Scratch the surface of early nineteenth-century geology and you find a phenomenon deeply representative of the world in which it found itself. This, of course, should be no surprise. Historians of science have been giving social context to discovery and scientific enterprise for decades. But if science is viewed as a cultural entity, what other cultural entities, norms and patterns surround it? This book explores the cultural context of geology in a world of science, but also in a world apart, a world without scientific intent. The way into these worlds is through fossils, their common currency. These linked labourer to aristocrat, dilettante to savant, gift-giver to local elite. Fossils took on a multitude of meanings, and it was these, as much as the fossils themselves, which had to be carefully manipulated if fossils were ever to contribute to science. To understand these meanings it is necessary to explore the processes of collecting and exchange; differing beliefs about the nature of the fossils themselves tell us little. This book, dien, is essentially about people and how they used geology, and especially fossils, to satisfy their needs and aspirations. It is a perspective which I hope throws new light on how geology acquired viability, vitality and maturity in so short a period of time. But I hope it also reveals much about how geology was undertaken, the impact it had on the social world within which it was played out and its part in establishing a culture of museums in Britain.
In the early nineteenth century geology had unmatched popularity. While this popularity cannot be doubted, it can be distorted; it has never been quantified. There was an aspect to geology that set it apart from those sciences with which it is often compared, such as astronomy. Geology was not so much a science of the esoteric or abstract as of the physically tangible. Its evidence was real and could be held. Being principally an observational science, often little more than this was required to prove a fact or transform a view.
That these objects were enigmatic, evocative and yet ubiquitous perhaps explains part of the science's broad attraction. Yet geology was no mere fashion. To see it as such is to see it as having only superficial meaning when its participants often treated its pursuit with earnestness. Nor were these 'real things' simply empirical facts. The cultural facets of these objects were potentially more involved and involving than that. Neither fashion nor the pursuit of knowledge wholly explains the phenomenon of geology. Throughout this book I hope to extend and broaden the very notion of 'geology' in this period and in the final chapter draw conclusions as to what it was and how it has come to be portrayed in heroic terms.
Even if we choose to ignore the social world of geology, our view of fossils in science, and their transformation from natural artefact to scientific fact, can remain myopic. Being essentially a field-based science it is natural to see the field as the place of scientific discovery and the museum merely as a repository. But could we not turn this notion on its head and see the museum as the place of discovery and the field as the store? Many cross-country correlations of rocks took place in the museum, not in the field. Often the intellectual aspects of fieldwork took place back at base. Fieldworkers may have had ideas, impressions and suspicions in the field but these were often only made concrete by museum analysis. The museum collection was not, and is not, the static, immutable, non-dynamic entity it might appear to be. It is not simply a representation of gathered knowledge but a tool to enable its unravelling.
With a few notable exceptions, like Paula Findlen's Possessing Nature and Dennis Dean's recent biography of Mantell, museums and collections have been perceived as having only a minor role in the history of science. If they appear anywhere it is in institutional histories. Collectors, however, are beginning to appear in the form of names and as lesser individuals in pursuit of knowledge. In these studies the act of collecting (both in the field and by the formation of cabinets and museums) remains, in the language of systems, a black box. A black box, for our purposes, might be described as a component in the system of knowledge which is taken as read, that embodies in itself a complex system which need not be understood in detail. However, Bruno Latour demonstrated how black boxes could be manipulated in scientific controversies to gain advantage. .......................................