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Abstract

Isostasy and the geosyncline are two major geological concepts that had their origins in the nineteenth century. Each is uniquely American in its origin, although a number of suggestions by Europeans triggered ideas in the minds of Americans. James Hall first published the basics of the geosyncline in 1859, although the concept was without its present name until that was provided later by James Dwight Dana. Isostasy-like generalizations began with J.F.W. Herschel in 1836, but it was not until 1889 that Clarence E. Dutton formally named the concept of isostasy. Isostasy and the geosyncline are closely related concepts in modern geological theory, and it is no surprise to find that they developed more or less concurrently and that certain individuals were involved in the development of each. Among geologists who either contributed to or critiqued the ideas, we find such familiar names as Hall, Dutton, Dana, T. Sterry Hunt, Joseph LeConte, G. K. Gilbert, William J. McGee and others. The development of isostasy and the geosyncline follows a process that is familiar in the history of science. Each was developed against the background of major philosophical arguments. Each was postulated minus much of the evidence required for a credible idea. Each attracted a number of proponents and detractors, and each had staying power sufficient to achieve general acceptance by the scientific community. At the present, against the backdrop of a major new theory system—plate tectonics—isostasy remains a useful and noncontroversial idea. The geosyncline, however, has a less solid future. Some geologists assert that it is no longer useful and should be junked, while others, by redefining the idea, continue to find it a major unifying concept.

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