Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute

Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute

by James A. Secord


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Secord gives a dazzlingly detailed account of this scientific trench warfare and its social consequences. One ends up with a marvellous feeling for the major taxonomic enterprises in Darwin's younger day: mapping, ordering, conquering 'taming the chaos" of the strata. All of these of course had social and imperial ramifications; and Secord mentions geology's moral appeal (in supporting a divinely-stratified Creation) to a beleaguered elite intent on subduing the lower orders.

Originally published in 1986.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691605845
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #61
Pages: 386
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.10(d)

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Controversy in Victorian Geology

The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute

By James A. Secord


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-08417-6


Controversy and Classification

Geology enjoyed a remarkable popular success in Victorian England. Crowds thronged to the geological section at the annual meetings of the British Association for the Advancement of Science; Hugh Miller's works sold like fashionable novels; geological imagery graced poems, plays, and common speech. Without the slightest touch of intended irony Tennyson placed geology next to astronomy as a "terrible muse." But as a subject of serious research the science was pursued even in its Victorian heyday by only a small group of men. This coterie of active researchers centered its activities in the Geological Society of London, founded in 1807 as the first specialist society devoted to the exploration of the mineral structure of the globe. From the end of the second decade of the century onwards the Society's leaders exercised almost complete control over creative innovation in the earth sciences in Britain, directing an enterprise focused on the determination of stratigraphical order. The sixty-year battle over the boundary between the Cambrian and Silurian systems of strata was fought out almost entirely within an elite of the Geological Society, whose social organization and scientific practices conditioned the course and indeed the very possibility of such a debate.

The world of the metropolitan geologists revolved on a seasonal calendar: winter and spring were highlighted by spirited discussions at meetings of the Geological Society, and summer and autumn were spent in mapping and classifying strata. Accordingly, we begin in the meeting rooms at Somerset House, and then turn to the "grand and sublime scenes of nature" to be found in the field.

A Forum for Debate

By the time Sedgwick and Murchison began the work that was to lead to the dispute, the Geological Society had established highly effective procedures for validating new knowledge about the strata. In particular, the organization's meetings and publications provided geologists with carefully circumscribed forums for debate, a process of mutual criticism that culminated in the famous discussions following the reading of papers before the assembled Fellows. These discussions, which occurred at fortnightly intervals, were widely hailed as the most exciting in scientific London. Many of the Fellows were eloquent speakers, possessing the enviable gift of infusing interest into the driest topics. On occasion the arguments echoed through the halls of Somerset House until the small hours of the morning. The quality of the meetings led even the misanthropic Charles Babbage to exclude the organization from his strictures of 1830 on the supposed decline of science in England. "It possesses all the freshness, the vigour, and the ardour of youth in the pursuit of a youthful science," he wrote, "and has succeeded in a most difficult experiment, that of having an oral discussion on the subject of each paper read at its meetings." As Babbage's remarks suggest, such debates (introduced in 1822-1823) represented a considerable innovation for a scientific society in the early nineteenth century. In the wake of contemporary social and political unrest, many considered the geologists rather bold for allowing disputation so central a place in scientific discourse. The sprightly disagreements characteristic of the early Royal Society had faded during its eighteenth-century somnolence, and by the time the Geological Society was founded, many Fellows of the Royal actually maintained that discussions of any sort were precluded by their charter. As a result, throughout most of the nineteenth century the Royal Society meetings suffered a deserved reputation for dullness. Members of the Astronomical Society (founded in 1820), confident of the certainty of their subject, believed it unsuited to discussion. The Linnean Society, dating from 1788, avoided controversy even more assiduously. In order to prevent their meetings from becoming a forum for specialized debate, the subjects of forthcoming papers were never announced in advance. A policy more diametrically opposed to that of the Geological Society is difficult to imagine. Thomas Bell, who finally introduced active discussions at the Linnean during his long presidency in the 1850s, recalled predictions of "the ruin of the Society" and fears that the "meeting room would become the arena of almost gladiatorial combats of rival intellects."

