Category Archives: Geology

October 20, 1790 (a Wednesday)

On this date, the Scottish fruit-grower Patrick Matthew was born. He is notable for having proposed the principle of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution over a quarter-century earlier than did Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. However, Matthew failed to develop or publicize his ideas and Darwin and Wallace were unaware of Matthew’s work when they synthesized their own.

Patrick Matthew (1790)

Matthew’s work entitled, On Naval Timber and Aboriculture, which was published in 1831, presented in sufficiently recognizable detail “this natural process of selection among plants” (see pages 307 to 308). In an appendix to the book, he wrote:

There is a law universal in nature, tending to render every reproductive being the best possible suited to its condition that its kind, or organized matter, is susceptible of, which appears intended to model the physical and mental or instinctive powers to their highest perfection and to continue them so. This law sustains the lion in his strength, the hare in her swiftness, and the fox in his wiles. As nature, in all her modifications of life, has a power of increase far beyond what is needed to supply the place of what falls by Time’s decay, those individuals who possess not the requisite strength, swiftness, hardihood, or cunning, fall prematurely without reproducing—either a prey to their natural devourers, or sinking under disease, generally induced by want of nourishment, their place being occupied by the more perfect of their own kind, who are pressing on the means of subsistence . . .

There is more beauty and unity of design in this continual balancing of life to circumstance, and greater conformity to those dispositions of nature which are manifest to us, than in total destruction and new creation. It is improbable that much of this diversification is owing to commixture of species nearly allied, all change by this appears very limited, and confined within the bounds of what is called species; the progeny of the same parents, under great differences of circumstance, might, in several generations, even become distinct species, incapable of co-reproduction.

In 1860, Matthew read a review of Darwin’s Origin of Species in the Gardeners’ Chronicle, including its description of the principle of natural selection. This prompted him to write a letter to the publication, calling attention his earlier explication of the theory. Darwin then wrote a letter of his own to the Gardener’s Chronicle, stating:

I freely acknowledge that Mr. Matthew has anticipated by many years the explanation which I have offered of the origin of species, under the name of natural selection. I think that no one will feel surprised that neither I, nor apparently any other naturalist, has heard of Mr. Matthew’s views, considering how briefly they are given, and that they appeared in the Appendix to a work On Naval Timber and Arboriculture. I can do no more than offer my apologies to Mr. Matthew for my entire ignorance of his publication.

However, there are nearly as many deep differences between Matthew’s theory and Darwin’s as there are similarities. Matthew was a catastrophist; his geological theories were very close to those of Cuvier. According to Matthew, the earth had periodically been rocked by upheavals, which left an “unoccupied field. . . for new diverging ramifications of life.” Evolutionary change took place right after these upheavals; between catastrophes, species did not change,and natural selection would act to stabilize species, not alter them:

A particular conformity, each after its own kind, . . . no doubt exists to a considerable degree. This conformity has existed during the last 40 centuries [4,000 years]. Geologists discover a like particular conformity – fossil species – through the deep deposition of each great epoch, but they also discover an almost complete difference to exist between the species or stamp of life on one epoch from that of every other.

Matthew’s theory lacked Darwin’s concept of evolution as an ongoing, continuous process. Matthew did not see evolution as the gradual accumulation of favorable variations leading to adaptation, nor did he believe in extinction except by catastrophe. Matthew saw species as classes of similar organisms, not as interbreeding populations. He also never relinquished his belief in natural theology; he wrote to Darwin in 1871 that “a sentiment of beauty pervading Nature. . . affords evidence of intellect and benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design and cannot be accounted for by natural selection.”

October 4, 4004 B.C.E. (a Monday)

*The Creation of Adam* by Michelangelogo

On this date, the Earth was created by God, according to an Irish theologian, Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher [or Usher] (1581-1656), in his Chronologies of the Old and New Testaments, which was first published 1650-1654. Ussher arrived at his conclusion by carefully counting the “begats” in the Bible. His contemporary, Sir John Lightfoot (1602-1675), Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, arrived at the same date through independent calculation and added the detail that the world began at 9:00 AM Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT), or midnight Garden-of-Eden time.

Needless to say, modern scientific research has discovered that the Earth is, in fact, much, much, older.

September 10, 1941 (a Wednesday)

"The main reason I write is that the world is very complicated, and when I write I learn," said Gould.

