Nicolaus Steno, also known as Niels Stensen, was the first to observe and propose some of the basic concepts of historical geology. One of these concepts was that fossils originally came from living organisms. The other, more famous, observations are often grouped together to form the laws of stratigraphy.
The prevailing concept of the 18th century in the West was that of a very short Earth history dominated by catastrophic events. This view was strongly supported by adherents of Abrahamic religions based on a largely literal interpretation of their religious scriptural passages. The concept of uniformitarianism met with considerable resistance and the catastrophism vs. gradualism debate of the 19th century resulted. A variety of discoveries in the 20th century provided ample evidence that Earth history is a product of both gradual incremental processes and sudden cataclysmic events. Violent events such as meteorite impacts and large volcanic explosions do shape the Earth's surface along with gradual processes such as weathering, erosion and deposition much as they have throughout Earth history. The present is the key to the past - includes catastrophic as well as gradual processes.