Plumbing the Depths: Geological Processes, Deep Time, and the Shaping of Landscapes in Classical Literature
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Taylor, James Calvin
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CitationTaylor, James Calvin. 2020. Plumbing the Depths: Geological Processes, Deep Time, and the Shaping of Landscapes in Classical Literature. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe traditional narrative of deep time’s discovery would have it that the geologist James Hutton’s study of unconformities in 1787 and 1788 first established that the Earth’s age exceeded the limits of traditional history, and thus released humanity from the superstitious grip of Christian chronology. This dissertation uncovers a radically different story in classical antiquity, according to which the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin had observed the incremental progress made by geological processes, such as sedimentation, in reshaping their environments and from such observations had extrapolated much larger timescales than those made possible by the shallow reach of recorded history and collective memory. The larger timescales thereby extrapolated extend anywhere between the tens of thousands of years proposed by Herodotus to the eternity championed by Aristotle. Rather than using such evidence to argue for an unambiguous embrace of deep time before the advent of Christianity, however, the dissertation demonstrates that this deeper, geologic time exercised a disruptive influence within classical thought, in so far as its vast timescales completely dwarfed the narrow bounds of a human life. As a consequence, its existence raised several problems for Greek and Roman authors, such as how old the Earth was and how much longer it might exist; why the collective memory of a community, or humanity as a whole, was so shallow; how much influence geological processes exerted over human history; and whether the radically different scales of geologic time and human existence could be integrated into coherent narratives or the vast dimensions of the former would always minimize the significance or agency of the human subject. In investigating this disruptive aspect of geologic time, the dissertation uncovers a corner of classical antiquity whose difficulties of scale and aesthetic value resonate with the contemporary ecological crisis, where our narrow individual perspectives struggle with the spatial and temporal scale of the hyperobject known as climate change, and the destruction promised by invisible increments of carbon wrestles for attention on the evening news.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365886
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