7 junio, 2024

Theory of uniformitarianism: origins, principles and importance

The uniformitarianism theory explains that the evolution of planet Earth is a constant and repeatable process. Uniformitarianism is a philosophical and scientific proposal, with origins in the Scottish Enlightenment. This theory maintains that the natural processes that have taken place throughout the evolution of the Earth have been uniform, constant and repeatable.

In other words, the factors that caused them in the past are identical today and occur with the same intensity. Therefore, they can be studied to understand the passage of time. The term uniformitarianism should not be confused with uniformity.



james ussher

The first attempt to age the Earth, and thus its events, was made by the Irish Anglican Archbishop James Ussher. The religious published his book the annals of the world in the year 1650, and to write it was based on specific fragments of the Bible and the average human life.

In this way, he sought to estimate a starting point for the history of the planet. The Irishman’s theory was accepted as true at the time.

James Hutton

Then James Hutton, a British geologist and naturalist known as the father of modern geology, was the first to really propose the theory of uniformitarianism, which came to light in the 18th century.

During his trips to the shores of the British Isles, Hutton dedicated himself to describing and cataloging the rocks he found in his path in great detail. In fact, he was the creator of the concept of deep time and the first to decipher the mystery of sedimentation.

The work that brought together most of these studies is the earth theory, published between the years 1785 and 1788, and recognized as Hutton’s magnum opus. In this he proposes the theoretical principles, based on evidence collected by him, that would give form and scientific value to uniformitarianism.

These principles affirm that the planet Earth had not been shaped by violent and fast events, but by slow, constant and gradual processes. The same processes that can be seen at work in the world today were responsible for shaping the Earth. For example: the wind, the weather and the flow of the tides.

Principles of uniformitarianism

The fundamental principles of this theory are:

-The present is the key to the past: events occur at the same speed now as they always have.

-Processes have occurred at a constant frequency throughout natural history. James Hutton explains it in his book earth theory: “we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end“.

-The observable forces and processes at the Earth’s surface are the same ones that have shaped the Earth’s landscape throughout natural history.

-Geological processes, such as erosion, deposition or compaction are constant, although they occur at extremely low speeds.

Uniformitarianism in the scientific community and related theories

Uniformitarianism was widely debated during the 18th and 19th centuries because, among other reasons, it offered a way to logically understand the Earth’s long natural and geological history and accepted change as a normal part of various natural processes.

Although it was never said explicitly, it showed that there could be other ways of understanding the world beyond the faithful and exact interpretation of the Bible.

John Playfair, Charles Lyell and William Whewell

One of the defenders of Hutton’s work was John Playfair, a British geologist and mathematician, who in his book Illustrations of the Huttonian theory of the Earthpublished in 1802, makes clear the influence Hutton had on geological research.

Charles Lyell, a lawyer, geologist, and Hutton’s compatriot, extensively studied and developed the principles of uniformitarianism based on his research.

On the other hand, William Whewell, a British philosopher and scientist, was the first to coin the term uniformitarianism in the 19th century, despite not agreeing with some of its postulates.

Relationship with actualism and catastrophism

Uniformitarianism is closely related to other theories, such as actualism and catastrophism. With actualism it shares the affirmation that past phenomena can be explained based on the fact that their causes were the same as those that operate today.

And with catastrophism it is linked because it is the direct counterpart of uniformitarianism, because the theory of catastrophism maintains that the Earth, in its origin, had arisen suddenly and catastrophically.

The gradualist current —the belief that change should occur slowly but constantly— is also represented in the studies by Hutton and Lyell, since the principles of uniformitarianism explain that the processes of creation and extinction occur accompanied by geological and biologics that vary in time and magnitude.

uniformitarianism today

The modern interpretation of uniformitarianism remains quite faithful to its original idea, although it admits subtle differences. For example, geologists today agree that the forces of nature work just as they have for millions of years. However, the intensity of these forces can vary markedly.

The speed of natural processes is also variable. And although it is known that they have always existed, exist and will exist, even today it is impossible to predict earthquakes, landslides and even major floods.

Importance of uniformitarianism

It would be impossible to deny the historical importance that uniformitarianism had on the field of geology. Thanks to this theory, it became possible to read the history of the Earth through its rocks, understanding the factors that cause flooding, the variable intensity of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Hutton’s geological theories even diminished the influence of entities as powerful as the Catholic Church, because with a logical argument divine intervention was no longer crucial to explain the mysterious phenomena of nature. Thus, the key to understanding the present was not in the supernatural, but in the past.

Hutton and Lyell were, along with all their proposals and research, a respected source of inspiration for Charles Darwin. Also for his theory of evolution published in The origin of speciesin 1859.

In this work, seven decades after Hutton published the earth theoryit was implied that gradual but constant change applied as much to the evolution of species as to the evolution of the planet itself.


Hutton, J. (1788). Theory of the Earth; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration of Land upon the Globe. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Vol. I
BBC Newsroom (2017). James Hutton, the blasphemer who revealed that the truth about the Earth was not in the Bible and gave us deep time. BBC World. Rescued from: bbc.com
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (1998). uniformitarianism. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Rescued from britannica.com
Thomson, W., ‘Lord Kelvin’ (1865). The ‘Doctrine of Uniformity’ in Geology Briefly Refuted. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Vera Torres, JA (1994). Stratigraphy: Principles and Methods. Ed. Rueda.

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