Earth, Theories of the

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EARTH, THEORIES OF THE. Hundreds of works in search of "the theory of the Earth" were published for the general reader during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the major countries and languages of Europe. Various writers attempted to construct an integrated and comprehensive vision of Earth's past (and often of its future), bringing to bear evidence drawn from diverse intellectual fields. Many were notable for other accomplishments as well, including René Descartes (15961650), Robert Hooke (16351702), Edmond Halley (c. 16561743), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (16461716), Carl Linnaeus (17071778), Jean-Baptiste de Monet de Lamarck (17441829), and Georges Louis Leclerc Buffon (17071788). Histories of science sometimes portray early modern theories of the Earth as a sort of speculative prelude to geology. But as historian Jacques Roger argued in a classic analysis, such theories constituted a distinct genre, intelligible on its own terms. Notoriously evident incompatibilities among the multitudes of theories were symptomatic not so much of a failure to regulate scientific thinking as of the vitality of an ongoing dialogue aimed generally at integrating the resources widely considered most authoritative for a reliable account of the Earth. One outcome of this exchange was a significant contribution toward establishing historical ways of thinking about nature.


Theories of the Earth draw this name from the ambitious and erudite work of the English scholar Thomas Burnet (c. 16351715). Published first in 1681 as Telluris Theoria Sacra, and subsequently in English and German as well as revised Latin editions, it gave an account of Earth's past, present, and future in terms of cosmic history interpreted through a framework of apocalyptic millennialism, fused with a version of Cartesian natural philosophy. Burnet sought to reconcile the physical mechanisms (cosmogony and crustal collapse) of Descartes's Principia Philosophiae (1644) with biblical chronology and prophecy of the future conflagration of the world and the millennium, aided by corroborating evidence from classical texts. Although he adapted the phrase "theory of the Earth" from Descartes, Burnet's work effectively established the interdisciplinary character of the tradition and provided a convenient and popular label for debate about the Earth. The large number of writers over the next century who singled him out (often referring to him as "the Theorist") as a foil for airing their own views confirms the importance of the Burnet controversy.

Burnet came under attack for dismissing the first chapter of Genesis, which depicted a primitive earth complete with mountains and oceans. Against the hexameral commentary tradition, Burnet held that Earth's present topographic features were not original, but rather derived from Noah's Flood. Other critics faulted Burnet's scheme as incompatible with natural philosophy or practical experience. In his Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth (1695), John Woodward (16651728) criticized Burnet on the basis of fossil evidence. William Whiston (16671752), in New Theory of the Earth (1696), used Newtonian cosmology to refute certain Cartesian aspects of Burnet's theory. Theories such as The Anatomy of the Earth (1694) by Thomas Robinson (d. 1719) took both Burnet and Woodward to task on the basis of contemporary mining experience. John Keill (16711721) refuted Burnet and Whiston using Newtonian mathematics. Other writers invoked evidence from chemistry and medicine.

Along with many of his contemporaries, Burnet thought that a sound theory of the Earth must incorporate ancient learning recovered through scholarship. Dispute over the testimony of antiquity was practically guaranteed by apparently conflicting statements about the Earth in passages related to chronology, physical geography, natural philosophy, and even mythology. Theorists as diverse as Burnet and Whiston, and as late as John Whitehurst (17131788) in his An Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1778), regarded pronouncements in antique texts as obscure (although authoritative) remnants of an ancient code of wisdomprisca sapientia that new theories might successfully decipher. In an example of prevalent contention over textual interpretation, the Newtonian Keill launched a devastating critique of Burnet's Theory at the height of the "Battle of the Books" controversy in England in the late seventeenth century, and was hailed as a champion of the ancients for quelling the presumption of moderns like Burnet.

The tenacity of Burnet's Theory as a target for dispute illustrates important features of the evolving theory of the Earth enterprise. Most parties to the controversy were in general agreement about Burnet's trust in "Reason, Scripture, and Antiquity." Many considered it essential to deploy one or another of the new natural philosophies, whether of the mechanical or chemical type. They took part in a learned culture steeped in biblical idiom, convinced of the centrality of a directional narrative to make sense of our Earth. Apocalyptic interests were common, although not universal. Similarly, the processes of the Creation and Flood, and their roles in explaining the present-day world, were frequently discussed, but with widely varying interpretation and emphasis. The critical attacks and responses were part of a public spectacle reflecting disparate motivations and standards of evidence.


