« EelmineJätka »
"A great reform in geological speculation seems now to have become necessary.”
“It is quite certain that a great mistake has been made,—that British popular geology at the present time is in direct opposition to the principles of Natural Philosophy.” 1
In reviewing the course of geological thought during the past year, for the purpose of discovering those matters to which I might most fitly direct your attention in the Address which it now becomes my duty to deliver from the Presidential Chair, the two somewhat alarming sentences which I have just read, and which occur in an able and interesting essay by an eminent natural philosopher, rose into such prominence before my mind that they eclipsed everything else.
It surely is a matter of paramount importance for the British geologists (some of them very popular geologists too) here in solemn annual session assembled, to inquire whether the severe judgment thus passed upon them by so high an authority as Sir William Thomson is one to which they must plead guilty sans phrase, or whether they are prepared to say “not guilty,” and appeal for a reversal of the sentence to that higher court of educated scientific opinion to which we are all amenable.
i On Geological Time. By Sir W. Thomson, LL.D. Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, vol. iii.
As your attorney-general for the time being, I thought I could not do better than get up the case with a view of advising you.
It is true that the charges brought forward by the other side involve the consideration of matters quite foreign to the pursuits with which I am ordinarily occupied ; but, in that respect, I am only in the position which is, nine times out of ten, occupied by counsel, who nevertheless contrive to gain their causes, mainly by force of mother-wit and common sense, aided by some training in other intellectual exercises.
Nerved by such precedents, I proceed to put my pleading before you.
And the first question with which I propose to deal is, What is it to which Sir W. Thomson refers when he speaks of “geological speculation” and “ British popular geology”?
I find three, more or less contradictory, systems of geological thought, each of which might fairly enough claim these appellations, standing side by side in Britain. I shall call one of them CATASTROPHISM, another UNIFORMITARIANISM, the third EvolUTIONISM ; and I shall try briefly to sketch the characters of each, that you may say whether the classification is, or is not, exhaustive.
By CATASTROPHISM, I mean any form of geological speculation which, in order to account for the phænomena of geology, supposes the operation of forces different in their nature, or immeasurably different in power, from those which we at present see in action in the universe.
The Mosaic cosmogony is, in this sense, catastrophic, because it assumes the operation of extra-natural power. The doctrine of violent upheavals, débâcles, and cataclysms in general, is catastrophic, so far as it assumes that these were brought about by causes which have now no parallel. There was a time when catastrophism might, pre-eminently, have claimed the title of “British popular geology;” and assuredly it has yet many adherents, and reckons among its supporters some of the most honoured members of this Society.
By UNIFORMITARIANISM, I mean especially, the teaching of Hutton and of Lyell.
That great, though incomplete work, “ The Theory of the Earth,” seems to me to be one of the most remarkable contributions to geology which is recorded in the annals of the science. So far as the not-living world is concerned, uniformitarianism lies there, not only in germ, but in blossom and fruit.
If one asks how it is that Hutton was led to entertain views so far in advance of those prevalent in his time, in some respects; while, in others, they seem almost curiously limited, the answer appears to me to be plain.
Hutton was in advance of the geological speculation of bis time, because, in the first place, he had amassed a vast store of knowledge of the facts of geology, gathered by personal observation in travels of considerable extent; and because, in the second place, he was thoroughly trained in the physical and chemical science of his day, and thus possessed, as much as any one in his time could possess it, the knowledge which is requisite for the just interpretation of geological phænomena, and the habit of thought which fits a man for scientific inquiry.
It is to this thorough scientific training, that I ascribe Hutton's steady and persistent refusal to look to other causes than those now in operation, for the explanation of geological phænomena.
Thus he writes :—“I do not pretend, as he [M. de Luc] does in his theory, to describe the beginning of things. I take things such as I find them at present; and from these I reason with regard to that which must have been."
And again :-"A theory of the earth, which has for object truth, can have no retrospect to that which had preceded the present order of the world; for this order alone is what we have to reason upon; and to reason without data is nothing but delusion. A theory, therefore, which is limited to the actual constitution of this earth cannot be allowed to proceed one step beyond the present order of things.'
And so clear is he, that no causes beside such as are now in operation are needed to account for the character and disposition of the components of the crust of the carth, that he says, broadly and boldly :-"... There is no part of the earth which has not had the same origin, so far as this consists in that earth being collected at the bottom of the sea, and afterwards produced, as land, along with masses of melted substances, by the operation of mineral causes.” 3
But other influences were at work upon Hutton beside those of a mind logical by Nature, and scientific by sound training; and the peculiar turn which his
speculations took seems to me to be unintelligible, unless these
1 The Theory of the Earth, vol. i. p. 173, note.
3 Ibid. p. 371.
be taken into account. The arguments of the French astronomers and mathematicians, which, at the end of the last century, were held to demonstrate the existence of a compensating arrangement among the celestial bodies, whereby all perturbations eventually reduced themselves to oscillations on each side of a mean position, and the stability of the solar system was secured, had evidently taken strong hold of Hutton's mind.
In those oddly constructed periods which seem to have prejudiced many persons against reading his works, but which are full of that peculiar, if unattractive, eloquence which flows from mastery of the subject, Hutton says :
“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 is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this 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 this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, -no prospect of an end.” 1
Yet another influence worked strongly upon Hutton. Like most philosophers of his age, he coquetted with those final causes which have been named barren virgins, but which might be more fitly termed the hetairæ of
The Theory of the Earth, vol. i. p. 200.