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Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology (1830)

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Charles Lyell
Principles of Geology


Geology is the science which investigates the successive changes that have taken place in the organic and inorganic kingdoms of nature; it enquires into the causes of these changes, and the influence which they have exerted in modifying the surface and external structure of our planet.

By these researches into the state of the earth and its inhabitants at former periods, we acquire a more perfect knowledge of its present condition, and more comprehensive views concerning the laws now governing its animate and inanimate productions. When we study history, we obtain a more profound insight into human nature, by instituting a comparison between the present and former states of society. We trace the long series of events which have gradually led to the actual posture of affairs; and by connecting effects with their causes, we are enabled to classify and retain in the memory a multitude of complicated relations—the various peculiarities of national character—the different degrees of moral and intellectual refinement, and numerous other circumstances, which, without historical associations, would be uninteresting or imperfectly understood. As the present condition of nations is the result of many antecedent changes, some extremely remote and others recent, some gradual, others sudden and violent, so the state of the natural world is the result of a long succession of events, and if we would enlarge our experience of the present economy of nature, we must investigate the effects of her operations in former epochs.

We often discover with surprise, on looking back into the chronicles of nations, how the fortune of some battle has influenced the fate of millions of our contemporaries, when it has long been forgotten by the mass of the population. With this remote event we may find inseparably connected the geographical boundaries of a great state, the language now spoken by the inhabitants, their peculiar manners, laws, and religious opinions. But far more astonishing and unexpected are the connexions brought to light, when we carry back our researches into the history of nature. The form of a coast, the configuration of the interior of a country, the existence and extent of lakes, valleys, and mountains, can often be traced to the former prevalence of earthquakes and volcanoes, in regions which have long been undisturbed. To these remote convulsions the present fertility of some districts, the sterile character of others, the elevation of land above the sea, the climate, and various peculiarities, may be distinctly referred. On the other hand, many distinguishing features of the surface may often be ascribed to the operation at a remote era of slow and tranquil causes—to the gradual deposition of sediment in a lake or in the ocean, or to the prolific growth in the same of corals and testacea….


…[W]e must present the reader with a sketch of the views unfolded by Hutton…That naturalist had been educated as a physician, but, declining the practice of medicine, he resolved, when young, to remain content with the small independence inherited from his father, and thenceforth to give his undivided attention to scientific pursuits; He resided at Edinburgh, where he enjoyed the society of many men of high attainments, who loved him for the simplicity of his manners and the sincerity of his character. His application was unwearied, and he made frequent tours through different parts of England and Scotland, acquiring considerable skill as a mineralogist, and constantly arriving at grand and comprehensive views in geology….When at length he had matured his views, he published, in 1788, his “Theory of the Earth,” and the same, afterwards more fully developed in a separate work, in 1795. This treatise was the first in which geology was declared to be in no way concerned about “questions as to the origin of things;” the first in which an attempt was made to dispense entirely with all hypothetical causes, and to explain the former changes of the earth’s crust, by reference exclusively to natural agents. Hutton laboured to give fixed principles to geology, as Newton had succeeded in doing to astronomy; but in the former science too little progress had been made towards furnishing the necessary data to enable any philosopher, however great his- genius, to realize so noble a project.

“The ruins of an older world,” said Hutton, “are visible in the present structure of our planet, and the strata which now compose our continents have been once beneath the sea, and were formed out of the waste of pre-existing continents. The same forces are still destroying, by chemical decomposition or mechanical violence, even the hardest rocks, and transporting the materials to the sea, where they are spread out, and form strata analogous to those of more ancient date….”

