The Regency Rocks!
Or, The Battle of Neptune and Vulcan
for Parentage of the Earth’s Basaltic Offspring.
Commencing with an Informative Overview of the Contending Parties (Presented in the Clever Guise of Fictional Correspondence), Followed by a Walk Through Time with the Mainly Caledonian Regency Era Geologists,
and with a Descriptive—Yet We Hope Simplified—Discussion of
Their Scholarly Conflict and Its Eventual Resolution.
As I often have seen you walking the hills or pausing to select a stone from the shore, I am eager to relate the following news of a fractious debate amongst the natural historians of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in which I think you will have some interest. It is no less than a clash of titans, for each side takes the name of the antique gods.
But not so surely does this theory reign amongst all! We hear also that Dr. James Hutton, a Scottish gentleman, has put forth quite a different view of the Earth, and one much more violent. Dr. Hutton posited a Dynamic earth; in short, he claims the earth is formed and re-formed perpetually by observable forces in a long history of repeated cycles of creation, and destruction driven, he writes, by a hot and roiling underworld engine of heat.
Not some years ago, a Dr. Werner of Frieberg deposited upon our shores a theory that the Earth was once covered entirely by an water--in fact, he states, the Earth may have been water through and through. All the rocks of the earth formed from the core outward, when dissolved material in the ocean rained gently down to accumulate on the ocean floor in serenity. Dr. Werner even teaches there were no volcanoes in the primeval ages of the world. He and his followers are called 'neptunists' after the great god of the sea for their adherence to this sea-born genesis of all rocks. They rely on two key observations: (1) they commonly observe limestones and sandstones layered on top of granites, and (2) both limestones (a crystalline rock) and sandstones often contain a good share of decidedly aquatic-looking coral and shell fossils. Dr. Werner's books and lectures inform all the best minds on the continent as well as many in Scotland and England.
Among his more shocking ideas are that the Earth may be hundreds of thousands of years old! He has written, "There is no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end." His theory was in part sparked by field observations of upended, vertical rock strata with flat rock layers on top, such as at Siccar Point. Alas for him, we hear his 1788 tome, “Theory of the Earth,” is dreadful to attempt; yet he still manages to persuade some among our most eminent natural historians in Edinburgh –who are now called ‘vulcanists’ after the dour foundry-master of Olympus (or sometimes ‘plutonists’ after his more fiery brother).
They chiefly now argue about basalt. Do you know it? It is a very hard rock, usually dark, always crystalline. If you have been to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, you have seen the six-sided basaltic columns there. Basalt’s origin may be a key proof of either side’s point.
Dr. Hutton’s chief champion is Mr. John Playfair, a founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and author of “Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth” (1802), which is an explication of Dr. Hutton’s text. Mr Playfair declares a volcanic origin for basalt and goes so far as to declare it the solidification of a Stygian hot elemental paste he calls ‘magma’ in a process of ‘igneous origin,’ an entirely new term. His proof? The observation of suspended bubbles, nodules, entrained fragments – that is, captured pieces within the crystalline rock that looked like they had been broken off from the surrounding rock - and the utter absence of fossils.
The Reverend Dr. William Richardson, also a fellow of the Society, has a different view of basalt - that it, too, like every other rock on Earth, once precipitated out of the ocean. He has discovered in Antrim, he says, a ‘fossiliferous’ basalt (can he not say simply ‘it has fossils’?), which links it to other water-deposited, or sedimentary, rocks, and which greatly supports the neptunist theory. After all, here is a basalt bearing fossils, something clearly impossible if its origins were igneous.
I have it on authority that the Reverend Dr. Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University - an ardent neptunist - keeps Dr. Hutton’s rock specimens locked away at the university’s museum. Could it be because these specimens would prove vulcanist ideas? Accordingly, the Society revises its charter this year such that specimens collected by fellows are now to be kept with the Society, but Dr. Hutton’s collections remain still with the museum. Indeed, one hears that Dr. Jameson plans to form even another group to be called the Wernerian Natural History Society.
Who shall prevail? Regardless, I do laud these natural historians bent on finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” I trust we shall all be the wiser for it in the end.
Yours &c. …
By the Regency period, Scotland had already been well-established as a center of learning, an “Athens of the North,” with the University of Edinburgh cultivating its second generation of Enlightenment thinkers. Neptunism reigned as the prevailing theory regarding the natural world at the end of the 18th century—and it would remain so throughout the Regency—but as the 19th century dawned, scholars were beginning to question its tenets. Hutton published his Vulcanist “Theory of the Earth” only a year after Werner’s 1787 Neptunian treatise; but Hutton died in 1799 leaving Werner to churn out dozens of Neptunian disciples for another 18 years before his own death. The French Revolution caused a turn to conservatism in England that lasted for much of the Regency and critiques of Hutton’s revolutionary theory may have been part of the backlash. In addition, the habit of young gentlemen scholars to travel, which had brought many new ideas into England and Scotland, was curtailed by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, perhaps fossilizing certain older notions into place.
Werner’s former pupil, Robert Jameson, proved himself to be an exceptionally devoted Neptunist. In 1804, the 30-year old Jameson became Regius Professor and Keeper of the Natural History Museum at the University of Edinburgh. As the only teacher of geology at the famed institution, which was virtually the only school where the new discipline was taught, he had a uniquely influential position. From this stage, he criticized Hutton’s system for decades. Jameson kept such poor care of Hutton’s bequeathed rock specimens at the museum that by the mid-1830s most of the collection had been dispersed or thrown away. Jameson’s power alarmed John Playfair, and he feared his good friend Hutton’s elegant unifying theory would not survive.
Yet, under this Neptunian shadow, a convincing wealth of evidence supporting Vulcanism was growing at home and abroad. After an 1803 trip to the basalts of Auvergne, an acclaimed French natural historian and Werner’s former pupil allowed that at least some basalts might have igneous origin. Around this time, Sir James Hall began a series of experiments that would eventually prove some complicated Vulcanist points about rock formation. (Fittingly, the earliest of the experiments were done in a foundry.) Field evidence continued to accumulate, such as the observation of granitic rocks cutting through and lying on top of marble in Italy – a geological impossibility according Neptunism. The end of the wars in 1815 allowed Playfair travel to Europe to view geological sites in Italy, France, and Switzerland ; he intended to synthesize all this new information into a revised Illustrations. Richardson’s fossiliferous basalt was found not to be basalt at all, but a sedimentary mudstone that had been baked into hardness by later volcanic activity. By 1823, a tactful naturalist would write about basalt, “That of Germany is believed by the geologists of that country to be of neptunian origin; that of France is now universally acknowledged to be volcanic.”
In 1824, Hutton's friend, Sir James Hall, would invite a young pupil, Charles Lyell, to see Siccar Point with him. This young Scotsman, who was born the year Hutton died, would go on to interpret Hutton’s work into a more readable and convincing book, Principles of Geology (1833), effectively sinking Neptunism as a guiding paradigm. The battle, waged throughout the Regency in scholarly papers and experiments, was at last settled. Today, the scientific community recognizes Hutton as the “Father of Geology” and understands that the formation of rock in the sea was but a subset of Hutton’s larger “rock cycle.”
Want to hear a Scottish professor talking about Hutton’s great leap of understanding at Siccar Point? Trust me, you do: