12 January 2008

The League of Extraordinary Scots

On this date in 1808, the first organizational meeting of the Wernerian Natural History Society was held.

You'd be forgiven for not having heard of the Wernerian Society. Even among Scottish learned societies, it is not terribly well known, but it was an important meeting place for the intellectuals of Edinburgh, which was, many forget, a major center of European scientific thought in the 1800s.

The Society was founded by Robert Jameson, a professor at Edinburgh University. He had worked, briefly, under the great geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner. Werner is one of those tragic historical scientists whose name will always be associated with one wrong idea. His theory of Neptunism, which should at least get some credit for having a very cool name, incorrectly postulated that all rocks were the result of the crystallization of minerals from an early ocean which had covered the entire world. Under Neptunism, it was assumed that all the Earth was originally under miles of water, and that minerals had simply come out of suspension in the water and settled into sedimentary layers. Now we know many aspects of this theory to be false, though I still love the idea of a pure water planet.

Werner should be remembered not only for his one wrong idea, but for his other contributions to geology. He wrote the first modern textbook on mineralogy in 1774, and was above all else a fantastic teacher. One student, Jameson, who studied with him for only a year, proceeded to dedicate a large portion of his own life to a society named after Werner, a tribute to the way he had of entrancing his students.

Members of the Wernerian Society included botanist William Wright, whose collections of plants in Jamaica and elsewhere led to the descriptions of over 800 new species. The chemist Thomas Thomson was also a founding member. The society had 44 meetings in its history, which included visits by such luminaries as American ornithologist John James Audubon and Sir John Richardson, who described to the society the animals found on his overland Arctic expedition.

The Wernerian Society did not long survive after the death of its founder, Jameson, in 1854, but while it lasted, it was a hotbed of new ideas and an important part of the intellectual history of Scotland, Europe and in fact the world.

Tomorrow, Darwin and the Anglican Church

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