Revising the Revisions: Restoring James Hutton's Standing in Geology

A New GSA Memoir by A.M. Celâl Şengör

Boulder, Colo., USA: Noted Turkish geologist, and member of the American Philosophical Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Dr. A.M. Celâl Şengör has taken on the Herculean task of disputing revisionist arguments to restore James Hutton's standing as the father of modern geology. Drawing from a wealth of knowledge, Dr. Şengör has painstakingly researched, richly referenced, and filled this memoir with enlightening anecdotes and observations.

Dr. Şengör will now introduce you to GSA Memoir 216: Revising the Revisions: James Hutton's Reputation among Geologists in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.

A.M. Celâl Şengör, İTÜ Maden Fakültesi, Jeoloji Bölümü ve Avrasya Yerbilimleri Enstitüsü, Ayazağa 34469, Istanbul, Turkey;

In Revising the Revisions: James Hutton's Reputation among Geologists in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, I tackle the problem resulting from a recent trend among some historians of geology of considering the Scottish polymath James Hutton's (1726–1797) Theory of the Earth (Hutton, 1785, 1788, 1795, 1899) the last of the "theories of the earth" genre of publications that had begun developing in the seventeenth century and to regard it as something behind the times already in the late eighteenth century and which was subsequently remembered only because some later geologists, particularly Hutton's countryman Sir Archibald Geikie (1835–1924), found it convenient to represent it as a precursor of the prevailing opinions of the day. The problem stems from the observation that the available documentation, published and unpublished, from the late eighteenth century to the date of publication of Geikie's widely read book Founders of Geology in 1897, shows that Hutton's theory was considered as something completely new by his contemporaries, very different from anything that preceded it, whether they agreed with him or not, and that it was widely discussed both in his own country and abroad—from St. Petersburg through Europe to New York. By the end of the third decade in the nineteenth century, many very respectable geologists began seeing in him "the father of modern geology" even before Sir Archibald was born. To present some of these documents, I have reviewed in Memoir 216 a small part of the available literature of geology from 1785 to 1897 in the Austrian, British, and Russian Empires, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the United States, and I have selected passages discussing Hutton's ideas, his legacy, and his relevance to the current problems in geology at the times the documents I cite were written. Despite the small selection, the book required citing more than 600 references and reading or skimming many more.

This review of the literature clearly shows that the revisionists' ideas are not correct. So, the question becomes why some historians of geology wrote things that belittle Hutton's importance. The answer to this "why" is not easy to produce and even harder to demonstrate. Among the most important of the answers to this question, I discuss especially four.

1. The revisionist historians' misconception of what science, and, specifically, geology, is about. They seem to consider observations and methods of observation to be the main core of geology, rather than its theories; i.e., they think knowledge rather than understanding is the core of science.

2. Historians of geology, particularly those with a social science background, seem not adequately informed about the literature of geology for the periods they write about.

3. One reason for the inadequate usage of the literature of geology is clearly the slackening standards of peer review, especially in private presses, including all the university presses.

4. Finally in at least one case, the religious feelings of one author clearly caused him to favor his co-religionists against Hutton, against all credible evidence.

Memoir 216 was conceived as an antidote to some of what I think are unfounded claims about James Hutton's impact on geology and the nature of geology itself.

Individual copies of the volume may be purchased through The Geological Society of America online store, , or by contacting GSA Sales and Service,

Book editors of earth science journals/publications may request a review copy by contacting April Leo,

Revising the Revisions: James Hutton's Reputation among Geologists in the Late Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
by A.M. Celâl Şengör
Geological Society of America Memoir 216
MWR216, 150 p., plus indices, $70.00; GSA member price $49.00
ISBN 978-0-8137-1216-1
View the table of contents:

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For Immediate Release
7 January 2021
GSA Release No. 21-02

April Leo

MWR 216 cover