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Reading The Rocks

How Victorian Geologists Discoveredthe Secret of Life

Brenda Maddox

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From its very beginning, in early C19, geology challenged established religion. Excavations for coal mines, canals and railways showed ancient rocks whch had clearly formed over much longer periods than Bishop Usher's 6000 years, and revealed fossils of ancient extinct animals. Basic dilemma: if, as the Bible claimed, this planet had been made expressly for humanity, why had its creator taken so long to get the tenants in?

Creationism held that everything had been made at once, but James Hutton disagreed. In 1785 set forth theory that land constantly being eroded and being created. "The starta that now compose our continent have once been beneath the sea, and were formed from the waste of pre-existing continents." As evidence he showed the Grampian Hills, where he could see veins of red granite intruding throughblack schist and limestone. Clearly the granite had been molten when it flowed into the limestone. The two types of rock had not appeared simultaneously. Hutton suggested (still in 1785) that the world needed to be millions of years old to allow for the processes he observed.

But in 1788 he found an even better example - Siccar Point on the Scottish coast. There he found vertical sheets of gray rock in parallel, like a row of books. And on top of that lay thick layers of red sandstone. The gray rocks had once been sand on the sea floor, long enough to petrify into solid rock. Then, forces had tilted them onto their side, and new sediments were laid down on top of them.

William Smith drew first geologic map of Britain. He was hired as a surveyor by a canal company, and spent a lot of time going down coal mines (in 1792 he went down every coal mine in Somerset) and realised that the same seams of coal and other rocks, recognizable by common fossils, were spread all over England and Wales. Smith came from humble beginnings (the orphaned son of a village blacksmith) but his huge map, and the accolades it brought, changed the existing practice of 'the theory of geology in the hands of one class of man,; the practice in another'

Cuvier's greatest contribution was to point out that ancient fossils were not represented by living creatures. So there had been extinctions, and probably multiple extinction events. And that of course, was a problem to religions, bc why would a creator have created species just for them to die out? Cuvier was also the first to notice, in a 1792 essay, that the deeper the rocks in which fossils were found, the further the fossils were from modern creatures. But he didn't take the next step to recognize the progression from simpler to more complex. That had to wait a few more years.

Charles Lyell wrote Principles of Geology, the first attempt to describe the earth's physical history. The subtitle wasBeing an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth's surfaces, by reference tocauses now in operation. Went to Europe and visisted Pozzuoli, a port just to the west of Naples. There he saw 3 ancient marble columns, each over 40 feet high, riddled halfway up by mollusc holes. Plain proof that the ground that the columns had been built on had sunk below the sea, and then been raised again. And, importantly, Lyell recognized that the slow raising and lowering had been gentle enough that the columns had neither toppled nor cracked.

The first president of the Geological Society was George Greenough, a wealthy bachelor who was MP for the 'rotten borough' of Gatton in Surrey, a constituencynotorious for having only one eligible voter.

Lyell was noted for his opposition to those who wanted to keep Noah's Flood in the geological record. He scathingly pointed out that Genesis contradicts itself when it describes a dovecoming back with ann olive branch, testifying that the Earth had not been totally submerged, and that somewhere vegetation must have survived.

Louis Agassiz was one of the few geologists to acknowledge Mary Anning, for the fossils she'd collected on the Dorset Jurassic Coast. He was one of first to recognize that many of the features of northern Europe could be ascribed to glaciers, adn it was he who coined term Ice Ages.

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