13. Geotheories and Revolution 1750-1790

It was no coincidence that the next major advances in understanding life science happened in France where so much was being challenged at the end of the eighteenth century. Witty Voltaire was another to believe there was one big system of life and he summed it up by saying that if God didn’t exist there was a need to invent Him. In the 1780s it was one of Voltaire’s friends, Georges-Louis Compte de Buffon (1707-1788), who had the courage to offer the brave and revolutionary suggestion that some species were alive before humans.


Buffon had nearly lost out on his family inheritance and was forced to leave his mathematics studies at the University of Angers when he was in his early twenties.  A few years later he turned up in Paris where he worked as a timber specialist and in his early thirties he started to work at the Jardin des Plantes. After ten years experience studying plants in Paris, Buffon began his own serial Histoire Naturelle in 1749 and finished in 1789! That was also the year that Denis Diderot began  L’Encyclopedie based on his three perspectives of memory, reason and imagination.

Setting things out like this, all at around the same time, made the natural order of nature stand out like a sore thumb. Where earlier there was nothing but chaos, Buffon’s next job was to look back into geological time to see which species lived before humans.

The obvious place to look for any available clues was in a compilation of the grand theories of the earth, and what had gone before needed to be brought up to date with the new sense of order. Such information had started to be available a hundred years before when Thomas Burnet made his own disclosures about the state of the earth from his imaginative interpretations from the bible. Now, in the 1740s, Buffon set about putting together a lot of new data that he found from real observations, and tried to make grand theories that could explain the way the earth works. He thought the time was right to explain fossils, sediments and formations like the Alps and Fingal’s cave, all as one single system. There was plenty of exploration going on around him, not only of nature on a world scale, but of the earth’s features on a local one. Close by, for example, the Swiss explorer Horace-Benedict de Saussure was climbing Mont Blanc.

Moreover, Buffon raised new issues about transmutation: he was interested in finding out the scale of geological time, he saw limits to the geographical distribution of species and communities, and he saw themes in body structures.

th-6 By 1760 he ran both the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle  and the Jardin du Roi, powerful jobs that helped him set the theme for the topical genre of geotheories, earthly explanations of environmental change that were necessary to account for the existence of dynamic life and all biology. This was associated with his Histoire Naturelle, which was eventually to become a 35 volume encyclopaedia published serially throughout Buffon’s career, and which also set the foundations for many of the biological sciences such as the study of biogeography.

Most authors of the geotheories also knew one another and the integration of their thoughts was important though never organised. They all recognized that the earth and its living systems were constantly changing, different bits forming at different rates. Some change was imperceptible or even static while at other times it moved forwards catastrophically and with no clear cause. Every theory considered physical and biological factors, and covered all the mountains and plains, earthquakes and volcanoes, and how these things influenced living and fossil creatures. Suppositions that were yet to be proved, such as the Flood and the miracles, were based on known natural processes. And all this complexity continued from the past, through the present to the future.

Geotheory 1

Buffon began to write about his ideas for the first geotheory in 1749 without a shred of evidence. But to be fair, all he intended was to stimulate debate and in this he succeeded handsomely. He had been the Director of the Jardin du Roi and the Museum long enough to wield considerable authority, so his announcement of a new theory of life was a loud warning shot across the bow of the church and encouraged other geologists to offer their own slightly different ideas. The geotheory started at the very beginning when the earth had been at its hottest, just formed as a molten sphere. Since then it was constantly cooling, going through long periods of gentle change, steady states, each in dynamic equilibrium to give life through constant smooth processes of erosion and deposition.

Questions about the history of the earth inevitably led to further questions about the history of life. What caused growth? What organised the internal processes of living organisms and the reproduction of new generations? How do the chemicals that are involved interact? Buffon suggested there was a “moule interieur” similar to the natural cycles that kept something like a forest community going.


What grew inside one organism was taken as food by another or became broken up into its former constituents after death only to be recycled in another form. The process could be a self-controlled materialist way of continuing to produce more of the same. There was even talk that if something changed, say the temperature, then the cycle might change to another rhythm, using this other combination of the ingredients. They were saying that within a living system there may be something that programmed life forwards, a driving force like the mimicry that the Cambridge naturalist Martin Lister (1639-1712) had called a “plastick virtue” a century before.

Geotheory 2

The geologist and aristocrat Jean Andre De Luc, the son in a Swiss family of outdoor enthusiasts, had talked a lot with Buffon and others about Buffon’s geotheory and they encouraged him to propose an alternative with a topical twist.

409px-Jean-André_Deluc    th-4

When he was working as science advisor to Queen Charlotte at Windsor Castle in 1778, he explained his idea in letters that he wrote regularly as part of his job and they were collected and published together.

