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253 Reviews Bursting the Limits ofTime:The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution by Martin J. S. Rudwick; pp. xxi + 708. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005. $35.00 cloth. How was it realized that the earth had a history, that this history could be deciphered, and that a chronological scale valid over the entire earth could be devised for deciphering this history? This is the story told by Martin Rudwick in his 700-page Bursting the Limits ofTime, a masterful and detailed book that continues and considerably expands his previous studies on fossils and on the history of geology.The period dealt with by Rudwick ranges from the mid-1770s to the early 1820s. This short time span was the heroic age of geology. Of course, this newly born science did not emerge out of nothing. It integrated major features of mineralogy, physical geography, physics of the earth, and the so-called geognosy. But compared to these disciplines, which shared the common aim of describing the present state of the earth, geology distinguished itself by taking on an essentially historical character. In the 1770s, the immensity of time was already recognized by quite a few acute observers.The vastness of time was a rather vague concept, however, as testified byVoltaire, who simply evoked a“prodigious multitude of centuries” when discussing the transformations that could be observed at the earth’s surface (chapter 15).The study of the earth had been suffering from excessive theorizing combined with a lack of field work. When naturalists eventually began to look carefully at nature’s productions, they did not know precisely what information they could make sense of. Likewise, they did not guess that the outcome of painstaking observations would be the idea that reconstructing the history of the earth was possible. From its beginning to its end, this is the blind man’s bluff game that Rudwick aptly describes with rich details. Volcanoes and fossils proved to be the most valuable sources of information : volcanoes, because their creation and their destruction by erosion demonstrated the rate at which large-scale processes could take place, and (even more importantly) fossils, because they provided naturalists with a chronology, without which there would be no history at all. Fossils, in fact, had long raised serious problems. Assuming that a few thousand years had elapsed since creation as described in Genesis, it was difficult to explain how the remains of former animals could be so ubiquitous, even at the top of the highest mountains. It was thus tempting to assume that fossils were instead sports of nature, namely, mineral counterfeits of living species growing within all kinds of rocks. However, these short natural time scales became untenable when careful observations proved that fossils were indeed actual organic remains. Fossils and time were thus closely connected. But moving from such a broad correlation to a practically useful chronology based on fossils required scientists to put both field observations and theorizing in the right perspective. victorian review • Volume 34 Number 2 254 This perspective had to be historical.When such a viewpoint was adopted in the second half of the eighteenth century, a new sense of history was becoming pervasive, as illustrated by the beginnings of archaeology at Pompeii, for example, or by the conclusion that the Pentateuch was not the writing of Moses, but a series of texts written at different times by different authors.This was no coincidence at all, as Rudwick emphasizes; the central thesis of his book is that “the sciences of the earth became historical by borrowing ideas, concepts, and methods from human historiography” (181).There were indeed many obvious analogies, for instance, between geological strata and passages of a book dating from different periods. The relative ages of geological strata could be derived from their stacking order. Comparisons then showed that similarities of fossils to living animals were greatest for the most recent strata. In contrast, strange remains were observed in the oldest rocks, raising the possibility that a number of species had become extinct. It was only when Georges Cuvier recreated the skeletons of unknown quadrupeds that the reality of extinction was demonstrated, because it was unlikely that such...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 253-255
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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