Geological Reform

Lay Sermons (1869)

Collected Essays VIII

[305] "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 [306] 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.

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 [307] 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 phenomena 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. [308] 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 his 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 phenomena, 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 phenomena.

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."2

[309] 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."3

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."4

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 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 perturba[310]tions 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."5

Yet another influence worked strongly upon Hutton. Like most philosophers of his age, he coquetted with those final causes which have [311] been named barren virgins, but which might be more fitly termed the hetairæ of 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 organised 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."6

[312] 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 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."7

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," ever still the original "Theory of the Earth"; the more is the pity; but which of us has not thumbed [313] 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.

Nor 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 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 [314] 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."8

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 organisation and habits of prior races of beings. The disposition of the seas, continents and islands, and the climates, have varied; the species likewise have been changed; and yet they have all been so modelled, on types analogous to those of existing plants and animals, as to indicate, throughout, a perfect harmony of design and unity of purpose. To [315] assume that the evidence of the beginning, or end, of so vast a scheme lies within the reach of our philosophical inquiries, or even of our speculations, appears to be inconsistent with a just estimate of the relations which subsist between the finite powers of man and the attributes of an infinite and eternal Being."9

The limitations implied in these passages appear to me to constitute the weakness and the logical defect of Uniformitarianism. No one will impute blame to Hutton that, in face of the imperfect condition, in his day, of those physical sciences which furnish the keys to the riddles of geology, he should have thought it practical wisdom to limit his theory to an attempt to account for "the present order of things"; but I am at a loss to comprehend why, for all time, the geologist must be content to regard the oldest fossiliferous rocks as the ultima Thule of his science; or what there is inconsistent with the relations between the finite and the infinite mind, in the assumption, that we may discern somewhat of the beginning, or of the end, of this speck in space we call our earth. The finite mind is certainly competent to trace out the development of the fowl within the egg; and I know not on what ground it should find more difficulty in unravelling the complexities of the development of the earth. In fact, as Kant [316] has well remarked,10 the cosmical process is really simpler than the biological.

This attempt to limit, at a particular point, the progress of inductive and deductive reasoning from the things which are, to those which were–this faithlessness to its own logic, seems to me to have cost Uniformitarianism the place, as the permanent form of geological speculation, which it might otherwise have held.

It remains that I should put before you what I understand to be the third phase of geological speculation–namely, Evolutionism.

I shall not make what I have to say on this head clear, unless I diverge, or seem to diverge, for a while, from the direct path of my discourse, so far as to explain what I take to be the scope of geology itself. I conceive geology to be the history of the earth, in precisely the same sense as biology is the history of living beings; and I trust you will not think that I am overpowered by the influence of a dominant pursuit if I say that I trace a close analogy between these two histories.

If I study a living being, under what heads does the knowledge I obtain fall? I can learn its structure, or what we call its Anatomy; and its [317] Development, or the series of changes which it passes through to acquire its complete structure. Then I find that the living being has certain powers resulting from its own activities, and the interaction of these with the activities of other things–the knowledge of which is Physiology. Beyond this the living being has a position in space and time, which is its Distribution. All these form the body of ascertainable facts which constitute the status quo of the living creature. But these facts have their causes; and the ascertainment of these causes is the doctrine of Ætiology.

If we consider what is knowable about the earth, we shall find that such earth-knowledge–if I may so translate the word geology–falls into the same categories.

What is termed stratigraphical geology is neither more nor less than the anatomy of the earth; and the history of the succession of the formations is the history of a succession of such anatomies, or corresponds with development, as distinct from generation.

The internal heat of the earth, the elevation and depression of its crust, its belchings forth of vapours, ashes, and lava, are its activities, in as strict a sense as are warmth and the movements and products of respiration the activities of an animal. The phenomena of the seasons, of the trade winds, of the Gulf-stream, are as much the [318] results of the reaction between these inner activities and outward forces, as are the budding of the leaves in spring and their falling in autumn the effects of the interaction between the organisation of a plant and the solar light and heat. And, as the study of the activities of the living being is called its physiology, so are these phenomena the subject-matter of an analogous telluric physiology, to which we sometimes give the name of meteorology, sometimes that of physical geography, sometimes that of geology. Again, the earth has a place in space and in time, and relations to, other bodies in both these respects, which constitute its distribution. This subject is usually left to the astronomer; but a knowledge of its broad outlines seems to me to be an essential constituent of the stock of geological ideas.

