The Man Who Set the Clock Back


Large committees of the world’s finest zoologists have collaborated to write the great compendia of life’s taxonomic order, phylum by phylum in volume upon volume—as in the Cambridge Natural History of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or the French Traité de Zoologie of the mid-twentieth century. The American zoologist Libbie Henrietta Hyman (1888–1969), working alone, produced her six-volume work The Invertebrates by reading every primary text in its original language and preparing the drawings herself. She achieved as much (or more) than any of these committees in nearly thirty years between her first volume, on Protozoa, and her last, on Pulmonata (land snails), before Parkinson’s disease and the accumulated infirmities of old age forced her utterly ungentle passage—for I have never known a tougher or more passionately committed person—into that good night.

Hyman’s final entry, the initial volume of a long-projected series on mollusks, includes, in its preface, the most heroic understatement that I have ever read: Hyman says that she hopes to finish the several volumes on mollusks, but now realizes that she will probably not reach the last invertebrate group of her sequence, the ar-thropods. (To explain the poignancy, and the consciously sardonic character, of this remark, the arthropods, including insects, comprise more than 80 percent of all named animal species.) No single person, no monstrous consortium, can encompass nature’s unbounded richness. But Libbie Henrietta Hyman stayed her self-appointed course with indomitable valor and maximal effectiveness.

In 1815, the self-trained engineer William Smith, who dug canals and drained swamps for his day job, published a geological map of complex and novel design, remarkable accuracy, and uncommon beauty (not to mention its ample size of eight by six feet)—the first ever completed for an entire nation, as Smith included nearly all of England and Wales, with a bit of southern Scotland thrown in. His maps showed Britain’s geological strata—chronologically ordered layers of rock that he identified by the fossils peculiar to each interval of time. Smith based his “map that changed the world,” as Simon Winchester designates the project and outcome, on his own principles of construction, and almost entirely upon his personal fieldwork and observations—all done by stagecoach and shank’s mare at a time just before the development of railroads. Moreover, although Smith attracted significant patronage from high levels of Britain’s social and intellectual hierarchy, he came from “rude” stock of rural heritage (his father was a blacksmith)—an almost, but obviously not absolutely, insurmountable obstacle in a nation with social stratification even more inflexible than the lithological layering of its geologic stratigraphy.

Hyman and Smith both attained a legitimately heroic status, personally triumphing over an immense double handicap—not only doing the work of several lifetimes, in several fields of expertise, practically all by themselves, but also performing their singular labors in the face of deep prejudice. For Hyman struggled as a woman in the strongly misogynist culture of early- to mid-twentieth-century science, whereas Smith labored as a man of lower-class origins in the rigidly stratified social world of early-nineteenth-century Britain.

And if these impediments precluded full success for Hyman and Smith in their own terms and lifetimes, a more subtle prejudice has robbed such great scientists of their proper renown in history’s memory and honor. Observational studies of nature’s broad expanse—Hyman’s full range of taxonomic order, or Smith’s full panoply of geological time—have taken second place, in both popular and professional regard, to the experimental and quantitative approaches of astronomy or classical physics, often caricatured as “real” or “hard” science, based on predictive statements drawn from nature’s invariant and law-like structure. The natural history of taxonomic diversity or temporal change, by contrast, strikes many people as a simple, if admittedly compendious, description of theoretically uninteresting uniqueness—“just one damned thing after another,” in the old maxim about life itself. Thus the Smiths and Hymans enter history’s record as marginal underlings, mere scribes of order or bookkeepers of diversity.

Yet Smith and his colleagues achieved one of the greatest and most practically important reorderings of knowledge and perception in all our history. In 1750 most scholars measured the earth’s age in a few thousand years, and granted life no history of change at all. By 1850 all scientists accepted an earth of great antiquity and understood that sequential changes in the fossil record could unravel the linear order of time as revealed in the earth’s layered strata.

