Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle, by Stephen Jay Gould (1987)

This book (1987) examines the ideological role of the opposed concepts of time as a straight line and time as a cycle in the evolution of "deep time."  It concentrates on an explication des textes, dealing with three "seminal documents in the history of geology."  They are Thomas Burnet, Sacred  Theory of the Earth (1691), James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (1795), and Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1830-1833). 
I thought this would be a banquet for me: Stephen Jay Gould and "Myth and Metaphor."  The role played by cultural ideologies in the study of natural history is one of Gould's major preoccupations that stands almost equal in his work to his accomplishments as a scientist in evolutionary biology/geology.  And of course it is a good book.  Readable and literate, as always. Interesting.  But he is more interested in his topic that I could get with my intellectual blindspots.

There is no science more closed to my imagination than geology: I cannot, cannot, cannot, grasp the import of "billions of years."  Astronomy might seem just as closed for its likewise impossible infinitudes: it is just geology of the cosmos, one might say.  But at least I can see sun, moon, stars, the planets occasionally, and from Mauna Kea this spring I looked at the Beehive Nebula, the Sombrero Nebula, and of course the Great Nebula in Orion. I saw the rings around Saturn; I saw 2 moons of Saturn.  It's true that at Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and to a lesser degree at the Ashfall Fossil Beds in Nebraska, I have seen fossils in situ and that made geological time almost comprehensible.
So it may be significant to say that even I found gems scattered liberally throughout the book.  A satirical drawing by Henry de la Beche correctly attributed for the first time since its publication in 1830, for instance.  One chapter  tells of James Hampton, a Washington DC janitor who from 1950 to his death in 1964 followed the promptings of visions to build "The  Great Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly" which can today be seen in the National Museum of American Art.  It is built from junk, trash, cardboard, thrown-out furniture, insulation board, carpeting and everything aglitter with gold and aluminum foil.  This book, Gould says, congealed during the ten minutes during which he first contemplated this folk sculpture, "stunned by the clear and intricate concept of the ensemble."  Stained glass windows of churches in Canterbury, Norwich, King's College and Chartres also illustrate the depth of the symbolism of cyclical time in Christianity as Gould shows.

On the other hand, he is equally articulate about the degree to which the 20th century cannot even see either cycle or arrow very clearly as deep analogies, because European history has so dominated our vision that we are completely saturated with Whiggish (and he explains the adjective) ideas of time as not just a straight line, but a straight line of progress, leading to "US NOW" and explaining why "WE" must dominate.  Must "spread democracy."  Must "teach entrepreneurship and free market principles."  (The quotation marks here mark my own ironic harvest of popular sentiment and political jargon, not Gould.

It is, of course, a rich and significant book.  But more for geologists, I think, than the general reader.  I don't think I could significantly read even Charles Lyell, Gould's great model, so how can I fully appreciate an explication of any of these texts, let alone a comparative one.

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