All that can be ascertained concerning the structure, succession of conditions, actions, and position in space of the earth, is the matter of fact of its natural history. But, as in biology, there remains the matter of reasoning from these facts to their causes, which is just as much science as the other, and indeed more; and this constitutes geological ætiology.

Having regard to this general scheme of geological knowledge and thought, it is obvious that geological speculation may be, so to speak, anatomical and developmental speculation, so far as it relates to points of stratigraphical arrangement [319] which are out of reach of direct observation; or, it may be physiological speculation so far as it relates to undetermined problems relative to the activities of the earth; or, it may be distributional speculation, if it deals with modifications of the earth's place in space; or, finally, it will be ætiological speculation if it attempts to deduce the history of the world, as a whole, from the known properties of the matter of the earth, in the conditions in which the earth has been placed.

For the purposes of the present discourse I may take this last to be what is meant by "geological speculation."

Now Uniformitarianism, as we have seen, tends to ignore geological speculation in this sense altogether.

The one point the catastrophists and the uniformitarians agreed upon, when this Society was founded, was to ignore it. And you will find, if you look back into our records, that our revered fathers in geology plumed themselves a good deal upon the practical sense and wisdom of this proceeding. As a temporary measure, I do not presume to challenge its wisdom; but in all organised bodies temporary changes are apt to produce permanent effects; and as time has slipped by, altering all the conditions which may have made such mortification of the scientific flesh desirable, I think the effect of the stream of cold water which has steadily flowed over geological [320] speculation within these walls has been of doubtful beneficence.

The sort of geological speculation to which I am now referring (geological ætiology, in short) was created, as a science, by that famous philosopher Immanuel Kant, when, in 1775, he wrote his "General Natural History and Theory of the Celestial Bodies; or an Attempt to account for the Constitutional and the Mechanical Origin of the Universe upon Newtonian principles."11

In this very remarkable but seemingly little-known treatise,12 Kant expounds a complete cosmogony, in the shape of a theory of the causes which have led to the development of the universe from diffused atoms of matter endowed with simple attractive and repulsive forces.

"Give me matter," says Kant, "and I will build the world;" and he proceeds to deduce from the simple data from which he starts, a doctrine in all essential respects similar to the well-known "Nebular Hypothesis" of Laplace.13 He accounts for the relation of the masses and the densities of the planets to their distances from the sun, for the eccentricities of their orbits, for their rotations, for [321]their satellites, for the general agreement in the direction of rotation among the celestial bodies, for Saturn's ring, and for the zodiacal light. He finds in each system of worlds, indications that the attractive force of the central mass will eventually destroy its organisation, by concentrating upon itself the matter of the whole system; but, as the result of this concentration, he argues for the development of an amount of heat which will dissipate the mass once more into a molecular chaos such as that in which it began.

Kant pictures to himself the universe as once an infinite expansion of formless and diffused matter. At one point of this he supposes a single centre of attraction set up; and, by strict deductions from admitted dynamical principles, shows how this must result in the development of a prodigious central body, surrounded by systems of solar and planetary worlds in all stages of development. In vivid language he depicts the great world-maelstrom, widening the margins of its prodigious eddy in the slow progress of millions of ages, gradually reclaiming more and more of the molecular waste, and converting chaos into cosmos. But what is gained at the margin is lost in the centre; the attractions of the central systems bring their constituents together, which then, by the heat evolved, are converted once more into molecular chaos. Thus the worlds that are, lie between the ruins of the worlds that have been, [322] and the chaotic materials of the worlds that shall be; and in spite of all waste and destruction, Cosmos is extending his borders at the expense of Chaos.

Kant's further application of his views to the earth itself is to be found in his "Treatise on Physical Geography"14 (a term under which the then unknown science of geology was included), a subject which he had studied with very great care and on which he lectured for many years. The fourth section of the first part of this Treatise is called "History of the great Changes which the Earth has formerly undergone and is still undergoing," and is, in fact, a brief and pregnant essay upon the principles of geology. Kant gives an account first "of the gradual changes which are now taking place" under the heads of such as are caused by earthquakes, such as are brought about by rain and rivers, such as are effected by the sea, such as are produced by winds and frost; and, finally, such as result from the operations of man.

The second part is devoted to the "Memorials of the Changes which the Earth has undergone in remote Antiquity." These are enumerated as:–A. Proofs that the sea formerly covered the whole earth. B. Proofs that the sea has often been changed into dry land and then again into sea. C. A discussion of the various theories of the [323] earth put forward by Scheuchzer, Moro, Bonnet, Woodward, White, Leibnitz, Linnæus, and Buffon.

The third part contains an "Attempt to give a sound explanation of the ancient history of the earth."

I suppose that it would be very easy to pick holes in the details of Kant's speculations, whether cosmological, or specially telluric, in their application. But for all that, he seems to me to have been the first person to frame a complete system of geological speculation by founding the doctrine of evolution.

With as much truth as Hutton, Kant could say, "I take things just as I find them at present, and, from these, I reason with regard to that which must have been." Like Hutton, he is never tired of pointing out that "in Nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency." And, as in these great principles, so in believing that the cosmos has a reproductive operation "by which a ruined constitution may be repaired," he forestalls Hutton; while, on the other hand, Kant is true to science. He knows no bounds to geological speculation but those of the intellect. He reasons back to a beginning of the present state of things; he admits the possibility of an end.

I have said that the three schools of geological speculation which I have termed Catastrophism, Uniformitarianism, and Evolutionism, are commonly supposed to be antagonistic to one another; [324] and I presume it will have become obvious that in my belief, the last is destined to swallow up the other two. But it is proper to remark that each of the latter has kept alive the tradition of precious truths.

Catastrophism has insisted upon the existence of a practically unlimited bank of force, on which the theorist might draw; and it has cherished the idea of the development of the earth from a state in which its form, and the forces which it exerted, were very different from those we now know. That such difference of form and power once existed is a necessary part of the doctrine of evolution.

Uniformitarianism, on the other hand, has with equal justice insisted upon a practically unlimited bank of time, ready to discount any quantity of hypothetical paper. It has kept before our eyes the power of the infinitely little, time being granted, and has compelled us to exhaust known causes, before flying to the unknown.

To my mind there appears to be no sort of necessary theoretical antagonism between Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism. On the contrary, it is very conceivable that catastrophes may be part and parcel of uniformity. Let me illustrate my case by analogy. The working of a clock is a model of uniform action; good time-keeping means uniformity of action. But the striking of the clock is essentially a catastrophe; the [325] hammer might be made to blow up a barrel of gunpowder, or turn on a deluge of water; and, by proper arrangement, the clock, instead of marking the hours, might strike at all sorts of irregular periods, never twice alike, in the intervals, force, or number of its blows. Nevertheless, all these irregular, and apparently lawless, catastrophes would be the result of an absolutely uniformitarian action; and we might have two schools of clock-theorists, one studying the hammer and the other the pendulum.

Still less is there any necessary antagonism between either of these doctrines and that of Evolution, which embraces all that is sound in both Catastrophism and Uniformitarianism, while it rejects the arbitrary assumptions of the one and the, as arbitrary, limitations of the other. Nor is the value of the doctrine of Evolution to the philosophic thinker diminished by the fact that it applies the same method to the living and the not-living world; and embraces, in one stupendous analogy, the growth of a solar system from molecular chaos, the shaping of the earth from the nebulous cub-hood of its youth, through innumerable changes and immeasurable ages, to its present form; and the development of a living being from the shapeless mass of protoplasm we term a germ.

I do not know whether Evolutionism can claim that amount of currency which would entitle it to be called British popular geology; but, more [326] or less vaguely, it is assuredly present in the minds of most geologists.

Such being the three phases of geological speculation, we are now in position to inquire which of these it is that Sir William Thomson calls upon us to reform in the passages which I have cited.

It is obviously Uniformitarianism which the distinguished physicist takes to be the representative of geological speculation in general. And thus a first issue is raised, inasmuch as many persons (and those not the least thoughtful among the younger geologists) do not accept strict Uniformitarianism as the final form of geological speculation. We should say, if Hutton and Playfair declare the course of the world to have been always the same, point out the fallacy by all means; but, in so doing, do not imagine that you are proving modern geology to be in opposition to natural philosophy. I do not suppose that, at the present day, any geologist would be found to maintain absolute Uniformitarianism, to deny that the rapidity of the rotation of the earth may be diminishing, that the sun may be waxing dim, or that the earth itself may be cooling. Most of us, I suspect, are Gallios, "who care for none of these things," being of opinion that, true or fictitious, they have made no practical difference to the earth, during the period [327] of which a record is preserved in stratified deposits.

The accusation that we have been running counter to the principles of natural philosophy, therefore, is devoid of foundation. The only question which can arise is whether we have, or have not, been tacitly making assumptions which are in opposition to certain conclusions which may be drawn from those principles. And this question subdivides itself into two:–the first, are we really contravening such conclusions? the second, if we are, are those conclusions so firmly based that we may not contravene them? I reply in the negative to both these questions, and I will give you my reasons for so doing. Sir William Thomson believes that he is able to prove, by physical reasonings, "that the existing state of things on the earth, life on the earth–all geological history showing continuity of life–must be limited within some such period of time as one hundred million years" (loc. cit. p. 25).

The first inquiry which arises plainly is, has it ever been denied that this period may be enough for the purposes of geology?

The discussion of this question is greatly embarrassed by the vagueness with which the assumed limit is, I will not say defined, but indicated,–"some such period of past time as one hundred million years." Now does this mean [328] that it may have been two, or three, or four hundred million years? Because this really makes all the difference.15

I presume that 100,000 feet may be taken as a full allowance for the total thickness of stratified rocks containing traces of life; 100,000 divided by 100,000,000=0.001. Consequently, the deposit of 100,000 feet of stratified rock in 100,000,000 years means that the deposit has taken place at the rate of 1/1000 of a foot, or, say, 1/83 of an inch, per annum.

Well, I do not know that any one is prepared to maintain that, even making all needful allowances, the stratified rocks may not have been formed, on the average, at the rate of 1/83 of an inch per annum. I suppose that if such could be shown to be the limit of world-growth, we could put up with the allowance without feeling that our speculations had undergone any revolution. And perhaps, after all, the qualifying phrase "some such period" may not necessitate the assumption of more than 1/166 or 1/249 or 1/332 of an inch of deposit per year, which, of course, would give us still more ease and comfort.

But, it may be said, that it is biology, and not geology, which asks for so much time–that the succession of life demands vast intervals; but [329] this appears to me to be reasoning in a circle. Biology takes her time from geology. The only reason we have for believing in the slow rate of the change in living forms is the fact that they persist through a series of deposits which, geology informs us, have taken a long while to make. If the geological clock is wrong, all the naturalist will have to do is to modify his notions of the rapidity of change accordingly. And I venture to point out that, when we are told that the limitation of the period during which living beings have inhabited this planet to one, two, or three hundred million years requires a complete revolution in geological speculation, the onus probandi rests on the maker of the assertion, who brings forward not a shadow of evidence in its support.

Thus, if we accept the limitation of time placed before us by Sir W. Thomson, it is not obvious, on the face of the matter, that we shall have to alter, or reform, our ways in any appreciable degree; and we may therefore proceed with much calmness, and indeed much indifference, as to the result, to inquire whether that limitation is justified by the arguments employed in its support.

These arguments are three in number:–

l. The first is based upon the undoubted fact that the tides tend to retard the rate of the earth's rotation upon its axis. That this must [330] be so is obvious, if one considers, roughly, that the tides result from the pull which the sun and the moon exert upon the sea, causing it to act as a sort of break upon the rotating solid earth.

Kant, who was by no means a mere "abstract philosopher," but a good mathematician and well versed in the physical science of his time, not only proved this in an essay of exquisite clearness and intelligibility, now more than a century old,16 but deduced from it some of its more important consequences, such as the constant turning of one face of the moon towards the earth.