On this date, American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould was born. Gould, who grew up in New York City, graduated from Antioch College in 1963 and received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1967. He was immediately hired by Harvard University, where he worked until the end of his life. Harvard promoted him to Professor of Geology and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the institution’s Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1973 and to Professor of Zoology in 1982. Gould also worked at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He was awarded fellowship in the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1983, where he later served as president (1999-2001), and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1989. He also served as president of the Paleontological Society (1985-1986) and the Society for the Study of Evolution (1990-1991).

Gould is one of the most highly cited scientists in the field of evolutionary theory. The paper entitled “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm” (1979) that he co-authored with Richard Lewontin has been cited more than 1,600 times. In Palaeobiology—the flagship journal of his own speciality—only Charles Darwin and George Gaylord Simpson have been cited more often. Gould was also a considerably respected historian of science. Historian Ronald Numbers has been quoted as saying: “I can’t say much about Gould’s strengths as a scientist, but for a long time I’ve regarded him as the second most influential historian of science (next to Thomas Kuhn).”

Perhaps more than any other contemporary American scientist, Stephen Jay Gould committed himself to communicating the goals, processes, and achievements of science to a wide audience. His high visibility, distinctive critical voice, and marked enthusiasm for making science accessible to the general public led him to contribute to debates surrounding creationism, evolutionary psychology, and biological determinations of race and intelligence. Gould wrote popular science essays in Natural History magazine and best-selling books on evolution. Many of his essays were reprinted in collected volumes, such as Ever Since Darwin and The Panda’s Thumb, while his popular treatises included books such as The Mismeasure of Man, Wonderful Life, Rocks of Ages, and Full House.  His work won many awards, including the National Book Award.

September 9, 1794 (a Tuesday)

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist William Lonsdale was born in Bath. His study of coral fossils found in Devon suggested (1837) that certain of them were intermediate between those typical of the older Silurian System (408 to 438 million years old) and those of the later Carboniferous System (286 to 360 million years old). Geologists Roderick Murchison and Adam Sedgwick agreed. They named (1839) this new geologic system after its locale – the Devonian System.

Lonsdale’s early career was as an army officer (1812-15). Residing afterwards for some years at Batheaston, he collected a series of rocks and fossils which he presented to the Literary and Scientific Institution of Bath. He became the first honorary curator of the natural history department of the museum, and worked until 1829 when he was appointed assistant secretary and curator of the Geological Society of London (GSL) at Somerset House. There he held office until 1842, when ill health led him to resign. Lonsdale was awarded the prestigious Wollaston Medal of the GSL in 1846. He recognised that fossils showed how species changed over time, and more primitive organisms are found in lower strata. Charles Darwin used this to support his theory of evolution by natural selection.

September 7, 1707 (a Wednesday)

Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon

On this date, the naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, count de Buffon was born in Montbard, France. Buffon is best remembered for his great work Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière(1749-1778: in 36 volumes, 8 additional volumes published after his death by Lacépède). It included everything known about the natural world up until that time and was translated into many different languages, making him the most widely read scientific author of the day, equaling Rousseau and Voltaire. Buffon’s views influenced the next two generations of naturalists, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin.

Buffon was one of the first philosophers to grapple with the questions of evolution, both of Earth and of living creatures. At the time, church doctrine insisted that Earth was only six thousand years old and that each type of creature had been made independently by a Creator. He proposed instead around 1778 that the Earth was hot at its creation and, from the rate of cooling, calculated its age to be 75,000 years, with life emerging some 40,000 years ago.

Buffon noted that despite similar environments, different regions of the world have distinct plants and animals, a concept later known as Buffon’s Law, widely considered the first principle of biogeography. He made the radical conclusion that species must have both “improved” and “degenerated” (evolved) after dispersing away from a center of creation. He also asserted that climate change must have facilitated the worldwide spread of species from their center of origin. Buffon also proposed, in sharp contrast to his contemporary Carolus Linnaeus, that species are defined not by simple similarity of appearance but by reproductive fertility over time.

September 7, 1829 (a Monday)

Lithograph of dino fossils, Leidy (1860)

On this date, the American geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden was born. It is generally accepted that the first discovery of dinosaur remains in North America was made in 1854 by Hayden during his exploration of the upper Missouri River. At that time, the area was the hunting ground of the Lakota, Blackfeet, Atsina, and River Crow Indians. A lone white man in Indian Country was often fair game to the tribes, but Hayden’s passion for rocks and fossils earned him the name “He Who Picks Up Stones While Running” and a reputation for madness. The Indians left him alone.

Hayden explored what would later become known as the Judith River Formation, a large area of sedimentary materials deposited in the lowland areas bordering the Colorado Sea during the Late Cretaceous Period 78 to 74 million years ago. Here, Hayden’s party recovered a small collection of teeth which were later described (in 1856) by Joseph Leidy at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Three of the specimens described were dinosaurs – Trachodon, Troodon (now known as Stegosaurus), and Deinodon (notice the use of ‘don’ meaning ‘tooth’). This was the first published description of dinosaur remains in the United States. Leidy recognised that Trachodon was a creature similar to Iguanodon.

Interestingly, for centuries the Blackfeet have inhabited the high plains of Montana and Alberta – the same area in which the dinosaur-rich, Late Cretaceous Hell Creek and Oldman Formations occur. Dinosaur fossils were known to the Blackfeet, who considered them to be the remains of giant, ancestral buffalo. The Blackfeet used dinosaur bones in rituals intended to insure good hunting. Notwithstanding the religious significance dinosaur bones had for the Blackfeet, they were quite enlightened in their view toward dinosaurs. They hit on the antiquity, and the organic nature of dinosaur remains, and in comparing them to buffalo showed their sophisticated knowledge of vertebrate anatomy. Referring to dinosaurs as large buffalo was thus good scientific practice in the context of their perception of the natural world. In doing this, they were as close to the truth as was the Rev. Dr. Plot back in England, or any other European of the time.

August 23, 1769 (a Wednesday)

Georges Cuvier

On this date, Georges Cuvier was born at Montbéliard, France (then Mömpelgard in the duchy of Württemberg). Cuvier, who possessed one of the finest minds in history, was instrumental in establishing the fields of comparative anatomy and paleontology by comparing living animals with fossils.

At the opening of the National Institute of France in April in 1796, he read his first palaeontological paper. At the time, it was still widely believed that no species of animal had ever become extinct, because God’s creation had been perfect. In his paper, Cuvier analyzed skeletal remains of Indian and African elephants as well as mammoth fossils, demonstrating that African and Indian elephants were different species and that mammoths were not the same species as either African or Indian elephants and therefore must be extinct.

In the second paper he presented in 1796, Cuvier demonstrated that a large skeleton found in Paraguay, which he named “megatherium,” represented yet another extinct animal and, by comparing its skull with living species of tree dwelling sloths, that it was a kind of ground dwelling giant sloth. Together these two 1796 papers essentially ended what had been a long running debate about the reality of extinction.

Figure of the jaw of an Indian elephant and the fossil Jaw of a mammoth from Cuvier's 1798–99 paper on living and fossil elephants

Cuvier believed that organisms were functional wholes; their functional integration meant that each part of an organism, no matter how small, bore signs of the whole. In a 1798 paper on the fossil remains of an animal found in some plaster quarries near Paris, he wrote:

Today comparative anatomy has reached such a point of perfection that, after inspecting a single bone, one can often determine the class, and sometimes even the genus of the animal to which it belonged, above all if that bone belonged to the head or the limbs. … This is because the number, direction, and shape of the bones that compose each part of an animal’s body are always in a necessary relation to all the other parts, in such a way that – up to a point – one can infer the whole from any one of them and vice versa.

This idea is sometimes referred to as “Cuvier’s principle of correlation of parts.” Thus, Cuvier was able to use his deep knowledge of the comparative anatomy of living organisms to produce reconstructions of organisms from fragmentary fossils, many of which turned out to be strikingly accurate.

Ironically, Cuvier’s insistence on the functional integration of organisms prevented him from accepting biological evolution, for he believed that any change in an organism’s anatomy would have rendered it unable to survive. Since organisms were functional wholes, any change in one part would destroy their delicate balance. He also pointed out that Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt had retrieved animals mummified thousands of years previously that seemed no different from their modern counterparts.

To explain the discontinuities seen in the fossil record, Cuvier hypothesized that a vast number of species was originally created in the beginning and that, although the Earth was immensely old and for most of its history conditions had been more or less like those of the present, periodic “revolutions” had occurred, each causing the extinction of many species of animals. This view came to be known as “catastrophism.” Cuvier regarded these “revolutions” as events with natural causes, and considered their causes and natures to be an important geological problem. Although he was a lifelong Protestant, Cuvier did not explicitly identify any of these “revolutions” with Biblical or historical events. The species we see today, according to his hypothesis, are the species that were present at the beginning and whose unmodified descendants have survived all the later catastrophes. (Unfortunately for Cuvier, the lowest and oldest layers of sedimentary rock do not contain any fossils of present-day species that would be expected if his hypothesis was correct.)

