Geology: The Culture of Curiosity

In  my last article, I talked about the influence humans may have on the future of the geological record – our unique signature if you like. I would like to now turn that idea on its head and look at how geology has shaped our understanding of the modern world.

The impetus for this article came from a talk attended during Michaelmas term by visiting fellow Dr Fawaz al Azki at Trevelyan College, which was on the relationship between geology and culture. I will admit, I struggled to see his point at the time. To say that you can’t separate earth system science and culture seemed to me to be stating the obvious. If we define culture as the expression of mankind’s collective knowledge, beliefs and ideas, then surely the academic contributions made by geoscientists over the last 250 years have as much cultural value as the symphonies of Beethoven, or the paintings of Monet? This did leave me thinking – but then what good talk does not leave you thinking? I soon realised that Dr al Azki’s point was something more subtle.

Science and culture are intrinsically linked, one is an expression of the other. Yet the link between earth sciences and culture is somewhat more special. Whilst physicists may be able explain why the Earth originally formed from stellar dust, and chemists may have ideas about how life got started, these are subjects of less direct importance in explaining why the human species became so successful, or why we desire to delve deeper in to the inner workings of the natural world. The academic desire to further our understanding of the natural world ultimately stems from a fundamental need to exploit it.

For example, take the pestle and mortar or the hammer. We find these basic tools in ancient human cultures from all over the world. In nearly all cases we find these to be made of tough resilient material. For same the same reasons we would use a hard rock for the head of a hammer. This may seem obvious, but it would take some degree of experimentation to get to this point. The exploitation by a species of its surroundings is the basis of survival. In the case of humans, we also progressively developed an understanding of natural materials; hard, soft, weak, strong etc. This learning by experiment is essentially crude and relatively unsophisticated science, which instilled in us a cultural trait to explore the natural world. In other words we can argue that early humans were the earliest earth scientists, and that the ‘study’ of geological materials provided the means by which we were able to work out that some minerals contain useful amounts of metals which we could use to make more effective tools. We were able to work out which rock types are associated with fresh water springs, and that caves and rivers often coincide (even if we did not understand the process by which a cave forms, the realisation that the two often coincide is a significant development).

Caves and fire provided a greater sense of protection, providing security and warmth. With caves comes art. The drawings we see on the rock walls of caves essentially preserves teaching within the geological record. This places ‘rock’ directly in the story of human cultural development – acting as a primitive teaching tool through which we could share ideas about the world us. More importantly it is permanent, allowing ideas and knowledge to be passed on across generations rather than existing only for the here and now.

As man developed a sense of his place within the natural world, he naturally began to question it too. With time this provided foundations of faith, myth and legend as man sought to explain features of cultural significance. Glacial erratics are often interpreted in legend as the product of fights between giants.

The same is true of faith. Believe it or not, it is possible to find a reference to plate tectonics within the Old Testament – “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south” (Zechariah 14:4). In modern geological thinking, this describes motion on a strike slip fault, and even more amazingly such a feature does indeed exist in modern day Israel. The Sea of Galilee is situated in a pull apart basin associated with this same fault zone. It can be seen to reconcile contemporary unexplainable events within the context of a cultural framework by seeking a religious explanation to earthquakes generated by active tectonics in the region.

Depending on how you look at it, it may seem an obvious idea that natural processes have played a significant role in governing the course of human history. However, it would be understandable from the viewpoint of the modern day – what with climate change being seemingly the doyenne of popular science in the media – to argue that man seems to exert more power over the natural world than it does over man. It is worth taking note, we are the only species to be consciously aware of the concept of natural selection, and even its acceptance has been a struggle.

Active tectonic uplift of the Zagros mountains of modern day Iran has resulted in the migration of rivers on human time scales. Archaeological work in the region has traced the movement of human settlements in response to these changes. We have developed an ability to understand the natural world and respond to changes within in it, paving the way towards the formal foundations of a scientific culture beyond earth system science.

This article has explored how earth processes have driven the development of a human cultural traits. We have now come full circle, the pursuit of knowledge is now engrained on the fabric of human culture. With a desire to understand where we have come from, and the processes that shaped our past, we turn in part to earth sciences.

This idea that geology can be considered the ‘ancient driver to our modern world’ has manifested itself as a growing cross disciplinary research field. Collaboration between geologists, archaeologists, anthropologists and classicists has resulted in a number of volumes in the Geological Society of London Special Publications series over recent years; “Geology and Archaeology: Submerged Landscapes of the Continental Shelf (2016)”,Global heritage stone: Towards international recognition of building and ornamental stones” (2015), “Human Interactions with the Geosphere: The Geoarchaeological Perspective” (2011), “Myth and Geology” (2007), and “Geology and Religion: A History of Harmony and Hostility” (2009).


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