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October in the Historical Sciences

A calendar of anniversaries in the palaetiological sciences of evolutionary biology, systematics, historical linguistics, text transmission, historical geology, paleontology, genealogy, archeology, anthropology, cosmology, historical geography, and related fields, from the Darwin-L Archives on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

October 2

1836: His Majesty’s Ship Beagle with Charles Darwin on board arrives back in her home port, having spent the past five years circumnavigating the globe. Darwin writes in his diary: “After a tolerably short passage, but with some very heavy weather, we came to anchor at Falmouth.—To my surprise and shame I confess the first sight of the shores of England inspired me with no warmer feelings, than if it had been a miserable Portuguese settlement. The same night (and a dreadfully stormy one it was) I started by the Mail for Shrewsbury.”

October 6

1892: ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON, poet laureate of England, dies at 1:35 a.m. He will be buried in Westminster Abbey. Tennyson’s life had spanned much of the nineteenth century, and he will be remembered by historical scientists for producing one of the greatest literary expressions of the collapse of the static and providential world-view of natural theology under the weight of the new historical geology, with its emphasis on the succession of types, extinction, and the “struggle for existence”:

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life;

That I, considering everywhere
Her secret meaning in her deeds,
And finding that of fifty seeds
She often brings but one to bear,

I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,

I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.

‘So careful of the type?’ but no.
From scarpèd cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing: all shall go.

‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.’ And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

October 10

1802: HUGH MILLER, author and geologist, is born at Cromarty, Scotland. Apprenticed to a stonemason as a young man, Miller made several important geological discoveries, including finding in the Old Red Sandstone the earliest fossil vertebrates that were then known. His greatest distinction, however, came as a popularizer of the geological research of his day: in vivid and powerful prose, Miller made known to a wide audience the lost worlds of the past and the depth of geological time. In one of his best-known works Miller describes a scenic view of the Bay of Cromarty, and then asks his readers to “survey the landscape a second time;—”

not merely in its pictorial aspect, not as connected with the commoner associations which link it to its present inhabitants, but as antiquaries of the world,—as students of those wonderful monuments of nature, on which she has traced her heiro-glyphical inscriptions of plants and animals that impart to us the history, not of a former age, but of a former creation. Geology is the most poetical of all sciences; and its various facts, as they present themselves to the human mind, possess a more overpowering immensity than even those of Astronomy itself. For while the Astronomer can carry about with him in his imagination, a little portable Orrery of the whole solar system, the Geologist is oppressed by a weight of rocks and mountains, and of strata piled over strata which all his diligence in forming theories, has not yet enabled him completely to arrange. He is no mere intellectual mechanician, who calculates and reasons on the movements of a piece of natural clockwork; the objects with which he is chiefly conversant, have no ascertained forms, or known proportions, that he may conceive of them as abstract figures, or substitute a set of models in their places; his province, in at least all its outer skirts, is still a terra incognita, which he cannot conceive of as a whole; and the walks which intersect it are so involved and irregular that, like those of an artificial wilderness, they seem to double its extent. The operations of his latest eras, as his science exists in time, terminate long before history begins; while, as it exists in space, he has to grapple with the immense globe itself, with all its oceans, and all its continents. Goethe finely remarks, that the ideas and feelings of the schoolboy who tells his fellows that the world is round, are widely different in depth and sublimity from those experienced by the wanderer of Ithaca, when he spoke of the unlimited earth, and the unmeasurable and infinite sea. (Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, or the Traditional History of Cromarty. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1835. Pp. 48–49.)

October 16

1714: GIOVANNI ARDUINO (or ARDUINI) is born at Caprino, Italy. As a young man he will work in the mines of the Adige valley, and will soon became one of the leading mining specialists in Italy. From his study of the mountains and plains of northern Italy Arduino will describe four general geological periods which he will name Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary. He will go on to lay the intellectual foundations for the principle of actualism, which will become one of the central concepts of historical geology: “With the sole guidance of our practical knowledge of those physical agents which we see actually used in the continuous workings of nature, and of our knowledge of the respective effects induced by the same workings, we can with reasonable basis surmise what the forces were which acted even in the remotest times.”

October 19

1605/1682: THOMAS BROWNE, antiquary, author, and sometime physician, is born on this day in 1605 in St. Michael’s Parish, Cheapside, London. He will die on this same date in 1682. After education at Oxford and travel on the Continent he will settle in Norwich, England. The discovery of several ancient burial urns in Norfolk will lead Browne to think about reconstructing aspects of the past that are not recorded in textual sources, and he will express these thoughts in one of the most graceful and imaginative documents of the antiquarian period, his Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall (1658): “What Song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, though puzling Questions, are not beyond all conjecture. What time the persons of these Ossuaries entered the famous Nations of the dead, and slept with Princes and Counsellours, might admit a wide solution.”

October 24

1808: CARL BERNHARD VON COTTA is born at Zillbach, Saxe-Weimar-Eisnach (now Germany). Following study at his father’s forestry academy and at the Freiberg Bergakademie, the mining school made famous by Abraham Werner, Cotta will become professor of geognosy and paleontology at the Bergakademie in 1842. He will travel extensively throughout Europe on geological expeditions, and will publish a genetic system of petrography in 1866, some elements of which will remain in use well into the twentieth century.

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