When and how geology became a science.

The next statement in this post could well loose me several of my British readers I’m not a big fan of The Infinite Monkey Cage, BBC Radio 4’s comedy science programme. I don’t particularly like the puerile schoolboy humour favoured by the hosts. I was not partial to it when I was a puerile schoolboy and have grown less fond of it over the years. However on Monday I had some time to kill before going out for the evening and didn’t feel like reading, so I thought I would listen to the latest episode, which promised, amongst other things, a discussion of when and how geology became a science.

After several minutes of banter geologist Hermione Cockburn was asked exactly that.  The first problem that occurred to me was that there was no discussion or explanation either of what science is or more importantly what it means for a discipline to become a science. Now I know that both of these questions are much too complex to be handled in a thirty minutes comedy programme, which of course raises the question of the legitimacy of trying to discuss geology becoming a science in the same context. This problematic did not seem to phase Ms Cockburn who blithely answered that the transition occurred through the work of James Hutton or, she went on, maybe through that of Charles Lyell. This prompted the question from the hosts, why it had taken so long after Newton and the emergence of modern science for this to occur. Now Newton died in 1727 and Hutton was born in 1726 so the separation in time wasn’t that great.

The answer provided to the supposed time gap was of course religious prejudice. After a surprisingly positive account of Ussher’s chronology the other expert guest in the programme, paleobiologist David Martill, went on to explain that although the Greeks had realised that fossils were the remains of animals this knowledge had got lost in the Dark Ages (he actually used this term!) and it wasn’t until the seventeen hundreds that anybody looked at fossils correctly. Now at this point I began to ask myself, not for the first time, if the BBC is going to discuss history of science, in this case history of geology, why don’t they get a historian of science, in this case historian of geology, who knows what they are talking about to do the job?

Now I’m neither a geologist nor a historian of geology but even I know that the answer provided here by the experts are, at very best, highly dubious and at the worst totally wrong. I did ask myself, if Ms Cockburn was indulging in a bit of local patriotism, as James Hutton was a graduate of Edinburg University, the institution where she is employed. Just staying in the eighteenth century, if Hutton is doing scientific geology then so were his biggest intellectual opponent the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, who was his contemporary and the French polymath Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon who preceded them both. Less well known is the fact that Leibniz, who died in 1716, wrote and published definitely scientific papers on geology in his capacity as inspector of mines for his employer, the Elector of Hanover, George I of England.

Of course scientific geology didn’t begin in the eighteenth century. Assuming that scientific means theories based on empirical evidence then the sixteenth century German physician Georg Pawer (modern German spelling Bauer i.e. farmer), better known as Agricola, produced scientific geology in his books on mining. The most famous of which is his De re metallica, published posthumously in 1556.  Another sixteenth century polymath who produced scientific writings on geology based on excellent empirical observations was Leonardo da Vinci but who, as usual, did not publish his findings and so can’t really be counted amongst the scientific geologists.

However the person I most missed in this misconstrued mini-history of geology is one of my favourite seventeenth century polymaths Niels Stensen (1638–1686), better known by the short form of his Latinised nom de plume simply as Steno.

Born in Copenhagen of Lutheran Protestant parents, why this is relevant will become clear later, Steno entered the University of Copenhagen to study medicine at the age of nineteen. He studied under Thomas Bartholin, discoverer of the lymphatic system, whose younger brother Rasmus Bartholin first discovered double refraction the phenomenon that led Huygens to formulate his wave theory of light. Bartholin urged Steno, on completion of his medical degree, to travel to Amsterdam to study under Gerard Blasius, where after six months he moved on to Leiden to become part of one of the most extraordinary constellations of medical talent assembled in one place in the seventeenth century. Under the direction of the professors Franciscus Sylvius and Johannes van Horne Jan Swammerdam, Reinier de Graaf, Frederick Ruysch and Steno were busy revolutionising the study of human anatomy. All of them made major contributions and discoveries.

During this period the strangest story involving Steno concerned the discovery of the function of the ovaries. De Graaf claimed this discovery for himself but Swammerdam was convinced that the laurels should go to van Horne and himself. After the two, now ex-friends, had argued bitterly on who should be awarded the priority Swammerdam appealed to the Royal Society in London to arbitrate in the matter and pass judgement. After due consideration of the various claims the Royal Society announced Steno as the winner although he had never claimed the priority.

After further medical work in Paris Steno went to Northern Italy where he was first professor of anatomy in Pisa and then private physician to Ferdinando II de’Medici thus becoming de facto a member of, Ferdinand’s brother, Leopoldo de’Medici’s Accademia del Cimento.  During his time in Tuscany Steno turned to his second scientific career, geology.

Steno was given a shark’s head by Ferdinando, which being an anatomist he proceeded to dissect. He realised that the shark’s teeth resembled glossopetrae or “tongue stones” and hypothesised that these were in fact fossilised shark’s teeth. This led him to more general conclusions about the organic origins of fossils, which he published in his De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento dissertationis prodromus, or Preliminary discourse to a dissertation on a solid body naturally contained within a solid in 1669. This was not Steno only contribution to the history of geology. During his walks along the coast he observed the layers visible in the rock formations around him and developed the three fundamental laws of stratification – the law of superposition, the principle of original horizontality and the principle of lateral continuity – which he published in his Dissertationis prodromus of 1669.

