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Finding patterns of meaning in the tick of time

Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time, By Stephen Jay Gould. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 222 pp. $17.50. Illustrated. Today, as in the Renaissance, the breakup of systems of thought releases great energy. Time and research have undermined the main modern ideologies of Marxism and Darwinism until some of their proponents consider them not so much scientific theories as research programs, not testworthy in themselves but still capable of inspiring good work.

Scientists have adapted to this situation in various ways. Some have yielded to the revisionist impulse - most notably, perhaps, Stephen Jay Gould. Furthermore, he's turned his position as professor of geology and curator in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and his columns in Natural Science magazine into a bully pulpit for issues ranging from nuclear winter to natural selection. In the process, he's alienated both fellow scientists and the creationists whom he has opposed in court battles over the teaching of evolution in the schools.

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As his new book shows, Gould's metier is really not so much science as a certain kind of discussion about science. A careful reading suggests that it's Gould's style, not his experiments, that reveal the intentions of the man.

Indeed, in ``Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle,'' Gould's method is literary. The book includes close readings of three major texts in the history of geology, from the 17th through the 19th century. It originated as the first Harvard-Jerusalem lectures at Hebrew University in 1985.

But the subject is not strictly scientific. Gould's book is about ``the meaning of history.'' In it, we finally see what makes Gould tick.

Ticking, in this case, may suggest a bomb rather than a clock - or both. Gould finds a place for both catastrophe and the steady march of time in geological history. With Niles Eldridge, Gould has put forth the theory of ``punctuated equilibria.'' It proposes that species do not change gradually throughout their existence; rather, they remain in equilibrium with the environment for millions of years and then, for unknown reasons, evolve rapidly, changing into new species.

Gould's effort to make room in Darwinist thought for catastrophe suggests his revisionism. In these lectures, he further explores the problem of gradualism. He says that geology has been dominated by the metaphor of the arrow - progressive, linear motion - at the expense of the metaphor of the cycle, which points to the element of repetition.

He finds the desired combination of arrows and cycles in the thought of one of the earliest geologists, Thomas Burnet. Against the textbooks, which reject his thinking as theological pseudo-science, Gould finds Burnet thought provoking. A prominent 17th-century Anglican clergyman, Burnet called his treatise ``Sacred History of the Earth.'' Burnet accepted the time frame in the biblical account of creation. When a conflict arose between fact and tradition, he tried to reconcile the two.

Gould sees Burnet's vision in his frontispiece (reproduced here). Surrounded by angels, Jesus keeps one foot on the first stage of the earth, and one on the last. The vision is progressive - it reads clockwise, and each phase of earth accounts for one step, from the Creation to the Fall to the Second Coming to the Last Judgment and stellification - and cyclical at the same time.

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Why should Gould - a self-described Jewish paleontologist - find this inspiring? He knows that the biblical schedule of creation came in for a shock with the discovery of ``deep time'' (John McPhee's phrase) or geological time. He's been a careful critic of fundamentalist creationists. But he also feels that his own profession has accepted on faith a vision equally inadequate. Gradual progress - symbolized by the arrow - is as much a problem, taken in isolation, as the mere repetitiveness symbolized by the ancient concept of eternal return.

Gould's reading of the two great geological thinkers after Burnet - James Hutton and Charles Lyell - demonstrates in great and sometimes eloquent detail the struggle they had with the limits imposed by their visions of history. Having rejected the notion that science is built up from facts alone, Gould defines the great moments in geological science in terms that are surprisingly literary. As an exponent of nasty little facts, and aware that a bold theory needs only one counterfact to evaporate, Gould is careful to document the interpenetration of fact and theory, data and vision. His is a study of geological style and eloquence.

Like Thomas Burnet and other 17th-century writers, Gould is a master of synthesis - even syncretism. In this book, he creates space for both Burnet's biblical apologetics and his own revisionist Darwinism. Readers of his columns who have come to expect a smooth, yogurty texture may dislike the chunky roughage dished out here. But the unevenness of the texture (extending to his odd usage of words like ``construe'' and ``inextricable'') suggests his ambition.

Gould's syncretistic vision of arrows and cycles comes to rest on on the obvious. Take any organism. The arrow points to the individual, the cycle to its membership in a repeating series. The cycle points also to laws, say, of plate tectonics - such laws, Gould says, ``may be simple and timeless, but they yield a complex uniqueness of results when we trace the actual configurations of continents through time.''

Gould concludes: ``Uniqueness is the essence of history, but we also crave some underlying generality, some principles of order transcending the distinction of moments...''

Is it then much ado about nothing, another case of showmanship? In the final lecture, he illustrates his theory with discussions of American folk art, Siamese twins, and medieval sculpture.

It's as a writer, not scientist, that Gould should probably be judged. His remarkable style is not igneous or metamorphical, but composite: In it, descriptive, explanatory, and emotive elements coexist unfused but still preserved in almost miraculous juxtaposition. Gould's catastrophic, even millennial frame of mind, makes him include a little of everything, in an act of symbolic conservation. It's Gould's style that best communicates his sense of the mystery of life on earth.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.