Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Map That Changed the World by Simon Winchester

Source of book: I own this.


The history of beliefs about the age of the earth make for an interesting pattern. Every culture has its own origin tales and creation stories. My eldest had to read a bunch of them for literature last year, in fact, and found them fascinating. While not about creation myths exclusively, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces paints a fascinating picture of the similarities and their likely origin in the human psyche. After all, we have an innate need to understand our origins - and perhaps even more so, to understand our purpose. To this end, we write origin stories.

The evidence is strong that the ancients didn’t view truth as primarily empirical data. This is why even a good historian such as Herodotus places obviously fictional scenes in his histories. The point wasn’t so much “accuracy” as we moderns would understand it, but the narrative itself. The stories have meaning, and that meaning isn’t primarily literal. What a war means to the people who tells of it therefore will tend to win out over truth in many cases. (See the Lost Cause Myth, for a modern American example.) One can easily draw an analogy to creation myths as well. They are told, not so much for their scientific accuracy, but because they make a point that is meaningful to the culture in which they are told. Thus, even within a culture, the stories are not expected to be literally, factually true, but that they tell a truth about human existence.

Let me give an example: the kids and I have been touring the Western national parks over the last few years. The American Southwest is one of the last places in our nation where Native American historical sites have been preserved, along with the cultures which birthed them. Many of the sites have taken the time to find storytellers of the old myths, and the videos which resulted are fascinating. (In particular, Mesa Verde National Park has an extensive collection on video and in print on the origin myths told past and present by the builders of the Ancestral Pueblo civilization and their descendents.)

But here is the thing: as far as I can tell, most of the storytellers don’t believe that humans literally crawled out of a hole in the ground from the underworld. To make that literal idea the point of the myth is silly - and cheapens it. It’s like the person who tries to reduce a symphony to the mathematical calculation of the frequencies.

This is why, in my view, ancient peoples were not as wedded to our modern understanding of factual truth like we are. While the Genesis creation stories (and yes, there are two contradictory stories in the first two chapters) may reflect a genuine Ancient Near East belief about creation and the structure of the universe, I am not necessarily convinced that the editors who assembled the Old Testament during and after the exile believed every word to be factual truth. In fact, I think they would have given a truly awkward look at someone who insisted on that.

Having been raised Fundamentalist (in the cultural sense as well as the doctrinal sense), it was rather a surprise to me to discover a number of years ago that a literal reading of Genesis is actually a modern affectation, and most assuredly NOT the historical view of the Church. None less than St. Augustine warned against Christians making total fools of themselves by asserting literal interpretations that conflicted with scientific discoveries.

Well, what happened then? As the Middle Ages gave way to the so-called Modern era, a new approach to science started to take hold. In contrast to the Ancient Greek approach - abstract thought rather than messy experimentation and testing - a new scientific method based on observation, objectivity, and reproducible experiments became the norm. Along with that came a belief in reason rather than dogma. We call this (and related developments) The Enlightenment. While there is evidence that The Enlightenment was a mixed bag, like any human school of thought, it certainly changed the world, in many ways for the better.

The problem came when theologians decided to approach the ancient text of the Bible using Enlightenment tools. Instead of seeing the creation myths as holding spiritual and poetic truths, they……….did math.

While he wasn’t the first, James Ussher was the one who most definitely fixed the date of creation. (In case you wondered, it was the year 4004 BCE, on Monday, October 23, at precisely 9:00 AM. God is apparently not a morning person.) Yeah, feel free to laugh a bit at the pseudo-precision.

Sadly, Ussher’s view soon became the dominant belief in “Christian” Europe and America - displacing the older viewpoint.

It is with this background that Simon Winchester begins his story of one of the lesser-known names in modern science: William Smith, the father of English geology.

Smith was born in humble circumstances, but had a sharp mind for both figures and practical engineering. He embarked on a successful career as an engineer, focusing on drainage, coal mining, and canals. As a result, he came in direct contact with the various strata of rock underlying England. He was astute enough to notice that the rocks were always in the same order, regardless of where along the uplift band you were, and the fossils found in those rocks were predictable based on the stratum they were found in.

This ended up being the foundation on which the science of geology would rest. Smith’s work laid the foundation for Charles Lyell’s revolutionary theories, which in turn led to Darwin, and so on.

Smith is best known for his map - the one of the title - which is considered the first geologic map ever created. He spent 15 years working on it - which mean many, many miles of walking throughout England, taking samples, and comparing them. No drones or satellites were at his disposal, and the railroads and canals didn’t reach most of the places he needed to visit. So it was either an expensive horse-drawn conveyance, or, more often, his feet.

