Darwin-L Message Log 6:83 (February 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<6:83>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Tue Feb 15 15:15:24 1994

Date: Tue, 15 Feb 1994 16:17:17 -0400 (EDT)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: Language and geology
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

I am pleased that several people with geological backgrounds have introduced
themselves to the group in the last few weeks, because although we have not
yet had much discussion of it on Darwin-L, geology is of course one of the
premier historical sciences, and was Whewell's main exemplar of "palaetiology."
Some of our geologists and linguists might be interested in a fascinating book
that recently appeared that examines the many parallels that were drawn in the
19th century between these two fields:

  Naumann, Bernd, et al. (eds.).  1992.  _Language and Earth: Elective
  Affinities Between the Emerging Sciences of Linguistics and Geology_.
  Amsterdam: John Benjamins.  (Studies in the History of Language Sciences,
  vol. 66.)

It is a symposium volume with papers in English and German on a variety of
19th-century linguists and geologists, including Schlegel, Grimm, Lyell,
Whitney, Fuchsel, Werner, Darwin, and Hutton.  (And it is outrageously
priced.)  As a sample of the kind of comparisons these early authors made,
consider John William Donaldson in 1850:

  "The study of language is indeed perfectly analogous to Geology; they both
  present us with a set of deposits in a present state of amalgamation which
  however may be easily discriminated, and we may by an allowable chain of
  reasoning in either case deduce from the _present_ the _former_ condition,
  and determine by what causes and in what manner the superposition or
  amalgamation has taken place."  (_The New Cratylus; or Contributions Toward
  a More Accurate Knowledge of the Greek Language_. London.  From the second
  edition, 1850:14.)

And geologists will recognize the allusion in this linguistic title:

  Johnes, Arthur James. 1843.  _Philological Proofs of the Original Unity and
  Recent Origin of the Human Race, Derived from a Comparison of the Languages
  of Asia, Europe, Africa, and America; being an inquiry how far the
  differences in the languages of the globe are referrible to causes now in
  operation_.  London: John Russell Smith.  (Second edition, 1846.)

The allusion is to Charles Lyell, whose influential _Principles of Geology_
(1830-33) was titled in full: _Principles of Geology, being an attempt to
explain the former changes of the earth's surface, by reference to causes now
in operation_. "Causes now in operation" is the idea behind the geological
principle of "uniformitarianism" or "actualism", which was applied widely in
linguistics at the time.  There is even a recent historical monograph on
uniformitarianism in linguistics:

  Christy, Craig.  1983.  _Uniformitarianism in Linguistics_.  Amsterdam:
  John Benjamins.  (Studies in the History of the Language Sciences, 31.)

If anyone comes across conscious applications of similar geological ideas in
fields other than linguistics I would be interested to hear about them.

Bob O'Hara, Darwin-L list owner

Robert J. O'Hara (darwin@iris.uncg.edu)
Center for Critical Inquiry and Department of Biology
100 Foust Building, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, North Carolina 27412 U.S.A.

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