THE sixty-second meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science commenced on August 3, at Edinburgh, when the following address was delivered by Sir Archibald Geikie, LL.D., D.Sc., For. Sec. R.S., F.R.S.E., F.G.S., Director-General of the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom. Lingering for a moment over local associations, we shall fin«;l, he said, a peculiar appropriateness in. the time. of this renewed visit of the association to Edinburgh. A hundred years ago a remarkable group of men was discussing here the great problem of the history of the earth. James Hutton, after many years of travel and reflection, had communicated to the Royal Society, of this city, in the year 1785, the first outlines of' his famous” Theory of the Earth.” Among those with whom he took counsel in the elaboration of his doctrine were Black, the illustrious discoverer of “fixed air “and “latent heat;” Clerk, the sagacious inventor of the system of breaking the enemy's. line in naval tactics; Hall, whose fertile ingenuity devised the first system of experiments in illustration of the structure and origin of rocks; and Playfair, through whose sympathetic enthusiasm and literary skill Hutton's views came ultimately to be understood and appreciated by the world at large. With these friends, so well able to comprehend and criticise his efforts to pierce the veil that shrouded the history of this globe, he paced the streets amid which we are now gathered together; with them he sought the craigs and ravines around us, wherein Nature has laid open so many impressive records of her past; with them he sallied forth on those memorable expeditions to distant parts of Scotland, whence he returned laden with treasures from a field of observation which, though now so familiar, was then almost untrodden. The centenary of Hutton's “Theory of the Earth “is an event in the annals of science which seems most fittingly celebrated by a meeting of the British Association in Edinburgh.. hutton's theory of the earth. It was a fundamental doctrine of Hutton and his school that this globe has not always worn the aspect which it bears at present that, on the contrary, proofs may everywhere be culled that the land which we now see has been formed out of the wreck of an older land. Among. these proofs, the most obvious are supplied by some of the more familiar kinds of rock, which teach us that, though they are now portions of the dry land, they were originally. sheets of gravel, sand and mud, which had been worn from the face of long-vanished continents, and after being spread out over the floor of the sea were consolidated into compact stone, and were finally broken up and raised once more to form part of the dry land. This cycle of change involved two great systems of natural processes. On the one hand, men were taught that by the action of running water the materials of the solid land are in a state of continual decay and transport to the ocean. On the other hand, the ocean floor is liable from time to time to be upheaved by some stupendous internal force akin to that which gives rise to the volcano and the earthquake. Hutton further perceived that not only had the consolidated materials been disrupted and elevated, but that masses of molten rock had been thrust upward among them, and had cooled and crystallized in large bodies of granite and other eruptive rocks which form so prominent a feature on the earth's surface. It was a special characteristic of this philosophical system that it sought in the changes now in progress on the earth's surface an explanation of those which occurred in older times. Its founder refused to invent causes or modes of operation, for those with which he was familiar seemed to him adequate to solve the problems with which he attempted to deal. Nowhere was the profoundness of his insight more astonishing than in the clear, definite way in which he proclaimed and reiterated his doctrine that every part of the surface of the continents, from mountain-top to seashore, is continually undergoing decay, and is. thus slowly traveling to the sea. He saw that no sooner will the sea floor be elevated into new land than it must necessarily become a prey to this universal and unceasing degradation. He perceived that, as the transport of disintegrated material is carried on chiefly by running water, rivers must slowly dig out for themselves the channels in which they flow, and thus that a system of valleys, radiating from the water-parting of a country, must necessarily result from the descent of.. the streams from the mountain crests to the sea. He discerned that this ceaseless and widespread decay would eventually lead to the entire demolition of the dry land; but he contended that from. time to time this catastrophe is prevented by the operation of the underground forces, whereby new continents are upheaved from the bed of the ocean. And thus in his system a due proportion is maintained between land and water, and the condition of the earth as a. habitable globe is preserved. A theory of the earth so simple in outline, so bold in conception, so full of suggestion, and resting on so broad a base of. observation and reflection, ought, we might think, to have commanded at once the attention of men of science, even if it did not immediately awaken the interest of the outside world; but as Playfair sorrowfully admitted, it attracted notice only very slowly, and several years elapsed before any one showed himself publicly concerned about it, either as an enemy or a friend. Some of its. earliest critics assailed it for what they asserted to be its irreligious tendency—an accusation which Hutton repudiated with much warmth. The sneer leveled by Cowper a few years earlier at all inquiries into the history of the universe was perfectly natural and intel ligible from that poet's point of view. There was then a widespread belief that this world came into existence some 6,000 years ago, and that any attempt greatly to increase that antiquity was meant as a blow to. the authority of Holy Writ. So far, however, from aiming at the overthrow of orthodox beliefs, Hutton evidently regarded his “Theory” as an important contribution in aid of natural religion. He dwelt with unfeigned pleasure on the multitude of proofs which he was able to accumulate of an orderly design in the operations of Nature, decay and renovation being so nicely balanced as to maintain the habitable condition of the planet. But as he refused to admit the predominance of violent action in terrestrial changes, and on the contrary contended for the efficacy of the quiet, continuous processes which we can even now see at work around us, he was constrained to require an unlimited duration of past time for the. production of those revolutions of which he perceived such clear and abundant proofs in the crust of the earth. The general public, however, failed to comprehend that the doctrine of the high antiquity of the globe was not inconsistent with the comparatively recent appearance of man—a distinction which seems so obvious now. playfair's exposition of hutton's theory. Many years might have elapsed before Hutton's teaching met with wide acceptance, had its recognition depended solely on the writings.of the philosopher himself. For, despite his firm grasp of general principles, and his mastery of the minutest details, he had acquired a literary style which, it must be. admitted, was singularly unattractive. Fortunately for his fal}1e, as well as for the cause of science, his devoted friend and disciple, Playfair, at once set himself to draw up an exposition of Hutton's views. After five years of labor on this task there appeared the classic “Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory,” a work which for luminous treatment and graceful diction stands still without a rival in English geological literature. Though professing merely to set forth his friend's doctrines, Playfair's treatise was in many respects an original contribution to science of the highestvalue. It placed for the first time in the clearest light the whole philosophy of Hutton regarding the history of the earth, and enforced it with a wealth of reasoning and copiousness of illustration which obtained for it a wide appreciation. From long converse with Hutton, and from profound reflection himself, Playfair gained such a comprehension of the whole subject that, discarding the non-essential parts of his master's teaching, he was able to give so lucid and accurate. an exposition of the general scheme of Nature's operations on the surface of the globe, that with only slight corrections and expansions his. treatise may serve as a textbook to-day. In some respects, indeed, his volume was long in advance of its time. Only, for example, within the present generation has the truth of his teaching in regard to the origin of valleys been generally admitted. Various causes contributed to retard the progress of the Huttonian doctrines. Especially potent was the influence of the teaching of Werner, who, though he perceived that a definite order of sequence could be recognized among the materials of the earth's' crust, had formed singularly narrow conceptions of the great processes whereby that crust has been built up. His enthusiasm, however, fired his disciples with the zeal of proselytes, and they spread themselves over Europe to preach everywhere the artificial system which they had learned in Saxony. By a curious fate Edinburgh became one of the great headquarters of Wernerism. The friends and followers of Hutton found themselves attacked in their own city by zealots who, proud of superior mineralogical acquirements, turned their most cherished ideas upside down and assailed them in the uncouth jargon of Freiberg. Inasmuch as subterranean heat had been invoked by Hutton as a force largely instrumental in consolidating and upheaving the ancient sediments that now form so great a part of the pry land, his followers were nicknamed Plutonists. On the other hand, as the agency of water was almost alone admitted by Werner, who believed the rocks of the earth's crust to have been chiefly chemical precipitates from a primeval universal ocean, those who adopted his views received the equally descriptive name of Neptunists. The battle of these two contending schools raged fiercely here for some years, and though mainly from the youth, zeal and energy of Jameson, and the influence which his position as professor in the university gave him, the Wernerian doctrines continued to hold their place, they were eventually abandoned even by Jameson himself, and the debt due to the memory of Hutton and Playfair was tardily acknowledged. THE NEPTUNISTS AND THE PLUTONISTS. The pursuits and the quarrels of philosophers have from early times been a favorite suject of merriment to the outside world. Such a feud as that between the Plutonists and Neptunists would be sure to furnish abundant matter for the gratification of this propensity. Among the names of the friends and followers of Hutton there is one which on this occasion deserves to be held in especial honor, that of Sir James Hall, of Dunglass. Having accompanied Hutton in some of his excursions, and having discussed with him the problems presented by the rocks of Scotland, Hall was familiar with the views of his master, and was able to supply him with fresh illustrations of them from different parts of the country. Gifted with remarkable originality and ingenuity,. he soon perceived that some of the questions involved in the theory of the. earth could probably be solved by direct physical experiment. Hutton, however, mistrusted any attempt “to judge' of the great. operations of Nature by merely kindling a fire, and looking into the bottom of a little crucible.”