…[N]o small sensation was excited when Hutton seemed, with unhallowed hand, desirous to erase characters already regarded by many as sacred. “In the economy of the world,” said the Scotch geologist, “I can find no traces of a beginning, no prospect of an end;” and the declaration was the more startling when coupled with the doctrine, that all past changes on the globe had been brought about by the slow agency of existing causes. The imagination was first fatigued and overpowered by endeavouring to conceive the immensity of time required for the annihilation of whole continents by so insensible a process. Yet when the thoughts had wandered through these interminable periods, no resting place was assigned in the remotest distance. The oldest rocks were represented to be of a derivative nature, the last of an antecedent series, and that perhaps one of many pre-existing worlds. Such views of the immensity of past time, like those unfolded by the Newtonian philosophy in regard to space, were too vast to awaken ideas of Sublimity unmixed with a painful sense of our incapacity to conceive a plan of such infinite extent. Worlds are seen beyond worlds immeasurably distant from each other, and beyond them all innumerable other systems are faintly traced on the confines of the visible universe.

The characteristic feature of the Huttonian theory was, as before hintéd, the exclusion of all causes not supposed to belong to the present order of nature….

Although Hutton’s knowledge of mineralogy and chemistry was considerable, he possessed but little information concerning organic remains. They merely served him…to characterize certain strata, and to prove their marine origin. The theory of former revolutions in organic life was not yet fully recognized, and without this class of proofs in support of the antiquity of the globe, the indefinite periods demanded by the Huttonian hypothesis appeared visionary to many, and some, who deemed the doctrine inconsistent with revealed truths, indulged very uncharitable suspicions of the motives of its author. They accused him of a deliberate design of reviving the heathen dogma of an “eternal succession,” and of denying that this world ever had a beginning….

It is only by careful attention to impediments originating in extrinsic causes, that we can explain the slow and reluctant adoption of the simplest truths in geology. First, we find many able naturalists adducing the fossil remains of marine animals, as proofs of an event related in Scripture. The evidence is deemed conclusive by the multitude for a century or more; for it favours opinions which they entertained before, and they are gratified by supposing them confirmed by fresh and unexpected proofs. Many, who see through the fallacy, have no wish to undeceive those who are influenced by it, approving the effect of the delusion, and conniving at it as a pious fraud; until finally, an opposite party, who are hostile to the sacred writings, labour, to explode the erroneous opinion, by substituting for it another dogma which they know to be equally unsound.

…Inquiries were at the same time prosecuted with great success by the French naturalists, who devoted their attention especially to the study of organic remains. They shewed that the specific characters of fossil shells and vertebrated animals might be determined with the utmost precision, and by their exertions a degree of accuracy was introduced into this department of science, of which it had never before been deemed susceptible. It was found that, by the careful discrimination of the fossil contents of strata, the contemporary origin of different groups could often be established, even where all identity of mineralogical character was wanting, and where no light could be derived from the order of superposition. The minute investigation, moreover, of the relics of the animate creation of former ages, had a powerful effect in dispelling the illusion which had long prevailed concerning the absence of analogy between the ancient and modern state of our planet. A close comparison of the recent and fossil species, and the inferences drawn in regard to their habits, accustomed the geologist to contemplate the earth as having been at successive periods the dwelling place of animals and plants of different races, some of which were discovered to have been terrestrial and others aquatic—some fitted to live in seas, others in the waters of lakes and rivers. By the consideration of these topics, the mind was slowly and insensibly withdrawn from imaginary pictures of catastrophes and chaotic confusion, such as haunted the imagination of the early cosmogonists. Numerous proofs were discovered of the tranquil deposition of sedimentary matter and the slow development of organic life. If many still continued to maintain, that “the thread of induction was broken,” yet in reasoning by the strict rules of induction from recent to fossil species, they virtually disclaimed the dogma which in theory they professed. The adoption of the same generic, and, in some cases, even the same specific names for the exuviæ of fossil animals, and their living analogues, was an important step towards familiarizing the mind with the idea of the identity and unity of the system in distant eras. It was an acknowledgment, as it were, that a considerable part of the ancient memorials of nature were written in a living language. The growing importance then of the natural history of organic remains, and its general application to geology, may be pointed out as the characteristic feature of the progress of the science during the present century. This branch of knowledge has already become an instrument of great power in the discovery of truths in geology, and is continuing daily to unfold new data for grand and enlarged views respecting the former changes of the earth.

