Review – Rock, Bone, and Ruin: an optimist’s guide to the historical sciences

3 mins read
Adrian Currie
MIT Press, £27.95
ISBN 978-0262037266
Review Rob Ixer

Geology has few laws, but the most encompassing and important is the late 18th- to 19th-century Doctrine of Uniformitarianism – ‘the present is the key to the past’ – and generally this is still accepted as true. ‘Historical scientists’ (aka earth scientists), who try to interpret ‘the deep past’, continue, as naive realists, to practise in this belief/ knowledge, as it works well.

‘Ceteris paribus’ (an oft-occurring phrase), and despite the dust-jacket blurb, Currie’s book is a densely written, technical treatise on philosophy, discussing (mainly) geology but some Mayan (sic) archaeology, their practitioners, and how these sciences have been, are, could, or should be practised. In essence, this is a dialogue, or at best a pentalogue, between philosophers who believe that the spectator sees all of the game. That may be correct, but the chasm between wissen and kennen is vast and difficult to bridge, whatever the Lewisian/ Dodgsonian wordplay.

Currie takes a range of eclectic topics (including how and why Cretaceous sauropods grew so big, worldwide glaciation at the end of the Precambrian, and ‘unbright’ banjo strings) and uses these to discuss the nature of evidence, its survival, its exploration, and subsequent interpretations. Alas, the author’s understanding of the basic science is superficial and many ‘engaging’ explanatory statements on these topics are oversimplified or just wrong, notably on palaeomagnetism, ‘bony ammonites’, the ‘mineral’ iridium, ‘heat and the chemical state of water’, and sedimentary carbon occurring in three forms: ‘16C and 17C which are stable and 13C which is unstable’. Philosophically, this may not matter or affect his arguments, but to the scientifically cognisant layman-reader these ‘trivial’ errors are foundation-destroying and suggest a lack of rigour (mortice).

His leitmotif is that historical scientists should remain ‘optimistic’ and ‘methodological omnivores’, even when they find themselves in ‘unlucky’ circumstances. (Or, more simply, hope for the best and try lots of different approaches even if a positive outcome looks slim.) Certainly, that seems correct, naively rational, even commonsensical, but it takes him aeons to join us on that well-hewn working coalface.

As Freud is reputed to have said: ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.’

This review appeared in CA 339.

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