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The Negative Floats: Questions of Earth Inheritance

The theories of natural science that were nascent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may be re-excavated through the figure of the marine shell—encountered as a form of stone, and lodged mysteriously in the highest mountains of Lower Saxony. These stone shells (as well as eels), Voltaire said, “made new systems blossom.” A cacophony of eminent philosophical and scientific voices entered to contest the origins of these aberrational geotic forms, summarized in Anton Lazzaro Moro’s 1740 excursus Opinions On Marine-Mountainous Bodies (De’ crostacei e degli altri Marini corpi che si truovano su’ monti).

Moro (1687–1764) theorized the postulations that such “shells” had been carried to mountain summits by the winds, or were perhaps birthed from a parent rock with a particle seed as “tricks of nature.” Another proposition held that fishermen bearing crustaceans ate the flesh inside and left these exoskeletons to petrify into rock. And yet, whether the Great Deluge or other massive oceanic outflows that encased aquatic bodies in the upper echelons of the earth, this entrapped meeting between the positive of the mountain face and the negative of the shell raised universal questions of land-sea relation, of the land “trying to rival the sea in fertility,” and of the alchemical quest for casting a molten biography of the subterranean.

Amid this controversy over earth-history, the incipient fields of geology and stratigraphy were joined at the interface of reflections on cosmogony, metaphysics, and a return to alchemical hermeticism. A problem of origins and nativity formed the key point of contention. Did the shell properly belong to the mountain as its geologic kin, or had it arrived from an elsewhere—as an “anti-object” imprinted as a marker of ancient displacements of sea and land?

These disputes reached a point of fissure in 1644 when Descartes’s Principia Philosophiae established a mechanical, materialist account of the origins of the earth. In this near-heretical telling, the sedimentation of potentially infinite terrestrial particles coalesced in a vault of boundless time. From this basis, Danish Catholic bishop, anatomist, and geologist Nicolas Steno (1638–86) conjectured in his 1669 Prodromus that Glossopetrae, or “tongue stones,” were in fact petrified sharks’ teeth. By this reasoning, they had preexisted the sediment surrounding them in a formation that was successive rather than simultaneous. “How unanimously they come together in agreement,” he exclaimed of the manner in which water virtually held the soil, of how mineral sediment that was lodged in “muddy waters” solidified and shaped the fossil shell, and of the mountains accumulating after the mollusks. This move was then one of temporality but also of matter—transmuted from softened oozing particles into solid mass.

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