Abraham Gottlob Werner

From Cultures of Natural History edited by Jardine, Secord and Spary

Born to a mining family in 1749 or 1750, and educated at the University of Leipzig, Abraham Gottlob Werner established his reputation with a brief book, titled Von den Äußerlichen Kennzeichen der Fossilien, in 1774. By the turn of the 19th century, he was possibly the world's most famous Earth scientist. His enormous influence meant that he left both a good and bad legacy to the science of geology. On the up side, his 1774 book elaborated techniques for identifying minerals using human senses, drawing on his background in mining. His practical classification system appealed to a broad audience interested in learning more about geology. On the down side, he advanced the "Neptunian" view of the Earth, claiming that all rocks had been deposited in a primordial ocean. This view, which had been in existence before Werner promoted it, was accepted almost without question, and prevailed until overturned by James Hutton near the close of the 18th century.

Celâl Şengör observes that Werner was "first and foremost a miner and second a teacher" and that the folkloric traditions of his culture, combined with some irrational elements of Romanticism, had a strong influence on Werner's thinking. Folklore may have been easier to teach than some of experimental methods of geology emerging in the late 18th century, but some of his students later became his critics, among them Alexander von Humboldt.

Werner proposed new ways of thinking about geologic formations, redefining "formation" to refer not to the chemical makeup of a rock, but to the timing of its development. He defined formations as bodies of rock laid down in the same period, giving scientists a way of thinking about the rocks' histories. In arguing for a global ocean, however, Werner proposed "universal formations," i.e., everywhere on Earth, the same rock layers were deposited at the same times, as if the planet were an onion with global layers of skin. This idea was overturned long ago. While one area may accumulate rock layers through deposition of sediments, another area may lose rocks through erosion. Volcanic activity deposits ash and lava continually, but certainly not universally. One criticism of this hypothesis was that Werner hadn't traveled enough to verify it. The criticism was valid but so was Werner's reason for limited travel. He was plagued by poor health throughout his life, limiting his travel options.

In the 18th century, rocks were explained in terms of the biblical flood, and were classified into three categories that most people associated with the biblical flood: "primary" for ancient rocks without fossils (believed to precede the flood), "secondary" for rocks containing fossils (often attributed to the flood itself) and "tertiary" for sediments believed to have been deposited after the flood. Werner didn't overturn the commonly held belief in the biblical flood, but he never referred to the Bible in his writings, either. He was not considered by his contemporaries as a scriptural geologist who explained everything through the Noachian flood. Instead, he identified a different group of rocks that didn't fit the primary, secondary and tertiary classification: rocks with a few fossils that were younger than primary rocks but older than secondary rocks. He called these "transition" rocks. Geologists of succeeding generations classified these rocks into the geologic periods still accepted today.

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