A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter IV
The origin and development of modern geology
James Hutton
One might naturally suppose that the science of the earth which lies at man's feet would at least have kept pace with the science of the distant stars. But perhaps the very obviousness of the phenomena delayed the study of the crust of the earth. It is the unattainable that allures and mystifies and enchants the developing mind. The proverbial child spurns its toys and cries for the moon.

So in those closing days of the eighteenth century, when astronomers had gone so far towards explaining the mysteries of the distant portions of the universe, we find a chaos of opinion regarding the structure and formation of the earth. Guesses were not wanting to explain the formation of the world, it is true, but, with one or two exceptions, these are bizarre indeed. One theory supposed the earth to have been at first a solid mass of ice, which became animated only after a comet had dashed against it. Other theories conceived the original globe as a mass of water, over which floated vapors containing the solid elements, which in due time were precipitated as a crust upon the waters. In a word, the various schemes supposed the original mass to have been ice, or water, or a conglomerate of water and solids, according to the random fancies of the theorists; and the final separation into land and water was conceived to have taken place in all the ways which fancy, quite unchecked by any tenable data, could invent.

Whatever important changes in the general character of the surface of the globe were conceived to have taken place since its creation were generally associated with the Mosaic: deluge, and the theories which attempted to explain this catastrophe were quite on a par with those which dealt with a remoter period of the earth's history. Some speculators, holding that the interior of the globe is a great abyss of waters, conceived that the crust had dropped into this chasm and had thus been inundated. Others held that the earth had originally revolved on a vertical axis, and that the sudden change to its present position bad caused the catastrophic shifting of its oceans. But perhaps the favorite theory was that which supposed a comet to have wandered near the earth, and in whirling about it to have carried the waters, through gravitation, in a vast tide over the continents.

Thus blindly groped the majority of eighteenth-century philosophers in their attempts to study what we now term geology. Deluded by the old deductive methods, they founded not a science, but the ghost of a science, as immaterial and as unlike anything in nature as any other phantom that could be conjured from the depths of the speculative imagination. And all the while the beckoning earth lay beneath the feet of these visionaries; but their eyes were fixed in air.

At last, however, there came a man who had the penetration to see that the phantom science of geology needed before all else a body corporeal, and who took to himself the task of supplying it. This was Dr. James Hutton, of Edinburgh, physician, farmer, and manufacturing chemist - patient, enthusiastic, level-headed devotee of science. Inspired by his love of chemistry to study the character of rocks and soils, Hutton had not gone far before the earth stood revealed to him in a new light. He saw, what generations of predecessors had blindly refused to see, that the face of nature everywhere, instead of being rigid and immutable, is perennially plastic, and year by year is undergoing metamorphic changes. The solidest rocks are day by day disintegrated slowly, but none the less surely, by wind and rain and frost, by mechanical attrition and chemical decomposition, to form the pulverized earth and clay. This soil is being swept away by perennial showers, and carried off to the oceans. The oceans themselves beat on their shores, and eat insidiously into the structure of sands and rocks. Everywhere, slowly but surely, the surface of the land is being worn away; its substance is being carried to burial in the seas.

Should this denudation continue long enough, thinks Hutton, the entire surface of the continents must be worn away. Should it be continued LONG ENOUGH! And with that thought there flashes on his mind an inspiring conception - the idea that solar time is long, indefinitely long. That seems a simple enough thought - almost a truism - to the twentieth-century mind; but it required genius to conceive it in the eighteenth. Hutton pondered it, grasped its full import, and made it the basis of his hypothesis, his "theory of the earth."





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.