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Chapter 2 Science in the Service of Loss It is not too much to say that every spot which is now dry land has been sea at some former period, and every part of the space now covered by the deepest ocean has been land.1 19 THE LOST WORLDS OF DEEP TIME Lemuria Wrst surfaced to visibility in the by-lanes of Victorian science, but the foundations for the metropolitan fascination with Earth’s lost worlds and vanished pasts were laid in the closing decades of the eighteenth century with two important developments. The Wrst of these was the discovery of “deep time” in the 1780s.2 Up until then, most scientists and educated opinion considered the earth to be about 6,000 years old. Yet this reckoning , based on Biblical chronology, was soon at odds with the nascent science of geology, which was fast revealing that the earth’s surface had undergone vast transformations at a rate that could not be accommodated within such a short time span. Beginning with the Comte de Buffon, who estimated the age of the world to be around 75,000 years in 1774, many scientists progressively jettisoned the Christian calendar in favor of a new secular chronology in which the birth of Earth as a functioning planet was pushed further and further back in time. In Robert Wood’s estimation, “to join battle with the ‘prejudice of human time’ (i.e., to accommodate all past times to the scale provided by human memory) was to prove the great crusade of the heroic age of Geology.”3 By the opening years of the nineteenth century, the limits of humanly remembered time had been blasted. The bottom had dropped out of a hitherto Wnite earth history, opening up a deep (and to some, a dark) abyss, waiting to be Wlled by human imagination. As important was the realization that in its journey through deep time, the earth had undergone massive changes that had radically altered its surface . Not only was it not created at one stroke nor was it heading toward an inevitable doomsday, as orthodox Christian theology would have it, but it had also not remained static. Instead, “from the top of the mountain to the shore of the sea . . . everything is in a state of change,” wrote James Hutton in his revolutionary Theory of the Earth (1788).4 In phrases he made famous, Hutton wrote evocatively of “a succession of worlds” that had followed one after another, so that “we Wnd no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”5 As a consequence of the ceaseless rhythm of erosion and sedimentation , continents were slowly worn down and, sinking to the bottom of the ocean, were raised again as new continents. The earth is therefore a selfrenewing creation of successive worlds, surfacing, disappearing, and reemerging . As Loren Eiseley observes, “In this eternal hurrying of particles across the surface of the land, in the dissolution of previous continents with all their varied life, there emerges once more into Western thought the long shadow of illimitable time.”6 From the early years of the new nineteenth century, William “Strata” Smith’s geological maps, soon to be followed by others, visually captured these former worlds as the science of cartography helped reveal, layer by layer, Earth’s passage through illimitable time.7 It was not just continents that appeared and disappeared over the longue durée of deep time, but all manner of living beings as well. As Eiseley writes, from the closing years of the eighteenth century there was growing awareness that “the past life of the earth . . . might offer marvels no living eye had beheld. . . . An anonymous contemporary writer spoke [in 1812] in an awed tone of perished species and the mystery of how new species originated.”8 The term “lost species,” which had been originally formulated in the sixteenth century, found a renewed life in the latter half of the eighteenth and the opening decades of the nineteenth centuries, as natural historians, paleontologists , and fossil hunters became preoccupied with “vanished beasts” who had roamed the earth in “former ages.”9 In French paleontologist Georges Cuvier’s influential theory of catastrophism, “life in those times was often disturbed” as a consequence of periodic oceanic floods and the subsidence of lands which punctuated earth’s passage through deep time: “Numberless living things were victims of such catastrophes: some, inhabitants of the dry land, were engulfed in deluges; others, living in the heart of...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780520931855
Related ISBN
9780520240322
MARC Record
OCLC
56733653
Pages
351
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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