He argued that granite underlay all things on the earth as the Primary Rock, and on that lay the softer sediments of Secondary Rocks which included the fossils, sea and soil. The formation of the Primary Rock type changed into a phase of the Secondary ones by a catastrophic event that he called Revolutionary, which was as sudden and significant as the political events that were happening in France. De Luc was able to view the changes from the safety of Windsor and Geneva, in July 1789 quickly travelling through Paris where he could properly appreciate the meaning of fear.

Geotheory 3

The same theme came to dominate a third geotheory, that of the Prussian explorer Peter Pallas. He had travelled across the Urals into greater Siberia in the 1770s, paid to search for minerals and came back with exciting ideas about the origin of that vast landmass.

pallas    th (europeantravelista.com)

Like de Luc, Pallas’s had a royal commissioner, the Empress Catherine who wanted to assess the value of her kingdom. Also like de Luc, Pallas favoured a primary granitic layer of underlying rocks, the core of the Urals, then metamorphic schist without fossils and finally the fossiliferous sediments from beneath an old sea that was revealed by falling sea level.

Geotheory 4

De Luc’s friend Horace-Benedict de Saussure (1740-1799) had proposed this fourth geotheory from his explorations of the Alps around the same time. He had just written the first account of the Alpine range seen from the summit of Mont Blanc and very tentatively opened the possibility that these massive structures, extending for hundreds of kilometers, took many more hundreds of years to form than the simple story of the Flood allowed.


De Luc was the only one of these explorers still explaining this change in sea level in terms of the Flood though he was without much field experience. For the first time the alpinists were able to see the scale of the physical structures and found them daunting. They were also the first to think of the kind of processes and events necessary to give rise to the upper sedimentary rocks and the apparently disorganized surface deposits, with bits of animals and plants and other debris strewn around on the surface and on the side of mountains. This was a catastrophe on a huge scale, lasting thousands of years and making the bible stories appear to be relatively modest. It was a good story and it spread across Europe like the waves across the very seas they were hypothesizing.

250px-Descent_from_Mont-Blanc_in_1787  1787 Descent from Mont Blanc Teylers Museum Haarlem

Meanwhile in Switzerland, Saussure was putting the other geotheorists to shame with a much more spectacular demonstration of how to understand the earth. He joined with a group of 20 men climbing Mont Blanc in 1787, roped together crossing crevasses and glaciers, running short of breath as they dug in for the night, afraid of freezing to death while they slept more than 3km above sea level: “No living being was to be seen there, no trace of vegetation; it is a realm of cold and silence.”  But the geologist was most terrified by the beauty and the excitement knowing that what they saw confirmed his earlier drawings of the mountain chains that he had worked out himself from his lake-side dwelling. The scale and remoteness of that view from near the top of the mountain was one of the great experiences of his life and it influenced the way he saw the world. Geology had become a passion, the centre of any realistic belief about life with its emphasis on other factors such as silence, deep time, catastrophe, space and the cold. All of these senses hit him there, up the mountain, in his face.


 Geotheory 5

Pleased about such a positive response to his theorising 25 years earlier, Buffon decided to change his mind about the first geotheory. With the benefit both of experience and advancing knowledge, though some considered it is was better to say he had “adapted” his mind, he began thinking about the role of catastrophic change in nature as well as in French politics. Revolution was in the air, starting with the 1776 financial crisis, food prices escalating and the high cost of the American Civil War for the French forces. The authority of the church and the nobility were too much for the people, and they rose up.

Buffon had been involved with the discovery of the fossils from the Paris region, in particular from the secondary sediments at the top of the chalk and at the base of the softer and younger clays which lay above. The differences appeared to be great and Buffon was persuaded that a rare catastrophe could account for it. He took that event further to suggest seven epochs through the full history of the earth, each separated by one of these catastrophic events. He also expected that the earth was much older than previously thought since it would take millions of years for sufficient erosion to happen.

Throughout this time Buffon was close to the king and the government, and that meant he was less afraid of the theologians in the church and the Sorbonne than they were of him. But of course he was a clever diplomat and was well aware that anything he proposed, even from a lot of this idle theorising, had better go down well with the conservative French establishment. So having got away with extravagant progress in his implied explanation of life, he retracted any sign of revolutionary tendencies with a vigorous defense of the immutability of species. For him, all that talk of transmutation was not supported with any evidence and its supporters couldn’t be trusted with their new-fangled ideas.

