Neptunism

Neptunism is a theory established at the end of the eighteenth century, especially thanks to the work of the German geologist Abraham Gottlob Werner, according to which all rocks had a marine origin. The etymology is related to Neptune, in Roman mythology the god of water and sea.

According to this theory, the center of the Earth would have been cold and solid and its core composed of hard stone. Rocks and mountains would have originated from marine sedimentation processes and the material erupted from volcanoes would not have originated from the depths of the lithosphere but would have been fed by a process of “cooking” of carbon layers. According to the neptunism, in fact, all materials present on the earth’s crust would have been deposited as a result of the retreat of a large sea that originally covered the whole earth.

Neptunism was in agreement with creationist theories; it postulated, in fact, the progressive appearance of life on Earth in accordance with the order of Genesis. The main weakness of the theory was the difficulty in explaining what happened to all the water that had withdrawn from the primitive Earth (and no supporter of Neptunism was ever able to give a plausible explanation). Some followers of neptunism, the so-called Vulcanists, however, hypothesized that the landmass, instead of resulting from the withdrawal of sea water, had been raised by the work of huge volcanoes, that is, by the intervention of catastrophic singular events.

The theory was very successful in the transitional age from the Enlightenment to Romanticism. Among the most famous proponents of neptunism should be mentioned Johann Goethe and Friedrich von Hardenberg.

In contrast with neptunism another theory, more linked to the traditional eighteenth-century rationalism, plutonism, supported by Scottish scientist James Hutton, assumed that the lifting of sea rocks, and therefore the formation of continents, was the work of the force represented by the “subterranean heat”.

Plutonism and neptunism were related to the opposition of solidism and fluidism, which enlivened speculations about the quantitative and qualitative nature of the Earth’s center.

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