When we compare the result of observations in the last thirty years with those of the three preceding centuries, we cannot but look forward with the most sanguine expectations to the degree of excellence to which geology may be carried, even by the labours of the present generation. Never, perhaps, did any science, with the exception of astronomy, unfold, in an equally brief period, so many novel and unexpected truths, and overturn so many preconceived opinions. The senses had for ages declared the earth to be at rest, until the astronomer taught that it was carried through space with inconceivable rapidity. In like manner was the surface of this planet regarded as having remained unaltered since its creation, until the geologist proved that it had been the theatre of reiterated change, and was still the subject of slow but never ending fluctuations. The discovery of other systems in the boundless regions of space was the triumph of astronomy—to trace the same system through various transformations—to behold it at successive eras adorned with different hills and valleys, lakes and seas, and peopled with new inhabitants, was the delightful meed of geological research. By the geometer were measured the regions of space, and the relative distances of the heavenly bodies—by the geologist myriads of ages were reckoned, not by arithmetical computation, but by a train of physical events—a succession of phenomena in the animate and inanimate worlds—signs which convey to our minds more definite ideas than figures can do, of the immensity of time….

As a belief in want of conformity in the physical constitution of the earth, in ancient and modern times, was for a long time universally prevalent, and that too amongst men who were convinced that the order of nature is now uniform, and has continued so for several thousand years; every circumstance which could have influenced their minds and given an undue bias to their opinions deserves particular attention. Now the reader may easily satisfy himself, that, however undeviating the course of nature may have been from the earliest epochs, it was impossible for the first cultivators of geology to come to such a conclusion, so long as they were under a delusion as to the age of the world, and the date of the first creation of animate beings….But we have adverted to one only of many prejudices with which the earlier geologists had to contend. Even when they conceded that the earth had been peopled with animate beings at an earlier period than was at first supposed, they had no conception that the quantity of time bore so great a proportion to the historical era as is now generally conceded.

How fatal every error as to the quantity of time must prove to the introduction of rational views concerning the state of things in former ages, may be conceived by supposing that the annals of the civil and military transactions of a great nation were perused under the impression that they occurred in a period of one hundred instead of two thousand years. Such a portion of history would immediately assume the air of a romance; the events would seem devoid of credibility, and inconsistent with the present course of human affairs. A crowd of incidents would follow each other in thick succession. Armies and fleets would appear to be assembled only to be destroyed, and cities built merely to fall in ruins. There would be the most violent transitions from foreign or intestine war to periods of profound peace, and the works effected during the years of disorder or tranquillity would be alike superhuman in magnitude.

He who should study the monuments of the natural world under the influence of a similar infatuation, must draw a no less exaggerated picture of the energy and violence of causes, and must experience the same insurmountable difficulty in reconciling the former and present state of nature. If we could behold in one view all the volcanic cones thrown up in Iceland, Italy, Sicily, and other parts of Europe, during the last five thousand years, and could see the lavas which have flowed during the same period; the dislocations, subsidences and elevations caused by earthquakes; the lands added to various deltas, or devoured by the sea, together with the effects of devastation by floods, and imagine that all these events had happened in one year, we must form most exalted ideas of the activity of the agents, and the suddenness of the revolutions. Were an equal amount of change to pass before our eyes in the next year, could we avoid the conclusion that some great crisis of nature was at hand? If geologists, therefore, have misinterpreted the signs of a succession of events, so as to conclude that centuries were implied where the characters imported thousands of years, and thousands of years where the language of nature signified millions, they could not, if they reasoned logically from such false premises, come to any other conclusion, than that the system of the natural world had undergone a complete revolution….

The establishment, from time to time, of numerous points of identification, drew at length from geologists a reluctant admission, that there was more correspondence between the physical constitution of the globe, and more uniformity in the laws regulating the changes of its surface, from the most remote eras to the present, than they at first imagined.

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