But one other thing did worry him genuinely. The old enigma of the age of the earth still eluded them all and it was tempting to find a more objective way than Ussher’s arithmetic derived from biblical chronologies. So in 1776 Buffon looked at the rates of cooling for each planet in the solar system, based on their different sizes. He worked out that the earth was 93,291 years old, time enough, he argued, for shales to be laid down first and then the limestones and clays above. But it was armchair deductive reasoning and though the church gave no strong criticism – most people in France were preoccupied with political worries – Buffon’s younger field geologist colleagues did ridicule the naivity of his approach.

Geotheory 6

Meanwhile the English biologists were idling in the pleasures of nights out under the full moon and reading the observations of Gilbert White. But up in Scotland, James Hutton gave a lecture in 1785 to the new Royal Society of Edinburgh about his own geotheory, following the style of the genre set by Buffon, Saussure and the other Europeans. His theory of the earth reviewed the “laws observable in the composition, dissolution and restoration of land upon the globe.” He spoke of how sediments formed at the bottom of the sea and that marine animals were included in that debris. Much later that rock was itself eroded or weathered away in a cyclic routine. The resulting particles were once again laid down in new layers at different angles to what remained of the shifted older strata underneath. Hutton considered it all to have happened very slowly over much longer intervals of time than anyone had ever considered.

Although it was many years later (the opinion was still apt) the novelist RL Stevenson saw Henry Raeburn’s 1790 portrait of Hutton and was heard to say:  “the geologist, in quakerish raiment, looks altogether trim and narrow, as if he cared more about fossils than young ladies.” But Hutton would have been flattered by his fellow Scot’s comment about his priorities and Raeburn would have been pleased to have hit the right note with his subject. Hutton took his responsibilities seriously, primarily as a businessman and a farmer. His friends in these non-scientific worlds encouraged him to travel around in Scotland and England to look at farming techniques, soils and the underlying rocks. He found that they were all liable to change in cycles, being part of the earth as an active working system, seeing the soil as part of a cyclic process of growth and burial, seeing living things in that same continuous theme. It was a scheme not unlike the cyclical changes visualized by Buffon in Paris, but Hutton was more interested in the connection between the practical and topical unity of all these things. That brought him support from members of the Scottish Enlightenment and they were pleased to have Hutton’s originality in their group, pleased to be taken away from the objectivity of Scottish Presbyterianism. But at the same time they had to realize that the new geological observations were going to challenge one of their church’s important assumptions. Hutton’s geotheory meant that the earth would have to be millions of years old, not just a few thousand.

Revolution in Hoxton

Maybe it was because of the war in France and the catastrophe of the Revolution that led to England’s isolation, but the London naturalists and scientists interested in transmutation were complacent in their observations and debate, let alone backward in their creativity. One such palaeontologist was James Parkinson, a professional apothecary in cockney Hoxton and amateur fossil enthusiast and collector, still living with a clear trust in the doctrine of Genesis. He escaped from attending to the horrors of urban poverty by going off into the countryside looking for fossils in the open landscapes of Somerset and Lancashire.

th-8   th-9    th-10

Then he was content to relax into the small scale of his collections and made drawings and reconstructions of the pre-historic landscapes in traditional biblical settings with an ark and a rainbow, as though there had been no new thoughts for centuries. His 1804 book was called Organic Remains of a Former World and had drawings of frightening storms in the biblical flood, throwing up ammonites and snails high onto the beaches. The book gave dreary accounts of coal measure plants interpreted as relics of the biblical flood in the “antediluvian world”. Some said “the author hasn’t wandered further than the sound of Bow Bells.”

In stark contrast, the same year, Ernst von Schlotheim in Gothingen published another account of very similar coal measure plants from Germany and interpreted them as ferns from the tropics: “Enigmatic Documents of a Distinctive Earlier Creation”. Schlotheim didn’t even rule out extinction to explain their presence deep in the limestone strata, something that Parkinson would see as likely to attract a charge of sedition, rebelling against the authority of the state. For Parkinson, Bacon’s influence was ignored, Steno and Ray were just collectors and Burnet was plain wrong. Parkinson would have agreed with Carlyle’s words, written five years after he died in 1824 “Men have lost their belief in the invisible”. Not for Parkinson David Hume’s functional acceptance of both extremes. Yet even Hume would have found it difficult to compromise between the cockney and the German.

Like the swallows, the English had become pre-occupied with moving from the countryside. After living on the land they went to work in the factories. Employees and employers alike, they all believed in God. Of those who cared about such things, just a few dissenters were naturalists, more convinced that fossils were organic and the Flood was a natural event. So for these people of the Enlightenment nature was a resource principally designed for the benefit of humans.  th-1  (www.dur.ac.uk)

These were sentiments most famously taken into the nineteenth century by William Paley in his Natural Theology (1802) arguing that everything is intended for the advantage of man, the consequences of a single system of grand design.

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