A Triumph of Historical Excavation

The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists

by Martin J.S. Rudwick
University of Chicago Press, 494 pp., $39.95

To begin the second act of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, Lady Jane enters a bare set, seats herself before her cello, and in two verses bemoans the changes of increasing age. In the first, or conventional, account, she laments what she has lost with the years, but in the second (speaking mostly of weight) she reports a steady increase: “There will be too much of me in the coming by and by!” The humor of this song plays upon our onesided notion that anything old must become battered, worn, and increasingly bereft of information.

Scholars often make the same false assumption that contemporary cases must provide optimal data, while the records of scientific work steadily decrease in depth and reliability as they grow older and older. We might therefore suppose that, to understand science, a historian or sociologist should study debates and discoveries now in the making. Yet a moment’s thought about our technological age should expose the fallacy in such a position. Our machines have generally made data more ephemeral, or left it simply unrecorded. The telephone is the greatest single enemy of scholarship; for what our intellectual forebears used to inscribe in ink now goes once over a wire into permanent oblivion.

Moreover, in losing the art of writing letters, many scientists have abandoned the written word in a great many previous applications, from diaries (now passed from fashion) to lab notebooks (now punched directly in “machine-readable” format). The present can be a verbal wasteland. Paradoxically, then, our most copious data should, like Lady Jane, occupy a comfortable middle age—old enough to avoid our modern technological debasement, and young enough to forestall the inevitable losses of time’s destruction.

“The great Devonian controversy” occurred during the 1830s, an optimal decade probably unmatched for density of recorded detail. The controversy began with an apparently minor problem in dating the strata in Devonshire; it ended with a new view of the history of the earth. Martin Rudwick can usually trace the course of its enormously varied and complex changes on a daily basis; little more than conversations over ale and coffee, or bedtime thoughts before candle snuffing, seems to be missing. But density of data makes no case for significance on the fallacious premise that “bigger is better.” The subject must also be important and expansive. After a superficial first glance, most readers of good will and broad knowledge might dismiss The Great Devonian Controversy as being too much about too little. They would be making one of the biggest mistakes in their intellectual lives.

I want to state right away how much I respect and admire Martin Rudwick’s book for its rigor, its insights, and its uncompromising intellectual integrity. It is, in a phrase I rarely use, a masterpiece of scholarship. I make this clear because I disagree with its central interpretation of the controversy, and reach a conclusion opposite to Rudwick’s for what. I regard as an interesting (not merely ornery) reason. Only the best books can be praised…

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