Fragment: Primitive Culture, Spiritualism and “The Philosophy of Savages”

“The Received Spiritualistic theory belongs to the philosophy of savages. As to such matters as apparitions or possessions, this is obvious; and it holds in more extreme cases. Suppose a wild North American Indian looking on at a spirit-séance in London. As to the presence of disembodied spirits, manifesting themselves by raps, noises, voices, and other physical actions, the savage would be perfectly at home in the proceedings; for such things are part and parcel of his recognized system of Nature. The part of the affair really strange to him would be the introduction of such arts as spelling and writings, which do belong to a different state of civilization from his. The issue raised by the comparison of savage, barbaric, and civilized Spiritualism, is this: — Do the Red Indian medicine-man, the Tartar necromancer, the Highland ghost-seer, and the Boston medium, share the possession of belief and knowledge of the highest truth and import, which, nevertheless, the greatest intellectual movement of the last two centuries has simply thrown aside as worthless? Is what we are habitually boasting of, and calling new enlightenment, then, in fact, a decay of knowledge? If so, this is a truly remarkable case of degeneration; and the savages whom some Ethnographers look on as degenerate from a higher civilization, may turn on their accusers, and charge them with having fallen from the high level of savage knowledge.”

Edward Burnett Tylor (1871). Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom, Vol 1. p. 141.

Fragment: More Philology of the Future

Thoughts such as this, I suspect, can help explain why I’ve moved increasingly from Nietzsche to occult studies. Not that Nietzsche was an occultist (he was quite disappointed by the one seance he did attend), but his emphasis on traditions, mysteries, symbols myth and the force of will can certainly lend itself to a intriguing reinterpretation of thought at the fringes of society.

“If on one level, then, the Dionysian is a thoroughly modern myth, on another level the Dionysian is a symbol for the ineradicable need for myths in modernity. Nietzsche thus uses the Dionysian to expose, in a rhetorical rather than declarative way, the most transparent and therefore most invisible myth of all: the myth of mythlessness that prevails in the modern world, its presumed ‘timeliness.” Philology as a discipline is what helps to sustain this myth and the modern needs for myth in the contemporary present. That those needs are said by Nietzsche to be consistent with religious needs that develop in antiquity is only a sign of the deeply rooted nature of the phenomenon described and of its seeming ineradicability.

Traditional philology is the agency that helps to sustain the mythical shape of the present, in part by alienating myth as an object of dispassionate study. It is one of the forms that forgetfulness assumes. Exposing this condition is the work of a critical philology. And because there is no philology that does not stand in the shadow of its own history, philology for Nietzsche must become a self-reflexive, self-critical, and often paradoxical undertaking.”

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 224.

Fragment: Guard Your Daughters!

“It gives me great pain to tell you I believe he is a thoroughly unreliable witness. (laughter). I do not for one moment dispute his honesty of intention, but I say he is not fit to give evidence on this occasion. A question of evidence requires examination. A man should be thoroughly unprejudiced. I am afraid my friend does not come up to that standard. (laughter) Some years ago I was a witness of some of these performances. I knew one of the media, and it so happens everyone of these persons referred to have been females. (Laughter.) I say that these young girls—Professor Barrett’s young girls—my friend’s young girls—and these other young girls-I say they are not proper persons on whom to base great superstructures such as these. (Laughter and hisses.) May I mention another thing? Did anyone ever investigate hysteria- I speak to fathers and mother’s brothers and sisters. (Laughter.) I may say, as another fact, I am the parent of fourteen children—(roars of laughter)—and I say it is a most dangerous thing to bring these mesmeric experiences into a region like that, and I had to guard with great jealousy and great care my own daughters, or they would have been media.”

Rev. Dr. McIlwaine, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of science, 1876.

Fragment: The Philology of the Future

I have never been convinced that Nietzsche heralded, as Heidegger claimed, “the death of metaphysics”, but instead thought that he demonstrated, indeed, its very inevitability. Yet a student today could be excused for thinking that that word “metaphysics” was some kind of vile academic invective.  In Porter I recently found a reassurance that I am not alone in this suspicion:

Nietzsche cannot be assumed to have passed from a philosophical naivete (as if in a “precritical” period) to some emancipated, free-spirited thinking that definitively outgrew the theoretical problems (and not just the philological materials) that he had encountered early on. I doubt that Nietzsche believed in grand emancipatory possibilities at any point in his career. His readings of the Presocratics (Heraclitus, Parmenides, or Democritus) put this beyond doubt for the early period: what these reflections show is something about the inescapably, not just of the category of the subject, but of its idealism– which is always bound up, for Nietzsche, with the subject’s infinite capacity for delusion. What we learn is that Nietzsche’s inquiries into ancient philosophy do not reveal a premetaphysical thinking that points to a region beyond metaphysics, as is frequently held. On the contrary, Nietzsche’s early writings reveal the inescapability of metaphysical thinking. […] But as Nietzsche says quite plainly in both phases, early and late, ‘It is absolutely impossible for the subject to want [and hence, to be able] to see and known something beyond itself: knowledge and being are the most contradictory spheres there are.’ The ‘subjective concept’ is ‘eternal’: we can never accede to a region ‘beyond the wall of relations’ by which we are conditioned, for beyond these lies merely ‘a mythical primordial ground of things'”.

Porter, James. 2002. Nietzsche and the Philology of the Future. Stanford: Standford University Press, 21.

