Origins – A Four Thousand Year Quest For Geological Information


Humankind has had an intimate association with the Earth from the 1st tentative footsteps of those early hominids to our current insatiable need to have for minerals and fossil fuels.  Undoubtedly our early ancestors have been aware of geological deposits, no matter whether they have been a supply of flint for hand tools or clay for cave paintings or physique adornment and clearly the origins of the science stretch way back into the early history of man.  Adobe to create dwellings or the supply of ochre for cave paintings may possibly have been the very first venture into sources of components for the use of mankind.  Later stones and clay would have turn into important as building supplies or for brick creating.  Certainly the ancient Egyptians had been making use of bricks in their much less ambitious constructions and to deny that there was no understanding of the local geology when it came to the quarrying of stone for the Egyptian pyramids would have been naive certainly.  Herodotus, 484 to 426 BC, created numerous important geological observations, speculating about the effect of earthquakes on landscapes, but ascribed their causes to Poseidon.  Pliny the Elder (AD 23 to 79) lost his life tramping around the slopes of Vesuvius during the eruption that destroyed Pompeii.  His reasoning was that earthquakes have been a result of Earth’s resentment against those that mutilated and plundered her for acquire. 

Christianity place scientific enquiry literally into the dark ages due to an all encompassing theory for the result in of almost everything, and besides it was believed that the Earth was a really young spot, doomsday was nigh, and consequently the study of the machinations of the planet would be a pointless physical exercise.  Inconsiderately doomsday did not arrive which got some people wondering about the organic world.  In addition the increasing preoccupation for the duration of the Middle Ages with alchemy kick began a scientific method which continues to this day.  Leonardo da Vinci, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, brave and brilliant philosophers and scientists all, drove some of the initial nails into the coffin of ignorance, holding high the light of knowledge for those who would see.

Nonetheless the very first real try on a treatise on geology was produced by Scottish farmer James Hutton in an inaccessible 1795 tome titled ‘A Theory of the Earth with Proofs and Illustrations.’  He may have passed into geological obscurity if it wasn’t for a specific John Playfair who rewrote the book on Hutton’s death, generating it attainable for mere mortals to grasp the concepts that Hutton had so obscurely written about.  At that time natural philosophers have been divided into two camps – the Neptunists, who believed that everything on Earth, like sea shells on lofty peaks, had been due to rising and falling sea levels, and the Plutonists, who noted that volcanoes and earthquakes continually changed the face of the planet and that seas  were not the agents which the Neptunists believed.  Plutonists also raised challenging concerns such to the whereabouts of all the water throughout periods of tranquillity, a period we are experiencing now.  Hutton’s insights threw some light on the matter, thanks to his keen eye and a close identification with the land thanks to his farming background.  He observed the formation of soils, and their erosion and transport to other locales.  He realised that more than time this erosion of the high ground and the infilling of the lows would leave a planet smooth and devoid of topography.  Even so everywhere he looked there had been hills and mountains, especially so in his native Scotland.  He realised that there had to be some approach that renewed and uplifted the landscape the keep the cycle going.  These pesky fossils on the mountain tops had not been deposited by floods, but had been lifted there, along with the mountains themselves.  Heat inside the Earth was the driving force of all this activity, or so ran the thoughts of Mr Hutton.  Interestingly some of these thoughts have only been vindicated in the last 40 years or so.  Far more importantly nevertheless was the notion that these processes necessary immense periods of time – far far more than anybody had as however ever conceived.

At the exact same time, down south, William Smith was constructing canals and draining bogs for a variety of customers as element of the expanding infrastructure driven by the Industrial Revolution.  Throughout his day-to-day operate he uncovered a myriad of fossils, and realised that every single succeeding geological bed or formation had its own specific assemblage of preserved organisms.  Spending large amounts of time and income, he travelled widely across vast swathes of England and to some extent Scotland, mapping the various outcrops of the numerous strata wherever he went.  His exertions damaged his wellness had his finances to the extent that he even spent time in a debtors gaol, and maybe even much more galling for him, his function was discounted and ridiculed by the supercilious aristocrats who had formed the Geological Society of London in 1807.  Even so an examination of the map that Smith created and now hangs in the Society’s headquarters in London reveals his genius.  His map shows in amazingly correct detail the geology of the British Isles and was the initial ever geological map.  Singlehandedly Smith had mapped out what the British Geological Survey, with hordes of geologists and government funding, couldn’t actually enhance on except by adding detail.  And in a correct Hollywood ending, Smith was at some point accepted and then lauded by the Society, and was granted a pension in his latter years, placing off forever the spectre of a debtors prison and a tough retirement.

