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A World without History

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Tat: “Does the earth seem to you unmoving, father?”
Hermes: “No, my son. It is the only thing full of movement, and at the same time stationary. Would it not be absurd for the nourisher of all things, the producer of and begetter of all, to be motionless?…[]“
Corpus Hermeticum” 100-300 A.D.

According to Aristotelian philosophy earth was eternal, a world without history and with no end. Only with the advent of religions based on the promise of a final salvation – supposedly after the end of time – it became of great interest for philosophers and scholars to calculate the age and understand the possible lifespan of earth.

Already in the 17th century astronomers and physicists, like Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1726), had gathered enough knowledge to exactly calculate and predict the motion of planets and stars. Taking the bible and other religious texts as a collection of true, but undated stories, naturalist used described astronomical events (like solar eclipses or comets) to calculate an absolute chronology for the bible. Various sacred chronologies were proposed, but most naturalists agreed that the time span in the bible comprised almost 6.000 years. As the bible begins with the creation of the world, also the age of the earth was set at 6.000 years.

However to reconcile the celestial chronology with events recorded in the layers of earth was much more difficult.

One of the first naturalists to introduce time into the geological record was the Danish anatomist Niels Stensen, or latinized Nicolaus Steno (1638-1686). Steno had studied outcrops of layered rocks in the landscape of Tuscany and developed a hypothesis to explain these layers. Every single layer was deposited during a time when the sea inundated the land, followed by a time when the sea disappeared and erosion took place.

Steno does not address the question when exactly these periods occurred, but he argues based on historic accounts and Etruscan ruins, still standing on top of the studied layers, that the area of Tuscany had not been inundated by the sea in the last 4.000 years. Supposedly the repeated floods occurred before this date and after the creation of the world.

One of the most promising works to match the bible with the geological record was published in the years 1680 to 1690 by reverend Thomas Burnet (1635-1715). Entitled “The Sacred theory of the earth: containing an account of the original of the earth and of all the general changes which it hath already undergone, or is to undergo, till the consumation of all things” it describes how god created and also destroys earth using physical laws.

Fig.1. Frontispiece of Burnet’s “The Sacred theory of the earth..[]“.

The history of the world is magnificently summarized in the frontispiece of the book. God is standing with his right foot on the primordial earth, creating a first, perfect garden Eden. During the subsequent deluge, the outer crust collapses, forming continents and mountains. For Burnet earth was a middle-aged planet and the freshness of the mountains and contours of the continents prove for a recent formation. The last pictures shows earth consumed by the apocalyptic fire and a new paradise established. Burnet’s work reflects the general knowledge at the time – earth was relatively young and like the movement of stars its history organized in cycles.

The concept of cycles will prove essential in the further development of geology. Similar to Steno, also the Scottish naturalist James Hutton (1726-1797) uses the observable layers of earth to infer periods of deposition and erosion. However unlike Steno for Hutton, also based on his observations on the slow erosion of soil, these periods happened unimaginable long ago, as “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end“. Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) will adopt the idea of “deep time” in his “Principles of Geology” (1830), still imagining earth’s past organized in cycles.

Principles of Geology” will profoundly influence a young geologist named Charles Darwin and in 1859 Darwin will publish a book, which will influence on its own the understanding by geologists of the history of earth.. to be continued.


CUTLER, A.H. (2009): Nicolaus Steno and the problem of deep time. In Rosenberg, G.D. (ed.) The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Geological Society of America Memoir 203: 143-148
DALL´OLIO, N. (2004): Vedere il tempo. L´interpretazione dei fossili e degli strati nella scienza tra ´600 e ´700. Monte Universitá Parma Editore: 257

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. cccampbell38 1:46 pm 11/28/2012

    And thus the cultural war, as the scientific method and fact replace myth, superstition, and magical thinking. At least for some.

    Scientists in Europe who questioned the “accepted true teachings” used to be murdered by adherents to mythical doctrine. In some places they still are today.

    Will humans ever grow up?

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  2. 2. nfranklin 6:36 pm 11/28/2012

    It is interesting that writing was discovered nearly 6000 years ago in Mesopotamia and Egypt. This is clearly the beginning of Biblical time, when spoken memories began to be recorded.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 7:35 pm 11/28/2012

    A nicely written piece but I do not see how Newton fits into the whole age of the earth or even age of the universe thing. Even Einstein assumed the universe to be unchanging and constant until after Hubble. He was reluctant to get rid of his now infamous constant and he rejected Georges Lemaitre’s expanding universe idea. Also I would have liked to hear about Buffon’s little experiment to determine the age of the earth and what influence that had on the growing geologic community.

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  4. 4. Postman1 9:29 pm 11/28/2012

    Atheists seem to want us to believe that religion and science can’t coexist, but I believe that a truly omnipotent God, would probably continuously throw difficult or unsolvable mysteries our way. Just trying to keep us from getting too smug. Also, how does it hurt a scientist or science to believe this? I find it exciting to think that there will always be new problems to solve. How boring life would be, if we could solve all the mysteries.

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  5. 5. Fanandala 9:17 am 11/29/2012

    I can’t tell you if god exists, but if (s)he exists, I can not imagine s(he) would be a childish trickster and continuously move the goal posts. I would rather expect him/her to tell us the answers.
    Many scientists have no problem with faith and god, it is a spiritual thing. They do not need to proof it and they don’t try, they just have to believe it. Religious teaching is of course somethings else. Much of it defies logic and proof. And the history and legends of some desert dwelling tribe must be very interesting, but should not be considered a scientific treatise, and not a moral compass either.

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  6. 6. Postman1 2:41 pm 11/29/2012

    Fanandala, I don’t think He would ‘move the goalposts’, but it does seem that answering one question about our world, always brings up several more. Some, in the science realm, have suggested that this shows there is no logical pattern, ergo, no design by an intelligence. Perhaps, instead, those questions inside of questions are the pattern. Kind of like we continue to seek the smallest unit of matter and find the answer always begs, one more.
    I don’t purport to know the answers, including how old the Earth is, but I see no reason that an all powerful God could not make it seem 4.5 billion years old to us. Besides, we can have no way of knowing how long His days were. Maybe they are each close to 650 million of our years. Lol. At least we Know that we all will find out the answers eventually.
    May we all take our time finding that answer.

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  7. 7. David_Bressan 1:24 pm 11/30/2012

    Newton in fact adopted a biblical chronology, with earth & universe almost 6.000 years old – his, and other astronomers contribution as I intended, was the idea that nature follows regular patterns and laws. Early geologists were profoundly impressed by their approach and tried to adopt their laws and calculations to earth, a first step to introduce empirical data and hypothesis testing into geology and establish geology as a real science.

    Due the complexity of the topic I try to make a series of posts, a brief mention on Buffon´s work can be found here:

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