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Darwin-L Message Log 7:25 (March 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<7:25>From DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu  Thu Mar 10 14:47:39 1994

Date: Thu, 10 Mar 1994 15:47:18 -0500 (EST)
From: DARWIN@iris.uncg.edu
Subject: March 10 -- Today in the Historical Sciences
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Organization: University of NC at Greensboro

MARCH 10 -- TODAY IN THE HISTORICAL SCIENCES

1748: JOHN PLAYFAIR, mathematician and geologist, is born at Benvie, Scotland.
Playfair will serve for several years in the ministry as a young man, and will
later become professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh.  For
many years he will edit the _Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh_,
where his friend James Hutton will first publish his cyclical theory of the
earth in 1785.  After Hutton's death in 1797, Playfair will devote himself to
the extension and clarification of Hutton's work, and his _Illustrations of
the Huttonian Theory of the Earth_ (Edinburgh, 1802) will deeply influence the
later work of Charles Lyell.  Like Hutton, Playfair will give great weight to
the existence of stratigraphic unconformities as indicators of the great age
of the earth, and in his biographical sketch of Hutton he will describe an
expedition the two of them made with Sir James Hall to Siccar Point on the
coast of Scotland, where deformed and uplifted Silurian slates are overlain by
nearly horizontal beds of Devonian Old Red Sandstone.  Playfair's account of
the trip will go down as one of the most famous field reports in the history
of geology: "On us who saw these phenomena for the first time, the impression
made will not easily be forgotten.  The palpable evidence presented to us, of
one of the most extraordinary and important facts in the natural history of
the earth, gave a reality and substance to those theoretical speculations
which, however probable, had never till now been directly authenticated by the
testimony of the senses.  We often said to ourselves, what clearer evidence
could we have had of the different formation of these rocks, and of the long
interval which separated their formation, had we actually seen them emerging
from the bosom of the deep?  We felt ourselves necessarily carried back to the
time when the schistus on which we stood was yet at the bottom of the sea, and
when the sandstone before us was only beginning to be deposited (in the shape
of sand or mud) from the waters of a superincumbent ocean.  An epocha still
more remote presented itself, when even the most ancient of these rocks,
instead of standing upright in vertical beds, lay in horizontal planes at the
bottom of the sea and was not yet disturbed by that immeasurable force which
has burst asunder the solid pavement of the globe.  Revolutions still more
remote appeared in the distance of this extraordinary perspective.  The mind
seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time; and while we
listened with earnestness and admiration to the philosopher who was now
unfolding to us the order and series of these wonderful events, we became
sensible how much farther reason may sometimes go than imagination can
venture to follow."

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