But there is a long step from the demonstration of a tendency to the estimation of the practical value of that tendency, which is all with which we are at present concerned. The facts bearing on this point appear to stand as follows:–

It is a matter of observation that the moon's mean motion is (and has for the last 3,000 years been) undergoing an acceleration, relatively to the rotation of the earth. Of course this may result from one of two causes: the moon may really have been moving more swiftly in its orbit; or the earth may have been rotating more slowly on its axis.

[331] Laplace believed he had accounted for this phenomenon by the fact that the eccentricity of the earth's orbit has been diminishing throughout these 3,000 years. This would produce a diminution of the mean attraction of the sun on the moon; or, in other words, an increase in the attraction of the earth on the moon; and, consequently, an increase in the rapidity of the orbital motion of the latter body. Laplace, therefore, laid the responsibility of the acceleration upon the moon, and if his views were correct, the tidal retardation must either be insignificant in amount, or be counteracted by some other agency.

Our great astronomer, Adams, however, appears to have found a flaw in Laplace's calculation, and to have shown that only half the observed retardation could be accounted for in the way he had suggested. There remains, therefore, the other half to be accounted for; and here, in the absence of all positive knowledge, three sets of hypotheses have been suggested.

(a.) M. Delaunay suggests that the earth is at fault, in consequence of the tidal retardation. Messrs Adams, Thomson, and Tait work out this suggestion, and, "on a certain assumption as to the proportion of retardations due to the sun and moon," find the earth may lose twenty-two seconds of time in a century from this cause.17

(b.) But M. Dufour suggests that the retardation [332] of the earth (which is hypothetically assumed to exist) may be due in part, or wholly, to the increase of the moment of inertia of the earth by meteors falling upon its surface. This suggestion also meets with the entire approval of Sir W. Thomson, who shows that meteor-dust, accumulating at the rate of one foot in 4,000 years, would account for the remainder of retardation.l8

(c.) Thirdly, Sir W. Thomson brings forward an hypothesis of his own with respect to the cause of the hypothetical retardation of the earth's rotation:–

"Let us suppose ice to melt from the polar regions (20° round each pole, we may say) to the extent of something more than a foot thick, enough to give 1.1 foot of water over those areas, or 0.006 of a foot of water if spread over the whole globe, which would, in reality, raise the sea-level by only some such undiscoverable difference as three-fourths of an inch or an inch. This, or the reverse, which we believe might happen any year, and could certainly not be detected without far more accurate observations and calculations for the mean sea-level than any hitherto made, would slacken or quicken the earth's rate as a timekeeper by one-tenth of a second per year."19

I do not presume to throw the slightest doubt upon the accuracy of any of the calculations made by such distinguished mathematicians as those [333] who have made the suggestions I have cited. On the contrary, it is necessary to my argument to assume that they are all correct. But I desire to point out that this seems to be one of the many cases in which the admitted accuracy of mathematical process is allowed to throw a wholly inadmissible appearance of authority over the results obtained by them. Mathematics may be compared to a mill of exquisite workmanship, which grinds you stuff of any degree of fineness; but, nevertheless, what you get out depends upon what you put in; and as the grandest mill in the world will not extract wheat-flour from peascods, so pages of formulæ will not get a definite result out of loose data.

In the present instance it appears to be admitted:–

1. That it is not absolutely certain, after all, whether the moon's mean motion is undergoing acceleration, or the earth's rotation retardation. And yet this is the key of the whole position.

2. If the rapidity of the earth's rotation is diminishing, it is not certain how much of that retardation20 is due to tidal friction, how much to meteors,–how much to possible excess of melting over accumulation of polar ice, during the period covered by observation, which amounts, at the outside, to not more than 2,600 years.

[334] 3. The effect of a different distribution of land and water in modifying the retardation caused by tidal friction, and of reducing it, under some circumstances, to a minimum, does not appear to be taken into account.

4. During the Miocene epoch the polar ice was certainly many feet thinner than it has been during, or since, the Glacial epoch. Sir W. Thomson tells us that the accumulation of something more than a foot of ice around the poles (which implies the withdrawal of, say, an inch of water from the general surface of the sea) will cause the earth to rotate quicker by one-tenth of a second per annum. It would appear, therefore, that the earth may have been rotating, throughout the whole period which has elapsed from the commencement of the Glacial epoch down to the present time, one, or more, seconds per annum quicker than it rotated during the Miocene epoch.

