Cutler, Alan 1954-

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CUTLER, Alan 1954-


Born February 24, 1954, in Bethesda, MD. Education: Carlton College, B.A., 1975; University of Rochester, M.S., 1977; University of Arizona, Ph.D., 1991. Hobbies and other interests: Jazz music, hiking, birding, boating, camping.


Agent—c/o Dutton Publicity, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.


Geologist and author associated with the Smithsonian Institution.


The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a History of the Earth, Dutton (New York, NY), 2003.

Contributor to Forces of Change: A New View of Nature; author of articles for such publications as the Washington Post and the Sciences.


Alan Cutler has been curious about nature since he was a child. When he was young, he caught small creatures in the woods near his home and used binoculars to stare at the moon. Later, he studied geology in school, then took a sabbatical from his graduate work to travel to the Indonesian islands of Java, Bali, and Borneo. The trip lasted eight months, and he experienced rainforests, volcanoes, and sailing across the South China Sea in a small boat. In an author interview with the Barnes and Noble Web site, Cutler called his journey "a great lesson in the diversity of human perspectives and experiences."

Cutler continues his investigation of the natural world both through work and at his leisure. A writer with a Ph.D. in geology, he is the author of The Seashell onthe Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a History of the Earth. In this book, Cutler tells the story of Nicholas Steno, a seventeenth-century Danish scientist who traveled through Europe, eventually settling in Florence. A scholar of anatomy known for his dissection skills, Steno was asked to sever the head of a shark that had come ashore at the mouth of the River Arno. While doing so, he discovered that the shark's triangular outer teeth bore a remarkable resemblance to fossils known as glosso-petrae, or tongue stones, which had been found in Malta. This led him to speculate as to how they came to be so far from the sea. Steno determined that the rocks were created around the fossils over a long period of time, and that jagged mountain ranges, once flatlands covered by water, were created by a series of great earthquakes that shifted the ground. The religious leaders of the time considered this theory to be blasphemous, as the existence of mountains was attributed to God. They believed that either the fossils were transported during the flood described in the Old Testament or else they had simply grown within the rocks. Most scientists of the time rejected Steno's theory as well.

Steno, raised a Lutheran, struggled to find a balance between his faith and his scientific pursuits. As New York Times reviewer Kevin Padian noted, "Cutler nicely describes how hypotheses were argued with one eye on observable facts and the other on Scripture." Steno ultimately gave up his scientific pursuits for a life in the Roman Catholic Church, and he had been raised to bishop by the time he died. Cutler, himself not particularly devout, found that researching Steno and the hard choices the scientist made had an effect on his own outlook. On the Barnes and Noble Web site he commented, "I now take religion a lot more seriously than I used to.… If I can't abide the cheap shots uninformed fundamentalists often take at science, I can no longer abide the cheap shots uninformed scientists sometimes take at religion, either."

Catholic Historical Review contributor Roger Ariew criticized "the analysis of Steno's association with [German philosopher and mathematician G. W.] Leibniz, who seems to be regarded as a mere follower," but overall believed "this is a fine work in its genre." Laurence A. Marschall, contributor to National History, wrote that "Cutler's smart and readable biography puts Steno right at the forefront of the geological revolution."



American Scientist, July-August, 2003, Margaret Pizer, review of The Seashell on the Mountaintop: A Story of Science, Sainthood, and the Humble Genius Who Discovered a New History of the Earth, p. 363.

Booklist, May 1, 2003, Bryce Christensen, review of The Seashell on the Mountaintop, p. 1561.

Carlton College Voice, winter, 2004, Burl Gilyard, "A Sedimental Journey."

Catholic Historical Review, October, 2003, Roger Ariew, review of The Seashell on the Mountain-top, p. 785.

Daily Mail (London, England), August 29, 2003, Peter Lewis, "Man Who Left No Stone Unturned," p. 58.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2003, review of The Seashell on the Mountaintop, p. 518.

Library Journal, May 1, 2003, Gloria Maxwell, review of The Seashell on the Mountaintop, p. 151.

Natural History, June, 2003, Laurence A. Marschall, review of The Seashell on the Mountaintop, p. 68.

New York Times, April 27, 2003, Kevin Padian, "Of Stones and Saliva."

Publishers Weekly, October 2, 2000, John F. Baker, "Dutton Wins Age-of-Earth Runoff," p. 14; April 7, 2003, review of The Seashell on the Mountain-top, p. 59.


Alan Cutler Home Page, (November 11, 2003).

Barnes and Noble Web site, (June 1, 2004), interview with Cutler.

Washingtonian Online, (November 11, 2003), William O'Sullivan, "Sharks and Saints: A Scientist Who Chucked It All for the Priesthood."*