You Should Read This Book

Joyce Havstad writes...

Martin J. S. Rudwick's The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (1985) is a spectacular book.  I’ve been searching for a long time for a thick account of scientific knowledge-making that plots a compelling path between naïve realism and total constructivism.  This is it.  I’m so happy to have read this book—I will be a better philosopher and science studies scholar as a result.  The case study, and the analysis based on it, will impact and permeate my work for a long time to come.

It’s hard to know what else to say, after giving such an unqualified commendation.  I almost don’t want to talk about what happens in the book, in case that gives anyone enough of a sense of it that they feel they don’t have to read it for themselves.  But they / you do!  You should read this book for yourself.  It is a really big book, but I didn’t find it tough going at all.  In Part One of the book (“Setting the Scene”), the initial chapters introduce quite a bit of apparatus, and therefore are somewhat slow to get through.  But that’s to be expected when getting started.  And shortly after Part Two begins (“The Plot Unfolds”), the case heats up, and I thought the storytelling became so good that the book just about read itself.

When I started the book, I genuinely had no idea how The Great Devonian Controversy was going to be resolved, and Rudwick did not give away the answer even a page before that moment of resolution arrived in the narrative.  I could not tell, from how the characters were introduced and described, who was going to turn out to be right in their proposals or wrong in their proposals or good at the science or bad at the science or anything else, really.  Rudwick let the actions of the characters and the events of the narrative speak for themselves.  I was delighted and surprised and intrigued throughout.

Seriously: about 250 pages in the middle of the book are purely dedicated to documenting the deeply entertaining adventures of the supremely engaging gentleman geologists such as Henry De la Beche and Roderick Murchinson and Adam Sedgwick, initially in Devonshire and eventually all across the Continent.  Murchinson goes to the Urals!  It’s fantastic stuff.  Afterwards, in Part Three (“The Action Analyzed”), Rudwick alludes a few times to the length of the case study—he mentions “the perhaps overwhelming flood of detailed immediacies” (page 402) and the fact that “the narrative has shown, perhaps to the point of tediousness…” (page 440), for instance—and as I read those self-deprecating remarks, I was thinking to myself “No way, buddy!  You don’t have to apologize!!  That was truly great stuff.”

Reading does slow back down once more, in the final chapters of the book, again because of the (re)introduction of significant conceptual apparatus.  But it’s well worth it—the analysis is excellent, as I’ve said, and it really is quite neat and concise in its deployment.  Despite the book including more than 450 pages of main content, I would say there isn’t a wasted page in the whole bunch.

Here are a few of the themes that I tracked throughout the book, and which I enjoyed following immensely.  I was delighted to discover that the Geological Society of London—the most significant social and scientific organization at the heart of this story—was formed, in its initial decades, with a Baconian commitment to purportedly plain facts, and with a deep desire to avoid any of that pesky and troublesome thing called theory.  As Rudwick put it “All matters of theory were rigorously excluded by those who held effective power in the Society” (page 24).  This commitment affected the behavior and proclamations of the Society’s geologists in interesting ways.  For instance, during a scuffle about a map, one of the geologists responsible (De la Beche) had to admit, to the director of the governmental surveying body under which he was employed, that a theoretical disagreement was involved in the ongoing cartographical dispute—but the theoretical nature of the dispute gets downplayed as much as possible by De la Beche, and the “facts” of the terrain itself are implied to speak for themselves.  The sidelining of theory was a recurrent theme in Rudwick’s tale.  I found myself quite entertained by this, especially given a much more contemporary struggle with precisely the opposite aim—seat at the “high table,” anyone?  At the beginning of this historical trajectory, the geologists are fighting to show that their work is without theoretical impurities; and here in the somewhat current moments of this history, the paleontologists are fighting to show that their work is theoretically deep and saturated.  Funny how the tides of scientific respectability can turn like that.