Nietzsche’s Mustache

Nietzsche's Mustache

“Knowing one’s ‘particularity.’ — We too easily forget that in the eyes of strangers who are seeing us for the first time, we are something completely different from what we consider ourselves to be: usually nothing more than an eye-catching particular determines the impression. Accordingly, the most gentle and fair-minded person on earth can, if he merely happens to have a large mustache, sit, as it were, in its shade, and sit calmly – ordinary eyes will see in him the accessory to a large mustache, in other words, a militaristic, quick-tempered, under certain circumstances violent character — and they act toward him accordingly.” ~ Nietzsche, Friedrich. 2011. Dawn. Trans. Brittain Smith. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 210.

The Fearful Figures of Carlos Schwabe

Le Faune, 1923.

The German symbolist painter Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926) spent most of his professional life in Paris. He composed illustrations for the works of authors Émile Zola and Charles Baudelaire and had notable Rosicrucian sympathies. Taking up such symbolist motifs as death, beauty, mythology and the monstrous, he apparently modeled the angel in his “The Death of the Grave-Digger” after his own wife.

La Vague, 1907.

File:Mort du fossoyeur.jpg

La mort du fossoyeur, The Death of the Grave-Digger, 1895.

La Douleur, The Pain, 1893.

From Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal”.

Poster of the First Rosicrucian Exposition by Carlos Schwabe

Medusa by Carlos Schwabe

Medusa, 1895.

For More Information:

The Beautiful Knowledge of Ida Craddock

What does Aleister Crowley have in common with the suffragette movement of the nineteenth century? Understandably, one could have trouble with this question. Yet one intriguing answer can be found in the works of the free thinker, free speech advocate and early agitator for women’s rights, Ida Craddock (1857-1902).

Craddock infamously crossed swords with the giant of nineteenth century American censorship, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915), who bragged that he had personally driven at least 15 people, including Craddock, to suicide in what he called his “fight for the young”, and as a self-described “weeder in God’s garden”. Now seen as more of a valiant defender of free speech and women’s rights instead of just as a  victim of Comstock’s violent crusade, Craddock was also an early western defender of belly dancing, writing a fiery defence of the performance of the group Little Egypt, which was presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893.

She was also actively engaged in a range of occult matters, associating herself with the Theosophical Society, describing herself as a Priestess and Pastor of the Church of Yoga. Craddock taught correspondence courses to women and couples on the sacred nature of sex for its own sake. More publicly, she wrote pamphlets, articles and books on the subject in order to prevent “sexual evils and sufferings” (which is what attracted Comstock’s ire). Ostensibly single all of her life, she described her active sexual relationship with an angelic being (sometimes a spirit) named “Soph”, who she claimed taught her many things about sacred sexuality (and in whose embrace she was said to be so vocally excited as to give the neighbours some cause to complain of the noise).

Defending the existence of her spiritual lover, Craddock would explore the history of erotic relationships between humans and angels, spirits, incubi, succubi and other creatures from ancient times to her present day, presenting the result of her labours partly in her work Heavenly Bridegrooms.

In 1902, Craddock was arrested under New York’s anti-obscenity laws and was scheduled to be incarcerated. She wrote two suicide notes, one public and one for her mother (who had already attempted and failed to get her institutionalized). In her public note, she began:

I am taking my life, because a judge, at the instigation of Anthony Comstock, has decreed me guilty of a crime which I did not commit–the circulation of obscene literature–and has announced his intention of consigning me to prison for a long term.

She concluded the note with a public appeal to protect her written work, which I think it is fitting to produce verbatim here:

I earnestly hope that the American public will awaken to a sense of the danger which threatens it from Comstockism, and that it will demand that Mr. Comstock shall no longer be permitted to suppress works on sexology. The American people have a right to seek and to obtain knowledge upon right living in the marriage relation, either orally or in print, without molestation by this paid informer, Anthony Comstock, or by anybody else.

Dear fellow-citizens of America, for nine long years I have faced social ostracism, poverty, and the dangers of persecution by Anthony Comstock for your sakes. I had a beautiful gospel of right living in the marriage relation, which I wanted you to share with me. For your sakes, I have struggled along in the face of great odds; for your sakes I have come at last to the place where I must lay down my life for you, either in prison or out of prison. Will you not do something for me now?

Well, this is what I want the American public to do for me. Only one of my books, that on “The Wedding Night,” is at present under legal ban. “Right Marital Living,” which is by far the more important book of the two, and which contains the gist of my teachings, has not yet been indicted. Mr. Comstock, however, told me, when arresting me, that he expected to get both books indicted. If sufficient of a popular demand be made for this book, and especially if the demand voice itself in the public press, he will not dare to attack the book in the courts. Will you do this one thing for me, those of you who have public influence? Remember, it is for you and for your children that I have fought this nine-years’ fight. And although I am going to a brighter and a happier land, nevertheless, I shall still look down upon you all here, and long and long and long that you may know something of the radiantly happy and holy life which is possible fore every married couple who will practice these teachings. Even in Paradise I cannot be as happy as I might, unless you share with me this beautiful knowledge.

I beg of you, for your own sakes, and for the future happiness of the young people who are dear to you, to protect my little book, “Right Marital Living.”

To her mother, Craddock wrote that she would refuse to for to the asylum, but that she loved here and should not grieve her passing, for:

the world beyond the grave, believe me, is far more real and substantial than is this world in which we to-day live. This earth life which the Hindoos have for centuries termed “Maya,” that is illusion. My people assure me that theirs is the real, the objective, the material world. Ours is the lopsided, the incomplete world.

And concluded by reminding her:

Dear, dear mother, please remember that I love you, and that I shall always love you. Even if you get fantastic communications from the border land, remember that the real Ida is not going there.

The real Ida, your own daughter, loves you and waits for you to come soon over to join her in the beautiful blessed world beyond the grave, where Anthony Comstocks and corrupt judges and impure-minded people are not known. We shall be very happy together some day, you and I, dear mother; there will be a blessed reality for us both at last. I love you, dear mother; never forget that. And love cannot die; it is no dream, it is a reality. We shall be the individuals over there that we are here, only with enlarged capacities. Goodbye, dear mother, if only for a little while. I love you always. I shall never forget you, that would be impossible; nor could you ever forget me. Do not think the next world an unsubstantial dream; it is material, as much so as this; more so than this. We shall meet there, dear mother. Your affectionate daughter,

Ida C. Craddock

On October 16th 1902, Ida Craddock committed suicide, apparently by slashing her wrists and inhaling natural gas.

And this is where Crowley comes into this.  After Craddock’s death he wrote a positive review of her “Heavenly Bridegrooms” in his periodical Equinox, claiming that it was:

one of the most remarkable human documents ever produced, and it should certainly find a regular publisher in book form. The authoress of the MS. claims that she was the wife of an angel. She expounds at the greatest length the philosophy connected with this thesis. Her learning is enormous. […] This book is of incalculable value to every student of occult matters. No Magick library is complete without it.

While Crowley was “The Beast”, and was certainly no feminist by nineteenth century, let alone contemporary standards, he was no Comstock either, and appears to have greatly valued Craddock’s contribution to occult literature and her beautiful knowledge.

For More Information:

Some of Craddock’s writing, including her public and private suicide notes: “Anthony Comstock and the Death of Ida Craddock”

Chappell, Vere. 2010. Sexual Outlaw, Erotic Mystic: The Essential Ida Craddock. Newburyport: Weiser Books. (By the sounds of it, an interesting mix of Craddock’s own writings and biographical analysis)

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2010. Heaven’s bride: the Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman. New York: Basic Books.

God of Hutton, God of Kelvin: Religion, Eternity and the Age of the Earth

The debate between William Thomson, who would later be ennobled as Lord Kelvin (1824 –1907) and the followers of James Hutton (1726–1797) demonstrates a difficult period in the history of nineteenth century science in which the figures who are traditionally regarded as the fathers of modern geology (Hutton) and biology (Darwin) where pitted against Lord Kelvin, who is still considered one of the founding fathers of thermodynamics, and thus of modern physics. The point which brought these figures into conflict was the argument surrounding the age of the earth. Hutton’s and Kelvin’s methodologies were in some ways very similar, particularly in their views on the uniformity of nature and the demand for evidence of a beneficent being who created the natural world. Furthermore, both were forced to appeal to secondary causes when trying to defend their positions. Where they differed substantially was in their understanding of eternity in the larger framework of how the creator expressed himself in the world and how this related to the human ability to understand it.

It would be too easy to phrase the debate between Kelvin and the geologists as a conflict between empirical evidence and religious prejudices in nineteenth century science. Indeed, Kelvin himself gave ample evidence that he worried about the theological implications of the geological and evolutionary theories of his time. In an 1872 speech to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Kelvin concluded his discussion with a reaffirmation of these worries in the “zoological speculations” of contemporary biologists, stating that: “Overpoweringly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us […] showing to us through nature the influence of a free will, and teaching us that all living things depend on one everlasting Creator and Ruler”. Presumably, Kelvin felt that the vast time scales proposed by Hutton, Lyell and Darwin would remove the need for a creator in the universe and infringe on the free will of humans.

Yet in this assumption we are all too quick to ignore the unorthodox religious views which led Hutton to formulate his self perpetuating “world machine”. As laid down by one of his more eloquent proponents, John Playfair (1748–1819), this perpetuity is ultimately maintained by God, for the author of nature: “has not given laws to the universe, which, like the institutions of men, carry in themselves the elements of their own destruction. He has not permitted in His works any symptoms of infancy, or of old age, or any sign by which we may estimate either their future or their past duration”. The world had obviously been created for the benefit of the things living upon it and for human beings in particular, and it would not have been fitting for a wise and omnipotent being to create it as anything other than eternal. As is clear from Playfair’s statement, it was this very indefiniteness which was the sign of divinity. While the system itself was indefinite, as a product of God’s wisdom, once started the world machine would perpetuate the specific cycles of uplift and erosion unendingly, maintaining the various balances which were necessary for life.

In the case of Kelvin, the situation is aptly summarized by Burchfield in his work Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth, for “it was the belief in design that justified the formulation of universal scientific laws, that assured the relationship of cause and effect, that, in short, made science possible”. Considering Hutton’s religious views, it seems very unlikely that he would disagree with this statement. The science of both men was deeply integrated with their theological conceptions of how a wise and omnipotent God would construct an orderly world.

Likewise, Kelvin and Hutton’s intellectual defender, Charles Lyell (1797-1875) largely agreed on the actualism of causation, in which the same kind of causes have been at work at all times, and held similar views of uniformitarianism, in which the same causes have been acting with the same intensity over time. As Lyell formulated it, through: “researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate production”. This was also the case for Kelvin, for whom logical consistency “required that since the discovery of the primitive state of matter is beyond man’s power, if one is to find a probable beginning, he must start with the present condition of nature and reason back by analogy and strict dynamics”.

The situation is somewhat less definite in regards to the two men’s approaches to uniformitarianism. As it was generally argued, Kelvin was clearly antagonistic to the idea as he understood it. However, in his work On Geological Dynamics, Kelvin specifies that he is opposed to what he called “ultra-uniformitarianism”, and otherwise speaks approvingly of other similar movements in geology: “The geology which I learned thirty years ago [embodied the fundamental theory of] Evolutionism. This I have always considered to be the substantial and irrefragable part of geological speculation; and I have looked on the ultra-uniformitarianism of the last twenty years as a temporary aberration worthy of being energetically protested against”. When seen in this light, Kelvin’s affinity for certain forms of uniformitarianism becomes more evident and shows the difficulties in strictly drawing a line between the methods employed by  proponents of the young earth and those of the old.

This subtlety is clearly shown when one considers Kelvin’s argument presented by On the Secular Cooling of the Earth, in which he states “that essential principles of Thermo-dynamics have been overlooked by those geologists who uncompromisingly oppose all paroxysmal hypostheses”. Immediately following this Kelvin makes it clear that he is not a catastrophist in the traditional sense of the word. For him: “It is quite certain the solar system cannot have gone on even as at present […], without the irrevocable loss (by dissipation, not by annihilation) of a very considerable proportion of the entire energy initially in store for sun heat”. The distinction between annihilation and dissipation is a crucial one. Not only is it a reaffirmation of the first law of thermodynamics, but it also opens the door to a different kind of unimformitarianism than that typically attributed to Lyell or Hutton. It is one in which there can be a uniformity of causes without a corresponding uniformity of effects. The causes themselves have been acting at the same intensity; however, their effects have varied over time because of the limitation placed on them by the second law of thermodynamics. The laws are the same, the causes are the same, yet as Kelvin says: “the secular rate of dissipation has been in some direct proportion to the total amount of energy in store, at any time after the commencement of the present order of things, and has been therefore very slowly diminishing from age to age”. The rate of the dissipation would vary in proportion to the total amount of energy in store, producing effects of varying intensities despite the uniformity of the causes governing them.

This crucial distinction is what allowed Kelvin to criticize Playfair’s statement that only a direct act of God could bring about a catastrophe like the one implied by Kelvin’s thermodynamic approach to the age of the earth. Playfair concludes the passage by stating: “we may safely conclude that this great catastrophe will not be brought about by any of the laws now existing, and that it is not indicated by anything which we perceive”. Kelvin, however, found a grave error in this view of uniformity. Indeed, he saw it as being: “pervaded by a confusion between ‘present order,’ or ‘present system,’ and ‘laws now existing’—between destruction of the earth as a place habitable to beings such as now live on it, and a decline or failure of law and order in the universe”. Thus it is evident that he did not contest the validity of uniformity itself. Kelvin contested what he saw as a narrow view of uniformity that could not derive universal laws from the present order of things within the finite framework of the solar system, but instead was forced to posit an indefinite standpoint in order to make its system scientifically valid.

Thus, when looking at Lyell’s three main tenants of actualism, uniformitarianism and cyclicality, it is only the underlying principle of cyclicality which differs substantially from Kelvin’s own thought. What, then, can be said about the fundamental differences that divided Kelvin’s thought from that of the geological community of his time? These differences can not appeal to the specious distinction between science and religion in either camp, since their religiosity was almost identical in its demands for an ordered, benevolent deity which made science possible. Rather, the question was what that beneficent order would look like. Likewise, one can not make appeals to the demand both groups placed upon their thinking in regards to the stability of causality which made scientific inquiry into the past possible. Where they did differ was in the objects of study which each group took up to defend its claims, and how these objects could in some ways only be viewed indirectly. It was the indirectness of secondary causes which left both groups open to criticism from the opposing camp and perpetuated the debate for almost forty years in Kelvin’s lifetime alone. At the heart of the matter, however, were the conflicting views of eternity which formed the basis of both Hutton’s, as mediated through Lyell, and Kelvin’s visceral opposition to the other’s work, about the circularity or progressiveness of nature.

It would be helpful here to provide some explanation of what is meant by secondary causes. Secondary causes in this case would be any cause which must be appealed to in order to get to a more primary cause which can not be directly observed. Since it is not possible for people to actually see the effects of time in geology over thousands or millions of years, it is then necessary when explaining its effects to point instead to the effects of things such as the dissipation of heat, uplift, layering, and erosion. Once these explanations are found it is then possible to work backwards from the causes of these effects to the prime cause, whether that be the formation and age of the earth itself or the formation and age of a specific mountain range.

Hutton, in exploring the age of the earth, took as his object of study the layers of the earth itself. As first this consideration seems to go without saying, yet it is important to note that this was not the case with Kelvin, who instead dealt almost exclusively with the nature of heat, and the ability of the earth to support living things. Both of them were looking at secondary causes to demonstrate their positions, one in the effects of unimaginable time on the earth itself and the other at the age of the suns heat. The nature of their particular observations made both arguments vulnerable to their own particular criticisms.

The discovery of unconformity in geological strata demonstrated to Hutton a key mechanism in the circularity of geological processes. Unconformities are the remains of geological strata which have been displaced from their horizontal alignment and instead now occupy a vertical position relative to the above strata (see appendix 1). The conclusions which were drawn from this phenomenon were most artfully stated, once again, by Playfair: “We often said to ourselves, What [sic] clearer evidence could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long interval which separated their formation, […] Revolutions still more remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective”. Unconformities had the effect of breaking down older geological strata, in some ways erasing the records of past time. Their existence was a vital part of Hutton’s argument for a cyclical earth, and represented his most direct evidence that the age of the earth was not something limited by either past or future ages.