During the controversies over Burnet, writers set contributions toward the theory of the Earth within a variety of analytical traditions, including works by Descartes, Athanasius Kircher (c. 16011680), Nicolaus Steno (16381686), and others going back much further. In his Mémoire sur la théorie de la terre (1729), the Swiss Huguenot Louis Bourguet (16781742) enlarged the pedigree of theories of the Earth, sketching the tradition's origins by classifying theories into three major conceptual models: Platonic, Aristotelian, and Mosaic.

Platonic theories of the Earth posited a collapse of the world's ancient surface, generating catastrophic earthquakes and floods as embodied in the Atlantis myth. Ignoring Leonardo da Vinci (whose theory of crustal collapse remained unknown) and Descartes (whose account of crustal collapse inspired Burnet), Bourguet pointed to the Renaissance Neoplatonist Francesco Patrizi da Cherso (15291597) as the founder of Platonic theories. Indeed, Patrizi was quoted by other theorists in the Burnet controversy, such as Bernardino Ramazzini (16331714) and Robert St. Clair (fl. 1697).

Aristotelian theories of the Earth emphasized the displacement of land and sea. Early modern theorists frequently drew upon Aristotle's Meteorology as a main point of departure. According to Bourguet, Aristotelian theories proposed that the ocean gradually displaces the land. This theory readily explains why one finds seashells far from their element. Since at least the fourteenth century, many Scholastics had explained the transposition of land and sea by shifts in the Earth's center of gravity. However, Bourguet attributed the founding of Aristotelian theories of the Earth to the Discours admirables (1580) of Bernard Palissy (c. 1510c. 1589). Bourguet reported that in his own time, Aristotelian theories were taken up by Leibniz, Antonio Vallisnieri (16611730), and various French savants. One might note that because Aristotelian theories depict cyclic revolutions of an enduring terrestrial surface, they should not be described as cosmogonic. Rather, they were often perceived as tending toward eternalism, as in the case of the clandestinely circulated Telliamed of Benoît de Maillet (16561738). The Aristotelian sort of theory, Bourguet wrote, could be joined to the Platonic by combining gradual marine deposition with crustal collapsea move that added a directional component to Earth history and allowed a more compressed timescale. Bourguet's examples included Steno, Whiston, Halley, and Henri Gautier (16601737).

Mosaic theories of the Earth envisioned a radical dissolution of the antediluvian world. Such a theory explains the watery Deluge as the unmaking of the world in a return to Chaos, as in the first days of Creation. Bourguet cited Woodward as an exemplar. Ancient authorities for such "dissolutions of the world" include Seneca's Natural Questions, one of the most-cited meteorological works in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and patristic expositors of Genesis such as Basil and Augustine. In these Stoic and hexameral traditions the world's dissolution back into the primordial Chaos might be accomplished through any combination of elemental transformations: loss of earthy cohesion, fiery conflagration, rarefaction into air, or condensation into a watery deluge. This vision could link Creation and Deluge with the eschatological end of the world.

Bourguet's simple three-fold taxonomy, which was reproduced almost unchanged by his countryman Élie Bertrand (17121790) in Mémoires sur la structure intérieure de la terre (1752), illustrates how theories of the Earth were not regarded as a conceptually homogenous genre. In addition to Bourguet's three types, Baron Georges Cuvier (17691832) cited Johannes Kepler (15711630) as a founder of animistic theories of the Earth. Additional categories include chemical theories of the Earth from Jean Baptiste van Helmont (15791644), Johann Joachim Becher (16351682), and Georg Ernst Stahl (16601734), and magnetic theories of the Earth such as that of Halley.


