BOOK: Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life

I am a few chapters into Reading the Rocks, a new book about the history of geology in the nineteenth century. I am enjoying Maddox’s writing style, and so far think this book would serve great as a good overview of the topic for those who don’t wish to delve into the much lengthier works of Martin Rudwick (that the author is much familiar with). I did spot two errors in the first chapter, which I hope is not indicative of pages to come – it’s a shame it wasn’t spotted!*

Reading the Rocks

Brenda Maddox, Reading the Rocks: How Victorian Geologists Discovered the Secret of Life (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 272 pp. 

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Publisher’s description The birth of geology was fostered initially by gentlemen whose wealth supported their interests, but in the nineteenth century, it was advanced by clergymen, academics, and women whose findings expanded the field. Reading the Rocks brings to life this eclectic cast of characters who brought passion, eccentricity, and towering intellect to the discovery of how Earth was formed. Geology opened a window on the planet’s ancient past. Contrary to the Book of Genesis, the rocks and fossils dug up showed that Earth was immeasurably old. Moreover, fossil evidence revealed progressive changes in life forms. It is no coincidence that Charles Darwin was a keen geologist. Acclaimed biographer and science writer Brenda Maddox’s story goes beyond William Smith, the father of English geology; Charles Lyell, the father of modern geology; and James Hutton, whose analysis of rock layers unveiled what is now called “deep time.” She also explores the lives of fossil hunter Mary Anning, the Reverend William Buckland, Darwin, and many others–their triumphs and disappointments, and the theological, philosophical, and scientific debates their findings provoked. Reading the Rocks illustrates in absorbing and revelatory details how this group of early geologists changed irrevocably our understanding of the world.

* In the first chapter (pp. 14-15) is the following passage: “… scientists estimate the age of the earth at roughly 4.6 billion years. The encompassing solar system is believed to have emerged around 13.7 billion years ago as a result of the ‘Big Bang’ – the collapse of a fragment of a giant molecular cloud.” The encompassing solar system would have been formed roughly the same time as did earth, 4.6 billion years ago. Our solar system did not form as a direct result of the Big Bang. Further, on p. 15, Maddox states incorrectly that life first emerged an estimated 540 million years ago, “first as single cells deep in the ocean, then as creatures with head, tails and segments.” It was the Cambrian explosion that occurred roughly 540 million years ago, not when life first evolved – the earliest fossils of life are from about 3.5 billion years ago.

Check out reviews of Reading the Rocks from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Wall Street Journal (paywall), Washington Post, and


ARTICLE: Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

A new article in the journal History of Science (March 2016):

Darwin and Deep Time: Temporal Scales and the Naturalist’s Imagination

Peter Dear

Abstract Charles Darwin built a world around an implied metaphysics of time that treated deep time as something qualitatively different from ordinary, experienced time. He did not simply require a vast amount of time within which his primary evolutionary mechanism of natural selection could operate; in practice, he required a deep time that functioned according to different rules from those of ordinary, “shallow” time. The experience of the naturalist occupied shallow time, but it was from that experience that Darwin necessarily had to build his arguments concerning a transformism that took place on an entirely different temporal scale. Much of his reconstruction of what took place in deep time relied on inferences drawn from taxonomic classification, and those inferences in turn depended to a large degree on conclusions reached through the already-established practices of his fellow non-transformist naturalists. By bootstrapping his transformist arguments, focused on both natural and sexual selection, with non-transformist classificatory judgments, Darwin attempted to convince his fellow naturalists of the truth of evolution in deep time. In other words, while Darwin argued for the existence of selectionist processes themselves in contemporary shallow time, their transformist consequences could only be traced out in deep time, being evidenced by both contemporary and paleontological slices, or laminae, of shallow time. This served to protect transformism from the dangers of unorthodoxy by preserving uniformity within shallow time.

BOOK: Right Where You Are Now (children’s book about geologic time)

Another recent children’s book, this one covering geologic time.