This kind of “direct” indirect evidence demonstrates the problem facing any purely geological inquiry into the age of the earth. Hutton and his followers, when considering the single system of the earth, could only consider what incidental evidence was left over for them after years of intervening phenomenon had had a chance to bury and destroy the very evidence they were looking for. This naturally left them with an indeterminate number of cycles continuing without apparent end. True, they were shown an example of the vast time scale on which geology operated, opening up the door to a more complete depiction of the age of the earth; however, they were unable to derive any further evidence for these same cycles except to point, rock hammer in hand, at the immense times required to lay the cycles down in the geological strata. Outside of this they could only appeal to base principles of what was required for life and a beneficent deity. The instability of these secondary causes would continually leave the early Uniformitarians open to accusations that they had not sufficiently grasped the physical and mathematical laws governing their field of study, while their very same field of study seemed to deny any attempt at strict quantification because of the same order that made it observable in the first place.

The problem Kelvin faced was somewhat different, though directly related to the difficulties of secondary causes in quantifying geological time. Taking as his object of study the dissipation of heat, and armed with the mathematical tools of thermodynamics, Kelvin would at first glance appear to have a better standing when it came to quantifying the age of the earth. Yet here too Kelvin was confronted by the same bugbear of secondary causes as were his intellectual opponents. Kelvin hoped to use the second law of thermodynamics to help guide his calculations into the age of the earth. The second law of thermodynamics lays down that energy is always moving from a more ordered to a less ordered state, the most disordered form of energy being heat. For example, a cup of tea in a cold room will never become warmer while the room cools, but will continue to loose heat to its environment in a predictable manner until both the room and the tea reach a state of thermal equilibrium. It was this predictable rate of dissipation which Kelvin hoped to use as his indicator in much the same way as radioactive decay is used today to determine the age of objects.

Kelvin used mathematical principles guided by the second law of thermodynamics in part because he could not look to the earth itself when in need of placing a definitive limit on its age. Here the quantitative factors were still too murky, and in some cases were directly hostile to his position. Rather, in using the definitive measure of heat, and taking as his object the age of the sun, he could hope to be able to fix the age of the earth by binding it with that of the sun which could not be studied qualitatively, but only quantitatively. This appears to have been his intent. In a thirty-one year span Kelvin worked out his calculations drawing the age of the earth ever closer to the common estimate of the age of the sun, so that the age of the earth went from being twenty and four hundred million years, compared to the sun’s twenty million years, to a number set at twenty-four million years.

Fundamentally, however, the precision of his calculations in placing limits on the age of the earth was secondary to his main goal of firmly establishing that such limits actually existed. As Burchfield says “The inexactness of his calculations was […] unimportant so long as they established the necessity for a limit upon geological time and the impossibility of uniformitarianism’s demand for limitless ages”. Still, since Kelvin took as his object the sun, which could only be known quantitatively through astronomical means, he was nevertheless open to chargers of miscalculation, and to criticisms of the roundabout way in which he sought to fix the age of the earth.

Given the difficulty inherent in any definitive resolution to the problem of the age of the earth, then, we must look even further into the primary goals Kelvin and Hutton hoped to achieve in their world systems. In doing so we see that the matter was largely a reflection of the different ways in which the two men viewed the nature and dangers of the concept of eternity for human kind, and for the very possibility of reason in natural philosophy.

Hutton’s cyclical conception of the world took as its model Newton’s cosmos, infinite in space, whose motions where perfectly balanced in the orbits of the planets. Yet where Newton’s cosmos was infinite in space, Hutton’s world would focus on the infinity of time. The balancing of forces which maintained the planetary orbits was analogous to the balancing forces of erosion and uplift which maintained the succession of worlds. Yet the movement from an infinite cosmos to an eternal world is not without its difficulties. Hutton’s world machine made a radical statement about the nature of history, and implied a more enclosed system than the Newtonian cosmos. Still, Hutton often drew the comparison between the cycles of the planets and the cycles of the earth.

This is exactly how he prefaces his famous concluding lines to the Theory of the Earth. After having just recounted the three periods of the earth and reaffirming the indefiniteness of their duration, he then goes on to draw the connection between the cyclical age of the earth and that of the planets, stating:

[W]e have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. […] The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end.

For Hutton, as is evident from this excerpt, it is the eternally cyclic essence of natural phenomenon which makes it possible to logically observe systems in the world, which to a large extent makes them knowable. Without these cycles the most we could observe would be incidental phenomenon, insufficient for the development of universal principles. This demand upon knowledge has a surprising consequence. Natural phenomena are understandable insofar as they are cyclic in nature. This can be seen in the progression of animals, plants, climate and geology. However, human history, insofar as it focuses on particulars is unimportant, and potentially can not really be seen to exist at all.

Kelvin himself, however, was not entirely opposed to some forms of eternity. As is evident from his On the Age of the Sun’s Heat:

The result would inevitably be a state of universal rest and death, if the universe were finite and left to obey existing laws. But it is impossible to conceive a limit to the extent of matter in the universe; and therefore science points rather to an endless progress, through an endless space, of action involving the transformation of potential energy into palpable motion and thence into heat, than to a single finite mechanism, running down like a clock, and stopping for ever.

