Cross-cultural perspectives on the history and epistemology of geomorphology
The journal “Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement” dedicates the pages of this Special Issue to the history of science and the epistemology of geomorphology. Unlike the more steady output on such topics in anglophone geomorphology, this is a rare event in francophone geoscience on the scale of the last 50 years, with the exception of first-hand research work produced by Broc (1969, 1975) and Gohau (1990).
The focus of geomorphology on process has existed since at least the Renaissance period, with the publication of such works as Guglielmini’s (1697) treatise entitled Della Natura de’Fiumi. The focus of geomorphology on landforms is much more recent and only began to emerge during the second half of the 19th century. The end of the 18th and the end of the 19th centuries each correspond to key moments in the history of geomorphology. The late 18th century turning point was characterized by the natural sciences having attained unprecedented levels of ‘positivity’ and ‘epistemologization’, according to the terminology used by Foucault (1969). Such aspects can, for example, be detected in the writings of Giraud-Soulavie (1781), in which geomorphological discourse distanced itself from the concern for process — and of course also in the work of Playfair (1802), in which the study of form and process was organised into a structured, law-seeking discourse. The late 19th century milestone was characterized by the formulation of new laws describing the sculpture of the Earth’s surface by ice and water, and by the unified vision provided by the ‘geographic’, or erosion, cycle. Those two key moments testify to the fact that by the beginning of the 20th century geomorphology had graduated to the status of a formal scientific discipline, at least according to the criteria prevalent at the time (Giusti, 2005). Since those founding moments, geomorphology has continued to obey formal rules involving normative definitions and axioms, and continues to be structured by sets of underlying propositions or theories despite the multitude of discourses and practices that keep it alive.
The 21st century geomorphologist who is tempted to turn back and glance at the history of his or her subject may shudder at the colossal proportions of the legacy already there, and as a result be put off from taking an excursion into the conceptual labyrinth of that discipline’s past. However, the main appeal of embarking on a study of the history and epistemology of geomorphology lies surely in the value of putting a perspective on one’s own research attitudes, results, methods and future projects. Ideas do not die: like seeds in the desert earth, they lie dormant but can germinate and reflourish if opportunities arise. Cuvier defended catastrophism against Lamarck, Lyell pleaded in favour of uniformitarianism against Cuvier. Despite this, the doctrine of uniformitarianism has been refined since Lyell and neo-catastrophism has resurfaced in different forms. So, in the end, does this mean that Davis’s erosion cycle will be salvaged from the scrapheap of scientific ideas in the same way that Wegener’s continental drift was later saved by plate tectonics? The point is that modern plate tectonics theory is not a refreshed version of continental drift theory any more than modern tectonic geomorphology is an update of Davisian denudation chronology. Neither are just that. Investigative techniques change, and ideas evolve into something partly new, partly old. The progress of techniques and instrumentation drives scientists towards adopting new perspectives on their subject matter.
Any venture into the labyrinth of ideas, concepts and theories should, however, avoid two pitfalls. The first is anachronism, the more elaborate but also more insidious form of which is a whiggish reconstruction of the past. This attitude consists in selectively rewriting the past with a view to vindicate one’s own intellectual assurances or ideological preferences. The second is the ‘new is best’ syndrome, in which enthusiasm for new techniques tends to overshadow previously evolved skills and hasten the obsolescence of past knowledge. For instance, early attempts during the 19th century to explain continental relief from the viewpoint of geological structure temporarily obliterated the legacy from Renaissance engineers who emphasized more process-related causes. Similarly, it was only through the growth of American geomorphological research and the emerging theory of the erosion cycle in the late 19th century, i.e. after a prolonged eclipse of fortune, that the scientific messages contained in Playfair’s (1802) « Illustrations of the Huttonian theory of the Earth » gained credence and understanding.
Before entering the labyrinth, it is also wise to carry a compass because delving into manuscripts of the past requires knowledge of the scientific or academic context in which they were produced, and a grasp of the theories and concepts that were in favour at the time. For example, the structure and internal logic of Baulig’s (1928) thesis on the Plateau Central de la France remain abstruse to anyone who fails to realise that his book, not unlike the way in which Darwin promoted his own thesis on natural selection, is less a regional monograph than a single-minded demonstration that the Massif Central was exclusively shaped by the consequences of river adjustment to past eustatic changes. There are many advantages to such an informed and contextual approach, not least that it minimizes the misconception of past ideas, avoids incorrect interpretation of excerpts and quotations, and helps to understand the reasons for the successes and limitations of scientific theories that were formulated sometimes long ago.
