Geology has technically been a thing since the first caveman thought, upon picking up a rock, “Hey, this rock looks different from that one over there. I wonder why that is?” But it wasn’t until the 17th Century CE that scientists actually started using actual science to find some answers.
Geology & the Biblical Flood
In the 17th Century, most people in the “Christian world” still believed that the bible was an actual, factual historical document. From this, they extrapolated that the big rainstorm that got Russell Crowe all worked up had actually happened, and set out to prove it through science.
In searching for evidence to support this, scientists and researchers learned a good deal about the composition of the Earth and, perhaps more importantly, discovered fossils, and lots of ‘em. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the real information gleaned in this process was often significantly manipulated to support the idea of the Great Flood (as well as other Biblical nonsense). A New Theory of the Earth, written by William Whiston and first published in 1696, used Christian “reasoning” to “prove” that the Great Flood had not only happened, but that it was also solely responsible for creating the rock strata of the Earth’s crust.
Whiston’s book and further developments lead to numerous heated debates between religion and science over the true origin of the Earth. The overall upside was a growth in interest in the makeup of our planet, particularly the minerals and other components found in its crust.
Minerals, Mining & More
As the 18th Century progressed, mining became increasingly important to the economies of many European countries. The importance of accurate knowledge about mineral ores and their distribution throughout the world increased accordingly. Scientists began to systematically study the earth’s composition, compiling detailed records on soil, rocks, and, most importantly, precious and semiprecious metals.
In 1774, the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner published his book, On the External Characteristics of Minerals. In it, Werner presented a detailed system by which specific minerals could be identified through external characteristics. With a more efficient method of identifying land where valuable metals and minerals could be found, mining became even more profitable. This economic potential made geology a popular area of study, which, in turn, led to a wide range of further discoveries.
Religion vs. Facts
Histoire Naturelle, published in 1749 by French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, challenged the then-popular biblical accounts of the history of Earth supported by Whiston and other theologically-minded scientific theorists. After extensive experimentation, Leclerc estimated that the Earth was at least 75,000 years old, not the 4,000-5,000 years the bible suggests. Immanuel Kant’s Universal Natural History and Theory of Heaven, published in 1755, similarly described the earth’s history without any religious leanings.
The works of Leclerc, Kant, and others drew into serious question, for the first time, the true origins of the Earth itself. With biblical and religious influences taken out of the equation, geology turned a corner into legitimate scientific study.
By the 1770s, two very different geological theories about the formation of Earth’s rock layers gained popularity. The first, championed by Werner, hypothesized that the earth’s layers were deposits from a massive ocean that had once covered the whole planet (i.e. the biblical flood). For whatever reason, supporters of this theory were called Neptunists. In contrast, Scottish naturalist James Hutton’s theory argued that Earth’s layers were formed by the slow, steady solidification of a molten mass—a process that made our planet immeasurably old, far beyond the chronological timeframe suggested by the bible. Supporters of Hutton’s theory, known as Plutonists, believed that Earth’s continual volcanic processes were the main cause of its rock layers.