and ahistorical. It was Playfair, in his interpretation of Hutton, who led us astray by inserting time's arrow when none existed before, thus asserting Hutton's high place in history of geology.

Charles Lyell is regarded as the greatest geologist of all time, but Gould tells us, for the wrong reasons. Lyell was not fighting the irrational theologically inspired fantasies of catastrophists, as "cardboard history" relates, but ultimately he was debating time's arrow and time's cycle.

Lyell's style, methods and philosophy also are examined. He set himself apart with his rhetoric from the catastrophists, a dichotomy amplified in later geological textbooks. Lyell's great three-volume work is no textbook, as we have been told, but it is a powerful statement on method, rooted in time's stately cycle of state and rate. "Professor Ichthyosaurus," shown in Henry De la Beche's illustration introducing this chapter, will return again, thus completing yet another of time's cycles.

This book is not like Gould's previous works in subject matter. The importance of geologic time notwithstanding, the topic here will be less popular because of Gould's close analysis and reference to mostly unread, although famous, books. But for geologists and historians of science, Gould has done a great service. If geology has miscast its most important figures, it did so at its own peril, as Gould explains. Furthermore, he entices us to reread (or just read) the original works with a more critical eye. Indeed, I found that I enjoyed this book far better when I read along in Burnet, Steno, Hutton and Lyell. And I must go see Hampton's Throne!

Lipps is professor of geology at the University of California, Davis, 95616.