These strata could therefore be mapped as a temporal sequence, thus providing both practical treasures (in predicting, for example, the location of valuable coal seams and mineral deposits) and theoretical understanding. The bald claim of Winchester’s title includes not an ounce of hype. The first geological maps changed our basic concept of time’s length and life’s history in the most radical way imaginable. And yet, although every schoolchild at least encounters the names of Galileo and Newton—as well they should—how many of us have even heard of William Smith, or the German geologist A.G. Werner, or the Scottish philosopher James Hutton, or the English geologists Adam Sedgwick and Sir Roderick Murchison, or the other great thinkers and doers who granted history itself to both life and the earth?

The basic problem behind geological mapping presents far greater difficulty than most people imagine at first consideration. After all, one might reason, what could be so hard about mapping strata in temporal order; obviously, the layer on the bottom is oldest (first deposited), with each subsequent stratum from a successively younger time. Yes, and such a local principle had been recognized by the Danish scientist Nicolaus Steno and others in the mid-seventeenth century, and widely accepted even before Smith’s birth in 1769. But this local principle, called “superposition,” or temporal order by layering, while necessary for beginning the task, doesn’t speak to the heart of mapping’s central difficulty—the issue of “correlation,” that is, how to specify the temporal relations between a pile of strata in one place and another entirely disconnected pile hundreds of miles away. After all, your first pile may span an interval from 500 to 450 million years ago, and the second a much later period, say 200 to 150 million years ago. Or the two piles may represent the same span of time. How can you tell? And you cannot begin to make a coherent map without knowing.

Scientists had formulated the problem of correlation correctly from the start, but had then experimented at first with unworkable criteria. For example, the school of A.G. Werner held that nearly all strata had been deposited from a universal ocean in order of their density. Types of rock therefore became, in this view, the obvious criterion of correlation, with dense granites as oldest and light loams at the top of the pile. But rocks, as relatively simple physical objects formed under invariant laws of nature, can claim no distinctive temporal identity. Quartz, for example, represents the predictable ordering of silicon and oxygen ions under certain conditions of temperature and pressure, yet Cambrian quartz does not look distinctively different from yesterday’s quartz.

But fossils, as remains of the enormously complex, uniquely contingent, and utterly unrepeatable history of life, mark distinctive moments of time, and can therefore be used for correlation. Once dinosaurs die out, they can never return again, notwithstanding Jurassic Park; whereas quartz can form at any time, so long as the proper conditions and constituents still exist. One need not understand why fossils provide such a subtle and nuanced key both to the broad development and to quite specific moments of time’s sequence. That is, one need not recognize evolution as the mechanism of change or even, for that matter, that fossils are remains of organisms at all (although this longstanding issue had been resolved by Smith’s time). Indeed, Smith and most of his contemporaries never dared to imagine an evolutionary basis for a sequence that, in their view, must represent God’s order of sequential creation and removal. To make a geological map, one merely has to know that fossils change in a dependable, and globally consistent, linear order through the earth’s strata.

These changes from one stratum to the next are often subtle and elusive. We are not speaking, for the fine-scale correlation that Smith’s map of England required, of trilobites in one stratum, dinosaurs in the next, and mammoths in the top stratum—for anyone could learn to recognize such coarse divisions in five minutes. Instead, the invertebrate fossil record, the basis for most work in correlation, consists largely of subtle and nondirectional changes obeying no simple a priori principle of development or increasing complexity of form. No one has ever found a short cut. One has to learn the subtle differences among hundreds of similar species from hundreds of successive temporal zones—and this task, to say the least, is daunting, especially for a man like Smith, who had to apply this new principle without any rough taxonomic handbook or crude preliminary map to guide his efforts. Thus Smith not only had to scour the length and breadth (and depth, for mapping is a three dimensional problem) of England by stagecoach; he also had to amass an unsurpassed collection of fossils, all ordered by his new principle of temporal position rather than the old criterion of taxonomic affinity. Like Barkis in David Copperfield, fiction’s most memorable coachman, Smith was willin’—and more than merely able.


