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

Book 3, chapter IV
The origin and development of modern geology
Lyell and uniformitarianism
If molten matter exists beneath the crust of the earth, it must contract in cooling, and in so doing it must disturb the level of the portion of the crust already solidified. So a plausible explanation of the upheaval of continents and mountains was supplied by the Plutonian theory, as Hutton had from the first alleged. But now an important difference of opinion arose as to the exact rationale of such upheavals. Hutton himself, and practically every one else who accepted his theory, had supposed that there are long periods of relative repose, during which the level of the crust is undisturbed, followed by short periods of active stress, when continents are thrown up with volcanic suddenness, as by the throes of a gigantic earthquake. But now came Charles Lyell with his famous extension of the "uniformitarian" doctrine, claiming that past changes of the earth's surface have been like present changes in degree as well as in kind. The making of continents and mountains, he said, is going on as rapidly to-day as at any time in the past. There have been no gigantic cataclysmic upheavals at any time, but all changes in level of the strata as a whole have been gradual, by slow oscillation, or at most by repeated earthquake shocks such as are still often experienced.

In support of this very startling contention Lyell gathered a mass of evidence of the recent changes in level of continental areas. He corroborated by personal inspection the claim which had been made by Playfair in 1802, and by Von Buch in 1807, that the coast-line of Sweden is rising at the rate of from a few inches to several feet in a century. He cited Darwin's observations going to prove that Patagonia is similarly rising, and Pingel's claim that Greenland is slowly sinking. Proof as to sudden changes of level of several feet, over large areas, due to earthquakes, was brought forward in abundance. Cumulative evidence left it no longer open to question that such oscillatory changes of level, either upward or downward, are quite the rule, and it could not be denied that these observed changes, if continued long enough in one direction, would produce the highest elevations. The possibility that the making of even the highest ranges of mountains had been accomplished without exaggerated catastrophic action came to be freely admitted.

It became clear that the supposedly stable-land surfaces are in reality much more variable than the surface of the "shifting sea"; that continental masses, seemingly so fixed, are really rising and falling in billows thousands of feet in height, ages instead of moments being consumed in the sweep between crest and hollow.

These slow oscillations of land surfaces being understood, many geological enigmas were made clear - such as the alternation of marine and fresh-water formations in a vertical series, which Cuvier and Brongniart had observed near Paris; or the sandwiching of layers of coal, of subaerial formation, between layers of subaqueous clay or sandstone, which may be observed everywhere in the coal measures. In particular, the extreme thickness of the sedimentary strata as a whole, many times exceeding the depth of the deepest known sea, was for the first time explicable when it was understood that such strata had formed in slowly sinking ocean-beds.

All doubt as to the mode of origin of stratified rocks being thus removed, the way was opened for a more favorable consideration of that other Huttonian doctrine of the extremely slow denudation of land surfaces. The enormous amount of land erosion will be patent to any one who uses his eyes intelligently in a mountain district. It will be evident in any region where the strata are tilted - as, for example, the Alleghanies - that great folds of strata which must once have risen miles in height have in many cases been worn entirely away, so that now a valley marks the location of the former eminence. Where the strata are level, as in the case of the mountains of Sicily, the Scotch Highlands, and the familiar Catskills, the evidence of denudation is, if possible, even more marked; for here it is clear that elevation and valley have been carved by the elements out of land that rose from the sea as level plateaus.

But that this herculean labor of land-sculpturing could have been accomplished by the slow action of wind and frost and shower was an idea few men could grasp within the first half-century after Hutton propounded it; nor did it begin to gain general currency until Lyell's crusade against catastrophism, begun about 1830, had for a quarter of a century accustomed geologists to the thought of slow, continuous changes producing final results of colossal proportions. And even long after that it was combated by such men as Murchison, Director-General of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, then accounted the foremost field-geologist of his time, who continued to believe that the existing valleys owe their main features to subterranean forces of upheaval. Even Murchison, however, made some recession from the belief of the Continental authorities, Elie de Beaumont and Leopold von Buch, who contended that the mountains had sprung up like veritable jacks-in-the-box. Von Buch, whom his friend and fellow-pupil Von Humboldt considered the foremost geologist of the time, died in 1853, still firm in his early faith that the erratic bowlders found high on the Jura had been hurled there, like cannon-balls, across the valley of Geneva by the sudden upheaval of a neighboring mountain-range.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.