Right Where You Are Now

Written by Lisa Montierth | Illustrated by Ashley Burke

Right Where You Are Now is a bedtime story for children. Vibrant illustrations transport readers millions of years back through geologic time, from worlds of flowing rivers of lava to the tribes of early Americans. A new and exciting journey begins with every turn of the page. Right Where You Are Now is scientifically accurate, so it’s more than just a bedtime story—it’s an educational adventure.

Recent articles of interest

From the journal The Plant Cell:

Charles Darwin and the Origins of Plant Evolutionary Developmental Biology

William E. Friedman and Pamela K. Diggle

Abstract Much has been written of the early history of comparative embryology and its influence on the emergence of an evolutionary developmental perspective. However, this literature, which dates back nearly a century, has been focused on metazoans, without acknowledgment of the contributions of comparative plant morphologists to the creation of a developmental view of biodiversity. We trace the origin of comparative plant developmental morphology from its inception in the eighteenth century works of Wolff and Goethe, through the mid nineteenth century discoveries of the general principles of leaf and floral organ morphogenesis. Much like the stimulus that von Baer provided as a nonevolutionary comparative embryologist to the creation of an evolutionary developmental view of animals, the comparative developmental studies of plant morphologists were the basis for the first articulation of the concept that plant (namely floral) evolution results from successive modifications of ontogeny. Perhaps most surprisingly, we show that the first person to carefully read and internalize the remarkable advances in the understanding of plant morphogenesis in the 1840s and 1850s is none other than Charles Darwin, whose notebooks, correspondence, and (then) unpublished manuscripts clearly demonstrate that he had discovered the developmental basis for the evolutionary transformation of plant form.

From Earth Sciences History:

Religious assumptions in Lord Kelvin’s estimates of the Earth’s age

Leonard G. Wilson

Abstract Lord Kelvin’s estimates of the Earth’s age were not necessary consequences of his physics. Religion influenced his physics and his arguments for a limited age of the Earth. Kelvin’s primary aim was to destroy Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection by attacking the uniformitarian geology on which Darwin’s theory was founded. His calculations of the age of the Earth contained a fundamental contradiction. He assumed that the Earth began as a hot liquid sphere, but Fourier’s mathematics, which he used to calculate the rate of cooling, applied only to heat conducted through a solid. Kelvin’s assumption of an initially hot liquid Earth was a necessary consequence of his thermodynamics. Energy could neither be created nor destroyed. The heat within the Earth must, therefore, be derived from its first creation by God. Kelvin never admitted the contradiction between the original hot liquid Earth and his calculation of its cooling on the assumption that the Earth was solid throughout, but in 1897 his imagined account of the initial Earth was a search for a solid Earth amenable to his calculations. The heat flow through the solid crust was very small in proportion to the total internal heat of the Earth. If Kelvin had included the total internal heat in his calculations, he would have arrived at much higher figures for the age of the Earth.

From the Journal of the History of Biology:

Karl Beurlen (1901–1985), Nature Mysticism, and Aryan Paleontology

Olivier Rieppel

Abstract The relatively late acceptance of Darwinism in German biology and paleontology is frequently attributed to a lingering of Lamarckism, a persisting influence of German idealistic Naturphilosophie and Goethean romanticism. These factors are largely held responsible for the vitalism underlying theories of saltational and orthogenetic evolutionary change that characterize the writings of many German paleontologists during the first half of the 20th century. A prominent exponent of that tradition was Karl Beurlen, who is credited with having been the first German paleontologist to present a full-fledged theory of saltational evolution and orthogenetic change. A review of Beurlen’s writings reveals motives and concerns far more complex, however, and firmly rooted in contemporary völkisch thought and Aryan Science. Beurlen’s mature theory of evolution can indeed be understood as his own contribution to Aryan Geology and Biology, tainted as it was with National-Socialist ideology. Evolutionary biologists of the time who opposed the theories of Beurlen and like-minded authors, i.e., idealistic morphology, typology, saltational change, orthogenesis and cyclism did so on Darwinian principles, which ultimately prevailed. But at the time when the battle was fought, their adherence to the principle of natural selection was likewise ideologically tainted, namely in terms of racial theory. National-Socialist ideology was unable to forge a unity of evolutionary theory in Germany even amongst those of its proponents who endorsed this ideology.

