Early Geology: The rift between science and theology
"There is nothing doth more awaken our Thoughts, or excite our Minds to inquire into the Causes of such Things, than the actual View of them; as I have had Experienced my self, when it was my Fortune to cross the Alps and Apennine Mountains; for the Fight of those wild, fast and undigested Heaps of Stones and Earth did so deeply stir my fancy, that I was not easy till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature."
Sacred Theory of the Earth, Thomas Burnet,1671

Click to Enlarge What was it that drew scientists to the mountains in the 18th Century? Similarly, what was it that kept them from making the ascent? Was it the sublime? Was it to search for the origin of the earth or to discover within the mountains an explanation for their world, notions of which were previously set by religious preconceptions?

In the 18th Century, there was an inclination to set foot into the mountains to learn the origin of the earth. Early geologists sought to know the stratifications of the largest rocks, and asked the question "How were the mountains formed?" Prior to the 18th Century, it was common thought that the earth and its elements were formed under God's Creation. But as curiosity about the mountains grew, there was a shift from theological thought to physico-theological thought, and later, purely geologic thought. Geologists in this new era could see what was going on in nature, and began to question this--they could see that volcanoes and earthquakes were shaping the earth, and they could see a rift between theology and science. By the 19th Century, most geologists had abandoned the theological reasoning behind the creation of the earth, and turned mostly to scientific experimentation and theory.

This section will introduce you to the early geologists, the early geologic theories of the earth from the 17th to the 18th centuries, and the geology of the mountains as Mary Shelley, Victor Frankenstein, and the creature would have experienced them in their journeys to the Swiss Alps.


Copyright 2002: History 257 - Mount Holyoke College
This page was created by
Anna Bennett .