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James Hutton, Theory of the Earth (1785)

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James Hutton
Theory of the Earth


THEORY of the EARTH; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration, of Land upon the Globe.


Prospect of the Subject to be treated of.

…Let us now…consider the natural consequences of those operations [on the earth] which, being within our view, we are better qualified to examine.

This subject is important to the human race, to the possessor of this world, to the intelligent being Man, who foresees events to come, and who, in contemplating his future interest, is led to inquire concerning causes, in order that he may judge of events which otherwise he could not know.

If, in pursuing this object, we employ our skill in research, not in forming vain conjectures; and if data are to be found, on which Science may form just conclusions, we should not long remain in ignorance with respect to the natural history of this earth, a subject on which hitherto opinion only, and not evidence, has decided: For in no subject, perhaps, is there naturally less defect of evidence, although philosophers, led by prejudice, or misguided by false theory, may have neglected to employ that light by which they should have seen the system of this world.

But to proceed in pursuing a little farther our general or preparatory ideas. A solid body of land could not have answered the purpose of a habitable world; for, a soil is necessary to the growth of plants; and a soil is nothing but the materials collected from the destruction of the solid land. Therefore, the surface of this land, inhabited by man, and covered with plants and animals, is made by nature to decay, in dissolving from that hard and, compact state in which it is found below the soil; and this soil is necessarily washed away, by the continual circulation of the water, running from the summits of the mountains towards the general receptacle of that fluid. The heights of our land are thus levelled with the shores; our fertile plains are formed from the ruins of the mountains; and those travelling materials are still pursued by the moving water, and propelled along the inclined surface of the earth. These moveable materials, delivered into the sea, cannot, for a long continuance, rest upon the shore; for, by the agitation of the winds, the tides and currents, every moveable thing is carried farther and farther along the shelving bottom of the sea, towards the unfathomable regions of the ocean.

If the vegetable soil is thus constantly removed from the surface of the land, and if its place is thus to be supplied from the dissolution of the solid earth, as here represented, we may perceive an end to this beautiful machine; an end, arising from no error in its constitution as a world, but from that destructibility of its land which is so necessary in the system of the globe, in the economy of life and vegetation.

The immense time necessarily required for this total destruction of the land, must not be opposed to that view of future events, which is indicated by the surest facts, and most approved principles. Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon this globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession. We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the deduction of our land, so far as effected by those operations which are necessary in the purpose of the globe, considered as a habitable world; and, so far as we have not examined any other part of the economy of nature, in which other operations and a different intention might appear…

Now, if we are to take the written history of man for the rule by which we should judge of the time when the species first began, that period would be but little removed from the present state of things. The Mosaic history places this beginning of man at no great distance; and there has not been found, in natural history, any document by which a high antiquity might be attributed to the human race. But this is not the case with regard to the inferior species of animals, particularly those which inhabit the ocean and its shores. We find, in natural history, monuments which prove that those animals had long existed; and we thus procure a measure for the computation of a period of time extremely remote, though far from being precisely ascertained.

In examining things present, we have data from which to reason with regard to what has been; and, from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen hereafter. Therefore, upon the supposition that the operations of nature are equable and steady, we find, in natural appearances, means for concluding a certain portion of time to have necessarily elapsed, in the production of those events of which we see the effects.

It is thus that, in finding the relics of sea-animals of every kind in the solid body of our earth, a natural history of those animals is formed, which includes a certain portion of time; and, for the ascertaining this portion of time, we must again have recourse to the regular operations of this world. We shall thus arrive at facts which indicate a period to which no other species of chronology is able to remount.

In what follows, therefore, we are to examine the construction of the present earth, in order to understand the natural operations of time past; to acquire principles, by which we may conclude with regard to the future course of things, or judge of those operations, by which a world, so wisely ordered, goes into decay; and to learn, by what means such a decayed world may be renovated, or the waste of habitable land upon the globe repaired.

This, therefore, is the object which we are to have in view during this physical investigation; this is the end to which are to be directed all the steps in our cosmological pursuit.

The solid parts of the globe are, in general, composed of sand, of gravel, of argillaceous and calcareous strata, or of the various compositions of these with some other substances, which it is not necessary now to mention. Sand is separated and sized by streams and currents; gravel is formed by the mutual attrition of stones agitated in water; and marly, or argillaceous strata, have been collected, by subsiding in water with which those earthy substances had been floated. Thus, so far as the earth is formed of these materials, that solid body would appear to have been the production of water, winds, and tides.

But that which renders the original of our land clear and evident, is the immense quantities of calcareous bodies which had belonged to animals, and the intimate connection of these masses of animal production with the other strata of the land. For it is to be proved, that all these calcareous bodies, from the collection of which the strata were formed, have belonged to the sea, and were produced in it.

We find the marks of marine animals in the most solid parts of the earth; consequently, those solid parts have been formed after the ocean was inhabited by those animals which are proper to that fluid medium. If, therefore, we knew the natural history of those solid parts, and could trace the operations of the globe, by which they had been formed, we would have some means for computing the time through which those species of animals have continued to live. But how shall we describe a process which nobody has seen performed, and of which no written history gives any account? This is only to be investigated, first, in examining the nature of those solid bodies, the history of which we want to know; and, secondly, in examining the natural operations of the globe, in order to see if there now actually exist such operations, as, from the nature of the solid bodies, appear to have been necessary to their formation.

But, before entering more particularly into those points of discussion, by which the question is to be resolved, let us take a general view of the subject, in order to see what it is which science and observation must decide….



System of Decay and Renovation observed in the Earth.

