A History of Earth Sciences

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The Earth Encompassed, Peter J. Bowers

"The history of the earth proclaims its Creator"

Louis Agassiz, quoted on p. 288.

"The environmental science have now become a matter of acute concern."

because of the "problems of pollution and environmental exhaustion"

contents | Themes | Thesis | evidence | Summary



"Science is simultaneously part of both the problem and the solution"

". . . To what extent is is the very notion of a rational study of Nature part of a purely western themes?"

page 1.

The Scientific Method

"This is the 'hypothetico-deductive method' in which science proceeds through the testing of consequences deduced from an imaginary model of the phenomenon."

p. 17.

"We must take into account the human dimensions of the search for knowledge…. Theories must be understood as more than just value-free models -- they incorporate philosophical or even religious preconceptions that command a degree of loyalty. . . "

p. 21.

"we create an artificial model of scientific progress that ignores the often complex process by which the current interpretations of Nature were constructed."

p. 23.


Further problems with science | methodologies | method | next



    1. The Problem of Perception
    2. The Ancient and Medieval Worlds
    3. Renaissance and Revolution
    4. Theories of the Earth
    5. Nature and the Enlightenment
    6. The Heroic Age
    7. The Philosophical Naturalists
    8. The Age of Evolution
    9. The Earth Sciences
    10. Darwinism Triumphant
    11. Ecology and Environmentalism


contents | Themes | Thesis | evidence | Summary


"Traditionally the sciences dealing with the environment seemed to interact far more directly with ordinary people's perception of the world."

p. 7


The thesis of Bower's book:

Alexander Von Humboldt

"If materialism has encouraged fragmentation, its days may be numbered in a world that has very practical reasons for reviving the Humboldtian approach."

p. 550.

"by itself, rationality is a two-edged sword. One can apply the principle of rational investigation to support either an exploitive or a conservationist view of the environment."

pp. 4-5.

"The earth and its inhabitants may be governed solely by natural laws, but our planet is quite unlike any of the others and it has been formed as the result of a unique historical process."

pp. 19-20.

"new theories only succeed because they offer a better way of understanding how Nature actually works."

So scientists insist scientists.

"theories offered improved predictive power."

p. 27.

"Science has made a determined bid to become the chief source of knowledge in modern society, and it is all the more important that we should be aware of the ideologically loaded basis for its assumed air of objectivity."

p. 31.

"The unpredictability of a truly historical mode of explanation need not lead to the assumption that the results are worthless. Rather, it leads us to value all the results because we know that we ourselves have no right to assume that we are 'higher' than any of the others."

p. 551.


contents | Themes | Thesis | evidence | Summary


What evidence is there of material certainties?

1756 Buffon's L'histoire naturelle about hares, "noted that the fecundity of Nature allowed such explosions to occur, but argued that the increase of predators rapidly cut the numbers back down to size."

p. 172.

Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis

"the earth . . . as a self regulating system designed to maintain conditions suitable to life." p. 544.

pp. 544-560.

The fossil record

"The fossil record seemed to indicate sudden steps rather than continuous development. . . ."

p. 289

  • biogeography
  • plate tectonics
  • genetics and molecular biology
  • biological competition and symbiosis



contents | Themes | Thesis | evidence | Summary

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  • The Problem of Perceptionline

"Geology and evolution theory were products of a major change in Europeans' perception of the timescale of the material universe. In 1650 Archbishop James Ussher pinpointed the date of creation as 4004 B.C. Within such a limited vision of the earth's history, divine creation seemed the only way of explaining how the modern state of affairs had been established."

Naturalists began to suggest that the fossils hidden within the rocks indicated a period of earth history antedating the creation of humankind by many thousands, if not millions, of years."

". . . the destruction of the biblical view of creation nevertheless established the wider framework within which a theory of natural evolution would be articulated."

p. 15.

"Our perceptions of the world is almost inevitably dictated by cultural factors, and the rise of materialism itself can be counted as just such a factor. The creation and development of what we now call the 'environmental sciences' raises a series of questions centered on our definition of science and our understanding of how the functioning of science itself shapes our perception of the world"

Sir Karl Popper versus Thomas Kuhn's views on science.



