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History of Geology


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In the Beginning Was the Word

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Thursday 26th July saw the launch of SciLogs.com, a new English language science blog network. SciLogs.com, the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in German, Spanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on “Beginnings”.

Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog, Scitable’s Student Voices blog and bloggers from SciLogs.com, SciLogs.de, Scitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag. – Bora

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Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.
Sir Winston Churchill, British politician (1874 – 1965)

In the 18th and 19th century collections of natural oddities and specimens were very popular among rich people. Most displayed material was collected by lucky discoverers, assistants or students, only much later also the noble men themselves got into the field, even is such activity was considered more a necessity to gather unique specimens than to understand nature.

The Swiss professor of philosophy Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) was one of the first to propose to the savants of the time the necessity to gain also observations and measurements in the field. “Savants” was a general term adopted simply to well educated people interested in various arts – like philosophy and medicine – which often included studies of natural phenomena. “Natural philosophy” included all observable phenomena in nature, from the physiological reaction of the human body on the summit of a mountain to the rocks composing such a mountain. Natural philosophy was only loosely divided in three sub-disciplines- zoology, botany and mineralogy – based on the collectable specimens (like animals, plants and minerals).

Fig.1. James Hutton (left) and Joseph Black portrayed as “philosophers” or early “geognosts”, caricature published in 1787 by John Kay (Edinburgh).

A much specific approach, to the structure of earth itself, was initiated by a new science emerging from geography and adapted to the necessities of the mining industries to understand better the underground.

In Germany the art called “geognosie” (“earth knowledge“) included the description and representation of the surface of earth, like geography, but widened its approach to the third dimension, hidden below the surface of earth. This science was referred also as “mineralogical geography” or with the french term of “géographie souterraine” (“geography of the underground“). Its goals are best understandable in the Italian name “anatomia della terra” – “anatomy of earth“.

Fig.2. Luigi Ferdinando Marsili “On the Structures of Mountains”, published in 1705. Early geognosts mapped and developed a classification scheme for the various landscapes observed in nature; however a theory, explaining the formation of these features, was lacking.

However geognosie was an applied, descriptive art, not a science in a modern sense dedicated to formulate hypothesis and test them. Even if Geognosts went in the field only to map the rocks of the countryside, their maps and profiles were a major input to create a new – this time a real – science researching and testing also theories.

Already Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon (1707-1788) stressed in his “Nature’s Epochs” (1778) the necessity to create an own geotheory to understand the structure and history of earth. In the same year of Buffon’s “Epochs” the term geology was introduced (hesitant) in the literature by the Swiss naturalist Jean-Andre de Luc (1727-1817) with his opus “Letters on Mountains“.

I mean here by cosmology only the knowledge of the earth, and not that of the universe. In this sense, “geology” would have been the correct word, but I dare not adopt it, because it is not in common use.

Geology became synonymous with the “Theory of the Earth“, as a part of cosmology dedicated to the description of the character of earth and, maybe even more important, the relationships of geological forces with animals, plants and also we humans.

In now addressing my brother -geologists – and under this term I would comprehend all who take an interest in the progress of a science whose problems are inseparably interwoven with the whole study of nature – I have been influenced by the conviction that it is good for us, as workers in the same field, occasionally to pause and question ourselves as to the ultimate bearing of our investigations.
David Page (1863) “The Philosophy of Geology.

However the word geology has much older roots. In his testament and legacy written in 1603 the Italian Renaissance- naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605) introduces the term “Giologia” to refer to the study of “fossilia” – the things unearthed.
Aldrovandi tried his whole life to classify nature and to separate rocks and fossils from the animals and plants the already existing term mineralogy was not sufficient. Giologia would encompass all rocks, all minerals and especially the petrified organisms (he recognized some fossils as once living beings) excavated from below the earth’s surface.

Fig.3. “La giologia” in the official version of Aldrovandi´s last will.

200 years later the term, theory and principles of Geology will become widely known.

Fig.4.I a geologist“, from the Notebook M, 1838, page 39 of Charles Darwin, the full phrase as follows: “I a geologist have illdefined notion of land covered with ocean, former animals, slow force cracking surface &c truly poetical.”

Bibliography:

ROSENBERG, G.D. (2009): The measure of man and landscape in the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. In Rosenberg, G.D. (ed.): The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment: Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 13-40
RUDWICK, M.J.S (2005): Bursting the limits of time – The reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Revolution. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London: 708
THÜSEN, J.v.d. (2008) : Schönheit und Schrecken der Vulkane – Zur Kulturgeschichte des Vulkanismus. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt: 239
VAI, B. (2003): Aldrovandi´s Will: introducing the term “Geology” in 1603. In BATTISTA, G. & CAVAZZA, W. (2003): Four Centuries of the Word geology – Ulisse Aldrovandi 1603 in Bologna. Minerva Edizioni: 327

David Bressan About the Author: Freelance geologist dealing with quaternary outcrops interested in the history and the development of geological concepts through time. Follow on Twitter @David_Bressan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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  1. 1. Rev.Corvette 6:29 pm 07/29/2012

    Thanks again S.A. for this very interesting article and that goes double for the quote from Mr. Darwin.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bill_Crofut 11:23 am 08/3/2012

    Re: “…geognosie was an applied, descriptive art, not a science in a modern sense dedicated to formulate hypothesis and test them.”

    The late Prof. Stephen Jay Gould provided a most interesting reflection on the subject of geology:

    “As a special term, methodological uniformitarianism was useful only when science was debating the status of the supernatural in its realm; for if God intervenes, then laws are not invariant and induction becomes invalid…The term today is an anachronism; for we need no longer take special pains to affirm the scientific nature of our discipline. Paradoxically, in suggesting that this term drop from use, we pay a most fitting tribute to its vital role in the history of geology.”3

    [1965. Is Uniformitarianism Necessary? AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SCIENCE, March, p. 277]

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