From Biblical Criticism to Archaeology. A revisionist history of the Scientific Revolution

In one of the already classical revisionist narratives of the Scientific Revolution, Mordechai Feingold showed us that Newton’s followers, i.e. rather mathematically-minded natural philosophers who would almost despise natural history (seen as a process of collecting and classifying) in favor of the more theoretical natural philosophy, were actually outnumbered by the ones that, following a Baconian trope, preferred to “put Weights on the Intellect” (and thus, at least for the moment, focused on collecting, exposing, cataloging and experimenting, rather than theorizing). This position, as it is inherited by the Bibliographic historian William Poole, can be formulated in terms of a “mathematicians (geometers)” vs. “naturalists” debate. Poole chooses to tell the story of the latter (xiii, 171) , and thus, both with appealing prose and admirable precision, takes Feingoild’s programme one step further.

Poole’s demarche begins by setting up the ground for his upcoming narrative. As he explains, the 17th century witnessed four different legacies whose examination, once combined, will result in a more adequate explanation as to why 17th century disciplines looked the way they did. Careful not to impose contemporary or anachronistic terminology, Poole navigates between the inheritances of Biblical criticism, Aristotelianism, Paracelsianism and Cartesio-Gassendism, pointing out that – contrary to some readers’ expectations- there is no such thing as a radical break with the past: literal readings of the Scripture co-existed with allegorical ones, editions of the Aristotelian physics textbook of Robert Sanderson’s- the Physicae Scientiae Compendium -appeared after Newton’s Principia, major Paracelsian texts (such as Oswald Crolls’ Philosphy Reformed and Improved, Van Helmont’s Oriatrike and Michael Sendivogius’ New Light of Alchemy) were translated into English for the first time during the Restoration, and the characterization of Descartes as an impious scientist- although distant from Descartes’ own intentions- survived in the texts of Gassendi and others.

In this context, at the core of Poole’s work stands an enquiry into the agent’s historical category of “world-maker”. The Newtonian John Keill used this term in order to pejoratively refer to the philosophers that, in a heterodox and even heretical way, searched to offer physicalistic readings of the Biblical events. There was great diversity in the ways that the early moderns read the Bible. Sliding from Isaac LaPeyrère dangerous hypothesis of the pre-Adamites (nations that would have existed before the creation of Adam) to John Wilkins’ attempt to build linguistics on an interpretation of the episode of Babel, Poole presents with patience a multitude of ways to “harmonize” science and scripture. Among all of this extensive material, one should note the story of the “world-makers”, carefully investigated by Poole in a specific chapter.


According to Keill, the root of the “world-makers” is the Greek philosopher Epicurus, whose materialist-atomism survived in the Latin text of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. The first of the modern “world-makers” (“the first of his age”) was Descartes, due to his theory of matter and its application by others to the narrative of the Genesis, but Poole enriches this view by three other figures: Thomas Burnet, John Woodward and William Whiston.

Thus, Poole investigates the fate of the three. In his two works, The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1681, tr. 1684) and the Archaeologiae Philosophicae (1692, tr. 1693, 1694,1699), Burnet offered a physicalist reading of the Bible: during the Creation, the spheroid Earth had no water at the surface, a central fire lied at its center, and had no axial tilt. Because of the Fall, and under sun’s direct influence, Earth’s crust cracked, releasing its internal waters.

lapeyrereSuch a cataclysm rearranged Earth’s position (it gained an axial tilt), and transformed it into an irregular “terraquous” body. As Poole remarks, Burnet inherited Descartes’ sins: just as in the Cartesian cosmology, it was not clear whether there was space for miracles. Rather, Descartes and Burnet seemed to argue for a Creator that could not intervene once the world had been created (59). In similar spirit, John Woodward, the most famous fossil collector of his day, searched to prove that fossils were organic in nature by physically interpreting the Genesis: according to Woodward, fossils were to be explained by God’s act of temporarily suppressing gravity (64-67). In a similar vein, in his geometrically structured A new Theory of the Earth (1696),William Whiston drew on Newton’s account of the comets: the phases of the Genesis, as well as of the Millenium, were to be explained by comets hitting the Earth (164). There is, however, one character that we would expect to be part of this narrative, but which Poole presents as precisely the opposite – Robert Hooke. As Poole remarks:

“The achievements of Robert Hooke in his geological lectures are best seen too as the culmination of an academic geographical tradition of vicissitude. Whereas the World Makers started with the great biblical miracles of Creation and Flood, and tried to align geographical and geological theory with them, Hooke worked in the opposite direction; and if the World Makers wreaked havoc with the notion of miracle, Hooke, and in collaboration with him Halley, all but disconnected biblical narrative from their researches” (96)

Needless to say, Poole discourses on an impressive number of sources. It is not the aim of this review to enlist them all- it would not even be possible-, but let us just say that Poole’s methodology has the purpose of drawing the reader’s attention towards the “Academic eclecticism” of the day (172).

thomas-browne-hydriotaphiaFrom such eclecticism, several new disciplines emerge: Varenius’ general and special (and even more intricate) Geography (97), Thomas Browne’ archaeology (Poole sees his Hydriotaphia as the first inquiry into non-textual- or, as it were, “silent”- sources) (88), or Aubrey’s more mature geomorphology (93). Such discussions also point out that, as Poole would agree, history shows as that there was no such thing as a principle of accommodation. As he notes, “many natural philosophers did indeed have heterodox learnings, sometimes apparently unconnected to their scientific work, sometimes arising directly from it” (175).

This being said, Poole’s book could also serve as a student handbook. Full of exceptional references to curious primary sources, it certainly provokes one’s desire to further investigate on his/her own. Be it early modern cartography, poetry, linguistics, chronology or life sciences, a student can easily find in William Poole’s book the foundation for future research.

Mordechai Feingold, “Mathematicians and Naturalists: Sir Isaac Newton and the Royal Society”. In Jed Z. Buchwald, I. Bernard Cohen, Isaac Newton’s Natural Philosophy, MIT Press, 2001;
William Poole, The World Makers. Scientists of the Restoration and the Search for the Origins of the Earth, Peter Lang, Oxford, 2017.

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