Thoughts on "Earth's Deep History" by Martin J. S. Rudwick

Joyce Havstad writes...

This 2014 book provides a lovely overview of the way that many different strands of investigation by “savants, naturalists, and scientists” (as Rudwick would characterize the bunch) weave together in order to produce our current sense of Earth’s deep history as both especially deep and especially historical.  The strands discussed in the book mostly start in the seventeenth century and are followed all the way up to the present day, though they are perhaps thickest in the middle, when discussion focuses on developments from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Discussion of the recent end of things is especially quick.

Probably my favorite thing about the book is the way it reveals how many ideas that I just straight-up presume—as obvious and utterly established—are actually the painstaking result of careful searches for evidence, extensive theoretical analysis, much extended debate, and only gradual acceptance.  For instance: I tend to simply take it for granted that the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old; that species can go extinct; that continents have moved; that meteors have landed on the Earth’s surface in ways that have occasionally had spectacular effects; that “geology” is a thing; that strata are a combined source of information about the Earth’s physical character, its temporal scale, and its history of life; that humans only appeared very, very recently on Earth, relative to its overall timeline; that there were Ice Ages; that glaciers can move very big rocks around; and more.  But Earth’s Deep History reminds me that many of the ideas that seem obvious to me now weren’t always so apparent.  And it’s great to be educated about the genesis of and support for our most bedrock notions.

I particularly appreciate learning about how the timescale of the Earth’s physical history was established over centuries of investigation, how the discovery of living fossils complicated attempts to establish the reality of extinction, how a story about “erratic blocks” and glaciers and Ice Ages was gradually constructed, how the theory of plate tectonics finally overcame resistance to the idea of continental mobilism rather than fixism, and how fossils from Ediacara finally began to populate our picture of the Pre-Cambrian history of life.  Obviously, that’s a lot to cover in just one 300+ page book—and those are just my favorite bits.  This brings me to some more critical commentary.

I think I have to say that I didn’t absolutely love Earth’s Deep History quite the way that I was expecting to.  Now, this might be purely my fault, and have to do with thwarted expectations more than anything else.  I loved The Meaning of Fossils so much, and plenty of people told me they loved Earth’s Deep History, that I probably went into reading the book with just too much hype from myself and others.  And to criticize the book on those grounds—of failing to meet my own idiosyncratic, excessively high expectations—is not really fair to either the book or its author.  So although I am mentioning this reaction, I don’t really want to endorse it as a viable criticism.

My somewhat-less-enthusiastic-than-expected reaction might also have something to do with the fact that I may just prefer deeper and narrower historical analysis over broader yet sparser review.  I do love a really careful, exhaustive case study that presents the history and meaning of one particular thing really, really well.  This book does something else that is just as important, however: it takes a lot of disparate things and puts them into a synthesized account that spans many centuries and various ideas, tying them all together in a way that explains and motivates a whole bunch of work pertaining to one big theme (in this case, the history of the Earth).  So this is a very educational book that covers a lot of ground, and that makes it a valuable resource to have.

It would obviously be unfair of me to criticize the book for not doing whatever it is that I happen to prefer—i.e., something with a narrower scope but more detail—and instead doing something that is just as important but less satisfying to me personally—i.e., something that is broad in scope though not quite exhaustive in its coverage of each topic explored.  Because of the way that this sort of critique is again dependent on my own personal tastes, I wouldn’t want to criticize the book on these grounds, either.

But if it is possible for me to articulate a bit of criticism that I think is more properly objective than either of the two acutely subjective quibbles I’ve already mentioned, then I might say something like the following: Earth’s Deep History is, somewhat unexpectedly, aimed rather indirectly at a very important thesis which is treated as established at the end of the book, but which I think needs much more direct engagement and defense throughout, in order to actually reach that conclusion at the end, and to treat it as demonstrated in a satisfactory manner.

To support this assessment I want to revisit the two themes I indicated might be worth watching for, in the invitation to read Earth’s Deep History along with me that I issued in May.  I noted there that, based on the introduction to the book, it seemed like Rudwick might be trying to (1) downplay the purported conflict between science and religion and (2) highlight the supposed difference between law-like and historical sciences throughout the book.  And I think that my now complete reading of the book has revealed that these two predictions about the book’s content were (at least somewhat) correct.

In terms of the second one first, I would say that the way this theme was developed throughout was in repeatedly stressing the distinction between (a) theorizing historically that an event has happened, and (b) theorizing physically about how an event was caused.  In Earth’s Deep History, Rudwick argues consistently and persuasively for a distinction between ideas paired in the following way: that there were marine fossils at high altitudes versus how these fossils got there; that there were characteristic geologic formations like the Paris Basin and the Needles at the Isle of Wight versus how these formations were formed; that there have been different continental arrangements than the one we have now versus how these different arrangements came about; that there were mass extinctions versus what caused these extinctions; etc., etc.

