Deep time

Deep time

Deep time is the concept that the Geologic time scale is vast because the Earth is very old. The modern philosophical concept was developed in the 18th century by Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–1797).[1] [2]

Modern science has since established, after a long and complex history of developments, the age of the Earth at around 4.54 billion years.


Scientific concept

An understanding of geologic history and the concomitant history of life requires a comprehension of time which initially may be disconcerting. As mathematician John Playfair, one of Hutton's friends and colleagues in the Scottish Enlightenment, later remarked upon seeing the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point with Hutton and James Hall in June 1788, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time."[3]

Particularly following the Protestant Reformation, the Genesis creation stories were interpreted as holding that the Earth has existed for only a few thousand years. Proponents of scientific theories which contradicted scriptural interpretations could not only lose their academic appointments but were legally answerable to charges of heresy and blasphemy, charges which, even as late as the 18th century in Great Britain, sometimes resulted in a death sentence.[4] [5] [6]

Early geologists such as Nicolas Steno and Horace-Bénédict de Saussure developed ideas of geological strata forming from water through chemical processes, which Abraham Gottlob Werner developed into a theory known as Neptunism. Hutton's innovative 1785 theory based on Plutonism visualised an endless process of rocks forming under the sea, being uplifted and tilted, then eroded to form new strata under the sea. In 1788 the sight of Hutton's Unconformity at Siccar Point convinced Playfair and Hall of this extremely slow cycle, and in that same year Hutton memorably wrote "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end".[7] [8]

Other scientists such as Georges Cuvier put forward ideas of past ages, and Werner's ideas were incorporated into concepts of catastrophism by geologists such as Adam Sedgwick who inspired his university student Charles Darwin to exclaim "What a capital hand is Sedgewick for drawing large cheques upon the Bank of Time!".[9] In a competing theory, Hutton's comprehension of endless deep time as a crucial scientific concept was developed into uniformitarianism by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830–33). As a young naturalist and geological theorist, Darwin studied the successive volumes of Lyell's book exhaustively during the Beagle survey voyage in the 1830s, before beginning to theorise about evolution.

Physicist Gregory Benford addresses the concept, in Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, as does paleontologist and Nature editor Henry Gee in In Search of Deep Time.[10] [11] Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987) also deals in large part with the concept.

One of the first uses of "deep time" in a general interest publication may have been by John McPhee in his 1981 book, Basin and Range, parts of which originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine.[12] One of the metaphors McPhee used in explaining the concept of deep time was cited in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle by Gould:

Consider the Earth's history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.[12]

Concepts similar to geologic time were recognized in the 11th century by the Persian geologist and polymath, Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 973–1037),[13] and the Chinese naturalist and polymath Shen Kuo (1031–1095).[14]

See also



  • Kubicek, Robert (2008-03-01). "Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time". The Historian 70 (1): 142–143. ISBN 0-7653-1238-7. 
  • Playfair, John (1805). "Hutton's Unconformity". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh V (III). 

External links

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