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  • The Ancient and Medieval Worldsline

" a fund of practical knowledge."

p. 32.

"The doctrine of the four elements -- earth, air,. fire, and water."

"Aristotle held that the universe was eternal."

p. 38.

"The philosopher Parmenides argued that the mind, not the senses, should be used to uncover the underlying principles of Nature…. all changes revealed by the sense must be illusory."

p. 40.

"The great stimulus to the study of Nature in the twelfth century was the translation of Aristotle and other ancient philosophers into Latin.

They had been translated in to Arabic, Latin editions were now made available, often from the Arabic, and new learning began to spread from the centers of translation in Spain and Sicily.

"Aristotle was at fist greeted with suspicion." -- until Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas were able to reconcile Christian theology with Greek cosmogony and cosmology through the doctrine of "natural law."

pp. 60-61.

Albertus Magnus characterized nature as either animal, vegetable or mineral and copied Aristotle's approach to life as "the scale of Nature is again brought in to rank the classes in terms of their means of reproduction."

viviparous (live born)

oviparous (egg laying)

zoophytes (slime born)

  • "A great chain of being
    • humans
      • bipeds
      • quadrupeds
      • oviparous
        • birds
        • reptiles
        • fish
        • mollusks
        • crustaceans
        • insects
          • zoophytes
          • molds
          • plants

p. 64.

"Philosophers, artists and practical men were increasingly willing to observe NAture and to dismiss the fabulous stories of the past. If they had not yet developed a new world view to replace that of Aristotle. they were at least prepared to evaluate ancient knowledge with their own eyes."



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  • Renaissance and Revolutionline

"Renaissance scholars were strongly attracted to a world view in which magic and science were closely intertwined."

"Yet the Naturalists of the late seventeenth century were quite certain that they were participating in a revolution."

pp. 66-67.

"Was the emphasis on observation really the foundation for a scientific revolution in natural history?"


"There wa no equivalent of Galileo or Newton in the biological sciences. The new empiricism led only to a more accurate descriptions–it did not allow naturalists to explain why living things exist in the form we observe."

p. 67.

" …they were participating in a revolution."


"The significance of he process by which Nature was stripped of its symbolic nature was immense."

" Newton firmly believed that the world was created by God and saw his science as part of the general programme to understand the divine purpose in Nature."

" Newton's synthesis of physics and astronomy may have been a triumph of the scientific method, but his world view was used quite deliberately to support the social hierarchy that had emerged in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Britain. The world might now be pictured as a mechanical system--but it was a machine designed and sustained by a God who expected his creatures to obey their betters."

p. 68.

"the transition to a natural history based on observation of material qualities also had ideological overtones.…such an attitude demanded a more impersonal view of Nature, an image of living things as mere artifacts to be exploited."

"A resurgence of the belief that everything in Nature is intended for humankind's benefit."

"but they nevertheless reduced living things to material systems that could be studies and, by implication, manipulated without moral consequences."

"The mechanistic view of Nature may have been created to legitimize the ruthless attitude of an age in which profit was the only motive that mattered."

p. 69.

Jacques Fernel (1548)

the horizons of the western world widened

"Among the new discoveries was the text of Ptolemy's Geography, which created an interest in the problems of cartography."

Also navigation, celestial observations and the calendar.

"Every aspect of the 'microcosm (humankind) was reflected somehow in the 'macrocosm' (the universe at large). Nothing in Nature was without spiritual significance--animals, plants, and even minerals had purposes that could be discovered through their 'signatures' or symbolic resemblances to parts of the human body."

p. 71

"Plato's vision of an ideal world underlying the confusions of everyday life was to have important consequences for the physical sciences because it encouraged the search for mathematical laws."

p. 70



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  • Theories of the Earth


"The eighteenth century was the period in which the modern disciplines such as geology began to emerge from the welter of traditional natural history."

Natural phenomena such as fossils were acquiring a theoretical meaning for the first time, but as yet there were disagreements over what that meaning should be.

"usher in the age of reason."

