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Deep time is the concept of geologic time. The modern scientific concept was developed in the 1700s by Scottish geologist James Hutton (1726–1797).[1][2]

Modern science has since established the age of the Earth at around 4.54 billion years, after a considerably long history of change and developments.


Scientific concept

An understanding of geologic history and the concomitant history of life requires a comprehension of time which initially may be disconcerting. As mathematician John Playfair, one of Hutton's friends and colleagues in the Scottish Enlightenment, later remarked upon seeing the strata of the angular unconformity at Siccar Point with Hutton and James Hall in June 1788, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time."[3]

Hutton's words, "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end," were in stark contrast to the prevailing interpretation of the Genesis creation story, which held that the Earth has existed for only a few thousand years. It was still hazardous in Hutton's time to oppose the young Earth creationism doctrine which was then dominant. Proponents of scientific theories which contradicted scriptural interpretations could not only lose their academic appointments but were legally answerable to charges of heresy and/or blasphemy,[4] charges which, even as late as the 18th century in Great Britain, sometimes resulted in a death sentence.[4]

Hutton's comprehension of deep time as a crucial scientific and philosophical concept was developed further by Charles Lyell in his Principles of Geology (1830–33). Naturalist and evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin studied Lyell's book exhaustively during his expedition on the HMS Beagle in the 1830s.

Physicist Gregory Benford addresses the concept, in Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia, as does paleontologist and Nature editor Henry Gee,[5][6] in In Search of Deep Time. Stephen Jay Gould's Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987) also deals in large part with the concept.

One of the first uses of "deep time" in a general interest publication may have been by John McPhee in his 1981 book, Basin and Range, parts of which originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine.[7] One of the metaphors McPhee used in explaining the concept of deep time, which was cited by Gould in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle was to

Consider the earth's history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King's nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.[8]

Recognition of geologic time in other cultures

The concept of geologic time was recognized in the 11th century by the Persian geologist and polymath, Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 973–1037),[9][10] and the Chinese naturalist and polymath Shen Kuo (1031–1095).[11]

See also


  1. ^ A. R. Palmer and E-an Zen. "The Context of Humanity: Understanding Deep Time" (html). Critical Issues Committee, Geological Society of America. 
  2. ^ Kenneth L. Taylor (September 2006). "Ages in Chaos: James Hutton and the Discovery of Deep Time". The Historian (abstract). Book review of Stephen Baxter, ISBN 0-7653-1238-7. 
  3. ^ John Playfair. "Hutton's Unconformity" (html). Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. V, pt. III, 1805, quoted in Natural History, June 1999. 
  4. ^ a b Andrew Dickson White. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (e.g. chapter 5). New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1896. 1978 reprint edition, Gloucester: Peter Smith Publisher Inc. ISBN 0-84463-170-1.
    Simon Winchester. The Map That changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (e.g. chapter 2). New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06019-361-1.
    Jack Repcheck. The Man Who Found Time: James Hutton and the Discovery of the Earth's Antiquity (e.g. chapters 2 & 5). Cambridge: Perseus Books, 2003. ISBN 0-73820-692-X.
  5. ^ Gert Korthof (2000). "A Revolution in Palaeontology: Review of Henry Gee's In Search of Deep Time" (html). 
  6. ^ Anthony Campbell (2001). "Book review: In Search of Deep Time" (html). 
  7. ^ Basin and Range was republished with four other books and additional material as Annals of the Former World (1998, ISBN 0-37410-520-0) a title McPhee borrowed from James Hutton's observation about the geologist's preoccupation with the "annals of a former world," the stories figuratively told by layers of rock laid down over many millions of years. (p.77)
  8. ^ McPhee, John. Basin and Range (1981)
  9. ^ Munim M. Al-Rawi and Salim Al-Hassani (November 2002). "The Contribution of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to the development of Earth sciences" (PDF). FSTC. Retrieved 2008-07-01. 
  10. ^ Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield (1965), The Ancestry of Science: The Discovery of Time, p. 64, University of Chicago Press (cf. The Contribution of Ibn Sina to the development of Earth sciences)
  11. ^ Sivin, Nathan (1995). Science in Ancient China: Researches and Reflections. Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Variorum series. III, 23–24. 

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