. Out of deference to this^prejudice Hall delayed to carry out his intention during Hutton's lifetime. But afterward he instituted a remarkable series of researches which are memorable in the history of science. as the first methodical endeavor to test the value of geological speculation by. an appeal to actual experiment. The Neptunists, in ridiculing the.Huttonian.doctrine that basalt and similar rocks had. once been molten, asserted that, had such been their origin, these masses would now be found in the condition of glass or slag. Hall, however,. triumphantly vindicated his friend's view. by proving that basalt could be fused, and. thereafter by slow cooling could be made to re sume a stony texture. Again, Hutton had asserted that under the vast pressures which must be effective, deep within the earth's crust, chemical reactions must be powerfully influenced, and that under such condi - tions even limestone may conceivably be melted without losing its carbonic acid. Various specious arguments had been adduced against this proposition, but by an ingeniously devised series of experiments Hall succeeded in converting limestone under great pressure into a kind of marble, and even fused it, and found that it then acted vigorously on other rocks. These admirable researches, which laid the foundations of experimental geology, constitute not the least memorable of the services rendered by the Huttonian school to the progress of science. smith's law of organic succession. Clear as was the insight and sagacious the inferences of these great masters in regard to the history of the globe, their vision was necessarily limited by the comparatively narrow range of ascertained fact which up to their time had been established. They taught men to recognize that the present world is built of the ruins of an earlier one, and they explained with admirable perspicacity the operation of the processes whereby the degradation and renovation of land are brought about. But they never dreamedthat a long and orderly series of such successive destructions and renewals had taken place, and had left their records in the crust of the earth. They never imagined that from these records it would be possible to establish a determinate chronology that could be read everywhere, and applied to the elucidation of the remotest quarter of the globe. It was by the memorable observations and generalizations of William Smith that this vast. extension of our knowledge of the past history of the earth became possible. While the Scottish philosophers were building up their theory here, Smith was quietly ascertaining by extended journeys that the stratified rocks of the west of England occur in a definite sequence, and that each well marked group of them can be discriminated from the others, and identified across the country by means of its inclosed organic remains. It is nearly a hundred years since he made known his views, so that by a curious coincidence we may fitly celebrate on this occasion the centenary of William Smith as well as that of James Hutton. No single discovery has ever had a more momentous and far-reaching influence on the progress of a science than that law of organic succession |which Smith established. At first it served merely to determine the order of the stratified rocks of England. But it soon proved to possess a world-wide value, for it was found to furnish the key to the structure of the whole stratified crust of the earth. [It showed that within that crust lie the chronicles of a long history of plant and animal life upon this planet, it supplied the means of arranging the materials for this history in true chronological sequence, and it thus opened out a magnificent vista through a vast series of ages, each marked by its own distinctive types of organic life, which, in proportion to their antiquity, departed more and more from the aspect of the living world. THE MODERN SCIENCE OF GEOLOGY. Thus a hundred years ago, by the brilliant theory of Hutton and the fruitful generalization of Smith, the study of the earth received in our country the impetus which has given birth to the modern science of geology. From the earliest times the natural features of the earth's surface have arrested the attention of mankind. The rugged mountain, the cleft ravine, the scarped cliff, the solitary bowlder, have stimulated curiosity and prompted many a speculation as to. their origin. The shells embedded by millions in the solid rocks of hills far removed from the sea have still further pressed home these “obstinate questionings.” But for many long centuries the advance of inquiryinto such matters was arrested by the paramount influence of orthodox theology. It was not merely that the church opposed itself to the simple and obvious interpretation of. these natural phenomena. So implicit had faith become in the accepted views of the earth's age and of the history of creation, that even laymen of intelligence and learning set themselves, unbidden. and in perfect good faith, to explain away the difficulties which Nature so persistently raised up, and to reconcile her teachings with those of the theologians. In the various theories thus originating the amount of knowledge of natural law usually stood in inverse ratio to the share played in them by an uncontrolled imagination. The speculations, for example, of Burnet, Whiston, Whitehurst, and others in this country cannot be read now without a smile. In no sense were they scientific researches; they can only be looked upon as exercitations of learned ignorance. Springing mainly out of a laudable desire to promote what was believed to be the cause of true religion, they helped to retard inquiry, and exercised in that respect a baneful influence on intellectual progress. It is the special glory of the Edinburgh school of geology. to have cast aside all this fanciful trifling. Hutton boldly proclaimed that it was no part of his philosophy. to account for the beginning of things. His concern lay only with the evidence furnished by the earth itself as to its origin. With the intuition of true genius, he early perceived that the only solid basis from which to explore what has taken place in bygone time is a knowledge of. what is taking place to-day. He thus founded his system upon a careful study of the processes whereby geological changes are now brought about. He felt assured that Nature must be consistent and uniform in her working, and that only in proportion as her operations at the present time are watched and understood will the ancient history of the earth become intelligible. Thus, in his hands, the investigation of the present became the key to the interpretation of the past. The establishment of this great truth