Worlds Before Adam The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform
by Martin J. S. Rudwick
University of Chicago Press, 2008
Cloth: 978-0-226-73128-5 | Paper: 978-0-226-73129-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-73130-8


In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, scientists reconstructed the immensely long history of the earth—and the relatively recent arrival of human life. The geologists of the period, many of whom were devout believers, agreed about this vast timescale. But despite this apparent harmony between geology and Genesis, these scientists still debated a great many questions: Had the earth cooled from its origin as a fiery ball in space, or had it always been the same kind of place as it is now? Was prehuman life marked by mass extinctions, or had fauna and flora changed slowly over time?

The first detailed account of the reconstruction of prehuman geohistory, Martin J. S. Rudwick’s Worlds Before Adam picks up where his celebrated Bursting the Limits of Time leaves off. Here, Rudwick takes readers from the post-Napoleonic Restoration in Europe to the early years of Britain’s Victorian age, chronicling the staggering discoveries geologists made during the period: the unearthing of the first dinosaur fossils, the glacial theory of the last ice age, and the meaning of igneous rocks, among others. Ultimately, Rudwick reveals geology to be the first of the sciences to investigate the historical dimension of nature, a model that Charles Darwin used in developing his evolutionary theory.

Featuring an international cast of colorful characters, with Georges Cuvier and Charles Lyell playing major roles and Darwin appearing as a young geologist, Worlds Before Adam is a worthy successor to Rudwick’s magisterial first volume. Completing the highly readable narrative of one of the most momentous changes in human understanding of our place in the natural world, Worlds Before Adam is a capstone to the career of one of the world’s leading historians of science.


Martin J. S. Rudwick is research associate in the department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and professor emeritus of history at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Bursting the Limits of Time,The Meaning of Fossils, The Great Devonian Controversy, Scenes from Deep Time, and Georges Cuvier, all published by the University of Chicago Press. He was awarded the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society in 2007.


"We take for granted that Earth has a deep history divided into eras such as the Mesozoic, with its monstrous dinosaurs and catastrophic meteoroid impacts. But when and how was this geohistorical narrative established? This book, the sequel to Bursting the Limits of Time, is a masterly exploration of the nineteenth-century roots of this particular scientific revolution. Here Rudwick shows how scientists such as Georges Cuvier, William Buckland and Charles Lyell first revealed and then reconstructed a narrative for the Earth based on direct observation of rocks and fossils."
— Douglas Palmer, New Scientist

"Rudwick's books are myth-busters. . . . Rudwick highlights an underappreciated, glorious advance in human thought, the documentation of which is a rather glorious achievement itself."
— Victor R. Baker, Nature

"Magisterial...A thoroughly engaging and utterly sympathetic treatment of the notable figures who laid the foundation for modern geology in the period between 1820 and 1845, their inspirations and intellectual triumphs, and their stubbornly held misconceptions....With their highly individualistic flair and immense erudition, this volume and its predecessor are not just essential reading for any scientist; they are also landmark volumes in the history of ideas and a brilliant scholarly achievement."

— Keith Thomson, Times Higher Education

"Like its predecessor, Worlds Before Adam is the product of painstaking research. It appears dauntingly long but is a delight to read. Rudwick’s style is lucid and engaging throughout, and he is unfailingly courteous to his nonspecialist readers, ensuring that all terms and concepts are fully explained and avoiding unnecessary jargon. The book’s strictly chronological arrangement gives it a strong narrative thrust, and its many beautifully printed illustrations and generous quotations from original sources enhance the sense of primary contact with the evidence. . . . In these two graceful and judicious volumes, the culmination of a distinguished career, Rudwick has restored geology to its rightful historical place at the heart of modern scientific culture."

— Ralph O'Connor, Science

"Rudwick’s account follows on from his magisterial Bursting the Limits of Time, which painted an unrivalled portrait of geology’s first days as a tardy arrival to the high table of respectable sciences. . . . Rudwick’s book is a culmination of forty years of research into the history of geology, and seals his reputation as the doyen of the subject. His writing is always clear, often entertaining, unrelentingly scholarly, and, appropriately enough for geology, he leaves no stone unturned. . . . Any reader interested in the development of the concept of geological time should read Martin Rudwick’s book—one could argue that the awareness of deep time has changed human perception of our place in the cosmos more than any other discovery. "
— Richard A. Fortey, Times Literary Supplement