From the British Journal for the History of Science:

Charles Darwin’s use of theology in the Origin of Species

Stephen Dilley

Abstract This essay examines Darwin’s positiva (or positive) use of theology in the first edition of the Origin of Species in three steps. First, the essay analyses the Origin‘s theological language about God’s accessibility, honesty, methods of creating, relationship to natural laws and lack of responsibility for natural suffering; the essay contends that Darwin utilized positiva theology in order to help justify (and inform) descent with modification and to attack special creation. Second, the essay offers critical analysis of this theology, drawing in part on Darwin’s mature ruminations to suggest that, from an epistemic point of view, the Origin‘s positiva theology manifests several internal tensions. Finally, the essay reflects on the relative epistemic importance of positiva theology in the Origin‘s overall case for evolution. The essay concludes that this theology served as a handmaiden and accomplice to Darwin’s science.

Also from the British Journal for the History of Science:

By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science

Matthew Stanley

Abstract James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory famously unified many of the Victorian laws of physics. This essay argues that Maxwell saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws. He postulated a variation on the design argument that focused on the unity of phenomena rather than Paley’s emphasis on complexity. This argument of Maxwell’s is shown to be connected to his particular evangelical religious views. His evangelical perspective provided encouragement for him to pursue a unified physics that supplemented his other philosophical, technical and social influences. Maxwell’s version of the argument from design is also contrasted with modern ‘intelligent-design’ theory.

BOOK REVIEW: Brian Switek’s “Written in Stone”

Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. By Brian Switek. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2010. 320 pp. Illustrations, notes, references, index. $16.95 (paper).

It’s Monday, and many of you are probably getting back to school or work from a nice holiday vacation. Did you enjoy your turkey? Did you think about evolution while you feasted? Check out this clip of paleontologist Robert T. Bakker from the TLC show Paleoworld (you know, back when they had shows worth watching):

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all had a Bakker to make our Thanksgiving meal a science education opportunity? (If you wish to explore Thanksgiving dinosaurs further, try this activity from the University of California Museum of Paleontology.)

Two parts to cover: background image of nautiloids represents the material fossils themselves; foreground image of a label represents human understanding of fossils, i.e., a specimen card

Birds are descended from dinosaurs. But there is a lot of history to that idea. Paleontologists did not simply uncover fossils of dinosaurs and realize that living birds are a surviving lineage of theropods. Where can one turn to learn of all this? Brian Switek, whose blog Laelaps (in its current evolutionary stage with Wired) I have been reading for several years now, has just published his first book, Written in Stone. Each chapter focuses on a particular group of animals that we now have great fossil evidence showing their evolutionary history: birds, whales, early rodent-like mammals, elephants, horses, and humans, to name a few. We come away with a full understanding of the branching nature of the evolution of life on Earth, as Switek dispels the notion of progressive, ladder-like, and human-oriented evolution. He also gives us the sense of the vast amount of extinct vertebrates (relatives of ours included), for some of what we see on the planet today – horses, for example –  are just a peek of the diversity of forms in the groups in which they are nested. “To focus solely upon our ancestors is to blind ourselvves to our own evolutionary context” (21).

Brian Switek

Photo credit: Tracey Switek

Wielding a wealth of science information while attending to historical detail, Written in Stone offers a very-readable narrative of how European and American scientists have understood fossils over the centuries. While not an academic historian – he is a freelance science writer and a Research Associate in paleontology at the New Jersey State Museum – Switek gives importance to the historical development of ideas in paleontology. Here we are introduced to not only various species of vertebrate animals and the myriad of transitional forms bridging them, but also to their discoverers and the thoughts of those who have studied them (in some cases, this includes indigenous peoples, with a nod to the work of Adrienne Mayor).

