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

Book 3, chapter IV
The origin and development of modern geology
Modern geology
The hypothesis is this - that the observed changes of the surface of the earth, continued through indefinite lapses of time, must result in conveying all the land at last to the sea; in wearing continents away till the oceans overflow them. What then? Why, as the continents wear down, the oceans are filling up. Along their bottoms the detritus of wasted continents is deposited in strata, together with the bodies of marine animals and vegetables. Why might not this debris solidify to form layers of rocks - the basis of new continents? Why not, indeed?

But have we any proof that such formation of rocks in an ocean-bed has, in fact, occurred? To be sure we have. It is furnished by every bed of limestone, every outcropping fragment of fossil-bearing rock, every stratified cliff. How else than through such formation in an ocean-bed came these rocks to be stratified? How else came they to contain the shells of once living organisms imbedded in their depths? The ancients, finding fossil shells imbedded in the rocks, explained them as mere freaks of "nature and the stars." Less superstitious generations had repudiated this explanation, but had failed to give a tenable solution of the mystery. To Hutton it is a mystery no longer. To him it seems clear that the basis of the present continents was laid in ancient sea-beds, formed of the detritus of continents yet more ancient.

But two links are still wanting to complete the chain of Hutton's hypothesis. Through what agency has the ooze of the ocean-bed been transformed into solid rock? and through what agency has this rock been lifted above the surface of the water to form new continents? Hutton looks about him for a clew, and soon he finds it. Everywhere about us there are outcropping rocks that are not stratified, but which give evidence to the observant eye of having once been in a molten state. Different minerals are mixed together; pebbles are scattered through masses of rock like plums in a pudding; irregular crevices in otherwise solid masses of rock - so-called veinings - are seen to be filled with equally solid granite of a different variety, which can have gotten there in no conceivable way, so Hutton thinks, but by running in while molten, as liquid metal is run into the moulds of the founder. Even the stratified rocks, though they seemingly have not been melted, give evidence in some instances of having been subjected to the action of heat. Marble, for example, is clearly nothing but calcined limestone.

With such evidence before him, Hutton is at no loss to complete his hypothesis. The agency which has solidified the ocean-beds, he says, is subterranean heat. The same agency, acting excessively, has produced volcanic cataclysms, upheaving ocean-beds to form continents. The rugged and uneven surfaces of mountains, the tilted and broken character of stratified rocks everywhere, are the standing witnesses of these gigantic upheavals.

And with this the imagined cycle is complete. The continents, worn away and carried to the sea by the action of the elements, have been made over into rocks again in the ocean-beds, and then raised once more into continents. And this massive cycle, In Hutton's scheme, is supposed to have occurred not once only, but over and over again, times without number. In this unique view ours is indeed a world without beginning and without end; its continents have been making and unmaking in endless series since time began.

Hutton formulated his hypothesis while yet a young man, not long after the middle of the century. He first gave it publicity in 1781, in a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh:

"A solid body of land could not have answered the purpose of a habitable world," said Hutton, "for a soil is necessary to the growth of plants, and a soil is nothing but the material collected from the destruction of the solid land. Therefore the surface of this land inhabited by man, and covered by plants and animals, is made by nature to decay, in dissolving from that hard and compact state in which it is found; and this soil is necessarily washed away by the continual circulation of the water running from the summits of the mountains towards the general receptacle of that fluid.

"The heights of our land are thus levelled with our shores, our fertile plains are formed from the ruins of the mountains; and those travelling materials are still pursued by the moving water, and propelled along the inclined surface of the earth. These movable materials, delivered into the sea, cannot, for a long continuance, rest upon the shore, for by the agitation of the winds, the tides, and the currents every movable thing is carried farther and farther along the shelving bottom of the sea, towards the unfathomable regions of the ocean.

"If the vegetable soil is thus constantly removed from the surface of the land, and if its place is then to be supplied from the dissolution of the solid earth as here represented, we may perceive an end to this beautiful machine; an end arising from no error in its constitution as a world, but from that destructibility of its land which is so necessary in the system of the globe, in the economy of life and vegetation.

"The immense time necessarily required for the total destruction of the land must not be opposed to that view of future events which is indicated by the surest facts and most approved principles. Time, which measures everything in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it has existence; and as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon this globe that in the course of nature cannot be limited by time must proceed in a continual succession. We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the destruction of our land, so far as effected by those operations which are necessary in the purpose of the globe, considered as a habitable world, and so far as we have not examined any other part of the economy of nature, in which other operations and a different intention might appear.

