If you are a fan of the ‘science-situation-comedy’ The Big Bang Theory, you will recognise the meme
‘Geology is a not a real science’
One of the main protagonists of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper, is a gifted physicist who claims that geology is not a science:
However, as a connoisseur of the history of science, I would argue that the two greatest contributions to science are not from a physicist but from a biologist and a geologist. These contributions are Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and James Hutton’s Unconformity. Darwin was a biologist and Hutton was a Scottish Geologist. Both not only revolutionised science but also created a fundamental philosophical revolution that shook society to its core. Both ideas are intrinsically linked. Before Darwin and Hutton, people believed that everything we saw in the world was fixed and that the planet Earth had always looked the same, constant without change. People believed the same animals, plants, rivers, valleys and mountains had always been there. People believed continents were static, with the same shapes and fixed in the same position. Before Darwin and Hutton, most people believed that God created the world in seven days.
Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, including concepts which predated Darwin's theories. English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley coined the term Darwinism in April 1860. Darwinism argues that animals and plants had evolved through genetic transmutation and a process of natural selection. Natural selection is where the genetic transmutations best suited to the environment survived, while other genetic variation less able to adapt to the environment died out. Through this process of natural selection, life has evolved from a single-celled ‘amoeba’, through to the rich and diverse eco-systems we see today. Ultimately natural selection has culminated in the preeminent species today, us, Homo Sapiens. Darwinism was not just a scientific revolution, but also a philosophical revolution. The idea that the world is not fixed and that it is constantly evolving verged on being heretical against the teachings of the Christian Church. Ultimately the whole-scale acceptance that planet Earth is in a constant state of flux and constantly changes led to the demise of creationism and wrested power and influence from the church, giving scientists an important role in society.
Darwinism is important, but I would argue that a Scottish Geologist, James Hutton got there first in 1787, almost one hundred years before Darwin. Hutton observed rock formations and places where different types of rock juxtapose at different angles. Such a juxtaposition is a geological unconformity, marking a break in time between two periods in the Earths history. On a trip to the Isle of Arran, Hutton found his first example where vertical pre-Cambrian rocks (that were laid down before life evolved on earth) were overlain by more recent carboniferous rocks (hundreds of millions of years later). Later in 1787 Hutton noted what is now known as Hutton's unconformity near Jedburgh, Scotland, where layers sedimentary rocks are juxtaposed at different angles. In 1788, Hutton set off with John Payfair and found examples of unconformities and discovered perhaps the most famous example of the Hutton Unconformity at Siccar Point, where sections of vertical beds are overlain by horizontal rock beds. The blog photo shows Siccar point, and you can clearly see upright rock beds that were originally laid flat underwater. These rocks have been uplifted, rotated, eroded and then overlain by new horizontal sediments now turned to rock.
Playfair wrote of his experience:
We felt necessarily carried back to a time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited, in the shape of sand or mud, from the waters of the supercontinent ocean... The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far back into the abyss of time; and whilst we listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became sensible how much further reason may sometimes go than imagination may venture to follow.
Hutton realised that the rocks had been laid down as sediments at different times in different environments, and then eroded, thrust upwards, deformed, rotated and then overlain by new sediments in newly created environments. For example, rocks lain down at the bottom of an ocean could be thrust up to high altitude and then deformed and moulded to form a mountain chain.
Hutton developed the theory that geological features were not static but underwent a perpetual transformation over long periods of time. He argued that the earth could not be young and advanced the idea that its remote history can be inferred from evidence in present-day rocks. He was thus an early proponent of what came later to be called uniformitarianism, the science which explains features of the Earth's crust by means of natural processes over the long geologic time scale.
I would like to think that Hutton’s theory of a dynamic changing Earth had an influence on Darwin’s idea that life on Earth had undergone a similar transformation. There would be no doubt that Darwin, as a well-read scientist, would have been aware of Hutton’s ideas. Moreover, Geology has played an important part in Darwin’s theories, as much about what we know about the evolution of life on earth comes from the fossil and rock record studied by Geologists. Indeed during the voyages of the Beagle, Darwin collected a considerable number of fossils and so in a sense, Darwin was also a Geologist.
And so to the title of my Blog: Why you should hire a geologist:
Geologists understand that the world is in constant change and evolving in time. The mark of a good business leader is an understanding that the world is constantly changing, and that you must continually adapt to survive.
Geologists appreciate that the lessons of past history teach us about the future. Study of rocks tells us about how the planet will change in response to climate change. How many business leaders do you know that fail to learn the lessons from the past and go on to make the same mistakes in the future? Geologists are like elephants, they have long memories and are practised in learning lessons from the past to shape the future.
Geologists understand the fragility of life on earth. Through the study of rocks, a geologist knows that catastrophic events have led to mass extinctions. Being the preeminent species on the planet today is no guarantee of a secure future. Geologists understand the importance of social and environmental responsibility in business to create a sustainable meaningful future for a business.
Geologists have an appreciation of time. Very few people can truly understand time, and how old the earth is. Geological time is mind-bendingly difficult to comprehend. The oldest known rocks on Earth are over four billion years old. A Geologist understands this concept of time. Many business leaders are fixated on short term thinking. Geologists are more tuned into long terms strategic thinking because they understand that what we see today will be different tomorrow.
Geologists are skilled at integrating a diverse array of information to make a meaningful interpretation. Geology is difficult, and requires attention to detail, being able to observe nuanced changes in the rock record to be able to interpret the history of the Earth. Business requires people who are able to integrate disparate and subtle information to make good quality decisions. Geologists are well practised in the art of data integration and interpretation.
Geologists have an incredible ability to think in 4 dimensions. To interpret the history of the Earth you have to be able to think in three dimensions and understand how things change spatially in time. Multi-dimensional thinking is critical for business success, being able to look from different perspectives and test different ideas is important in business.
Geologists have been creative thinkers since 1787. Business needs creativity and imagination. Geologists have been practising creative thinking for hundreds of years.
Consider this job advertisement:
Wanted: A creative innovative thinker, able to bring together a wide variety of information and formulate coherent strategies for the future. Must be able to learn lessons from in the past to improve business performance in the future. Must be able to create a long-term sustainable vision for the future. Able to articulate ideas and promote new thinking in the business.
Who are you going to call, well obviously a Geologist!