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Caves, Coprolites and Catastrophes, by Allan Chapman

12 March 2021

Michael Roberts on a clergyman’s interests

WILLIAM BUCKLAND (1784-1856) was the first geology professor at Oxford and later Dean of Westminster, and one of the geologists, clerical and lay, who worked out the geological succession from the Cambrian to the Ice Ages.He also wrote about Christianity in relation to geology in Vindiciae Geologica (1819), Reliquiae Diluviae, and his Bridgewater Treatise of 1836. Caves, Coprolites and Catastrophes brings out the eccentricities of his life and work. At Westminster, Buckland was involved with the main issue of the day — cholera and the state of sewers — in which he immersed himself. . . But illness struck in 1850, and sewers were left to others.

The book describes Buckland’s life as a don at Christ Church, his marriage to Mary, and children and the loss of them. There is Buckland the geologist, travelling around Britain and the Continent and a leading light in the British Association. Scattered through the book are cameos of contemporary geologists, but these are often not tied into Buckland’s work. The one on Sedgwick presents the beginning of his ground-breaking Welsh work on the Cambrian in 1831 as an educational tour with Darwin.

We are not given the development of geology during Buckland’s lifetime, especially the elucidation of geological periods and his part in that. At the other extreme, 19th-century creationists such as Sir William Cockburn, Bt, the Dean of York, are overestimated. Being a Cambridge graduate does not guarantee his intellectual skill.

Buckland has much to teach the Church today: first, on the application of science to human suffering, as over cholera; second, is on theology. Here, the author is off target, as he has not grasped Buckland on ancient understandings of Genesis, and misses the point that Buckland’s Chaos-Restitution interpretation went back to Justin Martyr and was a development of common interpretations since 1600.

Buckland’s magnum opus was his Bridgewater Treatise in 1836: a superb summary of geology, with theological reflections; but Chapman does not situate this in contemporary geology, when the lower Palaeozoic was being elucidated in Wales, Devon, and Cornwall by Sedgwick, Murchison, and others. This needs some explanatory comments. His comments on Lyell are rather odd, polarising Lyell and Buckland on catastrophism.

In 1840, Buckland introduced the theory of Ice Ages to Britain, after visiting Agassiz, in Switzerland, in 1838. Chapman errs, as the Jura has no extant glaciers and the parallel roads of Glen Roy are glacial lake levels. He misascribes Sopwith’s 1841 cartoon of Buckland (illustration 13) to his Scottish visit in 1840 with Agassiz, as the wording refers to Waterloo Bridge in Snowdonia. He claims that the glacial theory was rapidly accepted. In fact, it was throttled for two decades.

At times, this book disappoints. It gives a good portrait of Buckland’s life within the Church and without, but is weak on his life’s work of geology and theology.

The Revd Michael Roberts is a former exploration geologist, and the author of Evangelicals and Science (Greenwood Press, 2008).


Caves, Coprolites and Catastrophes: The story of pioneering geologist and fossil-hunter William Buckland
Allan Chapman
SPCK £19.99
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