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"We certainly obtain . . . a more plausible explanation of the phaenomena observed, than by the supposition of a huge mass of water overwhelming the whole land"


beaumont.jpgLeonce Elie de Beaumont (1798 – 1874) extended his 1829-1830 theory that there had been a succession of mountain-building episodes over geologic time ("epoques de soulevement") to include erratic transportation: while mountains were the result of Earth periodically contracting as it gradually cooled, when mountain building occurred, as in the Alps, elevation allowed the escape of internal heat which melted existing ice and the resulting deluge spread erratics and diluvium throughout the region. Thus Elie de Beaumont provided yet another possible cause for the conventional "flood" hypothesis of erratic transportation.






beche section.bmp

"Upheaved strata forming mountains . . Alps. St. Gothard to the right."
(de la Beche 1830)


The British geologist Henry T. De La Beche (1796-1855), reviewed this idea and added a crucial observation with respect to mountains: "we certainly obtain, by means of this ready mode of transport, and the sudden action of a large body of water rushing down the valleys, a more plausible explanation of the phaenomena observed, than by the supposition of a huge mass of water overwhelming the whole land, - which does not afford us a good explanation of the nearly equal transport outwards, down so many principal valleys, of solid matter derived from the central parts of the chain" (de la Beche 1834, p.388-389

Furthermore, de la Beche also extended Elie de Beaumont's ideas to included the lowland diluvium of northern Europe: "The other great accumulation of erratic blocks seems due to some more general cause, since not only are the blocks scattered in great abundance over Northern Europe, in a manner to show their northern origin, but those which occur in the northern parts of America, apparently in equal abundance, also point to a similar origin. We hence infer that some cause, situated in the polar regions, has so acted as to produce this dispersion of solid matter over a certain portion of the earth's surface. We know of no agent capable of causing the effect required, but moving water. We therefore further infer that some cause has produced an action of water in the polar regions which has scattered blocks of rock outwards from a somewhat central situation. Now, if mountains can be produced in the manner noticed in a former part of this volume, there is no reason, that we are aware of, why a sudden elevation of land should not be produced beneath the polar seas as in any other part of the earth's surface, and if such elevation were so produced, the necessary consequences would be a wave or waves proportioned to the disturbing force. Such waves would necessarily tend to float the northern glaciers with their usual burden of blocks of rock, lifting them to the southward ; but their principal action would be felt where they reached the coasts, and the waves from being little more than great undulations of water, became huge breakers, acquiring a violent forward motion, and a consequent abrading and transporting power, which can be well appreciated when it is recollected that those relatively minute waves which break on coasts during gales of wind have the power to destroy large solid pieces of compact masonry, and to hurl the disjointed fragments before them. The effects observed would correspond with this hypothesis, for all the blocks have not come from great distances : they have been detached from various points. Many erratic blocks in England can be traced northwards to their parent rocks in the British Islands, and Prof. Hitchcock has shown that the like can be done in the United States. The great mass of blocks scattered in such abundance over parts of Germany, Sweden, Poland and Russia, are evidently derived from rocks known to exist to the northward of them, their mineralogical and other characters being sufficiently marked. Many of the effects which would be produced by the breaking of such waves will be obvious; among the rest we should expect considerable local accumulations of rocks derived from different quarters. This seems to be well shown in the diluvium of Holderness, on the coast of Yorkshire, where, according to Mr. Phillips, a clay envelops various fragments of rocks, apparently derived from Norway, the highlands of Scotland, the mountains of Cumberland, and from Yorkshire itself, while no small portion seems to have been transported from the seacoast of Durham and the vicinity of Whitby ; the fragments being rounded in proportion to the distance whence they were derived" (de la Beche 1834, p.389-390).


Charles G.B. Daubeny (1795-1867) argued more or less in the same fashion in favor of widespread diluvial action although, unlike an increasing majority geologists at this time, he was somewhat anxious to maintain the possibility of a Scriptural connection: "The doctrine in question [that of Elie de Beaumont] has the further advantage of rendering the accounts of such catastrophes, which are handed down to us on the authority both of history and tradition, consistent with probability, instead of opposed to it; in harmony with scientific research, instead of involving, as Voltaire rashly asserted, a physical impossibility ; and thus, if not directly confirming the Mosaic history on this particular point, removing at least those obstacles to its reception that might exist, if we considered the event related as out of the course of nature, and only to be explained by the instrumentality of causes unknown to us at present, and which had disappeared without leaving any traces of their existence behind them."


sedgwick.jpgThe Rev. Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) supported Elie's theory of successive epochs of uplift, which he termed a "grand key to the mysteries of Nature," against Charles Lyell's strict uniformitarianism (see below); but he also famously distanced himself (and geology) from a Scriptural connection in a Presidential Address to the Geological society: "our diluvial gravel was probably not the result of one, but of many successive periods. But what I then stated [last year] as a probable opinion, may, after the Essays of M. de Beaumont, be now advanced with all the authority of established truth : and among the many obligations we owe to this accomplished observer, I may mention the new and instructive views he has given us of the origin of the great masses of old detritus lying scattered over the lower regions of the earth."

