Thursday, November 22, 2007


Heaps and Heaps

For a bit more on Keith Thomson's Before Darwin: Reconciling God and Nature, this discussion of Thomas Burnet's 1681 Telluria Theoria Sacra, (or A Sacred Theory of the Earth) is worth considering. Burnet is generally accounted among the villains in orthodox histories of geology but he has already been the subject of a major "rehabilitation" effort by Stephen Jay Gould, in his Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Gould sees Burnet as a rationalist who was more strongly committed to the rule of natural law over miracle than that icon of science, Isaac Newton.

Burnet's account of the history of the Earth is too complicated to go into here (besides, you should go and get Gould's and Thomson's books for your own good) but, as Thomson says:

Burnet's sacred theory was exciting, dynamic and dramatic. For all its faults, it tried to make study of the earth compatible with biblical authority. But it was dangerously close to blasphemy in places. It contradicted the Bible and invoked Decartes too often. ...

Burnet had created a great enigma and a quandary. His sacred theory struck a little too close to some cherished beliefs; but the underlying science was not quite good enough to overcome the reservations of orthodoxy.

But that doesn't mean he mean he didn't try:

[Burnet] opened his sacred theory, however, on very safe grounds with a diatribe against Aristotle. This might seem odd, but it was part of a complex strategy. Burnet had to create as orthodox a theory as possible in order to gain acceptance for his big heretical idea, which was the very modern notion that instead of remaining unchanged since creation (except for the effects of the Flood), the earth was actually in flux and subject to powerful, continually acting forces. As Burnet could scarcely challenge the Bible head-on, he chose everyone's favourite lateral target, Aristotle, who, although the one true source of nonbiblical authority in medieval times, now stood for the Dark Ages.

It's always handy to have an Aristotle to kick around. But to come to the reason I chose to discuss Burnet and to do it on this particular day, there is the following quote from Burnet:

If I was to describe [the earth] as an Oratour, I would suppose it a beautiful and regular Globe, and not only so, but that the whole Universe was made for its sake; that it was the darling and favourite of Heaven, that the Sun shin'd only to give it light, to ripen its Fruit, and make fresh its Flowers; and that the great Concave of the Firmament, and all the Stars in their several Orbs, were ere design'd only for a spangled cabinet to keep this jewel in.

But a philosopher that overheard me, would either think me in jest, or very injudicious . . . this, he would say, is to make the great World like one of the heathen temples, a beautiful and magnificent structure, and of the richest materials, yet built only for a brute Idol, a Dog, or a Crocodile, or some deform'd Creature, plac'd in a corner of it. We must therefore be impartial where the Truth requires it, and describe the Earth as it is really in its self; . . .'tis a broken and confus'd heap of bodies, plac'd in no order to one another, nor with any correspondency or regularity of parts: And such a body as the Moon appears to us, when 'tis look'd upon with a good Glass, rude and ragged . . . a World lying in its rubbish.

That this has so many, and so relevant connotations down to this day, though never meant and unlikely to have been foreseen, recommends it as delving into some truth worth wondering over.


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