This View of Life

Justice Scalia's Misunderstanding

What good to science is a lovely idea that cannot, as a matter of principle, ever be affirmed or denied?

by Stephen Jay Gould

Charles Lyell, defending both his version of geology and his designation of James Hutton as its intellectual father, described Richard Kirwan as a man "who possessed much greater authority in the scientific world than he was entitled by his talents to enjoy."

Kirwan, chemist, mineralogist, and president of the Royal Academy of Dublin, did not incur Lyell's wrath for a mere scientific disagreement, but for saddling Hutton with the most serious indictment of all--atheism and impiety. Kirwan based his accusations on the unlikely charge that Hutton had placed the earth's origin beyond the domain of what science could consider or (in a stronger claim) had even denied that a point of origin could be inferred at all. Kirwan wrote in 1799:

Recent experience has shown that the obscurity in which the philosophical knowledge of this [original] state has hitherto been involved, has proved too favorable to the structure of various systems of atheism or infidelity, as these have been in their turn to turbulence and immorality, not to endeavor to dispel it by all the lights which modern geological researches have struck out. Thus it will be found that geology naturally ripens ... into religion, as this does into morality.

In our more secular age, we may fail to grasp the incendiary character of such a charge at the end of the eighteenth century, when intellectual respectability in Britain absolutely demanded an affirmation of religious fealty, and when fear of spreading revolution from France and America equated any departure from orthodoxy with encouragement of social anarchy. Calling someone an atheist in those best and worst of all times invited the same predictable reaction as asking Cyrano how many sparrows had perched up there or standing up in a Boston bar and announcing that DiMaggio was a better hitter than Williams.

Thus, Hutton's champions leaped to his defense, first his contemporary and Boswell, John Playfair, who wrote (in 1802) that such poisoned weapons as he [Kirwan) was preparing to use, are hardly ever allowable in scientific contest, as having a less direct tendency to overthrow the system, than to hurt the person of an adversary, and to wound, perhaps incurably, his mind, his reputation, or his peace.

Thirty years later, Charles Lyell was still fuming:

We cannot estimate the malevolence of such a persecution, by the pain which similar insinuations might now inflict; for although charges of infidelity and atheism must always be odious, they were injurious in the extreme at that moment of political excitement [Principles of Geology, 1830].

(Indeed, Kirwan noted that his book had been ready for the printers in 1798 but had been delayed for a year by "the confusion arising from the rebellion then raging in Ireland" --the great Irish peasant revolt of 1798, squelched by Viscount Castlereagh, uncle of Darwin's Captain FitzRoy.)

Kirwan's accusation centered upon the last sentence of Hutton's Theory of the Earth (original version of 1788)--the most famous words ever written by a geologist (quoted in all textbooks, and often emblazoned on the coffee mugs and T-shirts of my colleagues).

The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning--no prospect of an end.

Kirwan interpreted both this motto, and Hutton's entire argument, as a claim for the earth's eternity (or at least as a statement of necessary agnosticism about the nature of its origin). But if the earth be eternal, then God did not make it. And if we need no God to fashion our planet, then do we need him at all? Even the weaker version of Hutton as agnostic about the earth's origin supported a charge of atheism in Kirwan's view--for if we cannot know that God made the earth at a certain time, then biblical authority is dethroned, and we must wallow in uncertainty about the one matter that demands our total confidence.

It is, I suppose, a testimony to human carelessness and to our tendency to substitute quips for analysis that so many key phrases, the mottoes of our social mythology, have standard interpretations quite contrary to their intended meanings. Kirwan's reading has prevailed. Most geologists still think that Hutton was advocating an earth of unlimited duration--though we now view such a claim as heroic rather than impious.

Yet Kirwan's charge was more than merely vicious--it was dead wrong. Moreover, in understanding why Kirwan erred (and why we still do), and in recovering what Hutton really meant, we illustrate perhaps the most important principle that