Many men of science discountenanced debates because their immediacy precluded the patient reflection believed requisite for careful scientific work. In the individualistic and competitive world of Victorian science, tempers might flare in open discussion. Sceptics pointed across the Channel for a lesson in the dangers of unrestricted debate, for the conduct of scientific controversy in Europe appeared bitter and vindictive to English eyes. Disputes like those between Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and between Léonce Élie de Beaumont and Louis-Constant Prévost bore the taint of jobbery, with intimate ties to favoritism and the unfair use of patronage. Unrestricted controversy, it was thought, could easily lead English naturalists into "the dreary wild of politics" that continually distracted their Continental counterparts. Given this wariness of controversial excess, it is hardly surprising that even the geologists occasionally betrayed nervousness about the inflammatory character of verbal combat. William Fitton, a fiery-tempered Irishman and no stranger to controversy himself, stressed soon after the innovation had been introduced "the self-command that renders both agreeable and instructive the conversations (I will not call them discussions — much less debates) with which it is now our practice to follow up the reading of memoirs at our table." Fitton's euphemistic dodging of even the hint of controversy is evident, and other presidents were similarly at pains to point to the dispassionate atmosphere of the meetings. While the geologists studiously avoided political controversy, the argumentative style of their debates possessed something of a parliamentary air. A Fellow usually made only one or two contributions to a discussion, often in prepared speeches of some length. Speaking styles and acceptable methods of delivery were generally more formal than those characteristic of most modern scientific meetings, although jokes, innuendoes, and repartee often added spice to the proceedings. Like their parliamentary counterparts, the geologists were conscious of performing for an audience accustomed to brilliant oratory. Several leading Fellows — including George Greenough, George Poulett Scrope, and Henry Warburton — were members of both Parliament and the Geological Society. Even the parallel rows of facing benches at the Geological Society mimicked the arrangements at Westminster, although the soporific Society of Antiquaries, which had a similar seating plan, demonstrated that this was no guarantee of controversial vigor.

The English geologists prided themselves above all on the sportsmanlike quality of their scientific sparring (Fig. 1.2). In a presidential address to the Geological Society of Dublin, J. Beete Jukes complimented the sister society in London on the temperance of its discussions:

Geologists have ever been remarkable, perhaps above every class of scientific men, for the cordial union, the hearty good fellowship, which has knit them together into a band of brothers. Their contentions and dissensions have almost ever been kept down to mere means of eliciting the spark of truth by the collision of various intellects, or at most have been displays of personal strength and skill, knightly combats in all honour and love, preceded and ended by the cordial shake of the hand, which is the manly habit even of our common pugilists.

Or as Babbage wrote in a similar vein, "the continuance of these discussions evidently depends on the taste, the temper, and the good sense of the speakers." At the end of his life Sedgwick recalled the early members as "robust, joyous, and independent spirits, who toiled well in the field, and who did battle and cuffed opinions with much spirit and great good will." On occasion, of course, questions of personality and politics arose in English geological controversy: Jukes's own comment, for example, came as a direct response to the disagreement between Sedgwick and Murchison, eventually "the most noted instance of the odium geologicum which the history of British science has yet offered." But for the most part, geologists lauded themselves for patching up their disagreements as gentlemen and remaining friends.

The Geological Society could encourage debate within its walls in part because it was so thoroughly dominated by a small group of leading researchers. Although the membership of the Society totalled well into the hundreds throughout the century, at any one time the central elite numbered nearer a dozen. Like any elect, these leading Fellows were acutely aware of the precise membership of the circle of "believers." The same names crop up as officers, as participants at meetings, as contributors to Society publications, and as members of the governing Council. When one considers the friendships, joint papers, inside jokes, constant interchange of letters, and exclusive dining club, it comes as no surprise to learn that some outsiders accused a clique of controlling the organization's affairs. "It is a great difficulty," wrote Charles Moxon in 1842 of the meetings, "to find any assemblage beyond the president, curator, secretary, Messrs. Fitton, De la Beche, and one or two others, and their friends." In a similar but more positive vein, the youthful Andrew Ramsay once compared the Geological Society to a family. During the 1830s and 1840s, the period of the Society's greatest success, the leading members constituted an urban social and scientific elite. Like Lyell, Darwin, Fitton, Murchison, and Greenough, most possessed independent incomes of varying size and security. A few, notably Buckland from Oxford and Sedgwick from Cambridge, were beneficed academics, holders of the few university chairs in England devoted to the natural sciences. Almost none were professional men of science in the economic sense except for the few involved in the official Geological Survey, which was founded in 1832 but did not achieve substantial size until in the 1840s. Whatever their source of income, all had pledged themselves to a geological vocation. For aspirants to this status in the higher and lower reaches of the social scale, this could be decidedly difficult (or even impossible) to do. "It is a tyrannical study," the aristocratic Charles Bunbury complained of his troubles in becoming an adept in the science, "which requires the devotion of a man's whole time and thoughts, to do anything great in it." On the opposite end of the spectrum the Coventry ribbon weaver Joseph Gutteridge lamented that lack of means and leisure precluded serious geological research by the working class. The relatively homogenous social background of those at the center of British geology ensured a very broad consensus on religious and political issues. One scarcely expected to find freethinking secularists and Scriptural literalists frequenting the rooms of a scientific society in Somerset House. Given basic agreement on these issues among the leading Fellows, the give-and-take of constant debate could form the principal pattern of discourse in English geology without splitting the already small group of active geologists into warring factions of party or class.

