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Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle

Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle

Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time

Stephen Jay Gould

ISBN 9780674891999

Publication date: 01/01/1988

Rarely has a scholar attained such popular acclaim merely by doing what he does best and enjoys most. But such is Stephen Jay Gould’s command of paleontology and evolutionary theory, and his gift for brilliant explication, that he has brought dust and dead bones to life, and developed an immense following for the seeming arcana of this field.

In Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle his subject is nothing less than geology’s signal contribution to human thought—the discovery of “deep time,” the vastness of earth’s history, a history so ancient that we can comprehend it only as metaphor. He follows a single thread through three documents that mark the transition in our thinking from thousands to billions of years: Thomas Burnet’s four-volume Sacred Theory of the Earth (1680–1690), James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth (1795), and Charles Lyell’s three-volume Principles of Geology (1830–1833).

Gould’s major theme is the role of metaphor in the formulation and testing of scientific theories—in this case the insight provided by the oldest traditional dichotomy of Judeo-Christian thought: the directionality of time’s arrow or the immanence of time’s cycle. Gould follows these metaphors through these three great documents and shows how their influence, more than the empirical observation of rocks in the field, provoked the supposed discovery of deep time by Hutton and Lyell. Gould breaks through the traditional “cardboard” history of geological textbooks (the progressive march to truth inspired by more and better observations) by showing that Burnet, the villain of conventional accounts, was a rationalist (not a theologically driven miracle-monger) whose rich reconstruction of earth history emphasized the need for both time’s arrow (narrative history) and time’s cycle (immanent laws), while Hutton and Lyell, our traditional heroes, denied the richness of history by their exclusive focus upon time’s arrow.


  • The blasphemous and dwarfing revelation of ‘deep time’ forms the underlying drama of [this book]… In the monthly essays with which Gould has been amusing and edifying the readers of Natural History magazine for some fifteen years, he now and then shows a surprisingly fond acquaintance with the debunked and forgotten theories that litter the history of science: the present book, an expanded version of lectures given at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considers three early British geologists—Thomas Brunet (1635–1715), James Hutton (1726–1797) and Charles Lyell (1797–1875)—who he feels have been misrepresented in the contemporary textbook version of geology’s progress… Gould’s lucid animated style, rarely slowed by even a touch of the ponderous, leads us deftly through the labyrinth of faded debates and perceptions… Gould, with a passion that approaches the lyrical, argues for a retrospective tolerance in science and against fashions that would make heroes and villains of men equally committed to the cause of truth and equally immersed in the metaphors and presumptions of their culture and time.

    —John Updike, New Yorker


  • Stephen Jay Gould was Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology at Harvard University and Vincent Astor Visiting Professor of Biology at New York University. A MacArthur Prize Fellow, he received innumerable honors and awards and wrote many books, including Ontogeny and Phylogeny and Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle (both from Harvard).

Book Details

  • 240 pages
  • 6 x 9 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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