The story of William Smith could hardly present greater temptations to the phony moralizer or Hollywood romancer. The superficial version of his life, so rarely transcended by previous biographers, fits so easily into one of our most powerful canonical legends: “a poor boy, without means or formal education, overcomes apparently insurmountable obstacles of social and intellectual convention (the haughty rejection of the highly born for the first, and the dogmatic stupidity of the highly educated for the second), and eventually triumphs, after years of privation and painful rejection, by the power of his new and true ideas, and the courage of his convictions.” How can we resist such a tale? Such plot lines force messy truths into their well-worn grooves of expectation.

If I may cite my favorite recent example of how our deep preferences for certain kinds of stories debase life’s fascinating complexity, I have kept—ever since the event itself sent reality reeling into the distorting rules of another canonical story entitled “if only”—a file of accelerating thickness, filled with clippings (from daily journalism to academic poetry), each claiming that the Boston Red Sox would have won the 1986 World Series forthwith, thus exorcising the “curse of the Bambino” (no victory since 1918, in a drought initiated by the cynical sale of Babe Ruth to the hated Yankees)—if only Bill Buckner had fielded the ball that bounced between his legs in the most painful error of baseball’s history. But two tiny and utterly indisputable facts confute the irresistible myth: the score was tied at Buckner’s miscue (and good fielding would only have sent the game into extra innings of uncertain resolution, not into an immediate Boston bath of champagne); and the error did not extinguish Boston’s hopes, but only ended Game Six. The Sox could have won the Series in Game Seven, but they failed as God and the Bambino decided to continue their little experiment and keep Job in Mudville.

With this frame, I can summarize my feelings about Simon Winchester’s book in a statement that I do not intend as a disparagement of his fine effort, but as an admirer’s attempt to raise a serious issue about a wonderful, fascinating, heretofore neglected, and vitally important story. I do not understand why Winchester could achieve such clear and singular success in avoiding the trap of canonical legends, as he presents the life of William Smith in all its complexity and contradiction, and then fall so deeply and precipitously into the pit of caricature and oversimplification when he treats the surrounding scientific ideas about time and fossils, thus reinventing a Smith of ideological cardboard—after debunking the same kind of moral fantasy about Smith’s social life and works.

The real and more complex Smith strikes me as much more interesting, and much more comprehensible, than the legendary “poor boy of brilliant mind and exemplary character, who made good against impossible odds.” I can therefore only wonder why nearly all previous biographies have allowed the cardboard hero to stand. Moreover, despite a few literary lapses into purple (e.g., the “heavy-uddered cows drowsing in the afternoon sun” as a description of bucolic pleasure, or the “horny-handed toilers in the fields” for the inhabitants of such places), Winchester tells his story both concisely and wonderfully well. The human Smith of the following four themes, all stressed by Winchester, trumps the legend by evoking both our empathy and our admiration.

  1. Yes, Smith’s map of 1815 brought him some fame, but no fortune—and he spiraled downward into the ultimate shame of debtor’s prison, where he spent eleven weeks in 1819. Yes again, he then passed the following ten years in uncertain employment and no fixed abode until a new generation of geologists showered him with medals and accolades, thus making explicit amends (and granting Smith great pleasure in his old age) for the cruelty and rapaciousness of “gentleman” geologists in the previous generation.

And yet, as Winchester documents, Smith’s poverty and disgrace did not arise only from the injustice of others, as the legend loudly proclaims, but largely from his own imprudence. Like Mozart, Smith made more than enough money, based on fair wages that he could easily command for his unparalleled professional skills, to enjoy a comfortable life with property and servants. Smith did not drink or gamble his funds away, but he bought far more land and dwellings than he could possibly afford or maintain (perhaps, Winchester infers, to impress his wealthy clients with a false sense of his prosperity), and their mortgages assured his downfall.

  1. Smith stubbornly refused to follow several perfectly honorable and well-trodden paths to financial survival and recovery. In particular, he refused to escape from his creditors by moving to Russia or America, where he had been offered lucrative prospects of geological employment. (In the 1840s, for example, Louis Agassiz moved from bankruptcy in his native Switzerland to a second life of triumph in America.)

  2. Yes, as the legend holds, the gentlemen of the Geological Society of London (founded in 1807) ripped off Smith’s ideas but would not admit his rustic person into their elevated company. But Smith’s financial failures and lack of adequate recognition until the end of his life did not arise solely from impenetrable barriers of social class. In fact, Smith sought and won substantial and important patronage from very high and influential sources. Most notably, he probably would never have secured the wherewithal to publish his map without strong support, both intellectual and financial, from the most powerful scientist in England, Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society. In fact, if the gentlemen of the Geological Society rejected Smith, they did so in large part because they correctly saw Smith as Banks’s man—and Banks had feuded with the geologists because they had formed a separate organization outside the umbrella of the august Royal Society.

  3. The legend proclaims that Smith could gain little hearing for his novel views because his lower-class origins precluded access to the usual opportunities for publishing either scientific or popular works. But Winchester shows that Smith had more than adequate access to print, and that his very limited output reflected his own disinclination to commit his views to paper, and the hesitancy and extreme awkwardness of his prose.


The complete version of the cardboard legend includes two parts, conjoined at a key point. First, the social myth (so successfully countered by Winchester) of Smith’s blamelessness for his financial woes and lack of recognition, a situation imposed upon him because prominent people could never admit a man of such lowly background into their company and advantages. Second, the intellectual myth, swallowed uncritically by Winchester, that Smith faced a scientific community unable to formulate the radically new view of time and nature that geological mapmaking required because all key reforms remained stymied by religious dogma (most importantly, the doctrine of an earth no older than scriptural literality could assert, and an organic world deprived of history because God had created all beings in their final form, within six days of twenty-four hours, and no more than six thousand years ago).

The two halves of the legend then coalesce when Smith, debarred from membership in the self-appointed community of professional scientists, and bitter at his rejection, has to follow a different and contrarian path. So he abandons the literary scholarship of the elite and trusts instead to the “book of nature” as read in the field. His empirical discoveries make mapping practical and a true science of geology possible. Thus the untutored but unprejudiced rustic, relying upon his own resources, triumphed over the encumbered sophisticate who would rather sit and argue over a glass of port in his London club.

But this legend requires that the old (and basically silly) model of “warfare between science and religion” be a primary and accurate description of the history and progress of scientific knowledge—and that a consensus of geological belief, when Smith started to map in the 1790s, remained mired in theological strictures of an earth no older than the estimate of Genesis (with creation in 4004 BC in Ussher’s canonical date), and an organic world made of species created at the outset and never altered thereafter. Although I can easily understand how this disparaging view of both science and religion feeds into Smith’s legend, I also can hardly imagine a more misleading caricature of geological beliefs in Smith’s time.

And, just as Smith’s biography gains so much richness and interest in Winchester’s laudable debunking, so too will his intellectual story achieve both veracity and the fascination of complexity when we properly situate Smith as a man of amazing fortitude, who achieved far more (in quantity and quality) than any other person or committee—but not in a one-man show of pure inventive genius. Rather, Smith prevailed by using new conceptions and methods that an entire geological profession, building upon a keen interest in the nature of history then emerging throughout the world of Western scholarship, had developed in a collective way but had not put to practical test at any scale within shouting distance of Smith’s labors—until this stubborn and indefatigable man played John Henry (and won) against all the machinery of comfortable and professionalized science.

I don’t mean to sound like an academic sourpuss, but I just don’t understand the priorities of publishers who spare no expense to produce an elegantly illustrated and beautifully designed book and then permit the text to wallow in simple, straight-out factual errors, all easily corrected for the minimal cost of one scrutiny of the galleys by a reader with professional expertise in paleontology and the history of geology.