The harshness of his criticism and the strength of his reputation continued to discourage naturalists from speculating about the transmutation of species, right up until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species more than two decades after Cuvier’s death.

June 3, 1727 (a Tuesday)

James Hutton, by Raeburn.

On this date, the Scottish geologist James Hutton was born in Edinburgh.  His most important contribution to science was his book, Theory of the Earth (1785), in which he showed that Earth in fact has had a long history – as he put it, “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

There is another facet of Hutton’s writings that is marvelously intriguing and pointedly illustrates how the development of even the most fundamental concepts in science sometimes hinge on vagaries in timing and opportunity. At the time of his death, Hutton had nearly completed a book entitled Elements of Agriculture. Attempts were made in 1806 to publish it that were never realized, and the manuscript circulated between custodians in the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the Edinburg Geological Society before being housed from 1949 in the Royal Society of Edinburg. In essence, the manuscript was “lost” until 1947. In this book, Hutton writes:

To see this beautiful system of animal life (which is also applicable to vegetables) we are to consider, that in the infinite variation of the breed that form best adapted to the exercise of those instinctive arts, by which the species is to live, will be the most certainly continued in the propogation of this animal, and will be always tending more and more to perfect itself by the natural variation which is continually taking place. Thus, for example where dogs are to live by the swiftness of their feet and the sharpness of their sight, the form best adapted to that end will be the most certain of remaining, while those forms that are least adapted to this manner of chase will be the first to perish; and the same will hold good with regard to all other forms and faculties of the species, by which the instinctive arts of procuring its means of substance may be pursued.

There, from the pen of a man who died 11 years before Charles Darwin was born, is the idea of Natural Selection. Had Hutton’s book seen the light of day when it was written, rather than a century and a half later, it is he who might now be the icon of evolutionary biology – and the nemesis of creationists and other literal interpreters of religious tracts. And Darwin might be an obscure geologist/biologist, known primarily for his papers on the geology of the Andes, and for his treatises on orchids and earthworms. This is perhaps the greatest “if only” in the history of biology and geology.

It is important to stress, however, that while Hutton used the selection mechanism to explain the origin of varieties in nature, he specifically rejected the idea of the evolution of one species from another as a “romantic fantasy”. Indeed, he was a deist and regarded the capacity of a given species to adapt to local conditions as an example of benevolent design in nature.

Interestingly, Hutton was never married, but lived with his sisters, three amiable women, who managed his domestic affairs. Though he cared little for money, he had accumulated considerable wealth when he died, owing to his moderation and unassuming manner of life, as well as from the great ability with which his long-time friend, Mr. David, conducted their joint concerns.

May 24, 1793 (a Friday)

Edward Hitchcock

On this date, the geologist and clergyman Edward B. Hitchcock was born. In 1840 he co-founded, with other state geologists, the American Association of Geologists, parent of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1863 he became a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences. Hitchcock was president of Amherst College from December 1844 to November 1854 and also taught natural theology and geology there from 1845 until his death.

Hitchcock left his mark in paleontology. He published papers on fossilized tracks in the Connecticut Valley, including Eubrontes and Otozoum (these are the names of the footprints, identified by their shape, and not of the genus or genera that made them, which is as yet unknown), that were later associated with dinosaurs, though he believed, with a certain prescience, that they were made by gigantic ancient birds.

However, his chief project was natural theology, which attempted to unify and reconcile science and religion, focusing on geology. His major work in this area was The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences (Boston, 1851). In this book, he found somewhat tortured ways to make the Bible agree with the latest geological theories. For example, he knew that the earth was at least hundreds of thousands of years old, vastly older than the 6,000 years posited by Biblical scholars. Hitchcock actually found a way to read the original Hebrew so that a single letter in Genesis—a “v”, meaning “afterwards”—implied the vast time spans during which the earth was formed.

May 21, 1799 (a Tuesday)

Mary Anning portrait

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist Mary Anning was born.

May 14, 1864 (a Saturday)

A fragment of the Orgueil meteorite.

On this date, a carbonaceous chondrite disintegrated and fell in fragments near the French town of Orgueil. One specimen was immediately examined by the French scientist S. Cloëz, who commented that its content “would seem to indicate the existence of organized substances in celestial bodies.” Subsequently, several eminent chemists of the time, including Gabriel-Auguste Dubrée and Marcellin Berthelot, analyzed samples and confirmed the existence of organic materials in the rock. However, hopes of discovering actual living matter in the meteorite were dashed by the experiments of Louis Pasteur, as recounted by Carl Sagan:

[He] caused a special drill to be constructed, which, he hoped, would remove samples from the interior of the meteorite without contaminating them with microorganisms from outside. Using sterile techniques, Pasteur inoculated an organic medium to search for growth of any indigenous microorganisms which the meteorite interior might contain. The results were negative, and have relevance today: Pasteur extracted his sample shortly after the fall of the meteorite, and was, of course, a very careful experimentalist.