But, according to Sir W. Thomson's calculation, tidal retardation will only account for a retardation of 22" in a century, or 22/100 (say 1/2) of a second per annum.

Thus, assuming that the accumulation of polar ice since the Miocene epoch has only been sufficient to produce ten times the effect of a coat of ice one foot thick, we shall have an accelerating cause which covers all the loss from tidal action, and leaves a balance of 4/5 of a second per annum in the way of acceleration.

[335] If tidal retardation can be thus checked and overthrown by other temporary conditions, what becomes of the confident assertion, based upon the assumed uniformity of tidal retardation, that ten thousand million years ago the earth must have been rotating more than twice as fast as at present, and, therefore, that we geologists are "in direct opposition to the principles of Natural Philosophy" if we spread geological history over that time?

II. The second argument is thus stated by Sir W. Thomson:–"An article, by myself, published in 'Macmillan's Magazine' for March 1862, on the age of the sun's heat, explains results of investigation into various questions as to possibilities regarding the amount of heat that the sun could have, dealing with it as you would with a stone, or a piece of matter, only taking into account the sun's dimensions, which showed it to be possible that the sun may have already illuminated the earth for as many as one hundred million years, but at the same time rendered it almost certain that he had not illuminated the earth for five hundred millions of years. The estimates here are necessarily very vague; but yet, vague as they are, I do not know that it is possible, upon any reasonable estimate founded on known properties of matter, to say that we can believe the sun has really illuminated the earth for five hundred million years."21

[336] I do not wish to "Hansardise" Sir William Thomson by laying much stress on the fact that, only fifteen years ago he entertained a totally different view of the origin of the sun's heat, and believed that the energy radiated from year to year was supplied from year to year–a doctrine which would have suited Hutton perfectly. But the fact that so eminent a physical philosopher has, thus recently, held views opposite to those which he now entertains, and that he confesses his own estimates to be "very vague," justly entitles us to disregard those estimates, if any distinct facts on our side go against them. However, I am not aware that such facts exist. As I have already said, for anything I know, one, two, or three hundred millions of years may serve the needs of geologists perfectly well.

III. The third line of argument is based upon the temperature of the interior of the earth. Sir W. Thomson refers to certain investigations which prove that the present thermal condition of the interior of the earth implies either a heating of the earth within the last 20,000 years of as much as 100° F., or a greater heating all over the surface at some time further back than 20,000 years, and then proceeds thus:–

"Now, are geologists prepared to admit that; at some time within the last 20,000 years, there has been all over the earth so high a temperature as that? I presume not; no geologist–no modern [337] geologist–would for a moment admit the hypothesis that the present state of underground heat is due to a heating of the surface at so late a period as 20,000 years ago. If that is not admitted we are driven to a greater heat at some time more than 20,000 years ago. A greater heating all over the surface than 100° Fahrenheit would kill nearly all existing plants and animals, I may safely say. Are modern geologists prepared to say that all life was killed off the earth 50,000, 100,000, or 200,000 years ago? For the uniformity theory, the further back the time of high surface-temperature is put the better; but the further back the time of heating, the hotter it must have been. The best for those who draw most largely on time is that which puts it furthest back; and that is the theory that the heating was enough to melt the whole. But even if it was enough to melt the whole, we must still admit some limit, such as fifty million years, one hundred million years, or two or three hundred million years ago. Beyond that we cannot go."22

It will be observed that the "limit" is once again of the vaguest, ranging from 50,000,000 years to 300,000,000. And the reply is, once more, that, for anything that can be proved to the contrary, one or two hundred million years might serve the purpose, even of a thoroughgoing Huttonian uniformitarian, very well.

[338] But if, on the other hand, the 100,000,000 or 200,000,000 years appear to be insufficient for geological purposes, we must closely criticise the method by which the limit is reached. The argument is simple enough. Assuming the earth to be nothing but a cooling mass, the quantity of heat lost per year, supposing the rate of cooling to have been uniform, multiplied by any given number of years, will be given the minimum temperature that number of years ago.

