The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment
“Very vain is Science’ proudest boast”: The resistance to geological theory in early nineteenth-century England
Published:April 01, 2009
Noah Heringman, 2009. "“Very vain is Science’ proudest boast”: The resistance to geological theory in early nineteenth-century England", The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Gary D. Rosenberg
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Resistance to theory pervaded many different kinds of geological writing ca. 1807, when the Geological Society of London institutionalized “geology” as the umbrella term for earth science. The founders of the Geological Society themselves, taking a Baconian stance, rejected Plutonism, Neptunism, and other contentious theories that had dominated thinking about Earth in the previous century. Geological critics of the society, however, pointed out its implicit prejudice in favor of Wernerian theory and claimed true independence of theory for themselves. The poet Charlotte Smith offered yet another kind of challenge to geological theory, adopting the perspective of traditional natural history. All three groups—the early Geological Society, along with geologists in France; geological outsiders, including William Smith and John Farey; and Charlotte Smith, among other women writers and naturalists—brought an active suspicion of theory to their engagement with geological questions. This essay examines that suspicion as it appears in Smith’s long poem Beachy Head 1807 and in geological writings from the former two groups, especially writings by Thomas Webster and others that address the chalk formation on England’s southeast coast, which includes Beachy Head. The resistance to theory in all these works is in part a national ideology reinforced by the ongoing war with France (1793–1815), just across the English Channel. At the same time, resistance to theory is itself a flexible theoretical stance that lends itself equally to the empirical and institutional project of the Geological Society and to the skeptical critique of scientific specialization in Smith’s Beachy Head.