was the first step toward the inauguration of a true science of the. earth. The doctrine of the uniformity of causation in Nature became the fruitful principle on which the structure of modern geology could be built up. UNIFORMITY OF CAUSATION. Fresh life was now breathed into the study of the earth. A new spirit seemed to animate the advance along every pathway of inquiry. Facts that had long been familiar came to possess a wider and deeper meaning when their connection with each other wasrecognized as parts of one great harmonious system of continuous change. In no department of Nature. for example, was this broader vision more remarkably displayed than in that wherein the circulation of water between land. and sea plays the most conspicuous part. From the earliest times men had watched the coming of clouds, the fall of rain, the flow of rivers, and had. recognized that on this nicely adjusted machinery the beauty and fertility of the land depend. But they. now “learned that this beauty and fertility involve a continual decay of the, terrestrial surface; that the soil is a measure of this decay, and would cease to afford us maintenance were it not continually removed and renewed; that through the ceaseless transport of soil by rivers to the sea the face of the land is slowly lowered in level and carved into mountain and valley. and that the materials thus borne outward to the floor. of the ocean are not lost but accumulate there to form rocks, which in the end will be upraised into new lands. Decay and renovation, in well balanced proportions, were thus shown to be the system on which the existence of the earth as a habitable globe had been established.. It was impossible to conceive that the economy of the planet could be maintained on any other basis. Without the circulation of water the life of plants and animals would be impossible, and with that circulation the decay of the surface of the land and the renovation of its disintegrated materials are necessarily involved. As it is now, so must it have been in past time. Hutton and Playfair pointed to the stratified rocks of the earth's crust as demonstrations that the same processes which are at work today have been in operation from a remote antiquity. By thus placing their theory on a basis of actual observation, and providing in the study of existing operations a guide to the interpretation of those in past times, they rescued the investigation of the history of the earth from the speculations of theologians and cosmologists, and established a place for it among the recognized inductive sciences. To the guiding influence of,their philosophical system the prodigious strides made by modern geology are in large measure to be attributed. And here in their own city, after the lapse of a hundred years, let us offer to their memory the grateful homage of all who have profited by their labors. But while we recognize with admiration the far-reaching influence of the doctrine of uniformity of causation in the investigation of the history of the earth, we must upon reflection admit that the doctrine has been pushed to an extreme perhaps not contemplated by its original founders. To take the existing conditions of nature as a platform of actual knowledge from which to start in an inquiry into former conditions was logical and prudent. Obviously. however, human experience, in the few centuries during which attention has been turned to such subjects. has been too brief to warrant any dogmatic assumption that the various natural processes must have been carried on in the past with the same energy and at the same rate as they are carried on now. Variations in energy might have been legitimately conceded as possible, though not to be allowed without reasonable proof in their favor. It was right to refuse to admit the operation of speculative causes of change when the phenomena were capable of natural and adequate explanation by reference to causes that can be watched and investigated. But it was an error to take for granted that no other kind of process or influence nor any variation in the rate of activity save those of which man has had actual cognizance, has played. a part in the terrestrial. economy. The uniformi- tarian liters laid themselves open to the charge of maintaining a kind of perpetual motion in the machinery of nature. They could find in the records of the earth's history no evidence of a beginning, no prospect of an end. Thev saw that many successive renovations and destructions had been effected on the earth's surface, and that this long line of vicissitudes formed a series of which the earliest were lost in antiquity. while the latest were still in progress toward an apparently illimitable future. progression in organic TYPES. The discoveries of William Smith, had they been adequately understood, would have been seen to offer a corrective to this rigidly uniformitarian conception. for they revealed that the crust of the earth contains the long record of an unmistakable order of progression in organic types. They proved that plants and animals have varied widely in successive periods of the earth's history, the present condition of organic life being only the latest phase of a long preceding series, each stage of which recedes further from the existing aspect of things as we trace it backward into the past. And though no relic had yet been found, or indeed was ever likely to be found, of the first living things that appeared upon the earth's surface, the. manifest simplification of types in the older formations pointed irresistibly to some beginning from which the long procession had taken its start. If, then, it could thus be demonstrated that there had been upon the globe an orderly march of living forms from the lowliest grades in early times -to man himself to-day, and thus that in one department of her domain, extending through the greater portion of the records of the earth's history, nature had not been uniform but had followed a vast and noble plan of evolution, surely it might have been expected that those who discovered and made known this plan would seek to ascertain whether some analogous physical progression from