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Geoscientist Online

The Epochs of Nature

Zalasiewicz Epochs NatureThis is the first translation into English of this influential text. It was initially published in 1778, and is introduced by the translators and accompanied by a brief essay on Leclerc’s life and work. The first thing that strikes me is the literary acrobatics that are performed to avoid a direct collision with the church. The creation story is masterfully examined word-by-word in a valiant attempt to reconcile the science and religion of the day in such a charming way that it would be difficult not to be convinced. This style of thorough investigation, discussion, and persuasion is found throughout The Epochs of Nature.

As the first attempt at a geological history of the Earth, and bearing in mind the level of knowledge of the day, this is an impressive feat. Leclerc realises the significance of different rock types and interprets them to be indicative of environmental and sea-level changes. That he correctly deduces that certain marine organisms produce their shells from substances within seawater is quite staggering. Extinct species also appear in the book—before general acceptance of the idea that a species could even become extinct. Everything is supported with extensive notes, letters, and references to museum collections in the justifying notes at the end of the book.

As we now know, there are substantial errors in Leclerc’s interpretation of events. This is easy to say now that we have radiometric dating techniques and the theory of plate tectonics, however one can’t help but feel that Leclerc was close. If he had gone down the route of cyclicity rather than beginning, middle and end he could have come close to something resembling our modern ideas on Earth’s history.

He does lay the foundation for one of our modern ideas: the Anthropocene. Leclerc realised the impact that humans were having on the environment and certainly guessed that we were capable of affecting regional temperatures. Little did he know that the industrial revolution in which he wrote The Epochs of Nature would set into motion much greater climatic changes. Yet, his views on brute Nature and civilised Nature hark back to an era of trying to dominate the wilderness, rather than protect it, so perhaps he might have approved of the current situation.

A must-read for those interested in the evolution of scientific thinking, particularly that most complex and interpretive science of the Earth, without which many of us would be out of a job.

Reviewed by Jonathan Scafidi

by Georges-Louis Leclerc & Le Comte De Buffon, translated and edited by Jan Zalasiewicz, Anne-Sophie Milon & Mateusz Zalasiewicz, with an introduction by Jan Zalasiewicz, Sverker Sörlin, Libby Robin & Jacques Grinevald, 2018. Published by: The University of Chicago Press 190pp (hbk) ISBN: 9780226395432 List Price: £34.00. W: