Uniformitarianism (science)

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In the philosophy of naturalism, uniformitarianism assumes that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now, have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe. It is frequently summarized as "the present is the key to the past," because it holds that all things continue as they were from the beginning of the world.

Uniformitarianism was formulated by Scottish naturalists in the late 18th century, starting with the work of the geologist James Hutton, which was refined by John Playfair and popularised by Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology in 1830.[1] The term uniformitarianism was coined by William Whewell, who also coined the term catastrophism for the idea that the Earth was shaped by a series of sudden, short-lived, violent events.[2] It is often confused with Gradualism, which was just a part of Lyell's full meaning of the term (see below).



18th century

The earlier conceptions likely had little influence on 18th century European geological explanations for the formation of the Earth. Abraham Gottlob Werner proposed Neptunism where strata were deposits from shrinking seas precipitated onto primordial rocks such as granite. An opposing idea was set out in 1785 by James Hutton, who proposed a self-maintaining infinite cycle.[3]

Hence we are led to conclude, that the greater part of our land, if not the whole had been produced by operations natural to this globe; but that in order to make this land a permanent body, resisting the operations of the waters, two things had been required;

Hutton then sought evidence to support his idea that there must have been repeated cycles, each involving deposition on the seabed, uplift with tilting and erosion then undersea again for further layers to be deposited. At Glen Tilt in the Cairngorm mountains he found granite penetrating metamorphic schists, in a way which indicated to him that the presumed primordial rock had been molten after the strata had formed.[5][6] He had read about angular unconformities as interpreted by Neptunists, and found an unconformity at Jedburgh where layers of greywacke in the lower layers of the cliff face have been tilted almost vertically before being eroded to form a level plane, under horizontal layers of Old Red Sandstone.[7] In the Spring of 1788 he took a boat trip along the Berwickshire coast with John Playfair and the geologist Sir James Hall, and found a dramatic unconformity showing the same sequence at Siccar Point.[8] Playfair later recalled that "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time",[9] and Hutton concluded a 1788 paper he presented at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, later rewritten as a book, with the phrase "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end."[10]

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