In a single paragraph on page 64, for example, we learn that several “less complex life forms,” including stromatolites (layered mats of sediment trapped and bound by cyanobacteria), had already become extinct by the Carboniferous period (the strata containing most of Britain’s coal deposits), and that the “most attractively lovable lobsterlike Paleozoic arthropod known as the trilobite” would die out before the end of the same period. Well, stromatolites still survive (albeit in few places and restricted numbers, notably in hypersaline waters where bottom-dwelling marine invertebrates that would consume them elsewhere cannot flourish), whereas trilobites died out a full period later, along with some 90 percent of marine invertebrate species, in the greatest of all mass extinctions, the end-Permian debacle 250 million years ago. Then we learn on page 109 about “the bird progenitor, the pterodactyl”—but this non-dinosaurian flying reptile plays no part in the ancestry of birds, a group that arose from small running dinosaurs.

Winchester commits equally sloppy errors in the history of science, attributing to James Hutton, for example (on page 69), the most familiar of geological epithets: “‘The present,’ said Hutton most memorably, ‘is the key to the past.’” But Hutton said no such thing, although textbooks often invoke this line to represent a world view—coined later and called uniformitarianism—often linked, but with only partial justice, to Hutton’s late-eighteenth- century ideas.

Simple factual errors that don’t distort a general argument have no significance beyond embarrassment. But Winchester’s errors extend, at distressing frequency, into key theoretical claims for his central assertion that theology had not only suppressed the development of geology for centuries, but continued to do so when Smith drafted his map. For example, I can’t imagine where Winchester picked up the following characterization of geology’s founding hero, Nicolaus Steno, who published, in 1669, an epochal treatise on strata as historical sequences and fossils as both organic remains and products of history. Winchester writes:

…Steno, who published his ideas in 1669, was…compelled by the dogmatic authority of the Copenhagen bishops to accept Ussher’s unprovable notion that the world was 5772 years old. He eventually gave up science altogether in disgust, and joined the church.

Well, first of all, Steno converted to Catholicism, voluntarily and with great enthusiasm, in 1667. He wrote his 1669 treatise in Italy, with Church approval and protection. His later battles with the Protestant bishops of Copenhagen followed his ordination as a Catholic priest, his eventual promotion to bishop, and his ecclesiastical appointment as “apostolic vicar of northern missions,” where he had the difficult task of caring for scattered Catholic remnants in the vigorously Protestant land of his birth. He ceased to write geological treatises because his religious interests took precedence over the science of his former career, a calling that he continued to revere and to view as entirely consonant with his theological convictions. And although Steno did unravel the nature and meaning of stratification in his 1669 treatise, he never stated or believed (so far as the record shows), either in that work or elsewhere, that the duration of these strata exceeded the biblical date for the age of the earth.

Every institution includes hidebound reactionary dogmatists and enlightened iconoclasts—and no monolithic enterprise called “religion” insisted on a six-thousand-year-old earth, or tried to impose a belief in the nonorganic nature of fossils, or in their status as creatures drowned in Noah’s flood, either in Smith’s time, or in Steno’s, a full century before Smith’s birth. Winchester’s historical mischaracterizations can be summarized in two themes that allow him to formulate and defend the cardboard version of Smith as a stunningly original thinker who risked calumny and censure for daring to suggest a history of extensive paleontological change on an earth of substantial antiquity.

For the first theme of earlier maps, I can well understand Winchester’s decision to restrict his discussion to Britain (where he does treat local precursors for Smith’s beliefs and practices), and not to cover the development of geological mapping on the continent, lest the intimate and personal character of his sensitive biography become drowned in complex scholarly inquiries. But this decision conveys the impression that mapmaking arose in a British instant of inspiration, with the coals and minerals of England playing Zeus, and Smith standing in for Minerva. Smith’s great work, as I argued above, represents the triumphant and practical culmination in geology of a scholarly movement toward historical modes of thinking, then occurring throughout Europe and across all the arts and sciences (see, for example, the important book by the Italian scholar Paolo Rossi, The Dark Abyss of Time1). This complex story of a seminal episode in the history of science, with Smith as a sensible participant who added a crucial and unusual contribution, seems far more interesting to me than yet another heroically exaggerated tale of one great man prevailing against the entrenched opposition of ages.