A fragment of the Ivuna meteorite (Tanzania, Africa, 1938).

Virtually all meteorites scientists have studied are former parts of asteroids. However, recent determination of the amino acid signatures within the Orgueil meteorite and Ivuna meteorite suggest that these compounds were likely synthesized from components such as hydrogen cyanide, which have been recently observed in the comets Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake. This suggests that the organic material in Orgueil and Ivuna is the product of reactions that once took place in the nucleus of a comet, which, if true, would make these meteorites the first to be identified as having come from a cometary nucleus. This would add to the evidence that the amino acids that helped generate life on Earth may have been delivered by meteorites that were derived from the remnants of comets.

May 6, 1966 (a Friday)

ResearchBlogging.orgOn this date, American paleobotanist Elso S. Barghoorn of Harvard reported the discovery of Precambian spherical one-celled alga-like microfossils (named Eobacterium isolatum, which means “solitary dawn bacteria”) 3.4 billion years old, Earth’s earliest life forms. Barghoorn, with J. William Schopf, studied the 3.2 billion year old chert (a flintlike or quartz-like rock) of the Fig Tree formation in Transvaal, South Africa. Rubidium and strontium ratios in the chert suggested an age of over 3 billion years. The fossils are examples of prokaryotes, unicellular organisms that lack a nucleus and have a distinctive cell wall containing organic chemicals.


  • Barghoorn, E.S., Schopf, J.W. (1966). Microorganisms three billion years old from the Precambrian of South Africa. Science, 152(3723), 758-763. DOI: 10.1126/science.152.3723.758

May 3, 1877 (a Thursday)

Baron Nopcsa

Baron Nopcsa

On this date, the paleontologist Baron Franz Nopcsa von Felső-Szilvás (or Baron Franz Nopcsa) was born in Transylvania, which at that time was a part of Austria-Hungary. Making no effort to hide his homosexuality, he was often dismissed as “whacky” by other scientists, yet he made significant contributions to the fields of paleontology, geology, and evolutionary biology. He was also fascinated by the language and culture of Albania and aspired to become king of that country.

A gifted student, Nopcsa graduated from the prestigious Maria-Theresianum in 1897. His younger sister Ilona having discovered fossilized dinosaur bones in 1895 at the family estate at Szentpéterfalva in Săcele (Szacsal), Transylvania, Nopcsa enrolled at the University of Vienna to study them. He advanced quickly in his studies; on 21 July 1899, at the age of twenty-two, he held his first lecture at the Academy of Sciences in Vienna on “Dinossaurierreste in Siebenbürgen” (“Dinosaur remnants in Transylvania”) and attracted much attention with it.

With the defeat of Austria-Hungary at the end of World War I, Nopcsa’s native Transylvania was ceded to Romania. As a consequence, the Baron of Felső-Szilvás lost his estates and other possessions. Compelled to find paid employment, he landed a job as the head of the Hungarian Geological Institute.

Bajazid Elmaz Doda (left) and Franz Baron Nopcsa (right), ca. 1931

Bajazid Elmaz Doda (left) and Franz Baron Nopcsa (right), ca. 1931

But Nopcsa’s position in the Geological Institute was short-lived. He moved to Vienna with his long-standing male Albanian lover and secretary Bayazid Doda (also known as Bajazid Elmas Doda) to study fossils. Yet there he ran into financial difficulties and was distracted in his work. To cover his debts, he sold his fossil collection to the Natural History Museum in London. Soon Nopcsa became depressed. Finally, in 1933, he fatally shot first his lover and then himself. In a letter left for the police, he explained that his decision to commit suicide was the result of a nervous breakdown. He also stated:

The reason that I shot my longtime friend and secretary, Mr. Bayazid Elmas Doda, in his sleep without his suspecting at all is that I did not wish to leave him behind sick, in misery and without a penny, because he would have suffered too much.

