Rocks and Shoals

To willfully run a vessel upon rocks and shoals is grounds for severe disciplinary action according to the Articles for the Governance of the United States Navy. As a metaphor for hazard, it evokes the unyielding harshness of nature’s geologic creations; they give no quarter and ask none. A hike in winter takes you there in time and space, like the Night’s Watch venturing north of the wall among the white walkers who skulk there. [1] It imbues the wanderer with the spirit of the wild, a willingness to allow risk as tradeoff for adventure, the more mountainous the better. Slippery slopes lead upward to vistas of ominous grandeur where one misstep can mean disaster. The toboggan run plunge down icy trails is arrested only by cleats and planted poles. The reward is the accomplishment of being one with nature on its own terms. Hoary crags rise above tumbled rocks randomly strewn according to the physical forces that made them. Air heavy with the vapor of oceans is pushed upwards, the condensation pouring out in deluge frantically racing down through the shoals to return to their pelagic origin and complete the cycle. Rocks and shoals is the greater part of physical geology.

It took many years for the blinding flash of the obvious to become so – that what we see happening now is what formed that which we see. The earliest hominids doubtless had some understanding of the world order just as all animals must; plants less so as they don’t move through it. The golden orb of the sun appeared at dawn and disappeared at dusk to surrender the heavens to a softer moonglow that gradually winked out over a period aptly named month. Homo sapiens evolved with a pronounced ability to connect observations to memories indexed in the prefrontal cortex through the switchboard of the hippocampus. The conscious mind could then learn and teach to enrich the base of what became known passed on to succeeding generations. By the time of Ancient Greece, the accumulation of the know-ledge had reached the point of synthesis and physical science. Aristotle, while considered the penultimate philosopher, was more a scientist in that his ideas stemmed from observation, that the senses can be the only source of knowledge. The syllogism in the form a set of ‘if A then B’ propositions used to prove a third relationship was his primary tool of deductive reasoning; he is considered the father of the scientific method. It is evident that he conceptualized the notion of geologic time in observing that “periodically but imperceptibly, the sea is replaced by the land and the land by the sea.” [2]

The golden age of Greece was supplanted by Roman law enforced by Roman legions that established Pax Romana across what comprised the western civilized world for five hundred years. Roman culture radiated to its remote provinces largely as a synthesis of Hellenistic ideas translated from the original Greek; the letters ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ were added to the Roman alphabet specifically to allow for citing Greek references in around 100 CE. [3] Strabo compiled the opus Geography in 7 BCE in which he describes coastlines as changing according to erosion and eruption, postulating that the rift of the Red Sea at Suez would eventually succeed in severing the Africa from Eurasia. Pliny the Elder produced Historia Naturalis in 77 CE as a compendium of all that was then considered established knowledge; it has since served as a fount of the hyperbole and superstition that prevailed before rationalism and the scientific method became ascendant. To his credit, Pliny rejected the worldview that the lares and penates of the Roman pantheon were the dominant forces that determined nature’s course. In redefining nature as the sum of natural forces, he presciently subscribed it to be the primary agent of causation in and of itself. The islands of the Mediterranean Sea, according to his reasoning, must gradually have been “sundered by the patience of the sea.” Pax Romana ended as Alaric led the Visigoths over the Alps and sacked Rome in 410 CE; the shadows of the Dark Ages thereafter adumbrated the land for a millennium. [4]

Christianity emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire like the phoenix, replacing secular law with religious doctrine centered on the Bible and its interpretation. Spirituality and the promise of a life everlasting for those who adhered to its precepts provided a bulwark against the four horsemen of the Apocalypse; famine and pestilence interspersed with war and death. Its proscription for compassion prevails to this day, tainted only by battles pitched at the clan and kingdom level over details of interpretation. However, superstition supplanted science as the foundation of truth and astrology reigned supreme; only Aristotle held sway as an oracle of authority. The Renaissance, literally a rebirth of science and the arts, reached full stride in 1589, when Galileo was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa. His probably apocryphal experiment of dropping two objects of different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to disprove Aristotelian deductive logic that they would drop at proportionally different rates established inductive reasoning with facts as the basis for conclusion. Religion and science came to loggerheads when Galileo confirmed the Copernican heliocentric theory by observing the moons of Jupiter through a telescope, threatening the church’s teaching that God chose earth for His humans at the center of His universe. Galileo responded, “I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed me with sense, reason, and intellect has intended for us to forgo their use.” He was forced to recant by order of the Inquisition on 26 February 1616. Science in the seventeenth century became a monopoly of the northern Protestant countries. [5]

The science of geology was equally bound by mandated ecclesiastical consistency with biblical accounting. While the Bible does not specify the age of the earth directly, it is implied by its anthropocentric sequence to be within the boundaries of human history. The first recorded estimate of the age of earth was made in the second century by Julius Africanus who calculated that Jesus was born exactly 5,500 years after God’s signature six-day accomplishment. The date was refined by Archbishop James Ussher, the prelate of Ireland and an acclaimed scholar venerated in burial at Westminster Abbey. In 1650, he published Annals of the Old Testament that included his calculations that the earth was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC based on the meticulous summation lifespans of biblical patriarchs from Adam to Jesus (including Methuselah, who died at the age of 969). Rational adherents to the inductive logic of the Renaissance were skeptical; the complexity of layered rocks and the ubiquity of fossilized animals and plants was inconsistent with so short an interval. The Parisian Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon proposed in his 1749 Histoire Naturelle that the earth was created when a comet collided with the Sun, and that based on cooling rates of molten metal and the formation of liquid water, it had to be at least 75,000 years old. One of his correspondents was Joseph Needham, the first Roman Catholic priest elected to the Royal Society, who contended that even 60 million years was but a small part of eternity. The time was ripe for a revolution in earth science.

The Scotsman James Hutton was an unlikely revolutionary but, like Darwin, an astute observer. While educated in both law and medicine at the University of Edinburgh, he chose farming as his métier with great success, retiring early to pursue an innate interest in the contorted outcrops of his homeland. His 140-acre farm in the rolling hills below the Scottish Highlands was his laboratory. The periodic inundations inherent to island climate fell on his fields, washing away the rich topsoil in eroded gullies as it made its way back to the North Sea. In the erection of retaining walls made from sandstone blocks quarried from the nearby hills, he became convinced that the granular similarity of the rock and the soil was not coincidental but quid pro quo. His Darwinian epiphany occurred along the coast near his farm at a place called Siccar Point, where the unconformity of tilted red sandstone abutted vertical graywacke sandstone mandated two events separated by eons of time and tumultuous forces. Hutton was the first to recognize the bedrock principle of geology that came to be called uniformitarianism, that the present is what created the past. The rocky highlands were slowly but inexorably eroded by precipitation to form sediments deposited in sequential layers in his fields and eventually in the waters off-shore. [6] He was invited by the Royal Society of Edinburgh to present his earth moving theory that introduced the concept of the geologic time scale. He recognized the enormity of his claims by closing his treatise with: “But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, –no prospect of an end.” [7] According to Darwin, humans were apes; according to Hutton, God had nothing to do with it. The Age of Reason was now ascendant.

Layers, or strata are evident in any hillside that is quarried by man or eroded by nature to the extent that its cross section is exposed. Along the banks of rivers and among the rock-strewn uplands, striations of varying width, composition and tilt are evident to the most casual of observers; their relationship may not be. An itinerant Danish theologian named Nicolas Steno was struck by the topography of the Apennine Mountains near Florence, Italy and offered the observation that: “At the time when one of the upper strata was being formed, the lower stratum had already gained the consistency of a solid.” [8] This was, in essence, a statement of sequencing that now may be taken as intuitive; the layer on the bottom is older than the layer on the top. That many of the stratified rock layers contained fossils of plants and animals that had become embedded in the accumulating sediments that formed them posed an equally profound conundrum to those seeking order out of chaos, one of whom was William Smith the father of stratigraphy.

Unlike the free ranging thinkers Hutton and Steno, Smith was employed in the professional capacity of land surveyor engaged in the construction of canals and coal mine assessments in Great Britain. As his excavations revealed the horizontal extent of strata, he noted “… when such regular and orderly disposition of the strata is found the same on one side of a river deep valley or channel as on the other over an extent of many miles when proper allowances are made for its inclination and for the variation of the surface, is it not reasonable to suppose that the same strata may be found as regular on one side of the sea or ocean.” This led him to create the world’s first detailed geological map of the strata of England, Wales, and southern Scotland in 1815. He also noted the presence of distinctive fossils that were characteristic of and exemplified each stratum; his survey of the Somerset coalfield included the bed of coal named Peacock characterized by “cockle shells and fern branches.” Absent any realization of the significance of his observations, he noted only that “thousands who have never paid the least regard to that wonderful order and regularity with which nature has disposed of these singular productions and assigned to each class its peculiar stratum.” Here he ran into the dilemma that the biblical diluvium mandated by the religious dictum of Noah’s nautical ordeal: “These [shells] were not deposited there at the time of the Deluge for it is not at all consistent with the wisdom and dignity of the Deity to pull the whole earth to pieces for the purpose of destroying man …” [9]

By the middle of the nineteenth century, what became the four foundational laws of geology were established with the publication of The Principles of Geology by Charles Lyell. His adherence to Hutton’s uniformitarianism was explicit: “the forces formerly employed to remodel the crust of the earth were the same in kind and energy as those now acting.” The importance of Steno’s relationships of strata and Smith’s fieldstripped assessments of their extent and fossilized content coalesced into Lyell’s three principles on the hierarchy of layers: The principle of superposition of newer atop the old; The principle of correlation that fossils were consistent and identified with specific stratum; The principle of faunal succession that the fossils found in lower strata were older than those above. In his words “The fossil remains of plants and animals are plentifully included in rocks of different ages. It is principally by the aid of such fossils that the chronological age of rocks is determined.” While Lyell’s new world order was not immediately accepted, judgement over the long term prevailed with most, though skeptics of strong beliefs based on Biblical exegesis persist to this day. Lyell was more than forthright in their vilification “never did a theoretical fallacy, in any branch of science, interfere more seriously with accurate observation and the systematic classification of facts.” [10] It took another century to comprehend the actual complexity of the geology of earth, a phenomenon second only to the big bang and the ever-expanding universe in understanding man’s existential birthright.

1. In the HBO series “Game of Thrones,’ there is a wall of ice that is guarded by Castle Black that keeps the ghoulish white walkers in check; Winter’s Coming is the motto of the House of Stark, the guardians of the north.
2. Durant, W. The Story of Civilization, Volume 2 The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York 1961 pp 524-534
3. Rosen, M. Alphabetical, How Every Letter Tells a Story, Counterpoint, Berkeley, California, 2015. pp 376-401
4. Durant, W. The Story of Civilization, Volume 3 Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, New York 1972 pp 308-311 and 520-521.
5. Durant, W. and Durant A. The Story of Civilization Volume 7 The Age of Reason Begins, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961 pp 600-612.
6. Montgomery, D. The Rocks Don’t Lie, A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, W. W. Norton, New York, 2012, pp 93-105.
7. Hutton, J. “Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe” Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. I, Part II, 1788 pp.209-304.
8. Steno, N. The Prodomus to a Dissertation concerning Solids Naturally Contained within Solids English Translation by J. Winter, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1916 p 230. The original “Prodomus” was written in 1669.
9. Fuller, J. “John Strachey, William Smith and the strata of England 1719-1801” Geoscientist, Volume 17 July 2007.
10. Lyell, C. The Principles of Geology, 4th edition, John Murray. London 1835 pp xii-xiv, p 42. The principle of uniformitarianism is captured in the subtitle: Being an Inquiry how far the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface are Referable to Causes now in Operation.