The Edinburgh Geologist
by Michael A Taylor
Miller is probably considered by readers of this magazine as a geologist. Yet
geology formed only a small part of the life's work of this Cromarty mason, banker,
writer and editor of the major Edinburgh newspaper The Witness, which first appeared
in 1840. He helped to create the support for the establishment of the Free Church
in the Disruption of 1843, in protest at lairdly and government interference with
the Church of Scotland. With its anti-lairdly politics further influenced by Miller's
experiences as a humble mason, The Witness was one of the few mainstream newspapers
to denounce the Highland Clearances. Editing the paper, and writing much of the
content, Miller alleviated his massive workload with regular afternoons' fossil-hunting,
and a month's annual leave visiting family in Cromarty by an indirect route to
take in more Scottish fossil sites for a book he never finished. Always desperate
for copy, he wrote up many of his trips, as when he visited his old friend the
Reverend Swanson who tended his Small Isles parish from the leaky 'Free Church
As a young apprentice Miller was first entranced by the Jurassic fossils of Eathie on the Black Isle. A decade or so later, in 1830, he reasoned out a simple model of local geology which predicted more Jurassic nearer Cromarty, on the other side of the South Sutor headland's 'granitic gneiss'. Remember this is when he had no geological contacts and just a few odd books and articles, and doing it just for his own satisfaction, a 'Robinson Crusoe of geology' as he put it. He soon spotted a likely-looking nodule:
Thus he discovered new fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone, quite literally an older 'creation': geologists such as Georges Cuvier then believed in successive mass extinctions and new divine creations, which matched the then-known fossil record.
From the middle 1830s onwards,
Miller got to meet other geologists, crucially John Malcolmson of Forres who put
him in contact with the scientific world of London and the Continent. Edinburgh
was of course much more convenient. Miller was a fairly active member in the Royal
Physical Society of Edinburgh, an old society revived in the 1840s and '50s seemingly
as a venue for the city's natural scientists as an alternative to the moribund
Wernerian controlled by Robert Jameson, and without the social status required
by the RSE. (I am not sure whether Miller took much part in the Edinburgh Geological
Society, or if not, why not: something for future research!)
Miller was always especially interested in Old Red Sandstone fossils. But he was also keen on what we call Quaternary deposits, seeking out topical evidence such as cold?water molluscs from raised beaches. The then new idea of a massive icecap was challenging the older idea of Scotland being drowned under an iceberg-laden sea, but deciding between them was by no means easy from the then-current evidence ? especially if, like Miller, one espoused the older view but also accepted the local development of mountain glaciers on land. Hence his portrayal of Ice Age Scotland:
Miller's contribution to Scottish geology lies partly in the fossils and sites he discovered. These included very substantial contributions of Old Red Sandstone fish, and his writings about them, which helped sort out their diversity and distribution and which the Swiss palaeontologist Louis Agassiz described in his major book Poissons fossiles du Vieux Grès Rouge [Fossil fishes of the Old Red Sandstone]: these were, after all, some of the oldest then known fossil vertebrates.
Pterichthyodes milleri and Coccosteus milleri,
and other fossils, were named after him. One must also add sites such as the Eigg
reptile bed. Of course, Miller was not the only collector ? but he was a big part
of the wave of his time.
That was to the young Archibald Geikie, whom Miller encouraged to give his first paper at the RPSE on the Jurassic of Pabay. Geikie rose to be Director-General of the Survey, President of the Royal Society and a big man in British government science.
Miller examined his finds with great care and attention to detail, and did a pretty good job of working out their anatomy. Yet Miller was no major publisher of formal research papers, compared to some other Victorian amateurs. He had a heavy load in the day job. Perhaps, too, he preferred to spend his spare time, not writing formal descriptions, but hunting for fossils and writing for the general public, though his massive and meaty articles seem more like work than recreation. Certainly, he made his biggest impact on geology by improving the public understanding and support of the science.
Of course, one cannot say that Miller was the greatest, or the third greatest populariser By its nature, popular science writing is difficult to assess. It is comparatively neglected by historians' emphasis on formal scientific literature. And how does one measure popularity, or compare, say, Richard Fortey to Stephen Jay Gould? Miller had his competitors, or perhaps one should say colleagues. Gideon Mantell of Iguanodon fame wrote books on fossils which were popular, in both senses. And even Lyell's Principles of Geology, not what we'd call a popular book, sold very well. I'd simply say Miller was right up there in the pantheon of the great Victorian popular science writers. And here is Geikie again:
I do not think that the debt which geology owes to him for deepening the popular estimation of the science has been sufficiently acknowledged Hugh Miller was looked upon by the general body of his countrymen as the leading geologist of the day. And this exaggerated but very natural estimate spread perhaps even more extensively in the United States. His books were to be found in the remotest log-huts of the Far West, and on both sides of the Atlantic ideas of the nature and scope of geology were largely drawn from them.
Geikie rightly points out here that non-scientists take the views of a writer with a high public profile as typical of all scientists: still an issue today. But, in any case, Miller is often reporting others' work as well as commenting from his own observation and analysis. So he probably gives a good feel of geology then, and if it seems strange to us it's not because he was 'wrong' but because this was the current consensus on the then available evidence.
One might also wonder how many copies of The Old Red Sandstone were bought and read on the back of his autobiographical, political, and religious writings. Still, who's complaining? He made a big impact, especially on his home ground at a time when many thought that geology was against the Bible. Geikie on Miller again:
a fine writer, personal like a good TV presenter, but neither egoistic nor intrusive.