The character and reputation of theories of the Earth passed into a new phase during the second half of the eighteenth century. To many observers the pivotal figure was Buffon, who opened the first volume (1749) of his magisterial Histoire naturelle with a theory of the Earth intended to frame the grandiose project of describing and explaining all living things, including mankind. In Buffon's work, the somewhat precarious balance between providential and mechanistic conceptions of the world was shifted to the distinct advantage of a system of matter and motion. Scandalized Sorbonne theologians quickly condemned Buffon's scheme, but his formal retractions were rightly understood as pro forma, and indeed he enjoyed something close to intellectual immunity as superintendent of the royal collections and garden. Buffon's discussion criticized many earlier theories as inadequately founded on experience, yet his invocation of a cometary collision with the Sun to account for Earth's origins was, unsurprisingly, seen by many as highly hypothetical. His 1749 theory, however, involved little effort to construct a directional account of Earth's history, dwelling instead on the ways that present-day ("actual") processes are capable of explaining the order discernible in the Earth's visible features. Three decades later, Buffon placed in one of Histoire naturelle 's supplementary volumes a second and far more historical-minded theory of the Earth (Époques de la nature, 1778), in which he teased out the implications of an Earth born out of cooling solar material and changing through an irreversible series of stages. Both of Buffon's theories enjoyed wide readership, not least because of his popularity as a literary artist. While Buffon, like Burnet before him, was the object of much criticism, his influence tended to favor empirical consideration of the Earth as a temporal production of natural processes.

In the year Buffon's Époques appeared, the Genevese naturalist Jean André Deluc (17271817), in Lettres physiques et morales, suggested using the word géologie to distinguish efforts to establish an empirically grounded science of the Earth from the necessarily more conjectural attempts to ascertain its origin. He did not think this meant abandoning the objective of attaining a true theory of the Earth, but it implied more stringently empirical criteria for judging success in the effort. Deluc's compatriot, the mountain traveler Horace Bénédict de Saussure (17401799), seconded this view in the "Agenda" published in his Voyages dans les Alpes (17791796), a widely respected summation of the kinds of observations needed to achieve an enduring theory of the Earth. Contemporary theories of the Earth written in much the same spirit include those of Peter Simon Pallas (17411811), Abraham Gottlob Werner (17491817), Robert Jameson (17741854), Richard Kirwan (c. 17331812), Lamarck, and Cuvier.

An ultimately influential (but in certain ways anomalous) theory of the Earth was produced near the end of the eighteenth century by the Scottish philosopher James Hutton (17261797). During the nineteenth century, major parts of this theory's ingenious geological elements were detached from the deistic and teleological framework in which they were embedded, and Hutton became enshrined as a founder of British geology. Hutton's system, which appeared in Edinburgh as an abstract in 1785, an essay in 1788, and a much-enlarged two-volume treatise in 1795, examined terrestrial processes by which continental surfaces are cyclically renovated through erosion, sedimentary consolidation, and elevation. Hutton viewed the tenability of this life-sustaining set of processes in equilibrium as a testsuccessful, in his estimationof the divine ordination of a benevolent physical order. That he was able to offer crucial field evidence in favor of key aspects of the scheme lent support to his vision of cyclic repetitions of geological processes operating over unimaginably long periods.

Hutton's advocacy of an enormously expanded timescale (he commented that from an empirical viewpoint the Earth showed "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end") is often heralded as the launching of nineteenth-century theories of geology, leading in turn to evolutionary concepts. But Hutton and his contemporaries may also be understood as representing a last stand of the more inclusive inquiry of theories of the Earth. Hutton defined the theory of the Earth as research focused on how nature perpetuates a habitable world, thus ruling out Burnet- or Buffon-style cosmogenesis. Holding Hutton harmless, but with a baleful eye on Buffon, the geologist Charles Lyell (17971875) stipulated polemically that theories of the Earth were defined by their essentially cosmogonical character. In a different but equally misleading characterization, Cuvier stated that all theorists prior to himself had devoted themselves to explaining the totality of Earth history by reference to just two events, the Creation and Flood. Contradictory delineations such as these make clear that theories of the Earth were marked by conceptual disunity, were contested on many levels, and were a broader tradition than many of the participants wished to acknowledge. There was no abrupt cessation of the tradition, but during the generations of Cuvier and Lyell use of the phrase gradually subsided as parts of its objectives were differentiated into disciplines such as geology and cosmology and others were, at least temporarily, marginalized.

