Reassessing Earth History, Deep Past, and Questions of Origins in the Long Eighteenth Century


Ivano Dal Prete

Yale University


Lydia Barnett

Northwestern University


Session Abstract

Scholars have long regarded the eighteenth century as the lens that brought into a single focus the inconsistencies of the chronological tradition; mounting geological and paleontological evidence, and an increasingly rationalist and secular culture. The result was a revolutionary transformation of western conceptions of natural and human time, and the addition of a temporal dimension to the already spatially boundless universe of modern cosmology.

In recent years, the notion of a traumatic rift between pre- and post-Enlightenment perceptions of geological and historical time has come under scrutiny. A better appreciation of pre-modern earth history has revealed crucial continuities with the previous centuries. Well before the 1700s, sources provided by global networks of knowledge raised questions on the origin of human civilization. Against a narrative centered on the rise of scientific rationalism, historians have emphasized the uninterrupted relevance of literary, archeological, and mythological sources. The political use of the earth sciences in the age of revolution has emerged as a powerful factor in shaping nascent nationalisms and enduring assumptions on the history of deep time. Visual media had been mediating conversations on the origin of the Earth long before the creation of a visual language of geology around 1800.
This panel brings together scholars of eighteenth-century literary, scientific, intellectual, and visual culture, in the attempt to move toward a transformational reassessment of Earth and human history in long eighteenth century, and to answer new outstanding questions. How and to what extent did earth history and political agendas interact? What were the intellectual tools that made it possible to harmonize such disparate sources as Chinese annals, Roman urns, and German fossils? If the Enlightenment did not discover deep time, what is the origin of a narrative that still informs common conceptions of the science/religion relatioship.

Presenter 1

Ivano Dal Prete

Yale University

Presenter 2

JB Shank

Northwestern University

Presenter 3

Sabrina Ferri

University of Notre Dame

Presenter 4

Hanna Roman

Dickinson College

Presenter 5

Anton Matytsin

University of Florida