Without dumbing down, he gave clear accounts and very homely comparisons.
Above all, he met the spirit of the time. As improving recreation, geology is very much part of the self-improvement theme of My Schools and Schoolmasters. It scored in being good mental and physical exercise without being frivolous. Anything that kept young lads out of the howffs and off the drink was a Good Thing. But geology had more going for it: it was basically the study of the Lord's works, a real contribution to 'natural theology' or what one could learn about God from His works as opposed to what had been 'revealed' in the Bible. Natural theology was of course a longstanding staple of Protestantism, and Archdeacon Paley had famously compared the cosmos to a watch lying in the road: even if you hadn't seen it made, the designful construction proved the existence of a Maker. But Miller preferred to compare the Lord to a Scots country craftsman, as with fossil fishes:
This mix of religion and science was then well out of date in formal scientific literature. But it would be wrong to dismiss Miller as an antiquated 'scriptural geologist'.
Firstly, he was often writing for the general public who not only wanted to know the latest scientific finds but how they fitted in with Life, the Universe, and Everything: and in that place and time that meant Calvinist Presbyterianism. He was, in fact, being a good journalist and writer - just like many professional scientists who today mix religion and philosophy with their science in popular writing.
Secondly, examined without the hindsight conferred by our knowledge of Darwin, Miller was pretty progressive. In books such as Testimony of the Rocks, he savagely attacked the precursors of today's creationists and young-earthers. Indeed, the Rev. Philip Foster reprinted Testimony precisely because it still teaches modern Christians a few lessons.
To Miller, science and revealed religion (as in the Bible) were two faces of the same divine truth. He disposed of Genesis' portrayal of 6 days of creation c. 4004 BCE as Moses's vision of geological evolution ? with clouds of vapour conveniently concealing the difficult bits, charmingly compared to steam intermittently obscuring the view from a train! Noah's Flood was simply a local Middle Eastern flood. But where he had real problems was evolution. The sort of evolution being hawked at the time was a progressionist, from-simple-to-complex type, basically Lamarckian (thus with nasty French revolutionary connotations), as tarted up for a middle-class audience by Miller's fellow Edinburgh geologist Robert Chambers (also born in 1802!) in Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1843). Miller denounced evolution
Miller attacked Vestiges on scientific grounds, reasonably enough at the time, as in Footprints of the Creator. For instance, the Old Red fossil fish Homostius - which he called Asterolepis, working from fragmentary remains and inadvertently including bits of an unrelated fish - was big and complex, but also old. So it tended to refute the simple-then-to-complex-now model. And, of course, the then known fossil record was patchy and jerky ? not like smooth progressive evolution. We interpret the organization of life in regular patterns of similarity as the obvious result of descent with modification from a common ancestor. But Miller, like many others such as Richard Owen, simply interpreted this as the Great Chain of Being, an old concept of the order and plenitude of divine creation, with simple at the bottom and complex towards the top, with Man near the apex and God at the peak. When Miller talks of such things as 'saurian fishes' (his 'saurians' are what we'd call amphibians and reptiles) or 'semi-reptile' fishes, he's not talking about fishes on the way to evolving into amphibians but simply fish placed on the scale near amphibians and so having some of their features such as big teeth.
But also he had a serious religious objection. It
was a very Presbyterian viewpoint, based not on Biblical literalism but on individual
responsibility before the Maker. Miller emphasised the division between human
with soul, responsible for his actions, and irresponsible animal without. The
problem was the supposed gradual transition from animal and human: to Miller,
it didn't make sense to have the immortal soul suddenly appearing between ape
and human. Thus evolution posed Miller a dilemma. If animals had souls, yet they
weren't morally responsible beings and religion was false ? and all foundations
of society were lost; but so too was the case if neither animals nor humans had
souls. Of course, in 1859 Charles Darwin cut the scientific ground from under
Miller's feet with the Origin of Species. Quite contrary to popular myth, many
Presbyterians and Free Churchmen accepted Darwinism. But we shall never know what
Miller would have said, because by then he was in Grange Cemetery.
This article stems from a presentation to the Edinburgh Geological Society on 16th January 2002. I have benefited from the insights of previous writers, especially David Oldroyd in Shortland (1996), and discussions with many colleagues, notably Lyall Anderson, Marian McKenzie Johnston, Simon Knell, Hugh Torrens, and John Burnett to whom I owe the Bennett reference.
Bayne, P. 1871. The life and letters of Hugh Miller. 2 vols.
Geikie, A. 1924. A long life's work.
Gostwick, M. 1993. The legend of Hugh Miller. Cromarty Courthouse Museum.
Hudson, J. D. That man is to be envied. Scottish Journal of Geology, vol. 36, pp. 1-3.
Miller, H. 1858. The Cruise of the Betsey and Rambles of a Geologist.
Miller, H. 1993 . My schools and schoolmasters (ed. J. Robertson). B&W Publishing.
Miller, H. 2001 . The Testimony of the Rocks, or, Geology in its bearings on the two theologies, natural and revealed. St Matthew Publishing.
Secord, J. A. 2000. Victorian sensation: the extraordinary publication, reception and secret authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. University of Chicago Press.
Shortland, M. (ed.) 1996. Hugh Miller and the controversies of Victorian science. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Misleadingly titled; actually much broader in scope. For geology, see especially the paper by Oldroyd.
Taylor, M. A. 2000. Mary Anning, Thomas Hawkins and Hugh Miller, and the realities of being a provincial fossil collector. Edinburgh Geologist vol. 34, pp. 28-37.
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