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Controversy in Victorian Geology

Controversy in Victorian Geology: The Cambrian-Silurian Dispute

James A. Secord
Copyright Date: 1986
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Controversy in Victorian Geology
    Book Description:

    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 1990.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5466-0
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Manuscript Sources
    (pp. xix-2)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    In 1833 the daughter of Lord Northampton became tired of an interminably dull discussion between William Buckland, Roderick Murchison, and Gideon Mantell about a motto for the Geological Society of London. “Pa—I’ve got it,” the young girl told her father, and as Murchison later remembered, “she had drawn as our Crest a ‘mole’ & under it the motto ‘I bore.’”² Historians of science, understandably anxious to avoid a similar censure, face a difficult problem in dealing with the practice of geology in the nineteenth century. Much effort is expended on a few figures who contributed to theoretical controversies: Charles Lyell,...

  7. CHAPTER ONE Controversy and Classification
    (pp. 14-38)

    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.”¹ 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...

  8. CHAPTER TWO Collaboration and Contrasts
    (pp. 39-68)

    The seeds of the Cambrian-Silurian controversy lie in collaboration rather than in conflict, for Sedgwick and Murchison began their study of the older rocks as close friends. The classificatory geology pursued by the leading Fellows of the Geological Society relied heavily upon such collaborative efforts. In the eighteenth century isolated individuals had undertaken field studies, and some of the earliest maps of the nineteenth—those of William Smith and John MacCulloch in particular—were largely individual projects as well.¹ But even these men collaborated more than is generally recognized, and a network of exchange for observations and specimens was relatively...

  9. CHAPTER THREE Cambria and Siluria Established
    (pp. 69-109)

    Once Murchison began hammering the rocks of Wales and the Welsh Borders in earnest, the problem of relating his results to those of Sedgwick arose almost immediately. They readily agreed on the limits of their fields of research: Sedgwick’s territory would extend from the Berwyn range to the higher mountains to the west in Caernarvonshire, while Murchison’s would center on Shropshire and the Transition rocks to the southwest. This division of labor, and hence the boundary itself, marked contrasts in the research aims, personalities, and scientific styles of the two men. But at the same time the very existence of...

  10. CHAPTER FOUR The Spread of Siluria
    (pp. 110-143)

    Men of science promptly hailed the Cambrian and Silurian systems as major achievements of English geology during the 1830s. “Steps of this kind,” Whewell told the Geological Society in 1839, “have formed, and must form, the great epochs in the progress of all sciences of classification, and especially in ours; and I need not remind you how great the importance and the influence of such steps amongst you have been.”¹ The magnificent volumes of theSilurian Systemdeclared the seemingly unquestionable existence of Murchison’s system, securing its continued use across the globe. Publication of Sedgwick’s researches appeared imminent, and although...

  11. CHAPTER FIVE Restructuring Wales
    (pp. 144-172)

    After the resounding success of his Russian campaign, Murchison no longer concerned himself with what he saw as minor squabbles over the structure of Wales or the Lake District. Like most other geologists, he believed that the persistence of the palaeontological types of the Lower Silurian to the base of the fossiliferous rocks had settled the basic issues of classification. For Sedgwick, on the other hand, investigations in these areas remained critically important, for alternatives to the enlarged Silurian could only be elaborated within the type areas of the British Isles. According to his sections, a vast thickness of strata...

  12. CHAPTER SIX Revivals of the Cambrian
    (pp. 173-201)

    TheGeology of Russiawas a difficult book to ignore. Tipping the scales at thirteen pounds, filled with fine lithographs of fossils and scenery, it was just the sort of comprehensive monograph that most geologists dreamed of producing. These qualities combined with Murchison’s persuasive advocacy to give his classifications an air of permanence and finality. With publication of the book in England looming on the horizon for most of 1845, Sedgwick must have realized that his options would soon become severely limited. For all its flexibility and breadth of reference, “Protozoic” was confessedly a provisional term for the rocks below...

  13. CHAPTER SEVEN Professional Geology and the Quest for Priority
    (pp. 202-241)

    After the first public outburst of the controversy, any paper on the older rocks could lead to a discussion of the opposing classifications. To settle the matter once and for all, the Geological Society devoted an entire meeting early in 1852 to the question. But rather than resolving the dispute, this exchange opened four years of angry debate, which rapidly moved outside Somerset House and led to a bitter estrangement between Murchison and Sedgwick. As before, the arguments centered on the correct use of nomenclature in geology, the validity of purely palaeontological classifications, and the unity of the Silurian fauna....

  14. CHAPTER EIGHT The Battle of May Hill
    (pp. 242-275)

    The movement of the debate into the historical sphere might suggest that the dispute held little further importance for the creation of new scientific knowledge. The Survey’s work was done, and the principals seem engrossed by efforts to twist their findings to match the official results. But the hammer was by no means replaced by the pen in the controversy over Cambria and Siluria. In fact, the most important developments in Lower Palaeozoic geology during the 1850s grew directly out of the debate. During the summer of 1852 Sedgwick and his assistant at Cambridge confirmed their suspicions that Murchison and...

  15. CHAPTER NINE The Creation of an Alternative
    (pp. 276-311)

    While the debate between Murchison and Sedgwick focused on the break at the base of the Upper Silurian, other important developments took place in the study of fossiliferous rocks much lower in the geological column. First in Bohemia, and later in other countries throughout the northern hemisphere, geologists (some of them firmly committed to Murchison’s views) found an important group of fossilsbelowthe Lower Silurian. This “Primordial” fauna, as it was generally called, played in many ways an even more important part in the eventual resolution of the Cambrian-Silurian question than did the discovery of the break at May...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 312-318)

    Victorian science was geared up for the production of facts. Facts—from a single classified trilobite to the entire geological column—could be displayed in museums and at lectures; they could license speculation and advance scientific careers. For the public at large, facts blended the commonplace and the marvelous into one. But the wonders of science did not lie on the surface of things; they needed to be dug up, dredged for, searched out, by “laborious and patient investigation.” As Gillian Beer has recently suggested, Victorian facts were perceived not merely as inert entities, but as strenuous performances: a fact...

  17. Abbreviations
    (pp. 319-320)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 321-348)
  19. Index
    (pp. 349-363)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 364-364)