Sunday, March 8, 2009

William Smith and the Principle of Faunal Succession

Medieval rationalists believed in the constancy of the natural order; that the natural order governs in more-or-less the same way at all times and in all places. They believed this as part of the Aristotelian philosophical framework, which has since been abandoned. This was modified by the Biblical belief, shared by Jews and Christians alike, that Creation and the Deluge caused radical upheavals in the natural world.

In modern times, rationalists also believe in the constancy of the natural order, but for a different reason: Because it has been empirically demonstrated. William Smith is the subject of a terrific new book, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, and he discovered the Principle of Faunal Succession (oddly, the book does not mention the principle by this name). Like other creationists of his day and today, Smith originally believed that making sense of ancient history was impossible; Creation and the Deluge were assumed to have played havoc with nature and even the laws of nature themselves. But in the course of his surveying work to find coal, it dawned on Smith that there was a very precise order to be found in geological strata across the country. This made him an extremely successful surveyor, but more importantly, it made the science of geology possible.


  1. I am curious if you have read R. Solevetick's comment about Nature being G-d's halacha of Din and our current Halacha as being G-d's halacaha of Rachamim, and what you think about that mixing of chasidic/kabbalistic concepts with rationalism.

    I am also curious as to how you view the efforts of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (in terms of Rationalism.)

    I am asking, because it appears to me that there is a path of rationalism/mysticism which in reality, is the more truly rational approach.

  2. I would point out that I don't believe that Daganev means to suggest that the rationalism/mysticism path is more rational simply because it is correct, but rather insofar as revealed religion is predicated on the supernatural it is difficult to justify interpreting any given issue in the most materialistic manner possible. In this vein I would suggest that while todays 'rationalists' may accept the Rambam's approach to a number of supernatural issues, they will often see a larger disparity between the Rambam's view and that commonly held by Chazal than the Rambam seemed to recognize. Seems to me anyways...

  3. I enjoyed reading this book as well. Another book thay may be of interest is "Genesis and Geology", which is more of an academic overview of the topic covered in the book which is the topic of this post.

    A reviewer in Amazon describes it well:
    "The great value of Gillispie's study lies in the historical light it throws on this age-old yet perennially "new" problem. What Gillispie shows in page after carefully documented page of excerpts from contemporary scientific journals is that, far from a presumption of atheism, the geologists and paleontologists of the early nineteenth century predicated their studies on a very traditional religious faith and a keen desire to use science to verify and justify the Mosaic account of creation. The irony, of course, is that the more these scientists discovered, the harder it became for them to reconcile their newfound knowledge with the revealed traditions of Scripture. At no point, however, was this recognition a welcome or foreseen conclusion."

    ISBN 13: 9780674344815
    ISBN 10: 0674344812

  4. "In modern times, rationalists also believe in the constancy of the natural order, but for a different reason: Because it has been empirically demonstrated. "

    I consider myself a rationalist, yet I'm kind of partial to the following theory:


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