What Ideas Are Incorporated Into Uniformitarianism

The study of various rock formations led to the ideas of uniformitarianism.

Uniformitarianism is a geological doctrine developed in the first third of the nineteenth century. It resulted from the observations and thinking of several British scientists, notably James Hutton and Sir Charles Lyell, although William Whewell at Cambridge University is credited with coming up with the name. The basis of the doctrine is an assumption that geological processes observed now are the same as what has occurred in the past.


The ideas of uniformitarianism were contrary to two common understandings of the time. Two were from the Bible and one from discovery. The first was that the earth had been created by God in a short time not too long ago. The second was that Noah’s flood was an example of geologic processes. The third was the discovery of the town of Pompeii that had clearly been buried in volcanic ash almost instantly. In the controversies over uniformitarianism, these views, although from different sources, were known as the catastrophic understanding of geologic history.

Origin – Hutton

In his 1795 book, “Theory of the Earth,” James Hutton challenged biblical creationism and the idea that the earth was young. His ideas sprung from his observation of the excavation done for the construction of a railroad. He saw, at the bottom of the cut for the tracks, schist (which is a rock formed from other rocks) oriented vertically. Above the schist was a horizontal layer of sandstone and on top of that soil. He concluded that all of this had taken a very long time to happen and was the result of gradual but continuous change.

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Amplification – Lyell

Sir Charles Lyell in the several volumes of his “Principles of Geology” (1830-33) accepted Hutton’s ideas and also rejected anything supernatural occurring in geology. He believed that the present physical processes had been present at all times in the past and had acted as they do now. His ideas were picked up by Charles Darwin and carried over from geology to biology in 1859.


The uniformitarian doctrine contains several ideas. The belief that the earth is of great age is now almost universally accepted. The idea of the consistent operation of physical laws at all times and all places is also commonly accepted. The absence of God from nature is accepted as the basis of the scientific study of material phenomena. Ironically, it is the idea that existing geologic processes are sufficient to and can explain everything observed in the rocks and minerals of earth that is most problematic.


The continuing study of geology since Lyell shows the earth’s road to the present was a rocky one. Hutton can be said to have created the idea of geologic time but could not have foreseen that catastrophic events occurring in a blink of geologic time, such as the gigantic outflows of magma that occurred in the northwestern United States and elsewhere, weaken, if not destroy, the geologic portion of the uniformitarian doctrine.