I will cite just two examples, one about an ignored “foreigner” and the other about an insufficiently acknowledged countryman. Both illustrate the length and breadth of a major scientific movement that awarded an extensive history to both our planet and its pageant of life. Winchester mentions the great French scientist Lavoisier, who was guillotined in 1794 before Smith made his first map, only in a footnote about his role in rejecting the chemical theory of phlogiston.

But the same Lavoisier, working at the outset of his career as an assistant to J.E. Guettard in a project to map the mineral resources of France (not a geological map in Smith’s sense, but a depiction of ore deposits without any temporal ordering of strata), introduced one of the key innovations that led to genuine maps of Smith’s genre. In the late 1760s, before Smith was born, Lavoisier hit upon the brilliant idea of including a vertical section, showing the order of strata, at the side of each map. Moreover, in his only published geological paper, first read in the fateful year of 1789, Lavoisier developed the theory of stratification, and its pictorial representation, into a remarkable set of cross-sections through parts of the earth’s crust, showing extensive distribution of layers of strata and their environmental variation. Lavoisier did not make a true geological map to be sure, but he did devise a new form of visual presentation with all the key concepts of geological mapping in place.2

For England, Winchester briefly mentions Smith’s countryman John Whitehurst, who did not make an actual map, but fully recognized the principle of systematic change in fossils through vertical sequences of strata in a remarkable book on the geology of his native Derbyshire, published in 1778, when Smith was a small boy. Whitehurst wrote on the first page of his preface: “It may appear wonderful, that amidst all the confusion of the strata, there is nevertheless one constant invariable order in the arrangement of them, and their various productions of animal, vegetable and mineral substances.”

D.R. Oldroyd, in Thinking About the Earth: A History of Ideas in Geology,3 describes in detail the emerging traditions of geological mapmaking in France and Germany from the 1760s through the 1780s. Most of these rudimentary and early efforts only treated local regions, whereas Smith mapped an entire nation; Smith’s predecessors also used cumbersome and confusing systems of numbering for depicting stratigraphic order (in contrast with Smith’s brilliant, and beautiful, innovation of designating each formation with a distinctive color). But Cuvier and Brogniart also employed the system of colors to print a geological map of the Paris Basin in 1808. Smith, however, included his entire nation, and deserves full honor and credit for this culmination and great beginning, all rolled into one.

In the second and even more important theme, Winchester mischaracterizes the standard views of Smith’s time about the nature of fossils and the extent of time and history. In the false model of warfare between science and religion, so enthusiastically embraced by Winchester, a monolithic “church” first tries to brand fossils as inorganic “sports of nature,” with accidental resemblances to organisms, and therefore devoid of temporal significance for establishing the age and history of the earth. When this tactic fails, the “church” then admits the organic nature of fossils, but saves the biblical tale by attributing their origin to a single scriptural event: Noah’s flood. Any scientist who dares to suggest alternatives involving substantial periods of time or sequential history risks the fate of Galileo and shuts up in dread, if not under direct orders.

Early in his book, Winchester presents a lovely image of Smith collecting fossil brachiopods as a boy, wondering how objects that look so much like marine shells, but had become petrified into minerals never secreted by organisms, could be found at such high elevations. Winchester asserts that, before Smith’s time, only the most iconoclastic and courageous thinkers would have dared even to contemplate, against explicit theological directives, the proposition that these objects might be the remains of organisms. Winchester writes:

To answer such a question today is quite simple: The shells are just fossils, once organic but now mineralized relics…. But in the late eighteenth century, no such theory had ever been even vaguely imagined…. They obviously could not possibly be such things—that went without saying. To suggest otherwise was either to court ridicule—a once living shell, thrust halfway up a mountain, indeed!—or else to be accused of apostasy or heresy, for tinkering with the ordered faiths of nature….

No. Such things, so awesome and wondrous to behold, could only be explained in one way. Clearly they were unique creations of the Almighty himself…. They existed for one reason only, and that was to reinforce in humankind’s collective mind the omnipotence and imaginative beneficence of God. He placed the figured stones where they were discovered, using to do so what was termed a vis plastica, a plastic force….

