Title: Theory of the Earth
Author: James Hutton
Published in: Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol. I, Part II, pp.209-304, plates I and II.
Edition Used: Edinburgh: Printed for J. Dickson, Bookseller to the Royal Society. Sold in London by T. Cadell, in the Strand.
First published: 1788
Part IV: An 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 supernatural 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 exists.
IT is necessary for a living or inhabited world, that this should consist of land and water. It is also necessary, that the land should be solid and stable, resisting, with great power, the violent efforts of the ocean; and, at the same time, that this solid land should be resolved by the influence of the sun and atmosphere, so as to decay, and thus become a soil for vegetation. But these general intentions are perfectly fulfilled in the constitution of our earth, which has been now investigated. This great body being formed of different mixed masses, having various degrees of hardness and solubility, proper soil for plants is supplied from the gradual resolution of the solid parts; fertility in those soils arises from the mixture of different elementary substances; and stability is procured to that vegetable world, by the induration of certain bodies, those rocks and stones, which protect the softer masses of clay and soil.
IN this manner, also, will easily be explained those natural appearances which diversify the surface of the earth for the use of plants and animals, and those objects which beautify the face of nature for the contemplation of mankind. Such are, the distinctions of mountains and valleys, of lakes and river, of dry barren desarts and rich watered plains, of rocks which stand apparently unimpaired by the lapse of time, and sands with fluctuate with winds and tides. All these are the effects of steady causes; each of these has its proper purpose in the system of the earth; and in that system is contained another, which is that of living growing bodies, and of animated beings.
BUT, besides this, man, the intellectual being, has, in this subject of the mineral kingdom, the means of gratifying the desire of knowledge, a faculty by which he is distinguished from the animal, and by which he improves his mind in knowing causes. 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 oecomony, in which may be perceived every mark of order and design, of provident wisdom and benevolence.
WE have been endeavouring to prove, that all the continents and island of this globe had been raised above the surface of the ocean; we have also aimed at pointing out the cause of this translation of matter, as well as of the general solidity of that which is raised to our view; but however this theory shall be received, no person of observation can entertain a doubt, that all, or almost all we see of this earth, had been originally formed at the bottom of the sea. We have now another object in our view; this is to investigate the operations of the globe, at the time that the foundation of this land was laying in the waters of the ocean, and to trace the existence and the nature of things, before the present land appeared above the surface of the waters. We should thus acquire some knowledge of the system according to which this world is ruled, both in its preservation and production; and we might be thus enabled to judge, how far the mineral system of the world shall appear to be contrived with all the wisdom, which is so manifest in what are termed the animal and vegetable kingdoms.
IT must not be imagined that this undertaking is a thing unreasonable in its nature; or that it is a work necessarily beset with any unsurmountable difficulty; for, however imperfectly we may fulfil this end proposed, yet, so far as it is to natural causes that are to be ascribed the operations of former time, and so far as, from the present state of things, or knowledge of natural history, we have it in our power to reason from effect to cause, there are, in the constitution of the world, which we now examine, certain means to read the annals of a former earth.
THE object of enquiry being the operations of the globe, during the time when the present earth was forming at the bottom of the sea, we are now to take a very general view of nature, without descending into those particulars which so often occupy the speculations of naturalists, about the present state of things. We are not at present to enter into any discussion with regard to what are the primary and secondary mountains of the earth; we are not to consider what is the first, and what the last, in those things which now are seen; whatever is most ancient in the strata which we now examine, is supposed to be collecting at the bottom of the sea, during the period concerning which we are now to enquire.
WE have already considered those operations which had been necessary informing our solid land, a body consisting of materials originally deposited at the bottom of the ocean; we are now to investigate the source from whence had come all those materials, from the collection of which the present land is formed; and from knowing the state in which those materials had existed, previously to their entering the composition of our strata, we shall learn something concerning the natural history of this world, while the present earth was forming in the sea.
WE have already observed, that all the strata of the earth are composed either from the calcareous relics of sea animals, or from the collection of such materials as we find upon our shores. at a gross computation, there may perhaps be a fourth part of our solid land, which is composed from the matter that had belonged to those animals. Now, what a multitude of living creatures, what a quantity of animal oeconomy must have been required for producing a body of calcareous matter which is interspersed throughout all the land of the globe, and which certainly forms a very considerable part of that mass! Therefore, in knowing how these animals had lived, or with what they had been fed, we shall have learned a most interesting part of the natural history of this earth; a part which it is necessary to have ascertained, in order to see the former operations of the globe, while preparing the materials of the present land. But, before entering upon this subject, let us examine the other materials of which our land is formed.