Around this time Steno’s career took another major turn. In 1667 our Danish Lutheran converted to Catholicism. In 1675, having abandoned science completely, he was ordained a priest and in 1677 he was consecrated titular bishop of Titiopolis. Steno left Italy for Northern Germany where he worked as a missionary trying to convert the Lutherans back to Catholicism. He rejected all his worldly goods living as a pauper, a live style that led to his death in 1686. Steno was nominated for sainthood by his parishioners and although he was beatified he was never canonised.

To return to the history of geology Steno was not alone in the latter part of the seventeenth century in suggesting an organic theory of fossils with both Robert Hooke and John Ray propagating similar ideas.

If you want to know more about the history of geology then I can strongly recommend the blog of David Bressan at Scientific American and suggest you start with this post that explains more about the contributions of Agricola, Leonardo and Steno.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

9 responses to “When and how geology became a science.

  1. Jeb

    You may vexingly keep one British reader who makes ill spelled uninformed comments on occasion. I think I may have heard an early attempt at the comedy crossover with science and comedy on radio 4.

    It was using recordings of Japanese people expressing concern about nuclear power straight after the accident; used a range of novelty comic noises to suggest their emotional response to what had happened were somehow amusing and they were deeply ignorant. Seemed to say more about the producers and writers Little England stance on ethnicity than anything else.

    I have a tendency to turn off the radio or t.v with a lot of science related stuff. Well written history I seem to be able to deal with without the feeling I am witnessing a seriously semi-detached cultural car- crash.

  2. Michael Weiss

    Steno also gets credit (but with a caveat) for one of the foundation stones of crystallography, the law of corresponding angles. Sternberg gives a beautiful treatment in Groups and Physics, sec.1.5.

    Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on Steno with the lovely title, “The Titular Bishop of Titiopolis”, in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. And here we find the caveat:

    the “law” appears as two throwaway lines in a figure caption, and has little relation to Steno’s major theme or argument.

    I recommend the whole essay, filled with Gould’s usual erudition and gliding prose.

  3. I agree with your assessment, and there was amazingly prescient work by Arabic/Muslim scholars even earlier. I think the issue is unclear semantics, though: the question isn’t “who did the earliest scientific geological work,” but “when did geology become a(n independent, coherent, ‘respectable’) science.” Prior to Hutton, Lyell, and the Neptunists, the discipline was not really organized, recognized, or orderly.

    That said, I’d rather Steno was recognized as “the father of geology” than Hutton.

    • Your comment raises a couple of interesting points.

      Firstly, I’m very much aware that there is some important work on geology/mineralogy in medieval Islamic science and I did consider including a paragraph to this effect. However I’m not qualified to say anything intelligent about the subject so I decided not to. I have enough problems getting my knowledge of Islamic astronomy/astrology/mathematics/optics/cartography/instrument making up to the level where I would like it to be so I’m afraid I don’t have enough time and effort for the earth sciences.

      I disagree with you on the recognition of geology as a separate discipline. In the Middle Ages the earth sciences and the life sciences were all lumped together under the general term natural history but by the time of Agricola geology/mineralogy was recognised as a separate and distinct discipline. This is of course part of the discussion that I pointed out was missing in the original broadcast.

  4. guthrie

    Not liking puerile schoolboy humour is a good thing!
    It is a perpetual problem with the media, that they have trouble working out who is an expert and who is not. Of course it might be that the real experts went “You want me to appear on a what? No way”. Or they simply didn’t have time.

    Relatedly, I have been watching the “Tudor Monastery Farm” program on BBC2, which shows something of life on a circa 1500 farm. A lot of each episode is fine, albeit pitched at a rather low level and so lacking in detail and information, but in every episode there’s been one or two crashing errors which have anyone who knows about the period smiting their forehead. (The latest one, the narrator informed us that the lens in a camera obscura turned the image upside down! {Yes, I might be misremembering through the haze of concusion from smiting my own forehead, but I don’t think I am})

    Thanks for the links on Agricola, although I have a copy and have read chuncks of it, I didn’t realise how important he was, history of geology not being my strong point although I rather like modern geology.

  5. Jeb

    “You want me to appear on a what? No way”

    Sloppy history does not affect ratings or sales (although appeals to being historically accurate do sell and are often used in movies for example). If it did something would have been done about it long ago.

    As the old joke goes about John Gielgud’s appearance in the film Caligula (sex, swords and sandals), “he had not read ‘that part’ of the script when he read the original paycheck.”

    The lure of easy money makes for strong motivation.

  6. guthrie

    Jeb, I’m sure money is part of it for many. As you say, sloppy history seems to have little cost to it, which is annoying for us all I am sure. On the other hand one way of helping improve things would be if the researchers tasked with finding people for these programs had a better idea of what they were looking for, or could go straight to real experts, rather than pretend ones, or ones whose knowledge was out of date.

  7. Jeb

    Yes lots of simple fixes (and proper to raise them and be critical) but such things as this are difficult to pull off. Bit of a poisoned chalice for anyone standing front of house (or back stage). Demands such a vast range of expertise beyond the scope of any one expert or one subject.

    Failure enviable at times but complacency not acceptable.

  8. Pingback: On Giant’s Shoulders #66: Contagious History! « Contagions

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