As if the wealth of superficial analogies were not sufficiently dazzling anecdotal material for confirmed cultural materialists, the final insult to injury is added by the discovery that this myth of nuns and fossils makes its sorry way into Walter Scott’s scandalously underpowered long poem Marmion(1806):
When Whitby’s nuns exalting told,
Of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When Holy Hilda pray’d:
Themselves, without their holy ground,
Their stony folds had often found.
Dissatisfied by such intimations of lame myth-making as a historical response to the unavoidable challenge of the fossil record, the more critical researchers at the Institute are turning to Hegel for guidance on what a serious thinker might make of fossils before the modern scientific myths were put in place. Having searched through the blogosphere for notes & queries, it has since been established that Hegel’s views on fossils have been something of an embarrassment to committed Hegelians.
In his forward to Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature, Findlay writes that Hegel: “was so set in his anti-evolutionism as to believe that the fossils found in the geological record were really expressions of an ‘organic-plastic’ impulse operating in inorganic matter, which anticipated, though it did not achieve, life.” Even by the early 19th century an educated person could have known differently, and while Hegel might have been sceptical of Lamarckian views, to imagine the fossil record as an impulse rather than a residue is surely a corrective to the modern tendency to think of fossils as facts rather than as objects of contemporary reinvention. The ethical problem of the separation of the fossil from its matrix is germane here. Some of Hegel’s later understanding is suggested by his addition to paragraph 339 of the Philosophy of Nature in which he notes that:
“In the very oldest stratified formations lying directly on the primitive rocks there are, on the whole, very few fossils of sea-animals, and those only of certain species; but in the later deposits their number and variety increase and sometimes, though very rarely, fossil fish, too, are found. Fossil plants, on the other hand, occur only in more recent strata, and the bones of amphibians, mammals, and birds, only in the most recent strata.”
This would suggest that Hegel was coming to terms with a more Lamarckian view of fossil evolution, even if the poetics of impulse remain more interesting to the more youthful members of the Institute.
(To be continued.)