It had been towards the end of the seventeenth century that the first very few and very bold observers raised (albeit timidly) the ultimate heretical thought: the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, the objects actually were… the organic remains of the very creatures that they looked like.

What a heroic and inspirational tale, and so well adapted to casting Smith as truth’s ultimate whistleblower. But I can hardly imagine a deeper fiction about the actual history of paleontology. The debate about the organic nature of fossils ranks as one of the great adventures in the history of science, for the issues—the nature of time, and of reality and causality as well—could not be more important. But no theological dogma about God’s direct and miraculous emplacement had ever entered the arguments of serious scholars, who had good reasons (see M.J.S. Rudwick, The Meaning of Fossils4), based upon the knowledge and theories of their time, for asserting the inorganic character of some fossils. But, with a very few exceptions, no scholar ever advocated an inorganic origin for all fossils.

Moreover, neither the location of many fossils on mountaintops nor the fact of their petrifaction into inorganic minerals precluded an organic explanation, but rather posed interesting problems that proponents of biological origin sought to resolve, and with success. Petrifaction, in particular, had long been known and acknowledged, as explicitly discussed (at length) by, for example, Avicenna in the tenth century and Albertus Magnus, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas, in his De mineralibus of the thirteenth century.

The founding treatises of paleontology—written by Georgius Agricola in 1546 and by Konrad Gesner in 1565—focused their texts on distinguishing organic fossils from other “formed stones” of potentially inorganic origin. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, Europe’s two greatest intellects—Leonardo (who hid his ideas in unpublished notebooks) and Girolamo Fracastoro of Verona (whose opinions were cited in nearly every paleontological treatise of note from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries)—presented the same three possible explanations for the classical problem of why marine fossils exist on mountaintops. They may be inorganic (and hence no threat to belief in a young and permanent earth). They may be organic remains deposited by Noah’s flood. Or they may, as organic remains, indicate that land and sea have changed their positions through time, implying an earth of appreciable antiquity and historical change. Both Leonardo and Fracastoro expressed their strong support for this last—that is, our modern—view of fossils.

To cite just one illustration of the utterly uncontroversial character of the organic interpretation, and of the willingness of nearly all scholars to brand some fossils as organic and others as inorganic, consider this terse statement, not from a visionary innovator, but from a journeyman of mid-seventeenth-century science who sought simply to record a consensus, and not to suggest anything novel. In 1669, the same year that Steno supposedly shocked the world by daring to make the same suggestion for the first time, Friedrich Lachmund, local naturalist and physician in Hildesheim, began his chapter on fossil shells by pointing out that we need not embrace the usual organic explanation for all such objects: Conchas et cochleas marinas non solum tractu temporis in lapidem mutari, sed etiam in terrae gremio natura ita gigni—“The shells of marine clams and snails have not all been changed to stone by the passage of time, but may also be produced by nature herself within the interior of the earth.”


Winchester never mentions his immediately previous, and deservedly bestselling, book on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, The Profes-sor and the Madman.5 Yet, these two apparently disparate tales mesh at the deepest intellectual level; for both tell stories about key episodes of a central transformation in human understanding of natural phenomena: the introduction of history itself, particularly of chronological sequencing, as the organizing principle for a taxonomy of diverse and interconnected phenomena.

This concept of historical affiliation, so “natural” to our modern sensibilities, did not always enjoy a privileged status among potential modes of explanation. Indeed, before political and technological movements of the eighteenth century popularized the idea of progress and gradual accretion of improvements through time, most Western views of reality conceived of nature as a stable and ahistorical entity (or a system of cyclic change with no directional component). Nature, in this conception, had been created in optimal and unchanging form by divine fiat, and had then persisted in lawful order between this miraculous creation not so long ago and a forthcoming divine termination just around the apocalyptic corner. Science, in this world view, cannot explain such miraculous beginnings and ends, and must therefore limit its activities to ascertaining the natural laws governing the short interval between these ultimate poles—a limited duration without history. (I define history in the usual vernacular sense of distinctive sequences telling a tale subject to explanation by reference to antecedent events that sensibly imply subsequent stages in a meaningful order.)