GRAVEL forms a part of those materials which compose our solid land; but gravel is no other than a collection of the fragments of solid stones worn round, or having their angular form destroyed by agitation in water, and the attrition upon each other, or upon similar hard bodies. Consequently, in finding masses of gravel in the composition of our land, we must conclude, that there had existed a former land, on which there had been transacted certain operations of wind and water, similar to those which are natural to the globe at present, and by which new gravel is continually prepared, as well as old gravel consumed or diminished by attrition upon our shores.
SAND is the material which enters, perhaps in greatest quantity, the composition of our land. But sand is no other than small fragments of hard and solid bodies, worn or rounded more or less by attrition; consequently, the same natural history of the earth, which is investigated from the masses of gravel, is also applicable to those masses of sand which we find forming so large a portion of our present land throughout all the earth.
CLAY is now to be considered as the last of those materials of which our strata re composed; but, in order to understand the nature of this ingredient, something must be premised.
CLAY is a mixture of different earths or hard substances, in an impalpable state. Those substances are chiefly the siliceous and aluminous earths. Other earths are occasionally mixed in clays, or perhaps always to be found in some small portion. But this does not affect the general character of clay; it only forms a special variety in the subject. A sensible or considerable portion of calcareous earth, in the composition of clay, constitutes a marl, and s sufficient admixture of sand, a loam.
AN indefinite variety of those compositions of clay form a large portion of the present strata, all indurated and consolidated in various degrees; but this great quantity of siliceous, argillaceous, and other compound substances, in form of earth or impalpable sediment, corresponds perfectly with that quantity of those same substances which must have been prepared in the formation of so much gravel and sand, by the attrition of those bodies in the moving waters.
THEREFORE, from the consideration of those materials which compose the present land, we have reason to conclude, that, during the time this land was forming, by the collection of its materials at the bottom of the sea, there had been a former land containing materials similar to those which we find at present in examining the earth. We may also conclude, that there had been operations similar to those which we now find natural to the globe, and necessarily exerted in the actual formation of gravel, sand and clay. But what we have now chiefly to view to illustrate is this, that there had then been in the ocean a system of animated beings, which propagated their species, and which have thus continued their several races to this day.
IN order to be convinced of that truth, we have but to examine the strata of our earth, in which we find the remains of animals. In this examination, we not only discover every genus of animal which at present exists in the sea, but probably every species, and perhaps some species with which at present we are not acquainted. There are, indeed, varieties in those species, compared with the present animals which we examine, but no greater varieties than may perhaps be found among the same species in the different quarters of the globe. Therefore, the system of animal life, which had been maintained in the ancient sea, had not been different from that which now subsists, and of which it belongs to naturalists to know the history.
IT is the nature of animal life to be ultimately supported from matter of vegetable production. Inflammable matter may be considered as the pabulum of life. This is prepared in the bodies of living plants, particularly in their leaves exposed to the sun and light. This inflammable matter, on the contrary, is consumed in animal bodies, where it produces heat or light, or both. Therefore, however animal matter, or the pabulum of life, may circulate through a series of digesting powers, it is constantly impaired or diminishing in the course of this oeconomy, and, without the productive power of plants, it would finally be extinguished.
THE animals of the former world must have been sustained during indefinite successions of ages. The mean quantity of animal matter, therefore, must have been preserved by vegetable production, and the natural waste of inflammable substance repaired with continual addition; that is to say, the quantity of inflammable matter necessary to the animal consumption, must have been provided by means of vegetation. Hence we must conclude, that there had been a world of plants, as well an ocean replenished with living animals.
WE are now, in reasoning from principles, come to a point decisive of the question, and which will either confirm the theory, if it be just, or confute our reasoning, if we have erred. Let us, therefore, open the book of Nature, and read in her records, if there had been a world bearing plants, at the time when this present world was forming at the bottom of the sea.
HERE the cabinets of the curious are to be examined; but here some caution is required, in order to distinguish things perfectly different, which sometimes are confounded.
FOSSIL WOOD, to naturalists in general, is wood dug up from under ground, without enquiring whether this had been the production of the present earth, or that which had preceded it in the circulation of land and water. The question is important, and the solution of it is, in general, easy. The vegetable productions of the present earth, however deep they may be found buried beneath the surface, and however ancient they may appear, compared with the records of our known times, are new, compared with the solid land on which they grew; and they are only covered with the produce of a vegetable soil, or the alluvion of the present land on which we dwell, and on which they had grown. But the fossil bodes which from the present subject of enquiry, belonged to former land, and are found only in the sea-born strata of our present earth. It is to these alone that we appeal, in order to prove the certainty of former events.
MINERALIZED wood, therefore, is the object now enquired after; that wood which had been lodged in the bottom of the sea, and there composed part of a stratum, which hitherto we have considered as only formed of the materials proper to the ocean. Now, what a profusion of this species of fossil wood is to be found in the cabinets of collectors, and even in the hands of lapidaries, and such artificers of polished stones! In some places, it would seem to be as common as the agate.
