How much was the Persian polymath responsible for geology’s foundational ideas?
(Cover image credit: portraits of Ibn Sina, Nicolas Steno, and James Hutton: Public Domain. Grand Canyon from Upsplash CC0).
A few months ago now, I asked the question “who invented paleontology?”. I concluded that it is difficult to give any single person credit. Fossils have been an important aspect of human existence long before anyone scientifically studied them. However, in my last post I described how Ibn Sina conceptualized uniformitarianism (that geology results from uniform, continuous processes) and stratigraphy (the study of rock layers) hundreds of years before anyone else.
It also seems that Ibn Sina’s ideas were original and not based on any previous work.1 So, the follow up to my previous question is: did Ibn Sina create the science of geology?
The “Founding Father” of Geology
Most geology textbooks name Scottish geologist James Hutton as the “Father of Geology.” Hutton’s publications were the earliest European comprehensive works on geology and started it as a formal science. However, I already established how Ibn Sina (and Shen Kuo) both described similar concepts hundreds of years earlier. It seems likely, therefore, that Hutton based his work on, or was at least inspired by, these earlier writings.
Hutton’s training as a physician makes this idea plausible. Hutton studied medicine across Europe in many institutions with libraries full of Islamic texts.1 Given how Ibn Sina’s medical treatise was the most commonly-used medical teaching tool in Europe until relatively recently, it seems almost certain that Hutton would have read Ibn Sina’s work.1 Is it then possible that he became inspired by Ibn Sina’s remarks on geology, and used Ibn Sina’s concepts to understand his geologic observations.
But did Hutton outright plagiarize Ibn Sina?
While we like to think of Hutton coming up with his ideas out of thin air, several other scholars were discussing uniformitarianism around the same time. One such thinker was Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Buffon explained the rock record as the result of steady processes of deposition resulting from the Biblical flood. Buffon’s ideas are an odd combination of Biblical realism and geologic uniformitarianism. He published his work around the same time as Hutton’s foundational work.2
Buffon illustrates that uniformitarianism was not a new idea. Hutton’s version of the idea was less literal to the Bible and more naturalistic.
Hutton may have just been the first to describe an already common idea in the context of a more modern, and European, scientific culture. Because this culture is one we relate more to today, we give Hutton credit for inventing the concept.
Hutton’s ideas were not necessarily new, but his interpretation of the rock record was a unique reflection of his personal belief system and philosophy.2,3
Hutton attributed aspects of his ideas to Nicolas Steno.2 Steno, who I pointed out last post, was the first European who published the principles of stratigraphy. If Hutton derived his work from Steno, did Steno derive his work from Ibn Sina?
The Origin of Stratigraphy
To determine how Steno developed his stratigraphic concepts, I read a translation of his Dissertationis Prodromus.4 I wanted to see if he used Ibn Sina’s work in any way. Steno, like Hutton, studied medicine in Europe and so was likely exposed to the writings of the Persian polymath.1
The Dissertationis Prodromus outlines how Steno came to his conclusions. He was intrigued about how fossil sharks teeth became entombed inside solid rock.
To explain the phenomenon, he came up with stratigraphic principles of how rocks were laid down and the age relationships between layers. Throughout his dissertation, Steno directly referenced older works.4
Steno quoted Greek authors who, as I wrote about in my “Who Invented Paleontology?” post, provided several possible explanations for marine fossils in terrestrial rocks. However, Steno never mentioned Ibn Sina. He did, interestingly, refer to the work of René Descartes.4
René Descartes is known more for his philosophy (“I think therefore I am”) and his work in other math and science fields. But he also studied geology. Unfortunately, the manuscript in which Descartes discussed geology is in Latin, and I was unable to find a (free) translation.
I found the original Latin text of Descartes’ work, and I passed it through the Google translator. What came out was a jumbled mess, but it implies Descartes correctly suggested rocks made of sand grains were deposited in the same manner as sand on beaches. In the Principles of Philosophy, dated to 1644, Descartes clearly identified uniformitarianism well before Hutton or Steno. But Descartes does not refer to older texts in his work.
Steno quoted Descartes in his dissertation. Descartes said rocks were “particles in stony stratum” where each layer was laid down at the same time. In this quote, Descartes described the same stratigraphic principles that Steno published. Steno even acknowledged Descartes as a direct inspiration for his stratigraphic ideas.
So then did Descartes truly invent geology? That would be a new twist! I doubt many think of the French philosopher as the “founding father” of geology.
The Universality of Geology
Each of the European thinkers I mentioned, Hutton, Buffon, Steno, and Descartes, all were in position to have read Ibn Sina and used his ideas to explain geology. At first pass, the similarity between their geologic conclusions and Ibn Sina therefore seems like they derived their ideas from the Persian scientist.
But did they?
After reading Steno and at least trying to read Descartes, I’m not so sure.
Each of the Europeans approached the topic differently based on their personal beliefs and philosophy. Steno and Buffon, for example, tried to explain geology in the context of the Bible and the Noachian flood.2,4 Hutton’s work seems to have been derived from his philosophical and religious beliefs. He thought the world was made for us to understand and that it takes personal experience to explain natural phenomenon.3 Both the literal Biblical interpretation and Hutton’s naturalistic approach are completely different Ibn Sina.
Take, for example, the description of stratigraphy from Steno compared to Ibn Sina. Steno described rocks as being fluid and their deposition as spreading out into layered strata.4
Ibn Sina, however, described the deposition of rocks in layers representing the sea coming and and coming out, each time depositing another layer of mud or sediment.1 While the end conclusion is the same, the rationale for that conclusion is vastly different.
I do not think Hutton, Buffon, Steno, or Descartes plagiarized Ibn Sina. I’m not even certain they read his work on geology, which was not in the same medical text they were exposed to.
Instead, I think that fundamental aspects of geology, like uniformitarianism and superposition are so obvious, for lack of a better word, that they were derived by multiple people in different times and places.
Each of these thinkers interpreted geology through their individual culture, religious beliefs, and philosophy. They generated a series of different flavors of these universal concepts. Although the conclusions are the same, the manners in which they are derived are different.
More importantly, this speaks to the universality of science. We should not expect that the only cultures really “doing science” are our own. People from around the world and from different times, can all contribute to science even if they approach it differently.
Nobody can truly be a “founding father” (or mother) of geology because geology is a fundamental aspect of the human experience, common to us all.
- Al-Rawi, M. 2002. Contributions of Ibn Sina to the development of Earth Sciences. https://muslimheritage.com/ibn-sina-development-earth-sciences/.
- Rudwick, M. J. S. 2014. Earth’s Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters. University of Chicago Press.
- O’Rourke, J. E. 1978. A comparison of James Hutton’s Principles of Knowledge and Theory of the Earth. Isis, 69(1):4-20.
- Winter, J. G. 1916. The Prodromus of Nicolaus Steno’s Dissertation concerning a solid body enclosed by process of nature within a solid: An English version with introduction and explanatory notes. The MacMillan Company.
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