While this passage is almost universally held to mark the introduction of the idea of heat death, it also serves as a refutation of the very same possibility. Rather than asserting that the dissipation of heat will lead to an eventual extinguishing of all life, Kelvin instead posits a universe in which the second law of thermodynamics insures a continued activity of matter, directed and given order by the transformation of potential energy into motion and heat. Thus Kelvin was driven to establish a firm limit on the beginning of the earth in order to make his view of progression make sense in light of the fact that time in the universe had a direction, but no observable ending. While the earth itself may be limited and thus doomed to dissipation, the universe itself faced no such restriction.

This meant that the very thermodynamics which made the universe run was threatened by the Huttonian world machine, for if the earth was composed of eternal cycles, thermodynamics was in error, and, perhaps more unforgivably, the whole notion of progression in time. Furthermore, as has already been seen in Kelvin’s critique of “zoological speculations” in his 1872 speech, he was deeply worried about the effect geological and biological studies would have on the free will of humans. It was the indefiniteness of time which gave Hutton’s position the capacity to deny human history, which would rob individuals of their efficacy in the face of a world in which everything was repetition. Kelvin’s view of endless progression, however, would avoid this misevaluation of the will through its directionality. This directionality insured a firm ground for knowledge, insofar as universal laws could be derived from constant causes, but one whose effects could vary over time, a fact which, for Kelvin, also insured the purposefulness of human experience.

Ultimately, the similarities between Kelvin’s and Hutton’s approaches were striking considering the radically different conclusions which they drew from them. Both used almost identical assumptions about the uniformity of nature, with the exception of Hutton’s demand for circularity and Kelvin’s distinction that a uniform cause can produce a different effect given a different substrate. Likewise, both were led by strong religious convictions about the kind of order a beneficent god would establish in the world. What caused the contention in determining the age of the earth was the presuppositions they made about what that divine order would be like, whether it would be an eternal cycle or an eternal progression and what this would mean for both natural philosophy and the individual. In the age in which the problem was raised the conflict could not be satisfactorily resolved, and it was perpetuated by the ambiguous nature of secondary causes which both theories were forced to rely upon to prove their separate claims.

In the end what can really be learned from this debate is the vital capacity for similar methods and guiding principles to lead to dramatically different results given but a handful of separate core convictions. This tendency is only magnified in any system of knowledge which requires an indirect view of its subject matter. In such cases all positions must then suffer the capricious whims of the secondary causes upon which they, nevertheless, must rely.

For More Information:

Burchfield, Joe D.  Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1975.

Gould, Stephen Jay. Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Hutton, James. Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations. Vol 1 and 2. Weinheim: H.R. Engelmann (J. Cramer) and Wheldon & Wesley, LTD., 1960.

Knell, Simon J. and Cherry L.E. Lewis. “Celebrating the Age of the Earth”. In The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

Lyell, Charles. “Principles of Geology” in 19th Century Science: An Anthology. Ed. A.S. Weber. Canada: Broadview Press Ltd, 2000.

Playfair, John. Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth. London: Cadell and Davies, 1802.  In On Geological Time. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

Thomson, W. (Lord Kelvin). “Popular Lectures and Addresses”, vol. 2. As in The Age of the Earth: from 4004 BC to AD 2002. Eds. C.L.E. Lewis and S. J. Knell. London: The Geological Society, 2001.

–––.  “On Geological Dynamics” in Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, 1869. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––.  “On the Age of the Sun’s Heat” in Popular Lectures and Addresses, vol. 1, 2nd edition. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On the Secular Cooling of the Earth”. in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. XXIII, pp. 167-169, 1864. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

–––. “On Geological Time”. in Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. ii, p. 10. 1868. In The Kelvin Library. Zapato Productions Intra­dimensional. Updated October 25th 2007. Accessed November 2nd 2007. <>

The Glassy Essence of Life

Coming to Dresden without much prior research I happened upon the Blaschka House, which, sadly, is not usually open to the public except on special occasions, but does serve as an excellent excuse for a blog post.

The collection of specimens crafted from glass by the father and son team of Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) was a rich and rare anomaly of biological modeling. While they largely produced elegant glass replicas of plants, they also made a number of sea anemones, squid, octopai, jellyfish and other invertebrates, several of which can be found in the art gallery at Cornell. The bulk of the collection, however, is held in Harvard after the Blaschkas signed an exclusive ten-year contract with the university in 1890.

When Rudolf died in 1939, he had no apprentices and no one to learn the craft skills behind his glass work. Many of the techniques used to create the Blaschka models were thus never revealed, and I believe they remain unknown to this day.

The choice of materials, glass, is interesting for a number of reasons. Glass was not the most immediate, or common material for such models in the nineteenth century, it was difficult to safely transport and difficult to work with when compared to wax. While it did have an advantage over more common, dead specimens, in being able to preserve the colours and structure of the living thing being modeled, it nevertheless took a great deal of time to make and perfect, and tasked the detailed memory and skill to produce a convincing replica.

There is, I suspect, an interesting, largely untold story about the quest for the basic unit connecting the organic and inorganic worlds in the nineteenth century with the Blaschka’s choice of materials. It culminates in what Bob Brain from the University of British Columbia has termed the “Protoplasmania” at the end of the century. Protoplasmania, a strand of nineteenth century culture that connects Thomas Henry Huxley’s undue excitement over Bathybius haeckelii, what he thought was the original source of all life and turned out to be a chemical artifact of specimen preservation, to french parapsychologists’ attempts to use high speed photography to capture images of ghostly ectoplasm, evidence of the ability of space itself to store memory, and Edward Munch’s “Scream”.

Ernst Haeckel (who lent his name to the short lived Bathybius haeckelii) was also invested in the glassy essence of life. His celebrated Kunsformen der Natur featured a wide array of

glassy radiolarians, whose silicate shells and startling symmetry lent them an alien, primordial appearance.

