Expedition to Mount Kazbek: Day 6 - Impressions after climbing Mount Kazbek

The History of Early Geology

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The Bible

Mountains are everywhere, you can find them in every corner of the world: they are in every continent, in every climate and even in every ocean. But have you ever wondered how did they get there?

Early understandings of the mountains really lacked the fourth dimension of time, it was generally thought that they just “are”.

In the mid-1600’s, based on information in the Bible, James Ussher the Irish Archbishop of Armagh, calculated the beginning of the time on our planet. He managed to do that with astonishing precision, events of world creation in Genesis book occurred 4004 BCE October 23rd, 9 AM on Monday. God created the mountains on the third day of Genesis, the same day that the polar zones got frozen and the tropics got warmed.

Thomas Burnett’s “The Sacred Theory of the Earth” (1681)

Thomas Burnett’s “The Sacred Theory of the Earth” (1681) was probably the first book to challenge biblical orthodoxy. During the Grand Tour (precursor to modern tourism), an Anglican churchman became interested in the mountains and started to wonder how it was possible for all the rubble around to be dispersed so randomly. To Burnett, the biblical story of creation could not explain how all of this chaos came into nature.

The appearance of the world was a mysterious and the key mystery was The Great Flood. If the flood was so great, as the Bible specified, it could cover the very highest mountain tops, which raised a question: “where on Earth, literally, did all the water come from?” Burnett concluded that it would require a total of 8 oceans of water and that just didn’t add up. 40 days of rain, as it is told in Genesis, was far from providing that much of the water. His conclusion was “if there was not enough water, then there must have been less Earth”.

This is how Burnett set forth his theory of the Mundane Egg. He thought that when the Earth was created, it had a flat surface, molten core, and water filling the abyss. Years passed, and the Sun started to dry up the world. Cracks started to open and the water from abyss began to pour onto the surface of the Earth.

That was the cause of the Great Flood and when it dried up, the Earth was left in the chaos, lying in its rubbish. This is how the mountains came to be.

Catastrophism

Catastrophism tries to explain the surface of the Earth by imagining early world devastated by sudden and violent events like tsunamis, volcanoes, meteors, earthquakes, fire and all the other – what we call now – natural disasters.

Georges Buffon’s “Historie Naturelle”(1749)

Even though Brunett’s work challenged the Bible, it didn’t suggest the world being older than 6,000 years. Georges Buffon’s “Historie Naturelle”(1749) was the first theory to try to extend the age of the Earth, he estimated it was 75,000 years old by calculating the cooling rates of iron.

It might look strange how such a simple experiment could answer this question, but at that time Sir Isaac Newton suggested that the Earth might have started as a red-hot piece of iron and Buffon simply calculated how long it would take for an Earth-sized Iron object to cool. His work extended 7 biblical days of creation into an epoch of indefinite age and created some needed space and time for geology to emerge as a scientific field without scientists being blamed for blasphemy.

Charles Lyell’s “The Principles of Geology”(1830-33)

Nobody influenced the field of geology in the 19th century as much as Charles Lyell’s “The Principles of Geology”, three parts of this book published between 1830-33.

He studied geology under the catastrophist William Buckland who tried to link current landscape to the Great Flood. To Lyell geology seemed to be driven by natural processes thus it is a scientific field on its own, built on observation and not dependent on the supernatural.

All Charles Lyell needed for his research was observations during his travels throughout the mountains. Simple thought experiments led to logical conclusions. If you can find a seashell on the top of the mountains, who put it there? The Great flood, definitely, couldn’t do that, so the Earth must have risen from the sea itself.

Uniformitarianism

This school of geological thought suggests that geological processes in the past were the same as in the present, thus landscape we see today was formed through a slow erosion and movements. Opposite to Catastrophism, events in uniformitarianism, which formed mountains and other geological structures, needs time, a lot of time.

Influence on Charles Darwin

Lyell’s work had a great impact on a 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who took “The Principles of Geology” to his famous voyage of the Beagle across the globe.

In 1834 when he set his foot on the continent of South America and traveled through the Andes, he wrote:

“We spent a whole day on the summit, and I never enjoyed one more thoroughly. The pleasure from the scenery in itself beautiful was heightened by the many reflections which arose from the mere view of grand range. Who can avoid admiring the wonderful force which has upheaved these mountains, and even more so the countless ages which it must have required to have broken through, removed and leveled, whole masses of them?”

In fact, Lyell’s work influenced Darwin so much that he even envisioned evolution sort of as a biological uniformitarianism. He argued that evolution took place from generation to generation, but it worked too slowly for us to notice its effects.

It also had a great influence on the others. People started to look to the surrounding landscape in a brand-new way. An inspired new generation of geology scientists set forth to the mountains to study them. An extra age added to our planet brought us to the modern day of thinking about the world we live in. Ever since we kept pushing and adding an extra time or space to the big history of everything.

This is a first part on history of geology, you can find the second part here: http://ctdots.eu/articles/plate-tectonics/

Cover photo by Julius Steponavičius

Mantas Ališauskas
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