But is the earth nothing but a cooling mass, "like a hot-water jar such as is used in carriages," or "a globe of sandstone," and has its cooling been uniform? An affirmative answer to both these questions seems to be necessary to the validity of the calculations on which Sir W. Thomson lays so much stress.

Nevertheless it surely may be urged that such affirmative answers are purely hypothetical, and that other suppositions have an equal right to consideration.

For example, is it not possible that, at the prodigious temperature which would seem to exist at 100 miles below the surface, all the metallic bases may behave as mercury does at a red heat, when it refuses to combine with oxygen; while, nearer the surface, and therefore at a lower temperature, they may enter into combination (as mercury does with oxygen a few degrees below its boiling-point), and so give rise to a heat totally [339] distinct from that which they possess as cooling bodies? And has it not also been proved by recent researches that the quality of the atmosphere may immensely affect its permeability to heat; and, consequently, profoundly modify the rate of cooling the globe as a whole?

I do not think it can be denied that such conditions may exist, and may so greatly affect the supply, and the loss, of terrestrial heat as to destroy the value of any calculations which leave them out of sight.

My functions as your advocate are at an end. I speak with more than the sincerity of a mere advocate when I express the belief that the case against us has entirely broken down. The cry for reform which has been raised without, is superfluous, inasmuch as we have long been reforming from within, with all needful speed. And the critical examination of the grounds upon which the very grave charge of opposition to the principles of Natural Philosophy has been brought against us, rather shows that we have exercised a wise discrimination in declining, for the present, to meddle with our foundations.

1 On Geological Time. By Sir W. Thomson, LL.D. Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, vol. iii.

2 The Theory of the Earth, vol. i, p. 173, note.

3 Ibid.. vol. i. p. 281.

4 Ibid.. p. 371.

5 Ibid.. vol. i. p. 200.

6 Ibid.. vol. i. pp. 16, 17.

7 Ibid.. vol. i. p. 223.

8 Principles of Geology, vol. ii. p. 211.

9 Ibid. vol. ii. p. 613.

10 "Man darf es sich also nicht befremden lassen, wenn ich mich unterstehe zu sagen, dass eher die Bildung aller Himmelskörper, die Ursache ihren Bewegungen, kurz der Unsprung der gantzen gegenwärtigen Verfassung des Weltbaues werden können eingesehen werden, ehe die Erzeugung eines einzigen Krautes oder einer Raupe aus mechanischen Gründen, deutlich und vollständig kund werden wird."–Kant's Sämmtliche Werke, Bd. i. p. 220.

11 Grant (History of Physical Astronomy, p. 574) makes but the briefest reference to Kant.

12 "Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels; odor Versuch von der Verfassung und dem mechanischen Ursprunge des ganzen Weltgebäudes nach Newton'schen Grundsatzen abgehandelt."–Kant's Sämmtliche Werke, Bd. i. p. 207.

13 Système du Monde, tome ii. chap. 6.

14 Kant's Sämmtliche Werke, Bd. viii. p. 145.

15 Sir William Thomson implies (loc. cit. p. 16) that the precise time is of no consequence: "the principle is the same"; but, as the principle is admitted, the whole discussion turns on its practical results.

16 "Untersuchung der Frage ob die Erde in ihrer Umdrehung un die Achse, wodurch sie die Abwechselung des Tages und der Nacht hervorbringt, einige Veränderung seit den ersten Zeiten ihres Ursprunges erlitten habe, &c." Kant's Sämmtliche Werke, Bd. i. p. 178.

17 Sir W. Thomson, loc. cit. p. 14.

18 Ibid. p. 27.

19 Ibid.

20 It will be understood that I do not wish to deny that the earth's rotation may be undergoing retardation.

21 Loc. cit. p. 20.

22 Loc. cit. p. 24.

Preface and Table of Contents to Volume VII, Discourses: Biological & Geological, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

Next article: Palæontology and the Doctrine of Evolution [1870], pages 340-387.

Previous article: Geological Contemporaneity and Persistent Types of Life [1862], pages 272-304.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden