A review of
The Map that Changed the World:
The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science
by Simon Winchester
Viking, London, 2001
by Tas Walker, Ph.D.
The English canal builder, William ‘Strata’ Smith was a pioneer of geology whose remarkable discoveries about fossils and strata are fundamental to the science. It is fitting that a book should be devoted to his work and, that such a book should appeal to anyone interested in geology. It also should appeal to anyone interested in the history of Western thinking because geology is a field of learning that is foundational to other fields of knowledge. This big idea is expressed in the title of the book, The Map that Changed the World.
In some respects, Winchester is correct to link geology with changes in world thinking. Sherwood Taylor, Curator of the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, said the same thing in 1949: ‘In England it was geology and the theory of evolution that changed us from a Christian to a pagan nation.’1
But in other ways, the title is misleading because it implies that Smith’s map changed England ‘from a Christian to a pagan nation’. That notion reflects a basic misunderstanding about science, a misunderstanding that is very prevalent today. Winchester, like so many geologists, doesn’t realise that geological facts don’t speak for themselves, but have to be interpreted. Rather than Smith’s map, it was a new philosophy of geology that changed world thinking. In fact, Winchester describes how an earlier pioneer of geology, the ‘gently-born Scots doctor’ James Hutton, was ‘one of the leading philosophers of the age’. More than 40 years older than Smith, he published his anti-Biblical ideas in Theory of the Earth in 1797 around the time the young Smith was working as a surveyor in Mearns Colliery in Somerset. Hutton’s pagan2 philosophy was kept alive by another Scot, John Playfair, and later systemised and popularised by Charles Lyell who called it ‘uniformitarianism’.3….
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