A Reading Invitation

Joyce Havstad writes...

I'm traveling a lot this summer, and to me that means lots of time to read while in transit.  It's a bit inefficient in terms of weight, but I love bringing actual books—hard copies rather than electronic versions—with me on planes.  I get some of my best reading done in that context.  I generally don't use airplane WIFI even if they have it, so that means no distractions of the email, etc. variety.

I've just returned from a trip to Trondheim, Norway:

Old shipping warehouses along the river Nidelva in mid-May.  (Photo by author.)

And it was stunning there, obviously.  I'll travel back to Europe in June, and here's what I plan to bring with me on that trip:

Rudwick's 2014 book.  (Photo by author.)

It's Martin J. S. Rudwick's newest book, Earth's Deep History.  Last year I read Rudwick's The Meaning of Fossils, and it was excellent.  (Here's the review I wrote back then for Extinct.)  So this summer I'm planning to read both Rudwick's new book, Earth's Deep History, and another extremely acclaimed older one, The Great Devonian Controversy.

Stephen Jay Gould once wrote for the New York Review of Books that "after a superficial first glance, most readers of good will and broad knowledge might dismiss The Great Devonian Controversy as being too much about too little.  They would be making one of the biggest mistakes in their intellectual lives" (February 27, 1986 Issue).  And Philip Kitcher wrote that "using an extraordinary wealth of sources, particularly journals, letters, and field notebooks, Rudwick was able to trace in great detail the ways in which a scientific debate was resolved" (1998, p. 33).  So, I expect The Great Devonian Controversy to be well worth a read, despite its age.

Still, I'll do the more recent book first: readers can expect a review of Earth's Deep History to be posted here on July 24, 2017.  And in case anyone would like to read along, there are already two issues raised in just the introduction that I'll be eagerly tracking throughout the book.

(1) It looks like Rudwick intends to downplay or diffuse the purported tension between science and religion—what has sometimes been termed the conflict thesis—for the epistemological episodes and efforts depicted in Earth's Deep History.  The idea that science and religion are in deep, perpetual conflict with one another is quite popular these days, so I'm excited to see Rudwick try and swim against that current.  It'll be real interesting to see how persuasively he manages to argue that there is no such tension, in this particular context at least.

(2)  It looks like Rudwick intends to highlight or emphasize the purported tension between law-like and contingent sciences, where physics and astronomy are Rudwick's contrasting examples of law-like domains—those which are not a good model for the more contingent domains of both human and natural history.  This division is another popular one, especially amongst philosophers of biology today, so in this instance Rudwick is swimming with the current rather than against it.  I have to admit to some feeling some skepticism, however, whenever I hear about the supposedly deep divide between the historical and the experimental or more traditional sciences.  So again, I'm quite excited to see how persuasive Rudwick manages to be, particularly when it comes to stressing the substance and significance of such a distinction.

Please feel free to read the book along with me over the next two months!  I'll have many more thoughts on Earth's Deep History to share in late July, and I would of course welcome engagement with others' thoughts in the comments.  See you then...



Gould, S. J. (1986), "A Triumph of Historical Excavation," in New York Review of Books (February 27, 1986 Issue).

Kitcher, P. (1998), "A Plea for Science Studies," in N. Koertge's A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, pp. 32–56 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

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).