At the beginning of the sixteenth century and throughout the seventeenth century a great debate about the true nature of fossils started in Italy and extended to Europe. There was two hypothesis in dispute: the first one postulated an inorganic origin for the fossils (directly formed within rocks) and the second, which contemplated an organic origin. The court doctor to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Nicola Steno argued that the stones called Glossopetrae or “tongue stones” looked like shark teeth because they were shark teeth deposited a long time ago. In 1667, Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society included an abstract of ‘The head of a shark dissected’ (Canis Carchariae Dissectum Caput) by Nicolas Steno in one of the early issues of the Philosophical Transactions. Robert Hooke (1635-1703), Curator of Experiments of the Royal Society, expressed similar ideas two years before Steno. In ‘Micrographia’ (1665) he argued that the micro-structure of petrified wood were identical to those seen in normal wood. He also described the ‘serpentine stones’ and concluded that these stones were not formed due any ‘plastic virtue’, but were due to shells of shellfish that became filled with mud or clay or petrifying water and had over time rotted away, leaving their impressions ‘both on the containing and contained substances’ (Kusukawa, 2013).
Between 1667 and 1700, Hooke delivered a series of at least 27 lectures or ‘Discourses’ to the Royal Society on the generic subject of ‘Earthquakes’, or earth-forming processes, published in his Posthumous works (1705), and accompanied by some of Hooke’s drawings that survived among the papers of Sir Hans Sloane.
Hooke’s ‘wandering poles’ theory was the first dynamic explanation of continent formation in the history of science. ‘The Earth’s rotation, he proposed, caused a bulge and thus greater altitude at the equator versus a flattening at the poles. He maintained that over time, a change in the positions of the poles on the Earth surface due to a change in the moment of inertia would cause different areas of bulging and flattening with the creation of new land or sea areas’ (Drake, 2007).
By the time that he delivered his third series of ‘Discourses’ in 1687, Hooke had arrived to three remarkable conclusions. First, that fossils were the petrified remains of once living creatures (he called ‘medals of Nature’ and part of ‘Nature’s Grammar’, to be collected like coins and read like texts) and not just twists in the rock. Second, that there had been radical changes of sea level. Third, that hill-tops in England had once formed the beds of tropical oceans as indicated by the discovered of gigantic sea shells.
Hooke’s writings were intimately connected to his birthplace: the town of Freshwater near the western edge of the Isle of Wight. Throughout his Discourses he mentioned the cliffs around Freshwater Bay from which he collected fossils. Unfortunately, many of the fossils that he collected for the Royal Society, along with his portrait as Secretary of the Society, many papers and several scientific instruments and models designed by Hooke are lost, but Hooke’s ideas were transmitted by later writers, demonstrating the continuity of the development of geological thought. Arthur Percival Rossiter even nominated him in 1935 as ‘The First English Geologist’.
E. T. Drake, The geological observations of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) on the Isle of Wight; p19-30. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 2007, v.287; doi: 10.1144/SP287.3
Sachiko Kusukawa, Drawings of fossils by Robert Hooke and Richard Waller, Notes Rec. R. Soc. 2013 67 123-138; DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2013.0013. Published 3 April 2013
M. J. S. Rudwick, The meaning of fossils: episodes in the history of palaeontology(University of Chicago Press, 1985)