I SHALL only mention a specimen in my own collection. It is wood petrified with calcareous earth, and mineralized with pyrites. This specimen of wood contains in itself, even without the stratum of stone in which it is embedded, the most perfect record of its genealogy. It had been eaten or perforated by those sea-worms which destroy the bottoms of our ships. There is the clearest evidence of this truth. Therefore, this wood had grown upon land which stood above the level of the sea, while the present land was only forming at the bottom of the ocean.
WOOD is the most substantial part of plants, as shells are the more permanent part of marine animals. It is not, however, the woody part alone of the ancient vegetable world that is transmitted to us in the record of our mineral pages. We have the type of many species of foliage, and even of the most delicate flower; for, in this way, naturalists have determined, according to the Linnaean system, the species, or at least the genus, of the plant. Thus, the existence of a vegetable system at the period now in contemplation, so far from being doubtful, is a matter of physical demonstration.
THE profusion of this vegetable matter, delivered into the ocean, which then generated land, is also evidenced in the amazing quantities of mineral coal, which is to be found in perhaps every region of the earth.
NOTHING can be more certain, than that all the coaly or bituminous strata have had their origin from the substance of vegetable bodies that grew upon the land. Those strata, though, in general, perfectly consolidated, often separate horizontally in certain places; and there we find the fibrous or vascular structure of the vegetable bodies. Consequently, there is no doubt of fossil coal being a substance of vegetable production, however animal substances also may have contributed in forming this collection of oleaginous or inflammable matter.
HAVING thus ascertained the state of a former earth, in which plants and animals had lived, as well as the gradual production of the present earth, composed from the materials of a former world, it must be evident, that here are two operations which are necessarily consecutive. The formation of the present earth necessarily involves the destruction of the continents in the ancient world; and, by pursuing in our minds the natural operations of a former earth, we clearly see the origin of that land, by the fertility of which, we, and all the animated bodies of the sea, are fed. It is in like manner, that, contemplating the present operations of the globe, we may perceive the actual existence of those productive causes, which are now laying the foundation of land in the unfathomable regions of the sea, and which will, in time, give birth to future continents.
BUT though, in generalizing the operations of nature, we have arrived at those great events, which, at first sights may fill the mind with wonder and with doubt, we are not to suppose, that there is any violent exertion of power, such as is required in order to produce a great event in little time; in nature, we find no deficiency in respect of time, nor any limitation with regard to power. But time is not made to flow in vain; nor does there ever appear the exertion of superfluous power, or the manifestation of design, not calculated in wisdom to effect some general end.
THE events now under consideration may be examined with a view to see this truth; for it may be enquired, why destroy one continent in order to erect another? The answer is plain; Nature does not destroy a continent from having wearied of a subject which had given pleasure, or changed her purpose, whether for a better or a worse; neither does she erect a continent of land among the clouds, to shew her power, or to amaze the vulgar man: Nature has contrived to productions of vegetable bodies, and the sustenance of animal life, to depend upon the gradual but sure destruction of a continent; that is to say, these two operations necessarily go hand in hand. But with such wisdom has nature ordered things in the oeconomy of this world, that the destruction of one continent is not brought about without the renovation of the earth in the production of another; and the animal and vegetable bodies, for which the world above the surface of the sea is levelled with its bottom, are among the means employed in those operations, as well as the sustenance of those living beings is the proper end in view.
THUS, in understanding the proper constitution of the present earth, we are led to know the source from whence had come all the materials which nature had employed in the construction of the world which appears; a world contrived in consummate wisdom for the growth and habitation of a great diversity of plants and animals; and a world peculiarly adapted to the purposes of man, who inhabits all its climates, who measures its extent, and determines its productions at his pleasure.
THE whole of a great object or event fills us with wonder and astonishment, when all the particulars, in the succession of which the whole had been produced, may be considered without the least emotion. When, for example, we behold the pyramids of Egypt, our mind is agitated with a crowd of ideas that highly entertains the person who understands the subject; but the carrying a heavy stone up to the top of a hill or mountain would give that person little pleasure or concern. We wonder at the whole operation of the pyramid, but not at any one particular part.
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 operation, 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 analyzing of many operations, and the combination of time with many events happening in succession.
LET us now consider what is to be the subject of examination, and where it is that we are to observe those operations which must determine either the stability or the instability of this land on which we live.
OUR land has two extremities; the tops of mountains, on the one hand, and the sea-shores, on the other: it is the intermediate space between these two, that forms the habitation of plants and animals. While there is a sea-shore and a higher ground, there is that which is required in the system of the world: Take these away, and there would remain an aqueous globe, in which the world would perish. But, in the natural operations of the world, the land is perishing continually; and this is that which now we want to understand.