Philosophers observing an apparent disorder and confusion in the solid parts of this globe, have been led to conclude, that there formerly existed a more regular and uniform state, in the constitution of this earth; that there had happened some destructive change; and that the original structure of the earth had been broken and disturbed by some violent operation, whether natural, or from a super-natural cause. Now, all these appearances, from which conclusions of this kind have been formed, find the most perfect explanation in the theory which we have been endeavouring to establish; for they are the facts from whence we have reasoned, in discovering the nature and constitution of this earth: Therefore, there is no occasion for having recourse to any unnatural supposition of evil, to any destructive accident in nature, or to the agency of any preternatural cause, in explaining that which actually appears….

Man is not satisfied, like the brute, in seeing things which are; he seeks to know how things have been, and what they are to be. It is with pleasure that he observes order and regularity in the works of nature, instead of being disgusted with disorder and confusion; and he is made happy from the appearance of wisdom and benevolence in the design, instead of being left to suspect in the Author of nature, any of that imperfection which he finds in himself.

Let us now take a view of that system of mineral economy, in which may be perceived every mark of order and design, of provident wisdom and benevolence….

The raising up of a continent of land from the bottom of the sea, is an idea that is too great to be conceived easily in all the parts of its operations, many of which are perhaps unknown to us; and, without being properly understood, so great an idea may appear like a thing that is imaginary. In like manner, the co-relative, or corresponding operation, the destruction of the land, is an idea that does not easily enter into the mind of man in its totality, although he is daily witness to part of the operation. We never see a river in a flood, but we must acknowledge the carrying away of part of our land, to be sunk at the bottom of the sea; we never see a storm upon the coast, but we are informed of a hostile attack of the sea upon our country; attacks which must, in time, wear away the bulwarks of our soil, and sap the foundations of our dwellings. Thus, great things are not understood without the analysing of many operations, and the combination of time with many events happening in succession….

Our object is to know the time which had elapsed since the foundation of the present continent had been laid at the bottom of the ocean, to the present moment in which we speculate on these operations. The space is long; the data for the calculations are, perhaps, deficient: No matter; so far as we know our error, or the deficiency in our operation, we proceed in science, and shall conclude in reason. It is not given to man to know what things are truly in themselves, but only what those things are in his thought. We seek not to know the precise measure of any thing; we only understand the limits of a thing, in knowing what it is not, either on the one side or the other.

…[I]n the destruction of the present earth, we have a process that is performed within the limits of our observation; therefore, in knowing the measure of this operation, we shall find the means of calculating what had passed on a former occasion, as well as what will happen in the composition of a future earth. Let us, therefore, now attempt to make this estimate of time and labour.

…Every revolution of the globe wears away some part of some rock upon some coast; but the quantity of that decrease, in that measured time, is not a measurable thing. Instead of a revolution of the globe, let us take an age. The age of man does no more in this estimate than a single year. He sees, that the natural course of things is to wear away the coast, with the attrition of the sand and stones upon the shore…[W]e are certain, that all the coasts of the present continents are wasted by the sea, and constantly wearing away upon the whole; but this operation is so extremely slow, that we cannot find a measure of the quantity in order to form an estimate: Therefore, the present continents of the earth, which we consider as in a state of perfection, would, in the natural operations of the globe, require a time indefinite for their destruction.

But, in order to produce the present continents, the destruction of a former vegetable world was necessary; consequently, the production of our present continents must have required a time which is indefinite. In like manner, if the former continents were of the same nature as the present, it must have required another space of time, which also is indefinite, before they had come to their perfection as a vegetable world.

We have been representing the system of this earth as proceeding with a certain regularity, which is not perhaps in nature, but which is necessary for our clear conception of the system of nature. The system of nature is certainly in rule, although we may not know every circumstance of its regulation. We are under a necessity, therefore, of making regular suppositions, in order to come at certain conclusions which may be compared with the present state of things.

It is not necessary that the present land should be worn away and wasted, exactly in proportion as new land shall appear; or, conversely, that an equal proportion of new land should always be produced as the old is made to disappear. It is only required, that at all times, there should be a just proportion of land and water upon the surface of the globe, for the purpose of a habitable world.

…We have been now supposing, that the beginning of our present earth had been laid in the bottom of the ocean, at the completion of the former land; but this was only for the sake of distinctness. The just view is this, that when the former land of the globe had been complete, so as to begin to waste and be impaired by the encroachment of the sea, the present land began to appear above the surface of the ocean. In this manner we suppose a due proportion to be always preserved of land and water upon the surface of the globe, for the purpose of a habitable world, such as this which we possess. We thus, also, allow time and opportunity for the translation of animals and plants to occupy the earth.

But, if the earth on which we live, began to appear in the ocean at the time when the last began to be resolved, it could not be from the materials of the continent immediately preceding this which we examine, that the present earth had been constructed; for the bottom of the ocean must have been filled with materials before land could be made to appear above its surface.

Let us suppose that the continent, which is to succeed our land, is at present beginning to appear above the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it must be evident, that the materials of this great body, which is formed and ready to be brought forth, must have been collected from the destruction of an earth, which does not now appear. Consequently, in this true statement of the case, there is necessarily required the destruction of an animal and vegetable earth prior to the former land; and the materials of that earth which is first in our account, must have been collected at the bottom of the ocean, and begun to be concocted for the production of the present earth, when the land immediately preceding the present had arrived at its full extent.

This, however, alters nothing with regard to the nature of those operations of the globe. The system is still the same. It only protracts the indefinite space of time in its existence, while it gives us a view of another distinct period of the living world; that is to say, the world which we inhabit is composed of the materials, not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present, but of the earth which, in ascending from the present, we consider as the third, and which had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea, while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration.

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 any thing 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.

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