Cover image for When geologists were historians, 1665-1750
When geologists were historians, 1665-1750
Rappaport, Rhoda.
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Publication Information:
Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, [1997]

Physical Description:
x, 308 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


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QE13.E85 R36 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"An essential perspective for those seeking a serious introduction to early geological science and a fundamental point of departure for future research.... No other book has this scope and conceptual focus."--Kenneth L. Taylor, University of OklahomaIn the years between 1665 and 1750, geology was a new kind of science, combining physical law with historical process. Rhoda Rappaport explains its novelty and provides a transnational account of the development of geological thinking. She begins with the establishment of formal institutions of international exchange, including the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and the Journal des savants in Paris, and shows how new media fostered increasing communication among scientists, particularly in England, France, and Italy. Early geological thinking was thoroughly integrated with epistemology, historical and biblical scholarship, natural philosophy, and natural history. Ancient written documents supplemented what was called "physical conjecture," providing human witnesses to past events. How to combine elements of law, empirical observations, and texts posed serious problems in debates about the biblical flood, which Rappaport presents as a prime example of a well-attested historical event. Buffon argued forcefully that geology should be wholly a physical science and that historical texts were irrelevant to the reconstruction of physical processes. Rappaport explains how his contemporaries responded to this novel proposal and how Buffon heralded the end of an era.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Rappaport offers a scholarly examination of a period prior to Hutton and Lyell, in which nature philosophers struggled to interpret Earth's history both in the light of physical laws and according to recorded history and ancient myths. Beginning with the establishment of learned European scientific societies, Rappaport uses the period's literature on fossils and the biblical flood, among other topics, as themes to examine how scientists of the Age of Newton strained to interpret their spatially and temporally limited geological observations in a reasonable light. She exposes a stage in the development of geology when the learned recognized that nature follows physical laws, yet found it reasonable to hold that miracles explained some geologic observations, that Earth had little or no prehuman history, and that ancient writings could be used to support the new science. When Geologists Were Historians is not a broad-brush overview but a serious, scholarly examination of the geological literature and correspondence of the period. Recommended particularly to libraries building strength in the history of science. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty. E. R. Swanson; University of Texas at San Antonio