Charles Lyell then enters the stage.  He had managed to wade via chunks of Hutton’s book, and was eternally grateful to Playfair for rewriting the work into something approaching readable.  Lyell was the most influential geologist of his century, which was a time incidentally when the world was in thrall to all things geological.  Geology was the central science and the older Royal Society was in danger of becoming eclipsed by the upstart Geological Society as the premier scientific society of the nation, which at that time also meant the globe.  So well-liked was the science that when Charles Lyell travelled to America to lecture, 3000 people showed up to be enlightened on ponderous subjects such as marine zeolites and seismic perturbations in Campania.  Back property, modern day, pondering men would venture forth to do fieldwork dressed in leading hats and dark suits, except for a Reverend Buckland of Oxford who preferred an academic gown.  Lyell produced his masterpiece, The Principles of Geology, which constructed on the operates of Hutton of a prior century and made his reputation.  Charles Darwin carried a copy of his book on the Beagle voyage, writing afterwards “the greatest merit of the Principles was that it altered the complete tone of one’s mind, and consequently that, when seeing a factor by no means seen by Lyell, a single however saw it partially by means of his eyes.”

Amongst the time of Hutton and Lyell there arose yet another controversy that followed on from the great Neptunist-Plutonist debate.  New lines were drawn among the Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism camps.  The former adhered to the notion that the Earth was shaped by cataclysmic events – floods, mostly, while the latter camp believed that changes on Earth took location over immense periods of time.  The Catastrophists discovered that their theory worked in nicely with the Noachian deluge and for that reason did not fly in the face of any biblical beliefs.  Lyell was a Uniformitarian and his influence remains proper down to the present day.  As an exciting aside nonetheless, rude Catastrophist brickbats nevertheless whizz down the length of 2 centuries to strike and the heart of Uniformitarian belief.  These brickbats comprise meteorite impacts which are broadly believed to have brought to a close the Cretaceous Period and the demise of the dinosaurs, and have been invoked as the cause of a quantity of other extinctions in Earth history.

Since British geologists were the most active in the early years of the science, British names have been assigned to the geological time scale.  The Devonian Period is named after Devon, the Cambrian right after the Roman name for Wales, and the Ordovician after ancient Welsh tribes, the Ordovices and the Silures.  Even so other names started to creep in from practitioners elsewhere – Jurassic from the Jura Mountains of southern France, Permian from the Russian province of Perm even though the Cretaceous was named by a Belgian fellow with the eminently dashing name of  J.J. d’Omalius d’ Halloy.

Initially the geological time scale was divided into 4 spans – Major, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary.  The Tertiary is the final surviving member of this initial subdivision, even though Quaternary does get a period outing.  Lyell introduced further units known as epochs or series to cover the period given that the finish of the Cretaceous.  These have been the Pleistocene, which means ‘most recent’ Pliocene, the ‘more recent’, Miocene, ‘moderately recent’ and Oligocene ‘but a little current.’  Nowadays geological time is divided into four fantastic chunks identified as eras – Precambrian, Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cainozoic, which in turn are divided into Periods which some of you might be familiar with, viz., Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  (Camels Often Sit Down Cautiously Maybe Their Joints Creak is a beneficial acronym for remembering them).

These then have been the principal protagonists in the quest for geological expertise.  Even though significantly has changed they were instrumental in changing people’s tips about the physical planet, and opening the way for additional enquiry.  One wonders if for instance Charles Darwin would have reached half of his conclusions if he had not had on board HMS Beagle a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology.