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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.

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