A Prescription for Awe


ALL DRESSED UP: A humorous etching of Buckland shows him wandering a landscape looking for rock samples and glacial markings. Among these are scratches made by a cart “the day before yesterday.”Wellcome Images

In the debate between religion and science, wonder is what the doctor ordered.

The fossil-hunters and naturalists who pored over the Jurassic Coast in the early 19th century were awestruck by this orderly sequence of sedimentary rocks, suggestive of an almost endless series of changes in this one place on earth. And they were equally entranced by the extraordinary fossils that they pulled out of the cliffs and rock falls. Here were plants and animals like nothing seen today, including fish-like reptiles dubbed ichthyosaurs and flying reptiles known as pterodactyls. All testified to radically different forms of life that had come and gone over the course of unimaginable ages. Writing in 1836, one of the leading geologists of his day, the Reverend William Buckland of the University of Oxford, warned his readers that some of what he was about to describe was “much more like the dreams of fiction and romance, than the sober results of calm and deliberate investigation.”

I have always had a soft spot for Buckland and the other clerical naturalists who walked this coast in the 1820s and 1830s. As a historian of evolutionary biology and director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum, I have come a long way from my own upbringing as an evangelical Christian. Yet I retain a broadly Christian sensibility that leads me to admire their quest for a unified understanding of the world, based on insights from what they took to be all of the relevant sources—which included not just fieldwork, measurement, and close observation of their rocks and fossils, but scripture. Their philosophy of “natural theology” is one that many people would find hard to fathom today, when science and religion are so often viewed as irreconcilable adversaries. But this philosophy treated the world of nature as “the book of God’s works,” waiting to be harmonized with the better-known “book of God’s words.”…




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