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Inventing the Earth: Ideas on Landscape Development since 1740.

Inventing the Earth: Ideas on Landscape Development since 1740 by Barbara Kennedy, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2006, x + 160 pp., paper US$41.95 (ISBN 104051-0188-1)

Dr Kennedy begins on the defensive by asserting her book is not a textbook on the history of Earth Science, and certainly this reader is left at the end wishing perhaps that it had been instead. It is, as she states, a series of interlocked essays on key episodes that she sees as leading eventually to late twentieth century fluvial geomorphology. That rubric covers a great many possibilities, and the tag in each successive case discussed is to try to envisage the thinking that led to the invention of the concept in question viz: the Age of the Earth, the Ice Age, Modern Earth Science, the Geographical Cycle and so forth.

Dr Kennedy is an acerbic and entertaining guide to these landscapes of the mind that shape the landscape of the earth. Before one can begin with ANY even vaguely modern interpretation of a landscape--be it glacial, fluvial or arid, or indeed extra-terrestrial, it is assumed that one needs a modern 'geologic' timescale--the 'deep time' term, so beloved of recent historians in the historical sciences. This is the first substantive chapter and its structure illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the approach. We learn nothing of the Classical World's eternal and sometimes incisive views of landscape, nor of the fact that Newton's vast expansion of space carried with it the concomitant expansion of rime, or even that he was the first to speculate on the time it would take to cool a sphere as hot as the sun and as large as the earth--more than half a century before Buffon tried to do it. By thinking forwards, Newton was seeing backwards, and for all that aspects of Newtonian science languished in England in the century after his death, there is no denying, though it is perhaps rarely noted, the impact that his system of thought had on natural philosophers with a bent for natural history. It demanded simplicity, inductive reasoning, and in terms that Hutton found useful to echo a century later.

In Chapter 2, however, we jump from the Bible's account (throwing in for good measure the origin of the Earth) to Buffon's red-hot cannon balls, to Hutton's time without end, to Lyell's soothingly untrammelled uniformity, to, finally, Darwin versus Kelvin (stamp collecting versus Physics). Ultimately the whole issue vanishes with a puff of radiation and the problem is essentially solved in 1904. Each of the vignettes is interesting in its own way and characteristic of its period, but they don't add up to a very convincing story. Nor indeed is it clear that any particular vignette depends on the prior one. What did Hutton say about Buffon, and did it matter?

One could turn the whole question on its head and ask exactly how compelling was it to develop a concept of 'deep rime'? Are we not arguing from the present in seeing its importance? It is still something not easily conveyed to the general public. Deep time was an inductive consequence of the interpretation of the evidence as discovered. Between the rejection of a genealogical time scale from the Bible, which for private thinking after 1700 was a non-issue in the Protestant sphere, and the acceptance of a 'modern' time scale for the earth in an (un-referenced) 1953 paper by Patterson, it is not clear than anyone's work was hindered in the least way by any perspective on deep time. Nor is it clear that any work was aided by this view--since the endless ruler of rime was as unmarked as it was immeasurable. The converse is not quite the case because the Biblical Geologists, active even in Lyell's day, did come to quite firm conclusions from their assumption of a well-marked ruler for time, and even into the late nineteenth century this coloured their view of world. The Missoula Flood controversy (1920s onwards), it might be argued, was so in part because the concept of deep time and slowly operating processes was so deep and unmarked (even the extent of post-glacial time was still wide open) and so deeply embedded in the geologist's mind, that the catastrophe revealed was truly unimaginable.

I am being querulous you will say. I am merely stating that the issue of time and its effect on geological thinking is an important one, but in rehearsing the same story with different actors I feel some valuable insights have been lost. Oddly, for a fluvial geomorphologist who is naturally interested in wearing away the mountains, Dr Kennedy makes no mention subsequent to Buffon of the first attempts to mark the immeasurable with global and synchronous periods of mountain building. The use of fossils for marking time, as opposed to stratigraphic position, was not well developed, and especially not for earlier geological time, until late in the nineteenth century.

But, in an account that does not attempt to be a history, one will always be able to pick quarrels with the coverage. Later chapters deal, sometimes quite briefly, with Lyell's uniformitarianism, the Ice Age, the American West, Davisian Cycles and then the postwar world. It has to be said that Kennedy is always insightful and potentially controversial in her remarks, and used as a graduate seminar text her book will serve admirably. It is particularly useful for her intimate knowledge of the makers and shakers in the second hall of the twentieth century. Simply using her 'family tree' (Figure 8.2) of the intellectual descendants of A.N. Strahler for a set of essays would yield most of the requirements of a graduate course in the history of the subject. It is ironic that the subject was most heavily quantitative at a time before computational needs were remotely sufficient to meet the needs, or to conveniently handle or display the data.

There is a useful glossary of technical terms, and two or three line potted biographies covering the main characters. The bibliography is useful, although very few items predate 1800.


Brock University
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Author:Tinkler, Keith
Publication:The Canadian Geographer
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2007
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