The History of Modern Geology

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The History of Modern Geology

The history of modern geology is a tale of exploration, discovery, and… bias, masquerading as science. What? Yes, modern geology comes complete with its own biases and worldview.

Modern geology begins with James Hutton, a Scottish naturalist and farmer. Certainly, his groundbreaking ideas laid the foundation for our modern understanding of our earth and its processes. Born in 1726, Hutton’s contributions to the field of geology revolutionized the way we perceive the planet’s history, steering a course intentionally away from the Bible.

The Enlightenment and Early Geology

The 18th century movement known as the Enlightenment was a period of intellectual revolution.  Empirical observation and rational inquiry were the hallmarks of the movement. This philosophy permeated the scientific community and laid the groundwork for the emergence of modern geology. Prior to Hutton’s work, Biblical creation accounts were the basis of Earth history. These proposed a relatively young Earth.

Hutton’s Uniformitarianism

Hutton’s ideas about geology came from his observations of rock formations in the Scottish countryside. He created a term to explain what he thought was the foundation of geology: uniformitarianism. This concept asserted that the same natural processes that operate today have been at work throughout Earth’s history. What we see happening today is sufficient to explain past geological events.

Hutton believed that unconformities, or gaps in the rock record, provided crucial evidence for this principle. Notably, at Siccar Point, Scotland, he identified a striking unconformity (a formation that should not exist) between layers of tilted sedimentary rock and overlying horizontal layers. These indicated a vast expanse of time during which these layers were formed and subsequently eroded. Throwing out the possibility of a worldwide flood as a possible reason for this, he was left with creating a whole new idea that had not been tested or observed happening.

Uniformitarianism and Deep Time

Hutton’s uniformitarianism laid the groundwork for a paradigm shift in geological thinking. It challenged the prevailing notion of a young Earth and suggested that Earth’s history spanned inconceivable epochs. This notion of deep time, an almost incomprehensible scale of millions to billions of years, was a cornerstone of Hutton’s philosophy.

Hutton’s Treatise and Geological Legacy

In 1785, Hutton published his seminal work, “Theory of the Earth,” where he expounded upon his revolutionary ideas. Although initially met with skepticism, his

work gradually gained traction and influenced a new generation of geologists, including John Playfair and Charles Lyell. Lyell, in particular, expanded upon Hutton’s ideas in his influential work “Principles of Geology,” which presented a comprehensive case for uniformitarianism and further popularized the concept of deep time. Lyell is credited with popularizing the idea of uniformitarianism with his phrase, “The present is the key to the past.”

Hutton’s enduring legacy extends far beyond his own time. In particular,  his work influenced Charles Darwin, who drew upon Hutton’s concepts in formulating his theory of evolution by natural selection.

So why does this even matter?

It matters because Hutton’s ideas are based on what he was able to imagine. Certainly, in his field work, observation was key to his study of geology, which is part of the scientific process. But scientific inquiry is not complete without testing and being able to repeat those tests to prove or disprove ideas. And when you are talking about origins, especially of the earth, you cannot test the origins. And if you can’t test them, you can’t repeat them.

What Hutton contributed to geology was ideas. Unproven ideas. And these ideas are what have shaped our modern view of geology. He has no history to rely on. No testing to rely on. He has only what he saw in the field, with his ideas fleshing out what he thought might have happened when the earth was created. And that idea is summed up in his phrase”: …no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” This was his view of earth history.

Just what was behind this Hutton’s ideas? Driving his inquiry was a worldview. He did not believe the Bible held answers for understanding geology. But cutting out a legitimate historical document as a source for interpreting historical events does not mean that that source document is invalid.

The Bible as Reliable History

We often see the Bible as a guide for moral living. But it is much more than that. It is a history of God’s dealings with man. And it has been proven to be a reliable history at that. And in particular, the history of the Flood of Genesis is more than adequate to explain the world that we see around us.  When seeking for answers concerning the origins of the earth, it is important to remember that origins cannot be tested. Origins are a historical question. And that means that you need historical documents.

Want to learn more?

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Siccar Point image: By dave souza – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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