Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Siccar Point and Teaching the History of Geology

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Siccar Point and Teaching the History of Geology

Article excerpt


The concept of the rock cycle and the "indefinite" length of geologic time were outlined first by James Hutton before he had ever seen an unconformity. Hutton drew general support of his theory from existing observations of unconformities from accounts in French, which he re-interpreted in light of his own ideas. Hutton then found his own field examples to test his ideas before coming upon Siccar Point. In summing up his evidence, which included wide-ranging observations on the geology of SE Scotland, Hutton himself did not cite Siccar Point. Inaccuracies concerning the role of Siccar Point in the development of James Hutton's ideas remain as entrenched as ever in many physical geology textbooks. A more balanced appraisal of all contributions to Hutton's work is warranted, particularly the contributions of French writers. Finally, an accurate presentation of Hutton's method can contribute to students' understanding of the nature of historical theories and in meeting the challenges of creationists.

Keywords: Geological education, history of geology, Hutton, misconceptions, Siccar Point, creationism

Young-Earth Creationists persist in attempts to persuade the public that historical theories such as evolution are not scientific: "You can't apply the scientific method to evolution. It's never been observed. You can't repeat the experiment" (CNN, 1999); consequently, "Historical science . . . is theoretical in nature . . . [it] does not . . . merit the same regard as repeatable science" (CSAMA, 1999).

Darwin had to deal with exactly this form of criticism, not from Creationists but from scientists who were his contemporaries, who viewed "method" in science from a purely empirical-inductive perspective: Adam Sedgwick, Darwin's friend and President of the Geological Society of London, complained to Darwin that he "had departed from the true inductive track" (quoted in Hull, 1973, p.6). In his own defense, Darwin argued:

. . . the change of species cannot be directly proved, and . . . the doctrine must sink or swim according as it groups and explains phenomena. It is really curious how few judge it this way, which is clearly the right way" (quoted in Hull, 1973, p.13).

In parallel to this, not surprisingly, Young-Earth Creationists today also take offence at James Hutton's famous reasoning for landscape evolution, which is often quoted as an example of the uniformitarian method:

There is not one more step in all this progress, (of the summit of the solid mountain forming earth and stones, and traveling to the sea) that is not to be actually perceived, although it is only scientifically that man, who reasons in the present moment, may see the effect of time which has no end" (Hutton, 1795b, p.327-329).

Thus a section on "Patterns of Cumulative Change," including "continental drift, which is part of plate tectonic theory, fossilization, and erosion" was struck from the Kansas Science Education Standards in 1999 through the work of a Creationist group (CSAMA, 1999). The section was reinstated in 2001, but Creationists continue to attack it, ostensibly on the same grounds (IDnet, 2001).

There are various possible ways of addressing these matters in geological education. Wise (2001, p.34) argued, "Scientists need to spread a bigger tent which includes the bulk of the American public by emphasizing that scientific findings preclude only the most extreme fundamentalist interpretations [Young Earthers, Diluvialists, Progressive Creationists] and that evolution is compatible with most major American religions" (see also Kelly, 2000). Zen (2001, p.8) has "found that [classroom] discussions with 'old-earth' evangelical Christians can be fruitful and stimulating. Such conversations can clarify ideas, resolve misunderstandings, and define common ground . . . they can reveal where my own convictions might be based on prejudices."

It would help if students, especially in an introductory class, were provided with knowledge that could place these debates in a broad historical context and help them understand how narrow such claims are of what constitutes "science. …

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