Histories of Earth, 1680-1740


A review of The Living Rock: Natural, Human, and Sacred Histories of the Earth, 1680-1740, by Lydia Barnett.

How do you write a history of the Earth from Noah’s Flood to the Apocalypse in an age that rewards piecemeal empirical research? How do you reconcile your overarching theories with the tidbits of evidence that the Bible, figure stones and Platonic myths provide? Lydia Barnett’s The Living Rock offers a refreshing intellectual history of how European scholars tackled these problems in the years around 1700. Her dissertation brings to life the heated debates that theories of the Earth generated across the continent, and reveals masterfully how these skirmishes also had repercussions on the social organization of the Republic of Letters and the political economy of the day.

The debates in Earth history erupted with the publication of Thomas Burnet’s Telluris theoria sacra in the 1680s. Burnet’s work explained both Noah’s Flood and the impending Apocalypse in a Cartesian framework. The theory encountered equal opposition from Biblical scholars, Newtonians, and propounders of the chymical philosophy. Some argued that miraculous events, like the Flood, could not be explained through natural causes. Others agreed with Burnet that God could perform miracles by employing natural causes, but then accused him of misidentifying these causes. Barnett’s detailed exposition of the debates around Burnet reveals that the contemporary Republic of Letters was not a polite society where scholars worked together altruistically in accumulating evidence for a unified scientific theory. Natural philosophers fiercely sparred with each other, but all agreed on at least one rule of conduct. These scholars believed that some empirical basis was needed for building philosophical arguments, and, as a result, the treatment of future events, such as the Apocalypse, disappeared from the purview of Earth science in the decades after Burnet.

Yet the use of empirical facts in debates did not mean that scholars refrained from expounding complex scientific theories. The underdetermination of theory was not a concern for them, and, for example, historians of the Earth disagreed widely how to interpret the petrified shells found in land-locked areas. Were they the fossilized remnants of the marine life that populated the whole earth during Noah’s Flood? Or were they proof that the mineral world was also alive, and could generate lifeforms imitating plants and animals? The English Robert Plot employed Jan Baptist van Helmont’s salt chymystry to explain growth in the mineral world, while the Welsh Edward Lhwyd disagreed and suggested that, like plants and animals, minerals also reproduced with the help of seeds. As Barnett brilliantly points out, such vitalist interpretations of petrified shells had important economic consequences. If petrified shells were generated by the Earth, their abundance could be an indicator of the fertility of the soil. Lhwyd used the rich fossil deposits of his home land to argue that Welsh soil was especially good for agriculture. Earth theory became an applied science in service of political economy.

Earth science did not only improve the economy. It could also boost the morale of a country. As Barnett argues, land and people were equally important for the emerging notion of the nation in this period. For Olof Rudbeck, the inhabitants of Sweden were not the country’s only pride. He identified the Scandinavian peninsula with Atlantis, the blessed and fertile island of Plato’s Timaeus. Johann Jakob Scheuchzer argued equally fervently that God especially loved the Swiss because he personally attended to the formation of the Alps during the Deluge. Nationalism united people not only through language and culture, but also through the land they inhabited.

Barnett’s most important contribution lies in her exposition of the relationship between religion and natural science around 1700. Almost a century ago, Paul Hazard devoted his La crise de la conscience européenne to precisely this period, and in more recent years, Jonathan Israel has again emphasized that the second half of the seventeenth century saw the emergence of the radical Enlightenment, the Spinozistic movement that questioned religious authorities. While Barnett’s natural philosophers were deeply religious, and not radical thinkers, they made major steps in the secularization of Earth history. In the 1710s, the Italian Antonio Vallisnieri, and later scholars in his footsteps, became convinced that theology and natural science were both worthy pursuits, but had to be practiced separately. As Barnett argues, this secularization was the result of the irenicist desire of Protestant and Catholic scholars to engage in productive debates  in the international Republic of Letters. Scientific debate was to be encouraged, but religion was too dangerous a territory to disagree.

The Living Rock is part of a larger movement in historiography that seeks to expose how natural history, widely understood, played a role in the scientific revolution that rivaled that of the mathematical sciences. Yet, for her, histories of the Earth are special because they went beyond the accumulation of facts, and encouraged the formation of complex, philosophical theories. From Burnet to Vallisnieri, Earth historians did their best to integrate all the evidence, from the Bible to exotic lands, in one philosophical narrative. Barnett’s command of the material is impressive, her reconstruction of the debates is based on the consultations of printed works and archival manuscripts in Italy, Switzerland and England. Beautifully argued, smart, and witty, the Living Rock could well become the book on the early modern theories of Earth for the generations to come.

Dániel Margócsy
Department of History
Hunter College, CUNY

Primary Sources

British Library
Bodleian Library
Archivio di Stato di Reggio Emilia
Zentralbibliothek Zürich
Printed works of Bourguet, Burnet, Lhwyd, Ray, Scheuchzer, Vallisnieri and Woodward.

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2011. 380pp. Primary advisors: Paula Findlen and Jessica Riskin.

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