Nopcsa was one of the first researchers who tried to “put flesh onto bones”, which became his main contribution to paleontology – and hence “paleobiology”. That is, he was fascinated not with the bones but rather with the living animals to whom they had belonged. He wanted to understand the world of the dinosaurs and how they lived in it – how they moved, how they fed, how they mated, and so on. For example, Nopcsa was the first scientist to suggest that these reptiles cared for their young and exhibited complex social behavior. Another of Nopcsa’s hypotheses that was ahead of its time was that birds evolved from ground-dwelling, feathered dinosaurs, an idea that found favor in the 1960s and later gained wide acceptance.  Additionally, Nopcsa’s conclusion that at least some Mesozoic era reptiles were warm-blooded is now shared by much of the scientific community.

The last meal of Compsognathus, illustration by Nopsca (1903)

Nopcsa studied Transylvanian dinosaurs intensively, even though they were smaller than their relatives elsewhere in the world. For example, he unearthed six-meter-long sauropods, a group of dinosaurs that elsewhere commonly grew to 30 meters or more. Nopcsa deduced that the area where the remains were found was an island (now called Haţeg or Hatzeg basin in Romania) during the Mesozoic era. He suggested that “limited resources” found on islands commonly have an effect of “reducing the size of animals” over the generations, producing a localized form of dwarfism. Nopcsa’s theory of insular dwarfism – also known as the island effect – is today widely accepted. Additional pygmy sauropods were recently discovered in northern Germany (analyzed by P. Martin Sander in Nature, 8 June 2006).

As a result of his investigations and publications, Nopcsa is sometimes considered to be the father of modern paleobiology, even though his original term for the field was “paleophysiology.”


The Anthropocene Begins: April 28, 1784

Figure from Watt's 1784 patent for a steam locomotive.

Figures from Watt’s 1784 patent for a steam locomotive.

On this date, James Watt’s patent for a steam locomotive was granted. What is especially noteworthy is that this date therefore can be considered as the beginning of the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch defined by the massive impact of humankind on the planet, according to Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, who coined the term. That impact will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled.

In 2000, in IGBP Newsletter 41, Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology, proposed using the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch. In regard to its start, they said:

To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.


Welcome to the Anthropocene

April 15, 1857 (a Wednesday)

On this date, a 3-kg carbonaceous chondrite fell at Kaba, near Debrecen, Hungary. The arrival of this meteorite was described as follows in the book The Geologist (1859) by Samuel Joseph Mackie (pp. 285-6):

About 10 pm an inhabitant of Kaba, sleeping in the open air, was awakened by a noise, different from that of thunder, as he described it, and perceived in the serene sky a luminous globe, of dazzling brightness, following a parabolic course during four seconds. This phenomenon was observed by several inhabitants of the same place. As one of them was riding out the next morning, his horse was frightened by the sight of a black stone, deeply bedded in the soil of the road, the ground around it being depressed and creviced. When dug out the meteorite weighed about 7 pounds. The finder broke off some fragments, and the remainder, weighing 5-1/4 lbs., was deposited in the Museum of the Reformed College at Debreczin.

Samples of the Kaba meteorite and the Cold Bokkeveld meteorite were examined and found to contain organic substances by Friedrich Wöhler, who inferred a biological origin. Ironically, it was Wöhler who had shown that it was possible to make organic chemicals by inorganic means. However, it was only later appreciated that complex carbon molecules can be manufactured in space by purely chemical processes.

March 30, 1759 (a Friday)

A series of rock formations that Arduino categorized as "primary" and "secondary".

A series of rock formations that Arduino categorized as “primary” and “secondary”.

On this date, the Italian geologist Giovanni Arduino (1714-1795) wrote a letter to Professor A.Vallisneri the younger, in which Arduino proposed a classification of Earth’s surface rocks according to four brackets of successively younger orders: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary. Today, his Primary corresponds to the Precambrian and Paleozoic Era combined, his Secondary is the Mesozoic Era, and his Tertiary and Quaternary combine to form the Cenozoic Era.

March 23, 1769 (a Thursday)

William Smith's "A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland" (1815)

William Smith’s “A Geological Map of England and Wales and Part of Scotland” (1815)

On this date, the English engineer and geologist William Smith was born. Smith was instrumental in extending the science of stratigraphy. His early work was as a miner and an engineer, for a canal-digging company. From this experience he observed the difference in rock layers. He also recognized that the same succession of fossil groups from older to younger rocks could be found in many parts of England, which he called the principle of faunal succession. He traveled the entire country to verify that relationships between the strata and their characteristics were consistent everywhere. Thus Smith created a profile of the entire country of England. His great geologic map of England and Wales (1815) set the standard for modern geologic maps. Many of the colorful names he gave to the strata are still in use today.

