Earth’s Deep History, by Martin Rudwick (Book Review)

Ralph Stearley
On November 23, 2015

EARTH’S DEEP HISTORY: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters by Martin J. S. Rudwick. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. 315 pages plus glossary, a section “for further reading,” and bibliography. Hardcover; $30.00. ISBN: 9780226203935.

In 1972, British brachiopod paleontologist Martin Rudwick penned a judicious and revelatory volume, The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. This book (now 2nd ed., University of Chicago Press, 1985) remains a treasure store of insight into the impact of discovery—as well as the communication of discovery—upon many individuals of talent during the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. Many of these historical protagonists were devout Christians (for example, Conrad Gesner, John Ray). Rudwick explored their ponderings and their fraternal debates as to just what these remains meant.

More books followed; I count nine, including the volume under review. These included a volume of translation, from the French, of Georges Cuvier’s work on fossils (ossemens fossiles)—arguably the birth of vertebrate paleontology—and also a volume (Scenes from Deep Time, 1992) analyzing the impact of illustrations of “former worlds” revealed by these exhumed remains, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The scope of Rudwick’s coverage broadened, to include the history of fi eldwork and deliberation upon the history of Earth as well as that of life. Collectively, his writings now comprise the most significant single-author corpus analyzing the history of the earth sciences. Rudwick brings his Christian faith to his scholarship.

The present volume, Earth’s Deep History, summarizes the development of a history of Earth. It is written in an accessible style and sparkles with nearly one hundred illustrations, mostly reproductions of original illustrations or text pages from significant individuals ranging from James Ussher to contemporary astrogeologists. Along the way, the geological time-scale develops until it reaches its current scope and detail.

Rudwick painstakingly demonstrates why historical thinking is an essential component of Earth comprehension. Earth and its parts are four-dimensional objects. Rudwick cleanly narrates the step-by-step realization that Earth was an object with a long history. The explanatory power and practical utility of time in analyses were appreciated for two centuries prior to the development of radiometric dating techniques. In fact, through several incidents, Rudwick explicates how spatially— and geometrically—commonsense interpretations of the rock record demanded large volumes of time, and this in the face of opposition based on the “absence of a mechanism.” An example would be the development, over the course of several decades, of what would eventually become known as “plate tectonics” prior to the acceptance of the driving mechanism, mantle convection.

The apprehension of deep time during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, far from presenting obstacles to faith, was regarded as an ally:

Closely related to this sense of the providential “designfulness” of the natural world was a sense of wonder at the romance of vanished deep past that the geologists’ research was disclosing. So, for example, Mantell—who had discovered the Iguanodon, the first of the fossil reptiles to be classed later as a dinosaur—exploited a profitable vein of popular science by describing the Wonders of Geology (1838). The sheer scale and unanticipated strangeness of the earth’s long history was often treated as welcome evidence for the grandeur of God’s creation. Far from geology being in intrinsic conflict with religious faith, the science was widely regarded in the early nineteenth century as its ally and supporter. (p. 163)

A thread running through Earth’s Deep History is the participation of earnest Christians in the development of the historical Earth sciences. Contrary to the wishes of some contemporary vocal atheists as well as some equally vocal Christians, faith and science have never been at war.

What is certainly untenable is any claim that the discovery of the Earth’s deep history has in the past been retarded or obstructed by “Religion” … In the history of the discovery of the earth’s own history, as in the history of many other aspects of the sciences, the idea of a perennial and intrinsic “conflict” between “Science” and “Religion”—so essential to the rhetoric of modern fundamentalists, both religious and atheistic—fails to stand up to historical scrutiny. (pp. 306–7)

At several points during Earth’s Deep History, Rudwick takes fellow geologists, or popular science writers, to task for falling prey to the temptation to frame a historical narrative in terms of a manufactured conflict metaphor.

As a coda to this manufactured war, Rudwick provides a brief appendix on the late twentieth-century “young-Earth geology” movement. Having thoroughly documented the hard toil, physical and mental, of sincere and gifted Christians in the recovery of Earth’s deep history, he is taken aback at the “startling reinvention of the idea of a ‘young Earth,’ which the sciences of the earth outgrew for very good reasons back in the eighteenth century” (p. 309). He concludes, “Sadly, creationists are utterly out of their depth” (p. 315; last sentence of the volume). For its comprehensive scope, intelligibility, delightful illustrations, and at times bluntly personal approach, this volume is a treat. I highly recommend it as a solitary read or as an introduction to Martin Rudwick’s other authoritative works.

Before You Read ...

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Ralph Stearley
About the Author

Ralph Stearley

Ralph Stearley is a paleontologist with broad interests in the history of life and in biogeography. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in geological sciences, with an emphasis on vertebrate paleontology. He is professor of geology at Calvin College, where he has taught since 1992. His published research has included work on marine invertebrate ecology and paleoecology in the northern Gulf of California; fluvial taphonomy; the systematics and evolution of salmonid fishes; Pleistocene mammalian biogeography; and zooarchaeology of fish remains from sites in Michigan and New Mexico. He was privileged to be able to co-author, with former Calvin College colleague Davis Young, The Bible, Rocks and Time, published by InterVarsity Press in 2008.