Arizona Geological Society

Vic Baker presents The Influence of the 18th Century Enlightenment on the Natural Sciences

  • 05 Sep 2017
  • 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM
  • Sheraton, 5151 E Grant Rd. (& Rosemont), Tucson AZ 85712


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The Influence of the 18th Century Enlightenment on the Natural Sciences, Especially the Earth Sciences and Evolution

by Victor R. Baker, University of Arizona

Abstract: In a famous 1784 essay (Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?) the great philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) asked, then answered the question: “What is enlightenment?”  Enlightenment, for Kant, is the courageous use of one’s own intellect, that is, to think for one’s self, thereby to overcome the paternalism of both church and state.  Thus, for Kant enlightenment requires freedom of thought and the maturity to exercise that freedom.   Of course, these are sentiments that contributed to the American Revolution, and both Kant’s essay and the great political revolutions of the 18th century, American and French, are commonly thought to mark the culmination of the formal Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, a period lasting from about 1715 to 1789.  This was also the time of extraordinary growth in philosophy, the natural component of which subsequently became known as science.

Much academic history and philosophy of science has focused on the methods of experimental physics, and Enlightenment scholars like Voltaire (1694-1778) emphasized the immense influence of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726).  Indeed, the Scientific Revolution is thought to have immediately preceded The Enlightenment, encompassing the 17th century, and marked by the works of both Newton and Galileo (1564-1642).  While The Enlightenment itself is not heralded as a great period for advancements in physics, I will argue that it most definitely was a great formative period for the Earth sciences.  Indeed it was the spirit and the ideas of The Enlightenment that led to the most important historical era for geology, 1780-1820, the developments of which are masterfully described in Martin J.S. Rudwick’s volumes Bursting the Limits of Time and Ages Before Adam.  It was the Earth science of this period and the exploratory spirit exemplified in the works of Prussian geographer, naturalist, and Romantic philosopher of science Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) that arguably inspired the discoveries that brought fame to the only scientist to equal (or surpass) Newton: the evolutionary biologist-cum-geologist Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

In discussing the spirit of reason, exemplified in general by the Age of Enlightenment and more specifically by geological thinking, I suggest that this special kind of thought may well serve as an antidote to the unreason that characterizes what is today being described as the Age of “Post-Truth.”

Bio:  Victor R. Baker is Regents’ Professor of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, Geosciences, and Planetary Sciences, University of Arizona. He received a B.S. in Geology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1967 and a Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Colorado in 1971. After working as a hydrologist and geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey in New York and Colorado, he was on the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin from 1971-1981, advancing to the rank of Full Professor.  In 1981 he moved to the Department of Geosciences, University of Arizona, first a Full Professor, and then in 1988 as one of the first University of Arizona's Regents' Professors.  From 1996-2004 he was the Department Head of the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources (now Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences), University of Arizona.

Baker has authored or co-authored more than 1000 scientific contributions, including 18 books, 410 research articles and chapters, more than 520 abstracts and short research reports (nearly all of them associated with papers that were presented at professional meetings, conferences, and workshops), 34 extended technical reports; 42 encyclopedia articles; 39 published book reviews; plus guidebook contributions and various other writings, including popular works in science. His research has concerned paleoflood hydrology (a field of study that he defined in the 1970s and 1980s); flood geomorphology; channels, valleys, and geomorphic features on Mars and Venus; catastrophic Pleistocene megaflooding in the northwestern U.S. and central Asia; history/philosophy of Earth and planetary sciences; and the interface of environmental science with public policy. Professor Baker has been President of the Geological Society of America (1998), Chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Section on Geology and Geography (1992-93 and 2008-2009), and President of the International Union for Quaternary Research Commission on Global Continental Paleohydrology (1995-99). Among his honors are Foreign Membership in the Polish Academy of Sciences (1994); Honorary Fellowship in the European Union of Geosciences (1999); the David Linton Award of the British Society for Geomorphology (1995); the Distinguished Scientist Award (2002) and Distinguished Career Award (2010), both from The Geological Society of America Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division; the Inaugural International Lectureship of the Geological Society of America (2012-2013), a Fulbright-Hays Senior Research Fellowship (1979-1880); an Indo-American Fellowship (1987-1988); and professional society Fellowships respectively in the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The Geological Society of America, and the British Society for Geomorphology. His work on megafloods has been featured in multiple television documentaries for PBS, BBC, and the National Geographic, Discovery, and History Channels, including the 2005 NOVA production “Mystery of the Megaflood” and the upcoming NOVA production “Volatile Earth” (Fall, 2017).

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