Our goal here is to provide the reader with a toolkit that should allow him or her to find a few essential bearings within the history of geomorphological thought. With this aim in mind, this Special Issue of “Géomorphologie : relief, processus, environnement” deliberately focuses on some of the larger objects and issues of geomorphology. Because of their outsize proportions, such large entities are necessarily the most complex or impenetrable — whether they are texts (the lifetime works of Davis or De Martonne), themes (global tectonics and structural geomorphology), methods (systems analysis) or large geographic regions (the Highlands of Scotland). Would it have been wiser not to open this thematic set with a contribution on Davis, to whom the late Chorley and his team had in 1973 already devoted such a monumental, and seemingly definitive effort? In their paper, Inkpen and Collier rise to the challenge by exploring a dimension to the erosion cycle that had been overlooked by previous scholars, namely that landscape evolution according to Davis is far less Darwinian in its outlook than it is Neo-Lamarckian. The authors even argue that this was actually fairly unremarkable given the intellectual setting in North America between the Civil War and the First World conflict, but that this dimension had been overlooked by later analysts because the successes of Darwinism have almost totally obliterated the legacies of Lamarck in the 20th century mindset.
In a second contribution, Broc and Giusti trawl through the successive editions of De Martonne’s Traité de Géographie physique. They show that without De Martonne, the French school of climatic geomorphology might simply not have existed. The roots of Cholley’s (1950) and Tricart’s (1952) climatic (and explicitly anti-Davisian) geomorphology go deep into De Martonne’s Traité, whose broad approach to physical geography implied that the radiation-driven parameters of the Earth’s topography, namely climate and vegetation, were ultimately as important as gravity-driven processes, i.e. base level change and the effects of water over rock. Broc and Giusti also show that, through its emphasis on the climatic factors of landscape development, the Traité contains a significant and early challenge to Davis’s erosion cycle as the overarching theory of geomorphology. This little known characteristic of De Martonne’s work has been overshadowed by the better known critique that was levelled at Davis by Penck, and by modern textbooks that persistently restrict their overviews of geomorphological theory to Davis, Penck, Hack and King. Nevertheless, in his great opus De Martonne considered to give Penck’s theory an appropriate answer long before Die morphologische Analyse was ever translated into English (1953). Despite De Martonne’s very polished and rhetorical style of presentation, which distinguishes him from Penck’s more confrontational attitude, he clearly advocated the idea that the cycle of normal erosion may well be valid in mid-latitude regions where fluvial processes are key, but emphasized that climatic and biogeographic parameters in desert, glacial and coastal environments significantly weakened its applicability.
In his contribution, Huggett broadens the scope of these older texts by showing how systems theory captured the enthusiasm of geomorphologists after the Second World War, and how it progressively pervaded the discipline through the influence of other natural sciences such as physics, chemistry, biology and ecology. This overview of the ‘systems analysis’ paradigm change (according to Kuhn, 1962) also presents the recent, and equally exogenous, intrusion of complexity and chaos theory into geomorphology. This provides an up-to-date picture that helps us understand why geomorphology after 1950 appears so different from what it was before then.
In the more specific context of structural geomorphology, the paper by Dufaure recounts how the emergence of global tectonics has made conventional typologies of structural landforms somewhat more subtle and complicated than was conceivably possible 40 or more years ago. Having spent an entire career working and guiding students in the Peloponnese and other mountain belts of the Mediterranean and Middle East, Dufaure is no stranger to landscapes with exceedingly imbricated tectonic and denudational histories. He highlights one of the specificities of the French tradition, which is the existence of a school of structural geomorphology with its own, self-defined objectives aiming to understand the origin and geometry of structural landforms in their own right. Such a standpoint is epistemologically distinct from Anglo-American ‘tectonic geomorphology’ (e.g., Burbank and Anderson, 2001), which is conceived more as a tool serving the analysis of neotectonics. As such, tectonic geomorphology is a direct legacy of geomorphology as prescribed by Penck who, in the opening pages of his 1924 text, proclaimed that « The problem is that of crustal movement… Morphological analysis is the procedure of deducing the course and development of crustal movements from the exogenetic processes and the morphological features ».
In the last contribution to this volume, Jarman demonstrates how little impact the monumental work by Godard on the Northwest Highlands of Scotland has had on British research. This occurred partly because, at the time of publication (nearly half a century ago), British academe was accomplishing its most significant historical paradigm shift, namely abandoning geomorphology as descriptive landscape history (i.e., Davisian denudation chronology) and ushering in a new geomorphology devoted to understanding the physics of erosion (i.e., process geomorphology). Jarman, however, succeeds in avoiding the excesses of scientific hagiography. With razor-sharp wit, he also brings into focus the blind spots of Godard’s work, and particularly the stylistic, linguistic and editorial shortcomings of the text that not only explain barriers to the dissemination of Godard’s writings much beyond the borders of France, but would also explain the skepticism with which some British scholars would have welcomed this somewhat literary and ultimately ‘very French’ offering to the geomorphological establishment. However, because of a progressive renaissance of long-term landscape development studies in Britain since the early 1980s, Godard’s work is revisited here as a mine of information, and even more importantly as a conceptual matrix for currently ongoing research on the Scottish landscape and on upland geomorphology in other regions of the world. Jarman’s critical hommage is enhanced by a selection of illustrations that not only bring to life and usefully update Godard’s own work, but ultimately provide a field-guide quality to the contribution. This in itself is an invitation to ponder over the proposition that epistemology can also serve practical purposes.
As editors of this Special Issue, we wish to thank all the authors, referees, and editors for this contribution to the history and epistemology of geomorphology.