Haeckel was a friend of the Blaschkas, and lent them books from his library when they were called upon to work on a series of marine invertebrates. It is more than likely, then, that the material choice was not just an artistic statement, but was deeply embroiled in the theories about life and nature involved in protoplasmania, which tied together so much of the art and science of Fin-De-Siècle Europe.

For More Information:

Brain, Robert. (2010). “How Edvard Munch and August Strindberg Contracted Protoplasmania: Memory, Synesthesia, and the Vibratory Organism in Fin-De-Siècle Europe”. In Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Charles Lyell, the Sea Serpent and a Lingering Puzzle of Evolution

Most people know the British geologist Charles Lyell (1797-1875) for the role that his Principles of Geology played in helping to ground Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Along with his intellectual mentor James Hutton (1726–1797), Lyell support a principle known as uniformitarianism, the belief that the past behaved essentially in the same way as the present and that massive changes could be accounted for by smaller changes given sufficient time. The most immediate consequence of this being the development of a notion of “deep time”, the vast, almost incomprehensible age of the Earth that played such an important role in arsenal of evolutionary naturalism in the nineteenth century. Yet this was not all, it also asserted that a close study of the earth based upon uniformitarian principles revealed that it exhibited a steady state pattern of endlessly repeating cycles.

While Lyell did support Darwin’s work and was one of the early defenders of The Origin of Species, he often seemed at best lukewarm in his support for natural selection itself. This was a cause for some consternation amongst his fellows, and Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895), and others in their circle were keenly aware of his position. It is a valid observation, and often commented upon, that Lyell’s ambivalence to the theory stemmed in part from his religious convictions, particularly in regards to the origin and development of the human animal. However, there were other, more theoretical reasons that also played a role in his discomfort.

Despite the fact that the evidence emerging from the fossil records hinted towards an ever increasing degree of complexity in the realm of organic development and organization, Lyell’s uniformitarian position and his observations of the actual layers of the earth directed his attention to the steady state pattern previously mentioned. How could it be that there was an apparent directionality in the evolution of species if the environments that produced them appeared to pass through essentially the same cycles? If natural selection accounted for the majority of evolutionary changes, that is, creatures changing in response to their environments, wouldn’t there be a certain, set number of variations possible? Indeed, wouldn’t it be possible for these variations to die out during a cycle that could not support them, but to reappear again when the environment returned to a previous state?

This line of questioning then, leads us to the sea serpent.

Lyell was a skeptical and cautious observer in these matters; however, in some of his published writings, and many more of his personal ones, he displayed a keen interest in every account of sea monsters and serpents that he could find. If something from the fossil records of one age could be found alive today, in effect, a living fossil, perhaps it could act as organic evidence for his more radical geological position.

Here the Atlantic provinces of Canada and the New England states of America play a particularly important role. In his A Second Visit to the United State of North America, Vol I published in the year 1849, he writes of a disappointing hoax he was led to in 1845 during his stay in Boston. It was perpetrated by a Mr. Koch, who claimed of his serpent’s skeleton that this “hydrarchos, or water king, was the leviathan of the Book of Job, chapter xli”. Lyell determined the bones to be of an extinct zeuglodon (what is today called a Basilosaurus), dug up in Alabama and arranged to resemble a serpent.

Albert Koch's "Hydrarchos" fossil skeleton from 1845.

 Yet he was forced to reconsider his position after hearing back from a friend of his in Nova Scotia:

“At the very time when I had every day to give an answer to the question whether I really believed the great fossil skeleton from Alabama to be that of the sea serpent formerly seen on the coast near Boston, I received news of the reappearance of the same serpent, in a letter from my friend Mr. J. W. Dawson, of Pictou, in Nova Scotia. This geologist, with whom I explored Nova Scotia in 1842, said he was collecting evidence for me of the appearance, in the month of August, 1845, at Merigomish, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, of a marine monster, about 100 feet long, seen by two intelligent observers, nearly aground in calm water, within 200 feet of the beach, where it remained in sight about half an hour, and then got off with difficulty.”

The creature had also been seen off the coast of Prince Edward Island, terrifying the fishermen, and a year before a similar creature troubled the natives of Arisaig on the eastern coast of Nova Scotia. Lyell provided the following image and commented on its strange, undulating movements:

He went on to describe sightings of creatures from across North America and Norway and observed that not only was it “impossible not to be struck with their numerous points of agreement”, but that a pattern could even be seen in their points of contradiction, namely, in the quality of evidence provided by those on the shore “without their imaginations being disturbed by apprehensions of personal danger”, and the consternation of those fishermen in the water who, more than anyone, should be able to tell a serpent from “an ordinary whale or shark, or a shoal of porpoises, or some other known cetacean or fish.”

However, the sheer number of people shooting the creatures in what they thought to be their heads (an all too common trope in the history of sea monsters), but who did not in fact kill them, was a cause of some puzzlement, and ultimately Lyell concluded that the creature was most likely a large, fast moving species of shark:

“It can hardly be doubted that some good marksmen, both in Norway and New England, who fired at the animal, sent bullets into what they took to be the head, and the fact that the wound seems never to have produced serious injury, although in one case blood flowed freely, accords perfectly with the hypothesis that they were firing at the dorsal prominence, and not at the head of a shark.”

A misunderstanding of the processes of decomposition of marine animals on shore, combined with the optical effects of water was the likely cause of the accounts. Yet even discounting the serpentine nature of the creature, this did not totally undermine his hopes that researches into sea monsters could bring fourth evidence of living fossils.

