Eighty-Plus Theories, Part 3

Bust of Georges Cuvier by David d'Angers, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been discussing the following claim, “In the year 1806 the French Institute enumerated not less than eighty geological theories which were hostile to the Scriptures; but not one of those theories is held to-day.” I explained in part 1 that Luther Tracy Townsend’s Collapse of Evolution (1905) attributes it to “the eminent geologist, Professor Charles Lyell,” that I was unable to find it in Lyell’s work, and that I was able to find it, more or less, in Albert Barnes’s The Progress and Tendencies of Science (1840). In part 2, I added that Barnes included a footnote to Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830, although Barnes cited the 1837 Philadelphia edition) later in the same paragraph, which probably misled Townsend into thinking that Lyell was the authority for the claim about the eighty-plus geological theories. But there’s still a loose end. If not from Lyell, then from whom? 

The claim about the eighty-plus geological theories was in circulation, if without Lyell’s name, even before 1840. In Nicholas Wiseman’s Twelve Lectures on the Connexion Between Science and Revealed Religion (1836), for example, appears, “From the time of Buffon, system rose beside system, like the moving pillars of the desert, advancing in threatening array; but like them, they were fabrics of sand; and, though in 1806 the French Institute counted more than eighty such theories hostile to Scripture history, not one of them has stood till now, or deserves to be recorded.” (The author is the same Wiseman who became the Archbishop of Westminster when the Catholic Church hierarchy was re-established in England in 1850.) Barnes plagiarized the portion from “system” to “sand” in The Progress and Tendencies of Science, I’m sorry to say.

So where might Wiseman have found the claim? Well, I’m not going to explain the ins and outs of how I arrived at the hypothesis, but the date and place was right for me to suspect that the source was Cuvier: that is, Georges Cuvier (1769–1832), the great French zoologist who established the scientific disciplines of paleontology (providing convincing evidence of extinction along the way) and of comparative anatomy. Cuvier was appointed as the permanent recording secretary of the Institut National (which subsumed the old Académie Royale des Sciences) in 1802, which gave him a podium; in 1806, he ascended that podium when Noël André submitted a book on geology entitled Theory of the Present Surface of the Earth (or Théorie de la surface actuelle de la terre, if you insist) to the Institut in the hope of receiving its imprimatur.

Cuvier was appointed to the committee to review André’s book, and probably drafted the committee’s report. In his review, Cuvier took the opportunity to sketch how he thought that research in geology should proceed, which included a historical review of the science. In so doing, he wrote,

Thus the number of geological systems has increased to the point that today there are more than eighty of them, and it has been necessary to classify them in a certain order, simply to help one to memorize their main features. [Even] the best example, put forward some thirty years ago by several savants, has so little inhibited additions to this long list, that we see new systems hatched every day, and the scientific journals are full of the attacks and defenses that their authors make against each other.

(I quote from Martin Rudwick’s translation “A Report on André’s Theory of the Earth” in his Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes: New Translations & Interpretations of the Primary Texts [1997]; Wiseman presumably relied directly or indirectly on a translation published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1808.)

Faced with the embarrassing multiplicity of geological systems, Cuvier’s response is to call for geological hypotheses to be framed so as to be scientifically testable against one another. He poses two sample questions—“Did organisms [être organisés] live in the places where their remains are found, or were they transported there? Are all these [fossil] beings still living, or have they been totally or partially destroyed?” (emphasis in original)—and then asks, rhetorically, “Is it not clear that the system of causes to be conceived ought to differ as white from black, according to whether these questions are answered in the affirmative or not? However, no one is yet able to respond positively; and what is still more striking, almost no one has considered that it would be good to be able to answer them before constructing a system.” It’s good methodological advice.

Importantly, Cuvier doesn’t describe these eighty-plus geological systems as “hostile to the Scriptures.” In the historical section, he states that early geologists tried to find the causes or understand the effects of the Deluge, but that it was eventually concluded that “a single inundation, however violent, could not have produced such immense effects.” He also opined, in a passage not reproduced in the Institut’s Mémoires, that it was superfluous to look for the secondary causes of a miracle like the Flood. A devout but undemonstrative Lutheran, Cuvier thought that the Biblical story of the Flood was a record of a historical event, but he wasn’t committed to its accuracy: he wouldn’t have regarded hostility to the Scriptures as a salient feature of a geological theory. So much for Cuvier. In part 4, I will return to the present day briefly and then conclude with a jaunt back to 1940.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.