Smith’s story is a bit tragic in a way, however. Because he was a commoner, he was disrespected by many of the geologists of his day - who were part of the aristocracy. He was denied membership in the official society. But worse was the fact that his maps were brazenly plagiarized, undercutting his sales, and keeping him in relative obscurity. A combination of this and some poor financial decisions eventually led him to debtor’s prison.

Fortunately, after that, his life improved. He was recognized by the next generation of geologists as an important figure. His aristocratic rivals fell out of favor, and he was eventually given a pension by the Society so he could live out his twilight years in comfort.

As usual, Simon Winchester tells a compelling story, with just enough background information mixed in with the biographical to paint a complete picture. His writing is also rather good, adding to the experience, and making the arcane details interesting.

One observation in the book really struck me. In describing Smith’s humble background, but also his access to education - a relatively new thing in the 18th Century - he points out an argument which is still being used today by the privileged classes.

No matter the outcry that allowing the working classes to become educated was to debauch them and tempt them to abandon the manual labors for which they were best suited. “Nineteen in twenty of the species were designed by nature for trade and manufacture,” said a writer in The Grub-Street Journal at the time of Smith’s birth. “To take them off to read books is the way to do them harm, to make them not wiser or better, but impertinent, troublesome and factious.”

This was, of course, the argument during the Jim Crow era for why African Americans shouldn’t be educated at public expense. And it still continues today - I hear it from white right-wingers as an argument against diversity programs for higher education, and in the dismissive “they should be working another job if they have time to have sex” trope. At the heart, there is a belief that those at the lower strata of society should just accept their lot, their oppression, and be grateful that the upper class doesn’t starve them to death. Perhaps that is why education makes people “uppity”...

Winchester also makes a statement that really resonates with me. My first real break with my Fundamentalist upbringing occurred while I was still a child, and first understood the distances of stars. As we have been able to calculate stellar distances, the size of the universe has grown dramatically. (For how we calculate these distances, see How Old Is The Universe? by David Weintraub.) From there, it was easy to pivot to geology. In the American Southwest, the strata are pretty easy to see - as are the fossils. It is unmistakable that sediments have layers, and that they occur in particular orders. And that the fossils are consistent throughout the world. Here is Winchester on the revolutionary meaning of this discovery.

For the first time the earth had a provable history, a written record that paid no heed or obeisance to religious teaching and dogma, that declared its independence from the kind of faith that is no more than the blind acceptance of absurdity.

The blind acceptance of absurdity - and that is what so much of Evangelicalism is about these days. And not just regarding science. Whether it is the belief in the congenital inferiority of women, the persecution of sexual minorities, or vicious tribalism, to be Evangelical is to, of necessity, have faith that is blind acceptance of the absurd.

Here is St. Augustine, in words which ring true today:

It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.
The more things change…

Before creating the map, Smith intended to write a book. For various reasons, this never happened. (Which is probably a good thing. While Smith was brilliant in many ways, his writing was boring as heck.) I mention this in part because the prospectus contained this Alexander Pope epigram:

All Nature is but Art Unknown to Thee.
All Chance, Direction which thou canst not see.

While there are a number of secondary characters in the book who played important roles in the story, there are two I specifically wanted to mention. First is Smith’s archrival, George Bellas Greenough, who formed a perfect foil for Smith. Greenough was of the old school, where geology (and science in general) was meant to be done by thinking and writing, not field work. That sort of thing was for the common laborers. Like Smith. It was Greenough who plagiarized Smith’s work, and who kept Smith out of the Geological Society for decades. It wasn’t until he lost his grip on power that Smith was able to be recognized. A great line about Greenough was that he was thought to have a second-rate mind but first-rate connections.

The second character is that of Sir Joseph Banks, a man who is so inseparable from the great age of discovery and the English scientific establishment. As always, he comes across in this book as remarkably generous and egalitarian. I strongly recommend reading The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes for more on this extraordinary man.

One final word, on this book. I really enjoyed the chapter where Winchester tells of his own experience as a child, walking from school down to the beach, where he discovered a fossil. (To his regret, he lost it at some point before adulthood, and was never successful at finding one as perfect as that one.) It is clear that Winchester still has that sense of wonder - and it really comes through in his writing.

Fortunately, Winchester has written quite a few books, so I expect I will be enjoying his writing for years to come.


A few fossils from our perambulations:

This is from Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas: it is part of the Permian reef which also contains Carlsbad Caverns.

Cenozoic era fossil at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon. 

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