"Despite its length and the complexity of its subject, the book is wonderfully easy to read. Rudwick has a rare gift for talking neither down to nor over the head of the non-specialist reader: no prior knowledge of geology or its history is required and readers in a hurry will appreciate the clear summaries of ‘the story so far’ with which each of the thirty-six short and snappy chapters concludes. The story retains its fascination right up to the last page."
— Ralph O'Connor, History Today

"Worlds Before Adam is rich and thought-provoking."
— Brenda Maddox, Literary Review

Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2008
— Choice

" Both [Rudwick's] books, indeed, read like Dickens novels; take time to read them at leisure and they will enrich your life. . . . For those who have read Bursting the Limits of Time, Worlds Before Adam probably needs no recommendation, since it maintains the same high standards. For those who haven’t, Worlds Before Adam might whet their appetite to read Bursting the Limits of Time. I hope this latest book will also attract the attention of many people from outside the Earth sciences, who thus can become aware of the fascination of geological discoveries." —Cor F. Winkler Prins, Geological Journal
— Cor F. Winkler Prins, Geological Journal

"Rudwick's masterful volume provides a detailed account of the contrasting fortunes of fluvialists and diluvialists, uniformitarians and catastrophists, while also affording valuable insights into the nature of scientific thought; the roles of communication, travel, and fieldwork in the making of knowledge; and the importance of culture and religion in conditioning the reception and repudiation of scientific ideas. . . . An erudite and insightful sequel."
— Innes M. Keighren, H-Net Reviews

"Any student of paleontology or geology will need this book, if he or she is at all interested in the history of the science. . . . Rudwick has captuired the essence of the Age of Enlightenment, and the reader is left with a sense of the age in which these scientists were working, their difficulties, and the immensity of their discoveries."
— Greg Sweatt, Fossil News

"An ultimate source of knowledge on the history of geoscience in the early XIX century. . . . This book looks as classical as those old works by Buckland or Lyell discussed in its text. The reviewer recommends Rudwick's book for everyone in geology and palaeontology."
— D.A. Rubin, Zentralblatt fuer Geologie undPalaontologie

"A work of such excellence as to recommend it to anyone."
— Paul D. Brinkman, Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Worlds before Adam is at once an important synthesis, a brilliant essay which bestows an immense scholarship upon an original and well-carried argument, and an elegantly written and composed book as pleasant to read as a novel. It will also stand as a reference book, easy to consult by anyone professionally or personally interested in geology and palaeontology and their historical and epistemological implications."
— Claudine Cohen, British Journal for the History of Science


List of illustrations


A note on footnotes, references, and quotations


Part One

1.1 Cuvier’s Fossil Bones

1.2 The Fossil Bones revised

1.3 Cuvier’s secular resurrection

1.4 Conclusion

2.1 The strange ichthyosaur

2.2 The Geological Society

2.3 Conybeare’s plesiosaur

2.4 Conclusion

3.1 The practice of geognosy

3.2 “Conybeare and Phillips”

3.3 The stratigraphy of Europe

3.4 Conclusion

4.1 “Paleontology” defined

4.2 Life’s own history

4.3 The life of ancient seas

4.4 Ancient plant life

4.5 Conclusion

5.1 Buckland’s megalosaur

5.2 Mantell’s giant herbivore

5.3 Wealden stratigraphy

5.4 Mantell’s iguanodon

5.5 The Stonesfield marsupials

5.6 Conclusion

6.1 Buckland’s “hyaena story” at Kirkdale

6.2 Buckland’s new “diluvial” evidence

6.3 “Relics of the deluge”

6.4 Critics of the deluge

6.5 Conclusion

7.1 The adequacy of actual causes

7.2 Von Hoff and Nature’s “statistics”

7.3 Etna: Europe’s greatest volcano

7.4 Actual causes and global exploration

7.5 Conclusion

8.1 Crustal elevation

8.2 The “Temple of Serapis”

8.3 Von Buch and the origin of mountain ranges

8.4 Conclusion

Part Two

9.1 Brongniart’s global stratigraphy

9.2 Fourier’s physics of a cooling earth

9.3 Scrope’s directional geotheory

9.4 Élie de Beaumont’s sequence of revolutions

9.5 Conclusion

10.1 The adequacy of actual causes

10.2 Interpreting the Tertiary world

10.3 Prévost’s reinterpretation of the Paris Basin

10.4 Conclusion

11.1 Fossil land surfaces and soils

11.2 Buckland and the footprints of monsters

11.3 First scenes from deep time

11.4 Conclusion

12.1 Tertiary geohistory

12.2 Adolphe Brongniart: plant life on a cooling earth

12.3 Tropics in the Arctic?

12.4 Conclusion

13.1 Alluvium and diluvium

13.2 Alpine erratic blocks

13.3 Erratic blocks in Scandinavia

13.4 Esmark’s glacial conjecture

13.5 Conclusion

14.1 Bone caves for Buckland

14.2 Buckland’s worldwide antediluvial fossils

14.3 Fleming and the course of extinction

14.4 Lyell the budding synthesizer

14.5 Conclusion

15.1 Scrope’s “Time!—Time!—Time!”

15.2 Faunas and volcanoes in Auvergne

15.3 Conclusion

16.1 The question of contemporaneity

16.2 Human fossils in Languedoc

16.3 Province and metropolis

16.4 Conclusion

17.1 Geoffroy’s new transformism

17.2 Lyell confronts Lamarck

17.3 Conclusion

Part Three

18.1 Lyell on Scrope’s Auvergne

18.2 Lyell as geological reformer

18.3 Auvergne through Lyell’s eyes

18.4 Conclusion

19.1 Lyell and Murchison in southern France

19.2 Lyell and Murchison in northern Italy

19.3 Lyell in southern Italy

19.4 Lyell in Sicily

19.5 Conclusion

20.1 Lyell’s homeward journey

20.2 Parisian debates on the Tertiaries

20.3 Diluvialists and fluvialists in London

20.4 Sedgwick’s anniversary address

20.5 Conclusion

21.1 Introducing Lyell’s Principles

21.2 The lessons of history

21.3 The identity of past and present

21.4 Refuting a directional geohistory

21.5 Refuting a progressive history of life

21.6 Lyell’s revival of geotheory

21.7 Conclusion

22.1 Lyell’s survey of actual causes

22.2 Scrope on Lyell

22.3 De la Beche and Conybeare join in

22.4 Conclusion

23.1 Two critics from Cambridge

23.2 Lyell’s Continental reception

23.3 The goal of Tertiary geohistory

23.4 An actual cause in action

23.5 “Bishops and enlightened saints”

23.6 Conclusion

24.1 The second volume of Lyell’s Principles

24.2 The births and deaths of species

24.3 Organic progress as an illusion

24.4 Catastrophists and one uniformitarian

24.5 Conclusion

25.1 Lyell’s lectures

25.2 A Continental interlude

25.3 The final volume of Lyell’s Principles

25.4 Lyell’s methods for geohistory

25.5 Conclusion

26.1 Lyell reconstructs the Tertiary era

26.2 Geohistory with “no vestige of a beginning”

26.3 Conclusion

Part Four

27.1 Contested meanings of “uniformity”

27.2 De la Beche and “theoretical geology”

27.3 Scrope and the revised Principles

27.4 Sedgwick and “subterranean cookery”

27.5 Conclusion

28.1 Tournal confronts the savant world

28.2 Schmerling’s human fossils in Belgium

28.3 The first fossil primates

28.4 Conclusion

29.1 Natural theology and “scriptural” geology

29.2 Stratigraphical foundations

29.3 Paley geohistoricized

29.4 Conclusion

30.1 Agassiz and the age of fish

30.2 Phillips’s Carboniferous benchmark

30.3 Murchison’s Silurian and Sedgwick’s Cambrian

30.4 Conclusion

31.1 The “great Devonian controversy”

31.2 Gressly’s concept of “facies”

31.3 More scenes from deep time

31.4 Conclusion

32.1 The transformation of the Principles

32.2 Catastrophes and directionality

32.3 Refining Tertiary geohistory

32.4 The “mystery of mysteries”

32.5 Conclusion

33.1 The question of crustal elevation

33.2 Witnesses to elevation in South America

33.3 Darwin’s theory of a dynamic earth

33.4 Darwin’s test case in Scotland

33.5 Conclusion

34.1 Extending the geological deluge

34.2 Erratics and icebergs

34.3 The reconstruction of mega-glaciers

34.4 Conclusion

35.1 Agassiz’s “Ice Age” in the Alps

35.2 Extending the Ice Age

35.3 The Ice Age in Britain

35.4 Conclusion

36.1 The Pleistocene Ice Age

36.2 Phillips and global geohistory

36.3 Agassiz and the “genealogy” of life

36.4 Whewell’s historical-causal science

36.5 Conclusion

Concluding (Un)Scientific Postscript

1. Places and Specimens

2. Manuscripts and Pictures

3. Printed Sources: Primary

4. Printed Sources: Secondary