Nicolaus Steno, also known as Niels Stensen, was the first to observe and propose some of the basic concepts of historical geology. One of these concepts was that fossils originally came from living organisms. The other, more famous, observations are often grouped together to form the laws of stratigraphy.
James Hutton and Charles Lyell also contributed to early understanding of the Earth's history with their observations at Edinburgh in Scotland concerning angular unconformity in a rock face and it was in fact Lyell that influenced Charles Darwin greatly in his theory of evolution by speculating that the present is the key to the past. Hutton first proposed the theory of uniformitarianism, which is now a basic principle in all branches of geology. Hutton also supported the idea that the Earth was very old as opposed to the prevailing concept of the time which said the Earth had only been around a few millennia. Uniformitarianism describes an Earth created by the same natural phenomena that are at work today.
The prevailing concept of the 18th century in the West was that of a very short Earth history dominated by catastrophic events. This view was strongly supported by adherents of Abrahamic religions based on a largely literal interpretation of their religious scriptural passages. The concept of uniformitarianism met with considerable resistance and the catastrophism vs. gradualism debate of the 19th century resulted. A variety of discoveries in the 20th century provided ample evidence that Earth history is a product of both gradual incremental processes and sudden cataclysmic events. Violent events such as meteorite impacts and large volcanic explosions do shape the Earth's surface along with gradual processes such as weathering, erosion and deposition much as they have throughout Earth history. The present is the key to the past - includes catastrophic as well as gradual processes.
Read more about this topic: Historical Geology
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