"We have now considered the globe of this earth as a machine, constructed upon chemical as well as mechanical principles, by which its different parts are all adapted, in form, in quality, and quantity, to a certain end - an end attained with certainty of success, and an end from which we may perceive wisdom in contemplating the means employed.

"But is this world to be considered thus merely as a machine, to last no longer than its parts retain their present position, their proper forms and qualities? Or may it not be also considered as an organized body such as has a constitution, in which the necessary decay of the machine is naturally repaired in the exertion of those productive powers by which it has been formed?

"This is the view in which we are now to examine the globe; to see if there be, in the constitution of the world, a reproductive operation by which a ruined constitution may be again repaired and a duration of stability thus procured to the machine considered as a world containing plants and animals.

"If no such reproductive power, or reforming operation, after due inquiry, is to be found in the constitution of this world, we should have reason to conclude that the system of this earth has either been intentionally made imperfect or has not been the work of infinite power and wisdom."[1]

 This, then, was the important question to be answered - the question of the constitution of the globe. To accomplish this, it was necessary, first of all, to examine without prejudice the material already in hand, adding such new discoveries from time to time as might be made, but always applying to the whole unvarying scientific principles and inductive methods of reasoning.

"If we are to take the written history of man for the rule by which we should judge of the time when the species first began," said Hutton, "that period would be but little removed from the present state of things. The Mosaic history places this beginning of man at no great distance; and there has not been found, in natural history, any document by which high antiquity might be attributed to the human race. But this is not the case with regard to the inferior species of animals, particularly those which inhabit the ocean and its shores. We find in natural history monuments which prove that those animals had long existed; and we thus procure a measure for the computation of a period of time extremely remote, though far from being precisely ascertained.

"In examining things present, we have data from which to reason with regard to what has been; and from what actually has been we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen hereafter. Therefore, upon the supposition that the operations of nature are equable and steady, we find, in natural appearances, means for concluding a certain portion of time to have necessarily elapsed in the production of those events of which we see the effects.

"It is thus that, in finding the relics of sea animals of every kind in the solid body of our earth, a natural history of those animals is formed, which includes a certain portion of time; and for the ascertaining this portion of time we must again have recourse to the regular operations of this world. We shall thus arrive at facts which indicate a period to which no other species of chronology is able to remount.

"We find the marks of marine animals in the most solid parts of the earth, consequently those solid parts have been formed after the ocean was inhabited by those animals which are proper to that fluid medium. If, therefore, we knew the natural history of these solid parts, and could trace the operations of the globe by which they have been formed, we would have some means for computing the time through which those species of animals have continued to live. But how shall we describe a process which nobody has seen performed and of which no written history gives any account? This is only to be investigated, first, in examining the nature of those solid bodies the history of which we want to know; and, secondly, in examining the natural operations of the globe, in order to see if there now exist such operations as, from the nature of the solid bodies, appear to have been necessary for their formation.

"There are few beds of marble or limestone in which may not be found some of those objects which indicate the marine object of the mass. If, for example, in a mass of marble taken from a quarry upon the top of the Alps or Andes there shall be found one cockle-shell or piece of coral, it must be concluded that this bed of stone has been originally formed at the bottom of the sea, as much as another bed which is evidently composed almost altogether of cockle-shells and coral. If one bed of limestone is thus found to have been of marine origin, every concomitant bed of the same kind must be also concluded to have been formed in the same manner.

"In those calcareous strata, which are evidently of marine origin, there are many parts which are of sparry structure - that is to say, the original texture of those beds in such places has been dissolved, and a new structure has been assumed which is peculiar to a certain state of the calcareous earth. This change is produced by crystallization, in consequence of a previous state of fluidity, which has so disposed the concerting parts as to allow them to assume a regular shape and structure proper to that substance. A body whose external form has been modified by this process is called a CRYSTAL; one whose internal arrangement of parts is determined by it is said to be of a SPARRY STRUCTURE, and this is known from its fracture.

"There are, in all the regions of the earth, huge masses of calcareous matter in that crystalline form or sparry state in which, perhaps, no vestige can be found of any organized body, nor any indication that such calcareous matter has belonged to animals; but as in other masses this sparry structure or crystalline state is evidently assumed by the marine calcareous substances in operations which are natural to the globe, and which are necessary to the consolidation of the strata, it does not appear that the sparry masses in which no figured body is formed have been originally different from other masses, which, being only crystallized in part, and in part still retaining their original form, have ample evidence of their marine origin.

"We are led, in this manner, to conclude that all the strata of the earth, not only those consisting of such calcareous masses, but others superincumbent upon these, have had their origin at the bottom of the sea.

"The general amount of our reasoning is this, that nine-tenths, perhaps, or ninety-nine-hundredths, of this earth, so far as we see, have been formed by natural operations of the globe in collecting loose materials and depositing them at the bottom of the sea; consolidating those collections in various degrees, and either elevating those consolidated masses above the level on which they were formed or lowering the level of that sea.

"Let us now consider how far the other proposition of strata being elevated by the power of heat above the level of the sea may be confirmed from the examination of natural appearances. The strata formed at the bottom of the ocean are necessarily horizontal in their position, or nearly so, and continuous in their horizontal direction or extent. They may be changed and gradually assume the nature of each other, so far as concerns the materials of which they are formed, but there cannot be any sudden change, fracture, or displacement naturally in the body of a stratum. But if the strata are cemented by the heat of fusion, and erected with an expansive power acting below, we may expect to find every species of fracture, dislocation, and contortion in those bodies and every degree of departure from a horizontal towards a vertical position.

"The strata of the globe are actually found in every possible position: for from horizontal they are frequently found vertical; from continuous they are broken and separated in every possible direction; and from a plane they are bent and doubled. It is impossible that they could have originally been formed, by the known laws of nature, in their present state and position; and the power that has been necessarily required for their change has not been inferior to that which might have been required for their elevation from the place in which they have been formed."[2]

 From all this, therefore, Hutton reached the conclusion that the elevation of the bodies of land above the water on the earth's surface had been effected by the same force which had acted in consolidating the strata and giving them stability. This force he conceived to be exerted by the expansion of heated matter.

"We have," he said, "been now supposing that the beginning of our present earth had been laid in the bottom of the ocean, at the completion of the former land, but this was only for the sake of distinctness. The just view is this, that when the former land of the globe had been complete, so as to begin to waste and be impaired by the encroachment of the sea, the present land began to appear above the surface of the ocean. In this manner we suppose a due proportion to be always preserved of land and water upon the surface of the globe, for the purpose of a habitable world such as this which we possess. We thus also allow time and opportunity for the translation of animals and plants to occupy the earth.

"But if the earth on which we live began to appear in the ocean at the time when the LAST began to be resolved, it could not be from the materials of the continent immediately preceding this which we examine that the present earth has been constructed; for the bottom of the ocean must have been filled with materials before land could be made to appear above its surface.

"Let us suppose that the continent which is to succeed our land is at present beginning to appear above the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; it must be evident that the materials of this great body, which is formed and ready to be brought forth, must have been collected from the destruction of an earth which does not now appear. Consequently, in this true statement of the case there is necessarily required the destruction of an animal and vegetable earth prior to the former land; and the materials of that earth which is first in our account must have been collected at the bottom of the ocean, and begun to be concocted for the production of the present earth, when the land immediately preceding the present had arrived at its full extent.

"We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is; but we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find that in nature there are wisdom, system, and consistency. For having in the natural history of the earth seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning - no prospect of an end."

 Altogether remarkable as this paper seems in the light of later knowledge, neither friend nor foe deigned to notice it at the moment. It was not published in book form until the last decade of the century, when Hutton had lived with and worked over his theory for almost fifty years. Then it caught the eye of the world. A school of followers expounded the Huttonian doctrines; a rival school under Werner in Germany opposed some details of the hypothesis, and the educated world as a whole viewed the disputants askance. The very novelty of the new views forbade their immediate acceptance. Bitter attacks were made upon the "heresies," and that was meant to be a soberly tempered judgment which in 1800 pronounced Hutton's theories "not only hostile to sacred history, but equally hostile to the principles of probability, to the results of the ablest observations on the mineral kingdom, and to the dictates of rational philosophy." And all this because Hutton's theory presupposed the earth to have been in existence more than six thousand years.

Thus it appears that though the thoughts of men had widened, in those closing days of the eighteenth century, to include the stars, they had not as yet expanded to receive the most patent records that are written everywhere on the surface of the earth. Before Hutton's views could be accepted, his pivotal conception that time is long must be established by convincing proofs. The evidence was being gathered by William Smith, Cuvier, and other devotees of the budding science of paleontology in the last days of the century, but their labors were not brought to completion till a subsequent epoch.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.