Most of those at any particular meeting of the Society were not, however, members of this elite; they came instead simply to listen and learn. A combination of various partial records suggests that attendance ranged anywhere from twenty-five to fifty Fellows and their guests, with especially exciting papers (like one by Louis Agassiz on the ice age) drawing up to a hundred or more. Such a crowd probably exceeded the seating capacity of the meeting room. Most of the men attending — women were not admitted until the present century — had only a general interest in geology and were there to hear the speeches, comments, and rebuttals from the half-dozen or so on the front benches who were really knowledgeable about the topic under discussion. Sir Robert Peel, John Ruskin, John Lockhart, and other Victorian notables occasionally attended the debates, and professors like Sedgwick or Robert Grant of University College often brought their most promising pupils.

The importance of debate in judging and establishing new geological knowledge in Victorian England can scarcely be overstressed. The discussions provided entertainment for the nongeological visitor, instruction for the novice, and peer evaluation for the expert few. As Murchison told the assembled Fellows in 1833, nearly a decade after debate was introduced, "The ordeal ... our writings have to pass through in the animating discussions ... within these walls, may be considered as the true safeguard of our scientific reputation." The debates set methodological standards and offered opportunities for announcing new results, establishing priority claims, and achieving consensus on nomenclature and classification. Rather than representing a breakdown in a process of rational agreement, debate within the Society was the anticipated norm. Thus delivery before the small community of geologists at Somerset House, not publication, was usually the most important moment in the history of a paper. Darwin summed up the situation to a friend while finishing his book on the geology of South America:

As for your pretending that you will read anything so dull as my pure geological descriptions, lay not such a flattering unction on my soul for it is incredible. I have long discovered that geologists never read each other's works, and that the only object in writing a book is a proof of earnestness, and that you do not form your opinions without undergoing labour of some kind. Geology is at present very oral, and what I here say is to a great extent quite true.

Notably, the Society strictly prohibited any published mention of the discussions, presumably to avoid the indignity of having their disagreements aired in print. The secretary placed abstracts of the formal communications to the Society in official Proceedings, in the weekly Athenaeum and Literary Gazette, and in the monthly Philosophical Magazine. Full versions were usually published (albeit with painful slowness) in the quarto Transactions of the Geological Society or, after 1845, in the more expeditiously printed Quarterly Journal. But any editor who included the smallest scrap of a discussion received an angry letter from the officers. Thus controversy in its main forum was ephemeral, and the importance of debate for early Victorian geology is scarcely evident in the materials that reached the hands of a publisher. As a result of the rule of silence, the oral history of scientific disputes must be reconstructed from manuscript letters and diaries.

The limits on the reporting arose for several reasons. Many felt that the freedom of the discussions depended on their being kept in relative confidence. Outsiders could attend, but only at the invitation of a Fellow, and consequently the meetings possessed something of the character of an exclusive debating society. In addition, geologists wished to maintain a public image of their science as a stable, ordered enterprise, an "inductive science" akin to astronomy or physics. An undue reputation for controversy would tarnish this image and make geological knowledge seem uncertain and provisional, an easy target for Scriptural geologists and others outside the pale. The language of geology also became increasingly technical and esoteric in the course of the century, and opportunities for errors in reporting by nonspecialists multiplied accordingly. This concern for accuracy led to an understandable desire for strict control over new geological information reaching the public. The annual meeting every February, at which the president read a lengthy address on the achievements of the preceding year, provided the principal occasion for an official evaluation of the state of knowledge. Another mark of the same tendency is found in general periodicals, such as the Edinburgh, the Quarterly, and the Athenaeum; almost all their reviews of geological books were written by members of the inner circle of specialized experts.


Excerpted from Controversy in Victorian Geology by James A. Secord. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Illustrations, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xv
  • Manuscript Sources, pg. xix
  • Introduction, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER ONE. Controversy and Classification, pg. 14
  • CHAPTER TWO. Collaboration and Contrasts, pg. 39
  • CHAPTER THREE. Cambria and Siluria Established, pg. 69
  • CHAPTER FOUR. The Spread of Siluria, pg. 110
  • CHAPTER FIVE. Restructuring Wales, pg. 144
  • CHAPTER SIX. Revivals of the Cambrian, pg. 173
  • CHAPTER SEVEN. Professional Geology and the Quest for Priority, pg. 202
  • CHAPTER EIGHT. The Battle of May Hill, pg. 242
  • CHAPTER NINE. The Creation of an Alternative, pg. 276
  • Conclusion, pg. 312
  • Abbreviations, pg. 319
  • Bibliography, pg. 321
  • Index, pg. 349

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