To a medieval schoolman, for example, the very idea of the Oxford English Dictionary would sound as bizarre as a claim that the earth did not rest at the stable center of the cosmos but originated long ago and then experienced an extensive history of unpredictable alterations. To our scholastic forerunners, after all, languages had no continuous or directional history, and their current diversity only recorded a biblical event (the dispersion of tongues after God’s demolition of the Tower of Babel).

The Oxford English Dictionary is a Darwinian spinoff—not a dictionary at all in the conventional sense of a normative tool for proper (or even just preferred) usage, but a rigorous and scholarly account of the history of words, employing strict chronology as the governing principle of order (with first usage in time, not currently favored meaning, establishing first-place status in any OED entry). Think about this criterion (which now seems so natural to us but once represented a radical break with conventional devices for taxonomic ordering): Why should the historical accident of “who said what first” determine the sequence of verbal definitions? Why not some structural criterion like part of speech, or normative standard like nobility of purpose, or practical guide like frequency of current use?

Instead, the OED caught the spirit of historical explanation and its controlling status in a wide range of sciences and other forms of scholarship. Languages, like organisms, develop in time—and nothing beats pure chronology as the fundamental ordering principle of historical systems. (For this reason, I count Paris’s Picasso Museum and the Turner Wing of the Tate Gallery in London as my favorite art museums—for they have abjured anything “fancier” or more au courant in theory, and opted for pure chronology in ordering their paintings. What other criterion can speak so eloquently, or offer more insight into the record of a man’s life and strivings?)

The OED, moreover, faced special problems based upon its allegiance to historical filiation as the criterion of order—for the history of words, again like organisms, forms a branching tree of diversifying meanings, whereas books in Gutenberg’s form must follow a linear scheme. (The OED solved this vexatious problem by adopting a complex system of subcategorization to “linearize” a branching morphology into print.) At least Smith’s brand of history presupposes the less complicated morphology of a purely linear and unbranching sequence—for strata do accumulate in a global pile, older to younger. And Smith didn’t even have to face the conceptual difficulties imposed by systems that develop in an evolutionary sequence of genuine and unbroken material continuity. Instead Smith shared the belief of nearly all colleagues, in this last pre-Darwinian generation, that the universal order of fossils in strata represented a series of separate and disconnected creations, united only by the taxonomic principles of God’s mind.

We are left with the following paradox: the invention of historical explanation prompted one of the most extensive and most liberating transformations in the annals of scientific thought. This movement brought vast domains of phenomena, previously interpreted as stable systems ordered by structural principles of optimal or divine purpose, into a new mode of chronological accounting that granted as much importance to the happenstances of antecedent events as to the predictable consequences of natural law. Yet, as we became enlightened by our ability to use these new modes of explanation, we also fell further into the clutches of the greatest bias that our inherent mentality imposes upon our hopes to understand nature in “objective” terms of its own material constitution, independent of our existence and preferred modes of perception.

In short, we added history to our arsenal of explanatory schemes, only to recognize later (when we unraveled some principles of our mental architecture by understanding the brain as a product of biological evolution, a prototypical historical science) that our mental limitations restrict our historical tales to preferred formats that may seriously distort nature’s ways and causes. So William Smith applied a cardinal principle of history to unlock the pageant of eons, and we continue to stumble, nearly two centuries later, over the facts of his personal story because we misdirect history into channels of our evolved mental preferences. How can we escape this recursive paradox that our brains, as biological devices constrained by the history of their origin, must be enlisted to analyze history itself? Ah sweet mystery (and history) of life!

  1. 1

    University of Chicago Press, 1984.

  2. 2

    See my essay, “The Proof of Lavoi-sier’s Plates,” in The Lying Stones of Marrakech (Harmony Books, 2000), pp. 91–114.

  3. 3

    Harvard University Press, 1996.

  4. 4

    Elsevier, 1972.

  5. 5

    HarperCollins, 1998.