It was a pleasure to be reminded, at several points in the book, of the special role that fieldwork has tended to play in the geological and paleontological sciences.  According to Rudwick, the image of fieldwork in the time of the controversy “was loaded with sentiments that united elements of romanticism and tacitly pantheistic religion with those of robust, manly Christianity and the gentleman’s love of the countryside and its sporting pursuits” (page 41).  This characterization was born out in Rudwick’s story of the controversy itself via the interests and personalities of the relevant historical figures, their resources and alliances and behaviors, even in the metaphors they used and the attitudes they took towards their fieldwork.  The somewhat gentle, impoverished, and beleaguered De la Beche sketched himself looking forlornly out his windows at the rain-soaked terrain he had to explore the next day; whereas the vigorous and self-important Murchinson wrote home with exuberant letters to his wife about perching gloriously on the edge of the Siberian plain and reveling with nomads in Russia, and he gifted nobles from county to county with beautifully bound copies of his own big book.  The great Charles Lyell was apparently surprised at the underwhelmed and egalitarian way rural Americans responded to his gentlemanly geological presence among the Paleozoic, sandstone, and carbonaceous rocks in New York and Pennsylvania.  There is just so much character among these historical characters.

Another interesting theme from the book actually combines both of the previous two: the importance of rhetoric, position, and resources in order to extend one’s scientific proposal from a merely local account to that of a global system.  Rudwick amply demonstrates that and how both of these practical and theoretical matters were extremely influential in eventually settling the controversy in favor of one particular proposal advanced primarily by a certain proponent in the debate.  Other lovely topics of recurrent discussion include the changing role of fossil evidence (spearheaded perhaps by John Phillips) as well as the gradual professionalization of geology (from the domain of gentlemen like Lyell and collectors like Robert Alfred Austen to a source of secondary income for a cash-strapped gentleman like De la Beche to a straight-up job for employed surveyors).

Finally, like I said at the start, I’ve searched a long time for a truly compelling, thick account of scientific knowledge-making.  Whenever I find myself in the company of those who might be termed “discovery realists,” I suddenly find myself attending loudly to the social aspects of scientific practice; to the different ways a so-called discovery could obviously have gone; and to any stray bits of phenomena left unexplained by the account.  Basically, I have to poke at the realism.  Conversely, when I find myself surrounded by social constructivists, I somehow become transformed into a sort of rabid normativity-detector.  Suddenly my whole mission in life is to sniff out any whiff I can of endorsed contact with The Underlying Facts—and once I find such traces I can’t help pointing out that, apparently, there are such facts after all; that they are present in even this supposedly constructivist account; and so exactly how is that supposed to work?  It’s like I am incapable of just letting anyone be, or say that they are, a complete constructivist.

This is not really an extremely endearing form of behavior, I realize—and yet I can’t seem to stop myself.  Reading this book made me feel as if maybe Rudwick knows exactly what this form of compulsion feels like—as though, perhaps, he has even felt it himself.  The truly spectacular thing about Rudwick’s account of The Great Devonian Controversy is, I think, that a committed realist might read it and end up thinking that there is plenty in this book that supports an interpretation of the case as one of proper scientific discovery and progress, as the proper solving of a scientific puzzle.  But so might a complete constructivist finish the book with the thought that this is a tale of utter fabrication, of the very human making of maps and systems for future mapmaking, which absolutely could have gone another way or been produced by other persons than those that did end up producing it.  And that, I think, should serve as a deep challenge to either view: because if it is reasonable to look at the same meticulously documented and crafted narrative and to think both that this supports naïve realism and it supports total constructivism, then it simply cannot be the case that either of those views by themselves fully and well characterizes the case.  Some sort of hybrid view is required, and I think it’s in the crafting of that sort of compromise that the really interesting picture of scientific practice is liable to be found.  That’s the sort of picture offered in this book, and I think everyone should read it.

How’s that for a ringing endorsement?!?  Last on my reading list for this year is a much more recent publication: Robert Chapman and Alison Wylie’s Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology (2016).  Adrian has already reviewed this book for the academic journal Philosophy of Science, but you need a subscription to access that review in full.  So I’m going to read the book and review it here as well, at Extinct—and you can expect my post to go up on November 27, 2017.  Please feel free to read the book along with me, and thanks for reading today’s post as well.



Chapman, R. and Wylie, A. (2016), Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology (London: Bloomsbury Academic).

Rudwick, M. J. S. (1976), The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2nd edition (originally published 1972).

Rudwick, M. J. S. (1985), The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Rudwick, M. J. S. (2014), Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).