See also Astronomy ; Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc ; Cosmology ; Descartes, René ; Geology ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Nature ; Steno, Nicolaus .


Primary Sources

Modern reprints of various English-language theories of the Earth from Burnet to Hutton are widely available. Many appeared in the Arno Press collection for the History of Geology.

Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de. Les Époques de la nature. Edited by Jacques Roger. Édition critique, with introduction and notes. Mémoires du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, série C, no. 10. Paris, 1962; reissued 1988.

Burnet, Thomas. The Theory of the Earth: Containing an Account of the Original of the Earth, and of All the General Changes Which it Hath Already Undergone, or Is to Undergo, Till the Consummation of All Things. The Two First Books, Concerning the Deluge, and Concerning Paradise. The Two Last Books, Concerning the Burning of the World, and Concerning the New Heavens and New Earth. London, 1690. Reprinted as Burnet, Thomas. The Sacred Theory of the Earth. Carbondale, Ill., 1965.

Descartes, René. Principles of Philosophy. Translated by Valentine Rodger Miller and Reese P. Miller. Synthese Historical Library, 24. Dordrecht, Holland, Boston, and Hingham, Mass., 1991. Complete English translation; see Part IV, "On the Earth."

Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm. Protogaea: De l'aspect primitif de la terre et des traces d'une histoire très ancienne que renferment les monuments mêmes de la nature. Translated by Bertrand de Saint-Germain. Edited by Jean-Marie Barrande. Latin text with facing French translation. Toulouse, 1993. An English edition by Claudine Cohen and André Wakefield is in preparation.

Secondary Sources

Collier, Katharine Brownell. Cosmogonies of Our Fathers: Some Theories of the Seventeenth and the Eighteenth Centuries. Columbia University Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law, no. 402. New York, 1934; reprinted New York, 1968. Classic survey describing numerous cosmogonical theories from Robert Fludd to Deluc.

Gayon, Jean, ed. Buffon 88: Actes du colloque international pour le bicentenaire de la mort de Buffon (Paris, Montbard, Dijon, 1422 juin 1988). Paris, 1992. Contains articles on Buffon's theories by François Ellenberger, Gabriel Gohau, Kenneth L. Taylor, and others, some in English.

Greene, John C. The Death of Adam: Evolution and Its Impact on Western Thought. Ames, Iowa, 1959; reissued 1996. Perhaps the most readable overview of major theories of the Earth, arguing for their significance in the development of a sense of the history of nature.

Kelly, Mary Suzanne, Sister. "Theories of the Earth in Renaissance Cosmologies." In Toward a History of Geology, edited by Cecil J. Schneer, pp. 214225. Cambridge, Mass., 1969. One of many relevant articles in this essential volume.

Kubrin, David Charles. "Providence and the Mechanical Philosophy: The Creation and Dissolution of the World in Newtonian Thought. A Study of the Relations of Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England." Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1968. Attributes the Burnet controversy and the rise of theories of the Earth to the advance of the mechanical philosophy in the Scientific Revolution.

Magruder, Kerry V. "Theories of the Earth from Descartes to Cuvier: Natural Order and Historical Contingency in a Contested Textual Tradition." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, 2000.

Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite. Ithaca, N.Y., 1959; reissued 1997. Scholarly treatment recognizing the literary as well as scientific qualities of theories of the Earth.

Porter, Roy S. "Creation and Credence: The Career of Theories of the Earth in Britain, 16601820." In Natural Order: Historical Studies of Scientific Culture, edited by Barry Barnes and Steven Shapin, pp. 97124. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1979. Emphasizes the concern of British theorists with scriptural interpretation; argues that theories of the Earth were an unsuccessful tradition.

Roger, Jacques. "La théorie de la terre au XVIIe siècle." Revue d'histoire des sciences 26 (1973): 2348. Republished in Roger, Pour une histoire des sciences à part entière (Paris, 1995), pp. 129154. Classic argument that theories of the Earth must be interpreted as a genre in their own right, distinct from proto-geology, yet essential to the development of a sense of the history of nature.

Kerry V. Magruder, Kenneth L. Taylor

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