March 22, 1785 (a Tuesday)

Adam Sedgwick

On this date, the English geologist and paleontologist Adam Sedgwick was born. He was one of the founders of modern geology. Sedgwick was the first scientist to apply the name Cambrian to the geologic period of time, now dated at 570 to 505 million years ago. Twentieth-century research has uncovered so many excellent fossils in Cambrian sediments, especially the Burgess Shale in Canada, that this geologic period is sometimes referred to as the “Cambrian Explosion.”

Sedgwick attended Trinity College at Cambridge University, where he took holy orders in 1817. In 1818, he became Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge, despite the fact that he had no formal training in geology. His lectures at Cambridge were immensely popular; he was a spellbinding lecturer, and – breaking with the traditions of his time – his lectures were open to women, whom Sedgwick thought could make great contributions to natural history. He kept giving his famous lectures until 1871.

After passing his examinations for the Bachelor of Arts degree in January 1831, Charles Darwin began attending Sedgwick’s geology lectures, which he found fascinating. During the summer of 1831, Darwin was Sedwick’s field assistant in north Wales, and Darwin got a “crash course” in field geology from Sedgwick. This was an experience that proved valuable to Darwin over the next five years, on his round-the-world voyage on H.M.S. Beagle. During this voyage, Darwin sent geological specimens and reports to Sedgwick, who wrote approvingly to Darwin’s family:

He is doing admirably in S. America & has already sent home a Collection above all praise. – It was the best thing in the world for him that he went out on the Voyage of Discovery. . .

However, after reading The Origin of Species, Sedgwick candidly wrote to Darwin on November 24, 1859:

If I did not think you a good tempered & truth loving man I should not tell you that. . . I have read your book with more pain than pleasure. Parts of it I admired greatly; parts I laughed at till my sides were almost sore; other parts I read with absolute sorrow; because I think them utterly false & grievously mischievous– You have deserted– after a start in that tram-road of all solid physical truth– the true method of induction. . .

Sedgwick was opposed to Charles Lyell’s models of slow, gradual geological change and a more or less steady-state Earth. Instead, he followed Cuvier’s idea of multiple “catastrophes” that had destroyed much of Earth’s life. But Sedgwick did not object to evolution, or “development” as such theories were called then, in the broad sense – to the fact that the life on Earth had changed over time. Nor was he a “young-Earth” creationist – he thought that the Earth must be extremely old. Nevertheless, Sedgwick believed in the Divine creation of life over long periods of time, by “a power I cannot imitate or comprehend — but in which I believe, by a legitimate conclusion of sound reason drawn from the laws of harmonies of nature.” His problem was with the amoral and materialistic nature of Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection, which Sedgwick thought was degrading to humanity’s spiritual aspirations. His letter of November 24 went on to state:

This view of nature you have stated admirably; tho’ admitted by all naturalists & denied by no one of common sense. We all admit development as a fact of history; but how came it about? Here, in language, & still more in logic, we are point blank at issue– There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical. A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly. Tis the crown & glory of organic science that it does thro’ final cause, link material to moral. . . You have ignored this link; &, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it. Were it possible (which thank God it is not) to break it, humanity in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it–& sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.

Despite their differences, the two stayed friends until Sedgwick’s death in 1873.

February 20, 1835 (a Friday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, a massive earthquake hit Valdivia, Chile and Charles Darwin was right in the middle of the action. While HMS Beagle tried to make anchorage at Concepcion, Darwin was dropped off at the island of Quiriquina. During his exploration of the island, he discovered areas of land that had risen a few feet due to the earthquake. Darwin was very excited about this find, as it was direct evidence that the Andes mountains, and indeed all of South America, were very slowly rising above the ocean. This confirmed Charles Lyell’s theory that land masses rose in tiny increments over an extremely long period of time. Given this fact, Darwin accepted the idea that the earth must be extremely old. The next day he went by ship to the town of Talcuhano, and from there rode by horse to Concepcion to meet up with HMS Beagle. As the Beagle sailed from Concepcion, Darwin wrote in a letter to his sister Caroline:

We are now on our road from Concepcion. The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February. I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili [sic]. It is no use attempting to describe the ruins – it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld. The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles and lines of bricks, tiles and timbers – it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels builts of sticks and reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down and these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6-10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit. How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses and all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time. The shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood. I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England – A Fuegian Savage – Tropical Vegetation – and the ruins of Concepcion. It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.