I am utterly convinced by Rudwick on this point—the point being that the question of whether something happened is importantly different from how it happened, and that one of these questions can be and often is debated without the other, especially by branches of the sciences that tend to focus more on the one sort of question than the other.  And I think it is really interesting to conceive of investigation of the Earth’s long-term history as often preceding along one of these dimensions—say, that of establishing whether something happened—ahead of or prior to demonstration along the other dimension—say, that of explaining how something happened.  This assessment makes a lot of sense, given our varied observational and theoretical limitations, and it helps to characterize something both important and interesting about the jointly historical and physical nature of work like this—work on a subject like the history of the Earth, which is obviously going to have both a historical and a physical character.

I am less convinced, however, by Rudwick’s conclusion, based on his account of how Earth’s long-term history has been painstakingly constructed in a chain of amateur, naturalist, and scientific investigation, that “[f]or the many people who continue to tackle these profound questions within a religious context, the vast enlargement of the Earth’s history is—religiously—no big deal, however impressive and scientifically fascinating they may and should find it” (page 306).  The thing is that both of the supposed tensions—between religion and science on the one hand, and between historical and law-like sciences on the other—can actually be understood in one of two ways.

When one says that investigation of whether something happened is distinct from how it happened, one might be saying either that (i) such questions are in principle distinguishable from one another, or that (ii) such questions are in practice distinguishable from one another.  Similarly, when one says that viewing the Earth’s history in a religious context is in conflict with viewing the Earth’s history in a scientific context, one might be saying either that (iii) such perspectives are in principle in conflict with one another, or that (iv) such perspectives are in practice in conflict with one another.  And though I follow Rudwick in thinking that his book shows that researching whether something happened versus how it happened in Earth’s history has been both (i) in principle and (ii) in practice distinguishable from one another, and I agree that Earth’s Deep History demonstrates that viewing Earth’s history in either a religious or a scientific context does not necessarily conflict (iii) in principle with one another, I do not think that he has shown that these two views do not, by and large or often, conflict (iv) in practice with one another.  The fact that there are many instances—which Rudwick has described, and in which such religious and scientific viewpoints do not conflict with one another—does not establish that there are few such instances then or now in which they do conflict with one another.

Let me just reiterate that I agree with Rudwick in thinking that religious and scientific views of the Earth’s history do not have to be in tension with one another.  So, whenever we restrict our claim to being about an intrinsic or necessary conflict between scientific and religious viewpoints, I concur with Rudwick in thinking that such a claim is false.  I also agree with Rudwick in thinking that historical claims of innate antagonism between religious and scientific aims, investigations, and institutions have been frequently overstated, especially in more recent historiography.  But I am not yet persuaded that there has not been, nor that there is not currently, significant and recurring in practice antagonism between the two viewpoints.  On this point I find Rudwick to be somewhat idealistic, and to be downplaying some actual tension that is quite significant and which cannot simply be wished away.

Maybe this is a cultural or a generational difference, one which allows Rudwick to write that “[f]or all the noise that creationism generates, it is no more than a bizarre sideshow that has set itself in implacable opposition to one of the most solid and reliable of human scientific achievements” (page 315).  I wish I had the luxury of treating creationism as a sideshow!  But I am afraid that dealing with it—and with the challenge it poses to successful scientific communication, education, investigation, and policy-making—is a daunting task that I face on a nearly daily basis, as a philosopher of science and a professor who teaches evolutionary theory, Earth science, and more to US undergraduates.

Perhaps more importantly, “implacable opposition” sure sounds like conflict.  This means that Rudwick’s own characterization of the relationship between creationism and Earth science is one of pretty resolute tension.  Though he has conclusively shown why he thinks that religious and scientific viewpoints are not necessarily in conflict with one another, he is himself characterizing particular religious and scientific ideas about the Earth’s history as actually in conflict with one another—in this context at least.  So his (occasional, concluding) move from the lack of an inherent conflict plus some historical partnership to one of little actual or current conflict is unsupported even on his own analysis.

Many academics have tried merely telling creationists or “Young Earthers” that they are “out of their depth” (ibid.), scientifically-speaking, and that although they experience some of today’s scientific theory as in conflict with some of their religion, they do not have to experience it that way.  Yet this has not diminished the ranks of those who dismiss some of the “most solid and reliable of human scientific achievements” in favor of alternative religious viewpoints; nor has it dispelled their experience of the relationship between these viewpoints as one of trenchant conflict.  I am afraid that we need to acknowledge and confront this perceived conflict—whether the conflict is necessary or not, since it is experienced by many as actual in our current time—with new, and with more realistic, and perhaps with more compassionate tactics.  I too wish things were different, but I am afraid that this is the moment we are in.

To end on a more positive note: I read this book on three different continents, and in six different countries (Brazil, Canada, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States of America).  This means that I lugged it around with me on two different intercontinental trips and quite a few airplane rides.  And it was totally worth carting around!  It’s a very good book and I enjoyed reading it everywhere I was.

Next on my reading list is The Great Devonian Controversy, also by Rudwick.  You can expect a review to be posted here at Extinct on September 25, 2017.  Please feel free to join me in reading that book over the next couple of months.  I’m really enjoying getting a sense for Rudwick’s whole corpus of work, and I hope you are too.  Cheers!



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).