Thursday, May 14, 2015

James Hutton and John Playfair and a genealogical connection

I'm reading Eternal Ephemera by Niles Eldredge and learning about the early history of evolution and geology. Eldredge describes the work of James Hutton who is known as the father of modern geology. Here's the Wikipedia description of his work ...
He originated the theory of uniformitarianism—a fundamental principle of geology—which explains the features of the Earth's crust by means of natural processes over geologic time. Hutton's work established geology as a proper science, and thus he is often referred to as the "Father of Modern Geology".[2][3]

Through observation and carefully reasoned geological arguments, Hutton came to believe that the Earth was perpetually being formed; he recognised that the history of the Earth could be determined by understanding how processes such as erosion and sedimentation work in the present day. His theories of geology and geologic time,[4] also called deep time,[5] came to be included in theories which were called plutonism and uniformitarianism.
Hutton's work would not have been widely known if it hadn't been promoted by an Edinburgh professor named John Playfair (left). He published Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth in 1802.

John Playfair's brother was William Playfair who was a friend of James Watt and Erasmus Darwin and the inventor of the bar graph and the pie chart [see Bar Graphs, Pie Charts, and Darwin and Bastille Day]. William Playfair is Ms Sandwalk's great5 grandfather and my childrens' great6 grandfather. William's son founded Playfairville in Eastern Ontario.

Eldredge describes Edinburgh University in the `1820's when Darwin was a student (p. 44).
The "deep time" revealed in Hutton's work, and his direct stimulus to the later work of Charles Lyell, which in turn had had such an effect on the young Darwin, was an utterly necessary precondition for the serious contemplation of the history of life on earth. Small wonder, then, that Edinburgh's intellectual environment also fostered equivalent, radical ideas in zoology, as they had a generation earlier in geology.

But the story of Darwin's mentors in medical school, and what he himself absorbed while he was there, was far less known in the 1960s than the saga of Hutton (and his "Boswell," John Playfair). I was ignorant of all of this, but should not have been particularly surprised when I finally learned, in the first decade of this century, of the foment around transmutational ideas that seethed in Edinburgh. The creative intellectual ferment of Edinburgh in science in the late eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth had carried on in biological topics in the 1830s.
Sounds like John Playfair might have belonged to a bunch of radical professors. He might have been as unconventional in his thinking as his brother (the ancestor of my children).

I suppose it shouldn't come as a big surprise that Ms. Sandwalk and my son and my daughter descend from people who were very radical and independent and probably never did as they were told.


9 comments :

  1. I live about 40 miles from Hutton's Unconformity. I keep meaning to visit, but never get round to it. Next time I visit my parents (about 10 miles from the site) I must make a point of doing so.

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  2. There's a nice book called The man Who Found Time.

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  3. Oldies but goodies! We have to remember these courageous pioneers, and give them, flaws and all, their due. Buffon and Diderot, I understand, were attacked by the clergy in France, and in 1840s radical English evolutionists were sent to prison for blasphemy. pdfs of Hutton's and Playfair's original works are available, I believe, at archive(dot)org.

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  4. AMEN. these geology ideas WAS a precondition for Darwin. or rather his ideas are founded on geology and not biology. without the geology the biology can't work. then the error was made that the biology was established as scientiofic when it was the geology that was the evidence for evolution. a still continuing flaw of scientific investigation in this subject.

    by the way. There were alreadty many thinkers in Scotland dealing with geology.
    Hutton just was anointed as having defeated them and then given the crown as a creator of geology. He wasn't. Others did a better job and insisted in Genesis being true. Scotland was very puritan/evangelical in its educated circles. In fact the origin for a higher curve in their intellect relative to England.

    Hutton was wrong in so much. He too quickly drew conclusions about mechanisms for geological movements. he saw slow actions creating valleys that today we would say were created quickly by glacial release.
    He showed a lack of imagination by too quickly seeing only one option. Je was hostile to creationism as he was known as not living a Christian life.
    The great unconformity is case in point. its easily explained by later ideas of continental drift which is easily explained by biblical flood scenarios of fast continental pulling/and colliding.
    Very few people thought about these things in those days and thats why incompetent research was done. Hutton being a big example.

    Evolutionary biology is not scientific if it in any way makes its case as being scientific if it invokes a different field of enquiry namely geology.
    The bagpipes must moan a groan over the moors over Huttons demise as a premier geologist.

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    1. The first faltering attempt at a genetic theory of evolution based on something akin to natural selection was made by French physicist Pierre Maupertuis in the early 1750s. This was first shown to English speakers by biology historian Arthur O. Lovejoy in 1905, shortly after the Flood.

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  5. Sorry Robert, floods wouldn't affect continental drift. The forces that affect drift occur at depths that average between 100 and 220 kilometers, far below anything touched by floods on the surface. See http://geology.about.com/od/platetectonics/a/About-Plate-Tectonics.htm .

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    1. But this was a REALLY, REALLY BIG flood. Like, REALLY big. Surely that changes things, no?

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    2. At risk of going off thread i will say indeed it wasn't the waters. Just another situation going on with the single original continent breaking up. This was needed also to be the mechanism for creating segregated flow events to bring segregated deposition results. the strata layers.
      Hutton was sloppy with leaving his puritan science heritage.

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