PERSPECTIVE - L’oscuro abisso del tempo

Paolo Rossi


Count Buffon published his Les époques de la nature in 1778. On the initial page, we find a parallel between the history of Earth and the history of civilization and we find the statement of the brief character of human history in contrast to the boundless times of natural history. These statements seem completely obvious to us today. Yet many opinions, theses and theories have become “obviously true” after long and complicated processes that required profound changes in the ways we think, and in the ways we conceive the world and the relationships between us and the world. A first point concerns the very notion of a history of nature and a history of Earth. When we use the term “natural history”, we usually forget that, for many centuries, the meaning of this expression had nothing to do with the processes of time. It was what Aristotle and Pliny had attributed to it: an historia or an atemporal description of immutable entities. In our postdarwinian world, the history of the universe, the history of the solar system, the history of Earth, the history of the human species are entities constructed on enormously different chronological scales. That nature very greatly preceded man, that man emerged from nature, that a lot of “nature” is still present in his behaviour, is now common sense (or should be). Yet for many centuries, the history of man was conceived as co-extensive with the history of Earth. Time began with the Creation and the biblical chronology fixed the age of the world at ca. 6,000 years. A cosmos not built for human creatures, an Earth not populated by human beings, long appeared as a reality without sense, pure imagination. The expansion of time between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries greatly affected the sciences of nature and the sciences of man in the same period. Invoking the great antiquity of the Chaldeans, the Mexicans, the Peruvians, the Chinese, and contrasting the chronology of those peoples to that of the Hebrews, Isaac de La Peyrère maintained, in 1655, the existence of Pre-Adamites, i.e. men that had populated Earth before Adam. The orthodox chronology of 6,000 years appeared completely insufficient to La Peyrère: “even the smallest part of the past greatly exceeds the epoch of the Creation commonly made to coincide with Adam”. The present time is separated from the beginning of the world by a boundless distance. The students of chronology “have cancelled from the memory of the human species the centuries of which they have no knowledge”. Beyond the few millennia of the traditional chronology extends a history of thousands and thousands of centuries constructed by different peoples, as manifested in the different civilizations. Thus the Deluge lost its characteristics of a universal catastrophe and the biblical text was reduced to the account of the particular history of the Jewish people. Beyond the 6,000 years of the traditional chronology now extended a kind of unexplored continent. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that broad territory would be populated not only by the wise Chaldeans, the mysterious Egyptians and the refined Chinese but also by barbarians, by “beasts full of astonishment and ferocity”, even by “apes” destined to become men. Included in a much broader and totalizing perspective than the characteristic one of postdarwinian geology, the debate on fossils took into consideration “facts” of a very heterogeneous nature between the mid-1600s and mid-1700s. This debate clashed and mingled with the story of Genesis, with the cosmological topics of the formation and destruction of the universe, with millenarianism and catastrophism, with the theological-natural principles of plenitude and the chain of being, with the problems related to the Deluge and to the existence of the first men on Earth. The parallel between the history of Earth and the history of civil life, based on analogy and metaphor, gave rise to an “historical” type of methodology and epistemology that interacted, in turn, with the historiographic constructions related to the most ancient civilizations. A rich production of theories (reaching a peak between 1680 and 1705) raised problems of a general character, caused philosophical and religious assumptions to be questioned, and generated theoretically complicated situations that set difficult alternatives before natural philosophers and theologians.

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ISSN Online: 2280-6148
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