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

Book 3, chapter IV
The origin and development of modern geology
Past, present, and future
And the present, no less than the past, is a time of change. This is the thought which James Hutton conceived more than a century ago, but which his contemporaries and successors were so very slow to appreciate. Now, however, it has become axiomatic - one can hardly realize that it was ever doubted. Every new scientific truth, says Agassiz, must pass through three stages - first, men say it is not true; then they declare it hostile to religion; finally, they assert that every one has known it always. Hutton's truth that natural law is changeless and eternal has reached this final stage. Nowhere now could you find a scientist who would dispute the truth of that text which Lyell, quoting from Playfair's Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory, printed on the title-page of his Principles: "Amid all the revolutions of the globe the economy of Nature has been uniform, and her laws are the only things that have resisted the general movement. The rivers and the rocks, the seas and the continents, have been changed in all their parts; but the laws which direct those changes, and the rules to which they are subject, have remained invariably the same."

But, on the other hand, Hutton and Playfair, and in particular Lyell, drew inferences from this principle which the modern physicist can by no means admit. To them it implied that the changes on the surface of the earth have always been the same in degree as well as in kind, and must so continue while present forces hold their sway. In other words, they thought of the world as a great perpetual-motion machine. But the modern physicist, given truer mechanical insight by the doctrines of the conservation and the dissipation of energy, will have none of that. Lord Kelvin, in particular, has urged that in the periods of our earth's in fancy and adolescence its developmental changes must have been, like those of any other infant organism, vastly more rapid and pronounced than those of a later day; and to every clear thinker this truth also must now seem axiomatic.

Whoever thinks of the earth as a cooling globe can hardly doubt that its crust, when thinner, may have heaved under strain of the moon's tidal pull - whether or not that body was nearer - into great billows, daily rising and falling, like waves of the present seas vastly magnified.

Under stress of that same lateral pressure from contraction which now produces the slow depression of the Jersey coast, the slow rise of Sweden, the occasional belching of an insignificant volcano, the jetting of a geyser, or the trembling of an earthquake, once large areas were rent in twain, and vast floods of lava flowed over thousands of square miles of the earth's surface, perhaps, at a single jet; and, for aught we know to the contrary, gigantic mountains may have heaped up their contorted heads in cataclysms as spasmodic as even the most ardent catastrophist of the elder day of geology could have imagined.

The atmosphere of that early day, filled with vast volumes of carbon, oxygen, and other chemicals that have since been stored in beds of coal, limestone, and granites, may have worn down the rocks on the one hand and built up organic forms on the other, with a rapidity that would now seem hardly conceivable.

And yet while all these anomalous things went on, the same laws held sway that now are operative; and a true doctrine of uniformitarianism would make no unwonted concession in conceding them all - though most of the imbittered geological controversies of the middle of the nineteenth century were due to the failure of both parties to realize that simple fact.

And as of the past and present, so of the future. The same forces will continue to operate; and under operation of these unchanging forces each day will differ from every one that has preceded it. If it be true, as every physicist believes, that the earth is a cooling globe, then, whatever its present stage of refrigeration, the time must come when its surface contour will assume a rigidity of level not yet attained. Then, just as surely, the slow action of the elements will continue to wear away the land surfaces, particle by particle, and transport them to the ocean, as it does to-day, until, compensation no longer being afforded by the upheaval of the continents, the last foot of dry land will sink for the last time beneath the water, the last mountain- peak melting away, and our globe, lapsing like any other organism into its second childhood, will be on the surface - as presumably it was before the first continent rose - one vast "waste of waters." As puny man conceives time and things, an awful cycle will have lapsed; in the sweep of the cosmic life, a pulse- beat will have throbbed.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.