February 15, 1861 (a Friday)

Leonard Horner

On this date, in his presidential address during the annual general meeting of the Geological Society of London, Leonard Horner (1785-1864) proposed removing the world’s “creation” date of 4004 B.C. from the English Bible, citing geological evidence of a much older planet.

…It will be useful to look into the history of this date of four thousand and four years, given with so much precision for the creation, not of this our earth only, but of the universe, and to inquire into the authority by which an addition of so much import is made to the sacred text…

…I have thus laid before you the origin of this settled point in Sacred History as taught at this day in our schools, and, from its juxta-position to the text of the Bible, held in veneration by millions, there is every reason to believe, as an undoubted truth. The study of geology has become so general that those who are instructed in its mere elements cannot fail to see the discrepancy between this date and the truths which geology reveals…

…To remove any inaccuracy in notes accompanying the authorized version of our Bible is surely an imperative duty…


February 5, 1770 (a Monday)

Alexandre Brongniart

On this date, the French mineralogist, geologist, and naturalist Alexandre Brongniart was born. He was the first person to arrange the geologic formations of the Tertiary Period (from 66.4 to 1.6 million years ago) in chronological order and describe them. He made the first systematic study of trilobites, an extinct group of arthropods that became important in determining the chronology of Paleozoic strata (from 540 to 245 million years ago). He also helped introduce the principle of geologic dating by the identification of distinctive fossils, called index fossils, found in each stratum and noted that the Paris formations had been produced under alternate freshwater and saltwater conditions. [Notice that the use of index fossils for the relative dating of rocks and fossils was established long before the use of radioisotopes for their absolute dating, contrary to what some "creationists" would have you believe.]

February 3, 1790 (a Wednesday)

Illustration of fossil Iguanodon teeth with a modern iguana jaw from Mantell’s 1825 paper describing Iguanodon.

On this date, the British physician, geologist, and paleontologist Gideon Algernon Mantell was born. He discovered 4 of the 5 genera of dinosaurs known during his time.

Mantell’s life-long hobby was all-consuming. While walking with his wife in 1822, he discovered fossils that he identified as teeth. When he saw the connection with teeth of the present lizard, the iguana, in 1825, he named the animal the Iguanadon (“fossil teeth”). Subsequently, he made additional finds of fossil bones of other large animals which he described accurately: the Hylaeosaurus, Pelorosaurus, and Regnosaurus. His contemporary, paleontologist Sir Richard Owen, coined the word dinosaur (“terrible lizards”). Mantell’s books include Medals of Creation (1844).

January 14, 1890 (a Tuesday)

Arthur Holmes

On this date, Arthur Holmes, one of the foremost geologists of the twentieth century, was born in England. He developed a method of determining the age of the Earth based on the radioactive decay of uranium in igneous rocks (which invalidated Lord Kelvin’s hypothesis that the Earth’s age can be established on the basis of the planet’s cooling from a initial molten state). Holmes’ method proved to be remarkably accurate and laid the foundation of isotope geology. This was the first quantitative time scale for geology based on measuring the radioactive constituents of rocks.

Arthur Holmes


  • Cherry Lewis, The Dating Game: One Man’s Search for the Age of the Earth (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

January 10, 1638

Nicolaus Steno

Nicolaus Steno

On this date, the Danish geologist and anatomist Nicolaus Steno (also known as Niels Steensen, or Stensen) was born. He first made unprecedented discoveries in anatomy, then established some of the most important principles of modern geology.

During medical studies in Amsterdam, Steno discovered “Stensen’s duct”, which provides saliva from the parotid gland to the mouth. He was Danish royal anatomist for two years.

Interested by the characteristics and origins of minerals, rocks, and fossils, he published in Prodromus (1669) the Law of Superposition (if a series of sedimentary rocks has not been overturned, upper layers are younger and lower layers are older) and the Law of Original Horizontality (although strata may be found dipping steeply, they were initially deposited nearly horizontal).

January 4, 1837 (a Wednesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, Charles Darwin gave his first talk before the Royal Geological Society in London. All the experts in geology were there and this was his big opportunity to prove himself to his peers. The topic of Darwin’s paper was the gradual rising of South America over eons of time. He concluded that as land masses rise upward, the nearby ocean floor subsides, and that the animals on the rising continent somehow or another adapt to these very slow changes (at this time Darwin had no idea how this happened). This theory represented a shift away from Lyell’s theory which stated that animals cannot adapt, but rather die out and are replaced with new species. This was one of the earliest signs that Darwin was beginning to develop his own theories, going beyond his mentors. His talk was received very well by nearly all the geologists there.