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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.” 1
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 carth 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 earth, 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
? Ibid. p. 281.
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.
philosophy, so constantly have they led men astray. The final cause of the existence of the world is, for Hutton, the production of life and intelligence.
“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 in quantity, to a certain end ; an end attained with certainty or 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 had been formed.
“This is the view in which we are now to examine the globe ; to see if there be, in the constitution of this world, a reproductive operation, by which a ruined constitution may be again repaired, and a duration or stability thus procured to the machine, considered as a world sustaining plants and animals.” 1
Kirwan, and the other Philistines of the day, accused Hutton of declaring that his theory implied that the world never had a beginning, and never differed in condition from its present state. Nothing could be more grossly unjust, as he expressly guards himself against any such conclusion in the following terms :
“But in thus tracing back the natural operations which have succeeded each other, and mark to us the
| The Theory of the Earth, vol. i. pp. 16, 17.
course of time past, we come to a period in which we cannot see any farther. This, however, is not the beginning of the operations which proceed in time and according to the wise economy of this world ; nor is it the establishing of that which, in the course of time, had no beginning ; it is only the limit of our retrospective view of those operations which have come to pass in time, and have been conducted by supreme intelligence.”
I have spoken of Uniformitarianism as the doctrine of Hutton and of Lyell
. If I have quoted the older writer rather than the newer, it is because his works are little known, and his claims on our veneration too frequently forgotten, not because I desire to dim the fame of his eminent successor. Few of the present generation of geologists have read Playfair's “Illustrations,” fewer still the original “ Theory of the Earth ;” the more is the pity; but which of us has not thumbed every page of the
Principles of Geology ?” I think that he who writes fairly the history of his own progress in geological thought, will not be able to separate his debt to Hutton from his obligations to Lyell; and the history of the progress of individual geologists is the history of geology.
No one can doubt that the influence of uniformitarian views has been enormous, and, in the main, most beneficial and favourable to the progress of sound geology.
Ner can it be questioned that Uniformitarianism has even a stronger title than Catastrophism to call itself the geological speculation of Britain, or, if you will, British popular geology. For it is eminently a British doctrine, and has even now made comparatively little progress
The Theory of the Earth, vol. i. p. 223.
on the continent of Europe. Nevertheless it seems to me to be open to serious criticism upon one of its aspects.
I have shown how unjust was the insinuation that Hutton denied a beginning to the world. But it would not be unjust to say that he persistently, in practice, shut his eyes to the existence of that prior and different state of things which, in theory, he admitted ; and, in this aversion to look beyond the veil of stratified rocks, Lyell follows him.
Hutton and Lyell alike agree in their indisposition to carry their speculations a step beyond the period recorded in the most ancient strata now open to observation in the crust of the earth. This is, for Hutton, “the point in which we cannot see any farther;" while Lyell tells us,-
“The astronomer may find good reasons for ascribing the earth's form to the original fluidity of the mass, in times long antecedent to the first introduction of living beings into the planet; but the geologist must be content to regard the earliest monuments which it is his task to interpret, as belonging to a period when the crust had already acquired great solidity and thickness, probably as great as it now possesses, and when volcanic rocks, not essentially differing from those now produced, were formed from time to time, the intensity of volcanic heat being neither greater nor less than it is now.” 1
And again, “As geologists, we learn that it is not only the present condition of the globe which has been suited to the accommodation of myriads of living creatures, but that many former states also have been adapted to the
Principles of Geology, vol. ii. p. 211.