One of the criticisms Darwin knew he would receive on publishing On the Origin of Species was that the fossil record was incomplete. Maybe so, but move ahead in time a century and a half, and the amount of material evidence for past life on earth is remarkable, thousands upon thousands of specimens across the kingdoms packed away or lining cabinet drawers in museum collections worldwide, a minute percentage on view to the public. Despite what we do have, it will never be complete, and the answers to paleontologists’ questions about what animal is related to another, and how are those in turn related to this group will never be, well, set in stone. Like any field of science, paleontology is an ongoing human process. Ideas are constantly refined based on new evidence or someone coming along and looking at things differently. In Written in Stone, Switek shows us that in paleontology, this is definitely the case.

There are generally two ways we could look at the history of paleontology. One, as Switek does, is to tell the story of those involved (we get Darwin, Huxley, Owen, Marsh, and Cope, but we also learn about a lot of relatively unknowns, too, such as Albert Gaudry; and there’s a female paleontologist as well, Jennifer Clack), their ideas, conflicts and competition between figures, and the contingent nature of history – this happened, so therefore this happened; or, this only happened because this happened. We receive such history for the early nineteenth century all the way up to, well, now. Just as evolution is contingent (what say you, Gould?), certain events can happen that change the course of paleontological history. For example, Switek tells us about how only when a graduate student dropped a specimen did that act help to understand the evolutionary history of whales. Today, CT scanning is the norm in paleontology for peering into the insides of bones. Before, such were chance opportunities, or, deliberative slicing of specimens.

The other, which Switek acknowledges but does to a lesser degree (but he does get some in there!), is to show how factors seemingly beyond the purview of science actually inform it, and vice versa (how culture, politics, economics, geography, etc. play a role in the conduct of science). “The places paleontologists looked for fossils and how those fossils have been interpreted have been influenced by politics and culture, reminding us that while there is a reality that science allows us to approach the process of science is a human endeavour” (23). Covering so much about geology, the age of the earth, and fossils of animals, Switek shows how religion affected the ideas of some naturalists or paleontologists. We learn how politics enabled naturalists to travel, “natural science, pressed into the service of empire” (69, 181, 183); of the public’s thirst for spectacles (145); how national pride pitted Thomas Jefferson against the Comte de Buffon concerning large mammals in North America; and how Philip Henry Gosse attacked evolution because of personal reasons (204-5).

And, so what? Does it matter if we understand how life on Earth evolved? Yes, it surely does, since we are part of that story. In the last two pages of the penultimate chapter and in the short final chapter, Switek pulls his thoughts together and unpretentiously puts us in our place. “We are merely a shivering twig that is the last vestige of a richer family tree.” If that saddens you, then: “Life is most precious when its unity and rarity are recognized, and we are among the rarest of things.” Humans are just like any other organism on the planet, and all should be appreciated together.

There have been several books over the last few years that look at the evidence for evolution (particularly, Richard Dawkins’s The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True, and another to be published next June, The Evidence for Evolution by Alan R. Rogers). What value, then, is Written in Stone? One, because it is so very well-written by a young writer. And two, for its coverage of the history of science, however limited. Three, it is the perfect antidote to the ignorance of some members of our society [largely creationists; however, Switek does not explicity engage with anti-evolutionists in his book, rather, his text works as “letting the evidence speak for itself,” or, as Switek states, “the bones of our distant ancestors… should speak to us from the earth” (18)]. For example, I think someone needs to send this woman a copy of Written in Stone for the holidays:

That said, Mr. Switek, congratulations on writing a fantastic book about evolution, which I think could be titled Strange Beings à la Darwin (see this 1863 letter from Hugh Falconer to Darwin, which Switek quotes in the book). I look forward to meeting you at Science Online 2011 in January! (Switek also blogs for Smithsonian’s Dinosaur Tracking Blog.)

Evolution Game: Evolve or Perish

Evolve or Perish boardgame

From the ETE Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History comes “Evolve or Perish,” an evolution-based version of Chutes & Ladders:

you use chips and a die to reach the finish. Evolve or Perish, however, also takes you through 630 million years of evolution from life in the sea to life on land. A glossary explains important events. Evolve or Perish can be played at two levels, beginner and advanced.

You can print the board and instructions from the website. The artist is Hannah Bonner. Hat-tip to Brian Switek‘s twitter feed (@Laelaps).