It is clear that Lyell did at one point believe in sea serpents, but importantly, not fully as given by the narratives he explored. As he said:

“I confess that when I left America in 1846, I was in a still more unfortunate predicament, for I believed in the sea serpent without having seen it. Not that I ever imagined the northern seas to be now inhabited by a gigantic ophidian [snake], for this hypothesis has always seemed to me in the highest degree improbable, seeing that, in the present state of the globe, there is no great development of reptile life in temperate or polar regions, whether in the northern or southern hemisphere.”

He was unsure if the sea serpent was actually a serpent at all, given the climactic conditions then prevalent in the North Atlantic, furthermore little solid proof could be found for their existence that could not be explained in some other way. Yet, like the depths of time, the depths of the oceans provided another chasm of uncertainty and he: “[questioned] whether we are as yet so well acquainted with all the tenants of the great deep as to entitle us to attach much weight to this argument from negative evidence”.

A modern reconstruction of a Basilosaurus.

Context played a crucial role in both his conclusion, and his qualifications, for: “in the first place, we must dismiss from our minds the image of a shark as it appears when out of the water, or as stuffed in a museum.” In addition to this limitation of witnesses, there was also the larger context of the geological record, for even in his dismissal of the sea serpent as a serpent, it did not rule out earlier, larger mammals and sharks.

“[I]n the geological periods, immediately antecedent to that when the present molluscous fauna came into existence, there was a similar absence of large reptiles, although there were then, as now, in colder latitudes, many huge sharks, seals, narwals, and whales. If, however, the creature observed in North America and Norway, should really prove to be some unknown species of any one of these last-mentioned families of vertebrata, I see no impropriety in its retaining the English name of sea serpent, just as one of the seals is now called a sea elephant, and a small fish of the Mediterranean, a sea horse; while other marine animals are named sea mice and urchins, although they have only a fanciful resemblance to hedgehogs or mice.”

The sea serpent could very well be a shark, and still retain its common title, what mattered to him was not so much its nomenclature, as its potential place in multiple geological periods.

Even given this concession, Lyell never found the evidence he was looking for in any of the accounts he collected throughout his life, and today his attempt to demonstrate the circularity of geological periods and the creatures to be found within them seems by many to be one of the misguided inheritances he received from his predecessor, Hutton.

Yet before we judge Lyell too harshly, consider this: Darwin’s own estimate for the age of the earth was 300 million years, based on the rate of erosion of the Weald valley in the sound of England; it was considered a terrible miscalculation by both more geologically inclined supporters of his theories as well as notable detractors such as the physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). Outside of using deep time as a resource for his own theories, there is little evidence that Darwin himself struggled with the concept in any significant way, whereas Lyell, drawing from Hutton, was actively engaged in its more troubling aspects as a theory which then, as even now, demonstrates how ill equipped the human mind is to fully appreciate the consequences of eons.

In the nineteenth century the evidence of the best physics of the day consistently contradicted the vision of the earth’s history provided by the evolutionary naturalists, as well as the geologists, and it was in no ways certain whose account was inherently more coherent, for in truth, they all were, but some were looking at the sun as their guide, others at the snails, and others still at the stones themselves. By the same measure we cannot smugly smile and say: but we have found living fossils, and they do nothing to demonstrate the circularity that Lyell had anticipated, but only the stability of certain environmental conditions, for if we were more circumspect the sheer span of that statement would stagger the mind. Even in these cases, 100 million years, the age of one of the oldest unchanged species known to date, the Schizodactylidae, shown below, pails in comparison to 4.54 billion years of the earth itself.

Image from the University of Illinois.

Schizodactylus monstrosus

Everyone who has watched a BBC documentary or taken a class in biology feels that they know that the age of the earth is now fully appreciated, and its consequences largely deduced. He or she has seen the time laps videos comparing its age to the length of a day, heard the stories of how even in terms of the old measurements based on the dimensions of the King’s body, the human age would hardly account for more than a sliver off of his royal fingernail, and we feel quite comfortable with our apparent insignificance, indeed, feel it to be something familiar and emboldening. In truth we have forgotten its strangeness. Far more existential agonies are forgotten than are ever resolved, and so too it is with the notion of deep time, for we have not tamed it, but merely placed it out of sight, on an enormous rodent’s running wheel, to do its work for us – to be sure it is always an excellent weapon against facile notions of creation – but not really trouble us overmuch.

However, when it comes to the heart of the matter, we are no more capable today of explaining the apparent increase in the complexity of organisms by means of evolutionary theory than they were at the time of Lyell’s writing. The alternative, some plateau or self-contained and consistent state of complexity that is attained sometime after the development of organic beings, still begs the same questions that he was trying to come to terms with in regard to evolutionary changes within a finite series of environmental parameters.

And so, being ask to write for this, the first installment of the Cosmic Standard, I could think of no more fitting way to honour it than to help point the reader to the incredible strangeness of the cosmos, especially and above all in those things which we tend to take for granted. Explore as we may, and explore as we will, it still remains questionable how many places on the map of existence we must mark off, or fill in with fanciful illustrations and consign ourselves to the old and fearful caution: “Here be dragons.”

For More Information:

Benson, Keith Rodney and Philip F. Rehbock (eds). 2002. Oceanographic History: The Pacific and Beyond. University of Washington Press: Washington D.C..

Lyons, Sherrie Lynne. 2009. Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age. State University of New York Press: Albany.