17th Century: Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Hooke, Halley, Newton, Leibniz, and Pascal

18th Century: Newton, Laplace, D'Alembert, Linneaus, Franklin, and Diderot

"Impose a conceptual structure on the world."

"impose a rational order on the variety of nature."

p. 100.

Taxonomy or classification -- how features and elements are separated and accounted for

"Change was mere the entirely predictable unfolding of a predestined pattern."

p. 103.

" an underlying tension in the Enlightenment view of the world."

"meaning of fossils" raised the problem of change and stasis. A non static past was either catastrophism versus gradualism

1714 prize for the determination of longitude.

1765 chronometer by John Harrison

James Cook voyage, for the transit of Venus 1768-1771.

"no basis for a grand geographical synthesis."

p. 107

"The french geographer Phillippe Bruache(1700-73) used the concept of river basins defined by mountain ranges in an attempt to divide the earth into natural regions."

"Alexander von Humboldt -- 1790s -- the basis for the "environmental sciences in the first half of the next century."

Neptunism (conservative) Werner vs Plutonism (progressive) Hutton and

A Century of the Earth.

Werner's marine centered Earth history established modern stratigraphy, in a way that Hutton's work did not.

"The stratigraphic principle of superposition, . . . the basis of the geological periods we know today."

pp. 128-29.

"erosion is a slow and gradual process" very similar to what is happening today -- or the uniformitarian concept.


The goal is to create "a formal ontology, i.e., a formally precise systematization of these abstract objects.

Such a theory will be compatible with the world view of natural science if the abstract objects postulated by the theory are conceived as patterns of the natural world." see Stanford University researtch lab.




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  • Nature and the Enlightenment


"It was Linnaeus who developed this theme of the divinely preordained balance of nature to its highest pitch."

The Oeconomy of Nature begins with the hydrological cycle, in which evaporations from the oceans provides the supply water that will fall as rain to nourish the earth. The image of a perfect balance between rainfall and drainage [runoff] provides a model that Linnaeus then extends to the world of living things."

page 170.





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  • The Heroic Age


"The nineteenth century has been called the 'heroic age' of geology, because it witnessed the creation of a complete outline of the earth's history. By the middle of the century, the sequence of geological periods familiar to any modern scientist had already been established."

p. 193.

Geological time scale








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  • The Philosophical Naturalists


worldview | example | rationality

"Idealist philosophers saw the human body as the most perfect expression of the vertebrate form. They visualized the human race as the goal of developmental pattern imprinted onto history by God."

"Throughout the earth's history, life had been steadily maturing, advancing through a predestined sequence of developmental stages towards the perfection of the human form."

pp. 287-288.

Darwin's ideas were one of only several changes

“The desire to study and control nature was an integral part of the ideology of the newly industrialized nations of Europe.”

“Darwin’s theory linked living things to their physical environment in a new way.... a process”
p. 249.
Political change, challenge to authority spread to science and politics, amateurism and professionalism                                                                              pp. 251-258.

“universal patterns linking the diverse forms of living structure, patterns that were seen as the direst product of the Creator’s rational thought.”
By 1880s
“…that to understand life one would have to take into account of the complex interactions between all living things occupying a particular territory.”

Radicals (trees) versus conservatives {Platonists who advocated typological concepts.
 p. 257

  middle class reforms divinely sanctioned order
UK parties
French parties
   derived from God
Public involvement
aristocratic control
‘the people’s knowing
limited access to secrets

                    impose order on nature with Latin nomenclature (251)

Paleontology paved the way for the Earth to have changed – catastrophism
pp. 287.

“the model provided by the Galapagos islands.”

Alfred Russel Wallace, 1823-1913.
“As early as 1855 [he=Wallace] had published a paper commenting on the fact that new species always seemed to appear in the same neighborhood as a closely relates existing species. Like Darwin, Wallace had been led by a study of biogeography to see how new species might be produced when existing ones migrated into areas with different environments.”
p. 304

“Wallace…who also read Malthus.”
p. 305.

“Cuvier’s system was open ended because he considered each species a variation on the underlying type adapted to a particular way of life.”
p. 264.