Having accepted a cause, Sedgwick then famously diverged significantly from the views of Daubeny and other Scripturalists (whom he did not mention by name):  ". . . the vast masses of diluvial gravel, scattered almost over the surface of the earth, do not belong to one violent and transitory period . . . It was indeed a most unwarranted conclusion, when we assumed the contemporaneity of all the superficial gravel on the earth. We saw the clearest traces of diluvial action, and we had, in our sacred histories, the record of a general deluge. On this double testimony it was, that we gave a unity to a vast succession of phenomena, not one of which we perfectly comprehended, and under the name diluvium, classed them all together. . .  Our errors were, however, natural, and of the same kind which led many excellent observers of a former century to refer all the secondary formations of geology to the Noachian deluge. . . . We ought, indeed, to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic flood."

But note that Sedgwick was opposed only to the Scriptural connection and not to catastrophes in general, which he believed the rock record contained in ample volume (including the recent diluvial gravels). There was nothing in Sedgwick's work either that suggested glaciation at this time.

There is no doubt that the "diluvial" hypothesis was well-entrenched and theoretically sophisticated in the early 1830s. Sedgwick  believed it explained a good deal more than Lyell's "local" and "present" causes.


NOTE: While Elie's theory of mountain-building met with general approval at the time, it was not one that Charles Lyell approved of (as strongly noted by Daubeny): Lyell, a uniformitarian in the strict sense, worked hard to interpret and explain phenomena on the basis of currently observable phenomena and he drew upon Charles Darwin's observations of uplift in the Andes to argue for less dramatic upheavals on Earth's surface (Cannon 1960, p.41-42; Lyell p.338-351). Lyell (p. 148) suggested another explanation for Alpine erratics (see "Uniformitarian Drift"). On the other hand, in 1831, Sedgwick argued "That the system of M. Elie de Beaumont is directly opposed to a fundamental principle vindicated by Mr. Lyell, cannot admit of doubt. And I have decided to the best of my judgment, in favour of the former author, because his conclusions are not based upon any a priori reasoning [i.e. as he saw Lyell's uniformitarianism], but on the evidence of facts . . ."



  1. As your review the use that  Charpentier ("An incredible hypothesis") and de la Beche made of Elie de Beaumont's ideas, which hypothesis seems to be the most solid? Argue your case for one or the other. What was Charpentier "up against" in proposing Alpine glaciations as he did?
  2. In using Elie de Beaumont's mountain-building, Charpentier found an explanation for the extension of glaciers in the colder temperatures that higher elevation would induce. How did de la Beche use Elie de Beaumont's ideas?
  3. What differences and similarities are there between de la Beche's ideas and James Hall's?



Cannon, W.F. 1960 The Uniformitarian-Catastrophist Debate. Isis v.51(1) p.38-55


Elie de Beaumont, L. 1830 (1829-1830) Sur quelque-unes des révolutions de la surface du globe, présentant differents exemples de coincidence entre le redressement des couches de certains systèmes de montagnes, et les changements soudains qui 'ont produit les lignes de demarcation qu'on observe entre certains étages consecutifs des terrains de sédiment (Memoire extrait des Annales de Science naturelles, v.18 (1829) p.5-25, 284-416; v.19 (1830) p.5-99, 177-240)  (Chez Crochard Libraire Editeur, Paris)

http://books.google.com/books?id=-BArAAAAYAAJ&ots=c0W3e4t-Xg&pg=PA3#v [This was Louis Agassiz's personal copy.]


p.5-25 http://books.google.com/books?id=6XcCAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA2-PA5#v

p.284-416 http://books.google.com/books?id=6XcCAAAAYAAJ&pg=RA2-PA284#v


p.5-99 http://books.google.com/books?id=4oE5AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA5#v

p.177-240 http://books.google.com/books?id=4oE5AAAAcAAJ&pg=RA1-PA177#v

ENGLISH EXTRACT: de la Beche, H.T. 1831 Researches on some of the revolutions which have taken place on the Surface of the Globe; presenting various examples of the coincidence between the elevation of beds in certain systems of mountains, and the sudden changes which have produced the lines of demarcation observable in certain stages of the sedimentary deposits. The  Philosophical Magazine v.X (Jul-Dec, 1831) p.241-264



Daubeny, C. 1831 On the Diluvial Theory, and on the origin of the valleys of Auvergne. The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, Jan-Mar 1831 p.201-228   http://www.google.com/books?id=9w0XAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA201#v


de la Beche, H.T. 1834 Researches in theoretical geology (London, Charles Knight)


de la Beche, H.T. 1830 Sections and views illustrative of geological phenomena. (Treuttel & Wurtz, London)

Gould, S.J. 1985 The freezing of Noah. p. 114-25 in S.J. Gould The flamingo’s smile (W.W. Norton, New York)

Lyell, C. 1833 Principles of geology, volume 3 (John Murray, London) http://www.google.com/books?id=zqkJAAAAIAAJ&pg=PR3

Sedgwick, A. 1831 Address to the Geological Society, delivered on the Evening of the 18th of February 1831, by the Rev. Professor Sedgwick, M.A. F.R.S. &c. on retiring from the President's Chair. The Philosophical Magazine [New Series.] v.IX (Jan.-June. 1831) no.LII (April) p.281-317 http://www.google.com/books?id=OkIwAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA281

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