Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle: Myth and Metaphor in the Discovery of Geological Time

By Stephen Jay Gould

Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle is an “excursion into the ways we conceptualize the past…”

Its subject is the “discovery of ‘deep time’” via three documents “marking the transitions in our view of earth history from thousands to billions of years…”

This is Gould’s shortest book. It’s personal and adventurous; he calls it not a “conventional work of scholarship, but a quest for personal understanding”.

The introduction takes us on a quick tour of the fascinating concept of “deep time”, and how it came to be articulated and imprinted onto our collective consciousness. Closely related to other conceptual landmarks like the anthropocene, hyperobjects, and the long now, deep time is one of my favorite “big ideas”.

The book’s three main sections describe three foundational works — by Thomas Burnet, James Hutton, and Charles Lyell — all turning point works in the conception of deep time. The contrasting titular metaphors of arrow (“history as an irreversible sequence of unrepeatable events”) vs. cycle (always present fundamental states, time with no direction) serve as key dichotomy.

I’d had this book on my reading list for a while, but didn’t know what to expect. I now understand it as an intellectual history of the evolution of metaphor and explanation, particularly when it comes to how we conceptualize time. By seeing how these ideas have evolved, we’re grounded in a greater appreciation of past, present, and future.


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