“The living world is constructed according to a rational plan.” MacLeay’s view

William Paley followed Cuvier’s ideas                        Usefulness of organic structures


Lamarck’s theory of the gradual transformation of species had threatemed this image, much to the annoyance of Cuvier.

  old new
scientist Cuvier Lamarck
view Static  adaptable change
supporters Monarchists revolutionaries
function Utilitarian  progressive
form Variation around types Evolution of acquired traits


Transcendental anatomy
St Hillaire            saltationist adaptive responses occur quickly

Royal College of Surgeons a bastion of conservatism            Robert Owen

ideal forms existing in the mind of God.
p. 269
“form was more important than function.”
“one could never have evolved from the other.”

p. 270.

Anomalies in Cuvier's unchanging forms.


K/ E. Von Baer
“At a very early stage of growth, the embryos of a fish, a reptile, and a mammal may be virtually indistinguishable,"

p. 271.

Humboldt sought to explain the relation of the physical to the organic realms            Eight Vols. Cosmos                       

Geographic distribution of living things

Edward Forbes the Manx naturalist

“for him the (botanical) Provinces of made sense nut as descriptive units but as product of a historical process that explained their existence in purely natural; terms.”

pp. 275-276.

Historical biogeography

Lyell and Candolle

“the old idea of a stable ‘balance of nature was no longer tenable.”

Separate historical migrations accounted for the existing flora and fauna


“Biogeography was the principle source of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

P. 280.





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"Darwin's theory was controversial because it challenged the conventional [environmental] view that the Creator designed each species, and implied that the human race was just another animal."

p. 306.

"Darwin stimulated the study of biogeography and other areas dealing with how organisms adapt to their environment."

p. 307.

"The same selection pressure has been maintained over a long period of time."

p. 357.

"the biometrical school was able to show that selection did indeed have a measurable effect even on the short term."

p. 358.

"Weismann was convinced that these chromosomes were the bearers of heredity."

and the study of chromosomes -- dark staining bodies in the cell

p. 358

acquired characteristics are not inheritable

Medelian genetics (1865)

segregation of inherited characteristics "They did not blend together as Dawin assumed."

p. 360.

the origins of ecology, "How species distribution is limited by emvironmental processes."

pp. 361-362.

"the relationship between the organism and its environment, in a new light."

p. 362.

ecologists were "still dealing with an essentially static world view,""

p. 363

!866, Ernst Haeckel, couned Oecologie

p. 365

The age of professional specialization."

p. 378.




The importance of Darwin


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  • The Earth Sciences
  • line

"By the early decades of the twentieth century, the relation between science and society had begun to take on the form familiar to us today."

p. 379.

"The complexity of science's role in modern society has stood in the way of efforts to provide a unified theoretical perspective in many fields."

p. 382.




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"The sciences dealing with various aspects of the earth's biosphere have undergone conceptual revolutions even more fundamental than those in the earth sciences."

"Far from being 'Nature's crowning glory', the human race is increasingly being presented as a threat to the very system that produced it."

p. 428.

taxonomy as a problem




contents | Themes | Thesis | evidence | Summary

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"the increasingly obvious threat posed by human activity to the well-being of the world in which we live. . . ."

"many species are being driven to extinction."

"Since the science of ecology deals directly with the interaction between species and their environment, it has been catapulted onto centre stage in the public debate,"

p. 503.

" In a world where everyone accepts that excessive exploitation is wrong, it may be possible for science to help us avoid the errors of the past."

p. 552.




Summary of basic assumptions

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A. "certain aspects of the way in which we perceive the world are dependent upon the culture within which we are raised."

p. 7.

B. "The belief in a system of classification is not unique to any culture, as all people classify things in and of this world. But "the emergence of a system. . .that a classification should be based solely on physical resemblances constitutes a major step in the emergence of modern science."

p. 10.

C. "… professional and empirical pressures will combine to force scientists in the direction of theories embodying a more responsible attitude towards nature."

pp. 552-553.


contents | Themes | Thesis | evidence | Summary




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Last Updated on Wednesday , 24 December 2008, 18:23.

Notes on a master work, by Joseph Siry