Siccar PointSiccar Point. It’s a name to warm the heart of any geologist. This location in Scotland overlooking the North Sea is where James Hutton, oft-cited as the ‘father of geology’ (at least to the Anglophone world), demonstrated the significance of “deep time” to his 18th century Enlightenment colleagues. In the photograph one can see layers (“beds”) of rock which are nearly vertical – like books stacked on a shelf. Above these beds are a distinctly different set of beds which are reddish in color and are nearly horizontal – like a book placed flat atop stacked books in an already full bookshelf. Here’s the sequence of events by which Hutton reasoned from rocks to time:

Sediment was deposited on an ancient ocean floor as layers of sand and mud. These later solidified into rock (sandstone and shale) which subsequently was folded so that the beds are now vertical. This folding resulted in these rocks being raised above sea level and eroded for an unknown period of time. Later the overlying (now red) beds were deposited in stream channels and eventually they too hardened into solid rock. Then this whole pile of strata was tilted yet again as indicated by the fact that the red beds are not strictly horizontal but slightly tilted. This is a minimum number of events which occurred; others could be added to a more detailed list. Hutton noted that in the entire history of humankind in Scotland hardly any change at all had occurred to this cliff-side exposure. Thus the full extent of human history is minuscule in length compared with the events recorded in the rocks. Hutton claimed that he saw “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end” – although this was prompted more by his Deistic philosophy than any scientific explanation of the rocks themselves. Nevertheless, evidence such as this led many to realize that they might be misinterpreting the words of Genesis 1 … a conclusion that would not have surprised many of the early Church Fathers, including Origen, Basil the Great, and Augustine.

Siccar Point

Photos by Marc Kjerland and Magnus Hagdorn via Flickr

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