Eduard Suess and the Essence of Geology
Eduard Suess was probably the greatest geologist who ever lived. His epoch-making, four-volume Das Antlitz der Erde (The Face of the Earth), published between 1883 and 1909 and translated into English, French, Spanish and partly into Italian, is generally considered to be the herald of modern global geology. Before Suess, geology was practiced as a form of local science, deducing ideas for the behavior of the earth using local observations not tied to one another in a general synthesis, except in such general statements as the uniformitarian principle. There were also general syntheses, but those were a priori attempts assuming a general theory and then applying it to selected observations with a view to establishing the theory assumed. Suess abandoned both approaches: he attempted to collect and connect with one another world-wide observations within the framework of Constant Prévost’s version of the theory of contraction with a view to testing its deductions. He had two main aims: (1) the delineation of the trend-lines of the world’s mountain systems, in other words their structure, to understand whether as an ensemble they made sense in the framework of the contraction theory. He said there were older ‘plans’ of the trend-lines indicating that the present face of the earth was a production of the Phanerozoic and that the face of the earth wore other aspects in the past, but all generated by the processes familiar to us from their presently-active representatives. His approach was thus actualistic, very much Lyellian, although he differed from Lyell in admitting the existence of global events. At the end of his work he announced that the contraction theory did not seem sufficient to explain all the peculiarities of the mountain belts, especially the enormous shortening they displayed. He did not assume how the mountain belts would behave using the contraction theory. He first worked out how they behaved using the field evidence and then checked whether his results were compatible with the theory. (2) Suess’ second concern was the explanation of global stratigraphy. He was surprised that the geological time-scale, worked out in such a small place as Europe, should be applicable world-wide. He assumed that the divisions of the geological time table were natural units and from this concluded that some global phenomenon must cause their global validity. This phenomenon he found in global sea-level changes, which he called ‘eustatic movements’. He worked out a table of global sea-level changes and showed that they were also responsible for the changes in the biosphere (the term ‘biosphere’ was introduced by him in 1875) causing the diversification and extinction of organisms. Suess showed that geology can only be properly understood if the details of contingent events are worked out and their mutual causative relations established. He was a critical rationalist in Popper’s sense and never fell in love with his own hypotheses.
KeywordsEduard Suess Behaviour of the earth Geological methodology Mountain-building Sea-level changes
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