a definite beginning might not be discernible in the framework of the globe itself. But the early masters of the science labored under two great disadvantages. In the first place, they found the oldest records of the earth's history so broken up and effaced as to be no longer legible. And in the second place, they lived under the spell of that strong reaction against speculation which followed the bitter controversy between the Neptunists and Plutonists in the earlier decades of the century. They considered themselves bound to search for facts, not to build up theories; and as in the crust of the earth they could find no facts which threw any light upon the primeval constitution and subsequent development of our planet, they shut their ears to any theoretical interpretations that might be offered from other departments of science. It was enough for them to maintain, as Hutton had done, that in the visible structure of the earth itself no trace can be found of the beginning of things, and that the oldest terrestrial records reveal no physical conditions essentially different from those in which we still live. They doubtless listened with interest to the speculations of Kant, Laplace, and Herschel, on the probable evolution of nebulre, suns, and planets; but it was with the languid interest attaching to ideas that lay outside of their own domain of research. They recognized no practical connection between such speculations and the data furnished by the earth itself as to its own history and progress. the beginning of things. This curious lethargy with respect to theory on the part of men who were popularly regarded as among the most speculative followers of science would probably not have been speedily dispelled by any discovery made “within their own field of observation. Even now. after many years of the most diligent research, the first- chapters of our planet's history remain undiscovered or undecipherable. On the great terrestrial palimpsest the earliest inscriptions seem to have been hopelessly effaced by those of later ages. But the question of the primeval condition and subsequent history of the planet might be considered from the side of astronomy and physics. And it was by investigations of this nature that the geological torpor was eventually dissipated. To.. our illustrious former President, Lord Kelvin. who. occupied this chair when the association last met in Edinburgh, is mainly due the rousing of attention. to this subject. By the most convincing arguments he showed how impossible it was to believe in the extreme doctrine of uniformitarianism. And though. owing to uncertainty in regard to some of the data. wide limits of time. were postulated by him, he insisted that within these limits of time the whole evolution of the earth and its inhabitants must have been.comprised. While, therefore, the geological doctrine that the present order of nature must be our guide to the interpretation of the past remained as true and fruitful as ever. it. had now to be widened by the reception of evidence furnished by a study of the earth as a planetary body. The secular loss of heat, which demonstrably takes place both from the earth and the sun, made it quite certain that the present could not have been the original condition of the system. This diminution of temperature with all its consequences is not a mere matter of speculation, but a physical fact of the present time as much as any of the familiar physical agencies that affect the surface of the globe. It points with unmistakable directness to that beginning of things of which Hutton and. his followers could find no sign. ' terrestrial catastrophes. Another modification or enlargement of the uniformitarian doctrine was brought about by continued investigation of the terrestrial crust and consequent increase of knowledge respecting the history of the earth. Though. Hutton an? Playfair believed in periodical catastrophes, and indeed required these to recur in order to renew and preserve the habitable condition of oul: planet, their successors gradually came to view with repugnance any appeal to abnormal, and especially to violent, manifestations of. terrestrial vigor, and even persuaded themselves that such slow and comparatively feebleaction as had been witnessed by man could alone be recognized in the evidence from which geological history must be compiled. Well do I remember in my own boyhood what a cardinal article of faith this prepossession had become. We were taught by our great and honored master, Lyell, to believe implicitly in gentle and uniform operations, extended over indefinite periods of time, though possibly some, with the zeal of partisans, carried this belief to an extreme which Lyell himself did not approve. The most stupendous marks of terrestrial disturbance, such as the structure of great mountain chains,- were deemed to be more satisfactorily accounted for by slow movements prolonged through indefinite age!. than by any sudden convulsion. What the more extreme members of the uniformitarian school failed to perceive was the absence of all evidence that terrestrial catastrophes even on a colossal scale might not be a part of the present economy of this globe. Such occurrences might never seriously affect the whole earth at one time, and might return at such wide intervals that no example of them has yet been chronicled by man. But that they have occurred again and again, and even within comparatively recent geological times, hardly admits of serious doubt. How far at different epochs and in various degrees they may have included the operation of cosmical influences lying wholly outside the planet, and how far they have resulted from movements within the body of the planet itself, must remain for further inquiry. Yet the admission that they have played a part in geological history maybe freely made without impairing the real value of the Huttonian doctrine, that. in the interpretation of this history our main guide must be a knowledge of the existing processes of terrestrial change.
Theory of the Earth
This article was originally published with the title "Theory of the Earth" in s , , 13938-13939 (March 2013)