Deep time

Deep time

Deep time is the concept of geologic time first recognized in the 11th century by the Persian geologist and polymath, Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 973-1037), and the Chinese naturalist and polymath Shen Kuo (1031-1095). In the Western world, the modern scientific concept was developed in the 1700s by Scottish geologist James Hutton.

Science in succeeding centuries has established the age of the Earth as between four and five billion years, with an exceedingly long history of change and development.

Scientific concept

An understanding of geologic history and the concomitant history of life requires a comprehension of time which initially may be more than 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."

Hutton's words, "we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end," which was in stark contrast to the prevailing 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, charges which, even as late as the 18th century (1700s) in Great Britain, sometimes resulted in a death sentence.

Hutton's comprehension of deep time as a crucial scientific 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, in In Search of Deep Time.

Use of the term

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. One of the metaphors McPhee used in explaining the concept of deep time, which was cited by Stephen Jay Gould in Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987), 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.

Basin and Range was republished with four others and additional material in Annals of the Former World, 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.

Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia (1999) is non-fiction book by Gregory Benford.

See also


See also

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