UPON the one extremity of our land, there is no increase, or there is no accession of any mineral substance. That place is the mountain top, on which nothing is observed but continual decay. The fragments of the mountain are removed in a gradual succession from the highest station to the lowest. Being arrived at the shore, and having entered the dominion of the waves, in which they find perpetual agitation, these hard fragments, which had eluded the resolving powers natural to the surface of the earth, are incapable of resisting the powers here employed for the destruction of the land. By the attrition of one hard body upon another, the moving stones and rocky shore, are mutually impaired. And that solid mass, which of itself had potential stability against the violence of the waves, affords the instruments of its own destruction, and thus gives occasion to its actual instability.
IN order to understand the system of the heavens, it is necessary to connect together periods of measured time, and the distinguished places of revolving bodies. It is thus that system may be observed, or wisdom, in the proper adapting of powers to an intention. In like manner, we cannot understand the system of the globe, without seeing that progress of things which is brought about in time, thus measuring the natural operations of the earth with those of the heavens. This is properly the business of the present undertaking.
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.
WE are investigating the age of the present earth, from the beginning of that body which was in the bottom of the sea, to the perfection of its nature, which we consider as in the moment of our existence; and we have necessarily another area, which is collateral, or correspondent, in the progress of those natural events. This is the time required, in the natural operations of this globe, for the destruction of a former earth; and earth equally perfect with the present, and an earth equally productive of growing plants and living animals. Now, it must appear, that, if we had a measure for the one of those corresponding operations, we would have an equal knowledge of the other.
THE formation of a future earth being in the bottom of the ocean, at depths unfathomable to man, and in regions far beyond the reach of his observation, here is apart of the process which cannot be taken as a principle in forming an estimate of the whole. But, in 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.
THE highest mountain may be levelled with the plain from when it springs, without the loss of real territory in the land; but when the ocean makes encroachment on the basis of our earth, the mountain, unsupported, tumbles with its weight; and with the accession of hard bodies, moveable with the agitation of the waves, gives to the sea the power of undermining farther and farther into the solid basis of our land. This is the operation which is to be measured; this is the mean proportional by which we are to estimate the age of worlds that have terminated, and the duration of those that are but beginning.
BUT how shall we measure the decrease of our land? 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; but he cannot find a measure for this quantity which shall correspond to time, in order to form an estimate of the rate of this decrease.
BUT man is not confined to what he sees; he has the experience of former men. Let us then go to the Romans and the Greeks in search of a measure of our coasts, which we may compare with the present state of things. Here, again, we are disappointed; their descriptions of the shores of Greece and of Italy, and their works upon the coast, either give no measure of a decrease, or are not accurate enough for such a purpose.
IT is in vain to attempt to measure a quantity which escapes our notice, and which history cannot ascertain; and we might just as well attempt to measure the distance of the stars without a parallax, as to calculate the destruction of the solid land without a measure corresponding to the whole.
THE description which POLYBIUS has given of the Pontus Euxinus, with the two opposite Bosphori, the Meotis, the Propontis, and the Port of Byzantium, are as applicable to the present state of things, as they were at the writing of that history. The filling up of the bed of the Meotis, an event which, to POLYBIUS, appeared not far off, must also be considered as removed to a very distant period, though the causes still continue to operate as before.
BUT there is a thing in which history and the present sate of things do not agree. It is upon the coast of Spain, where POLYBIUS says there was an island in the mouth of the harbour of New Carthage. At present, in place of the island, there is only a rock under the surface of the water. It must be evident, however, that the loss of this small island affords no proper ground of calculation for the measure or rate of wasting which could correspond to the coast in general; as neither the quantity of what is now lost had been measured, nor its quality ascertained.
LET us examine places much more exposed to the fury of the waves and currents than the coast of Carthagena, the narrow fretum, for example, between Italy and Sicily. It does not appear, that this passage is sensibly wider than when the Romans first had known it. The Isthmus of Corinth is also apparently the same at present as it had been two or three thousand years ago. Scilla and Charibdis remain now, as they had been in ancient times, rocks hazardous for coasting vessels which had to pass that strait.
IT is not meant by this to say, these rocks have not been wasted by the sea, and worn by the attrition of moving bodies, during that space of time; were this true, and that those rocks, the bulwarks of the land upon those coasts, had not been at all impaired from that period, they might remain for ever, and thus the system of interchanging the place of sea and land upon this globe might be frustrated. It is only meant to affirm, that the quantity which those rocks, or that coast, have diminished from the period of our history, has either been too small a thing for human observation, or, which is more probable, that no accurate measurement of the subject, by which this quantity of decrease might have been ascertained, had been taken and recorded. It must be also evident, that a very small operation of an earthquake would be sufficient to render every means of information, in this manner of mensuration, unsatisfactory or precarious.
PLINY says Italy was distant from Sicily a mile and a half; but we cannot suppose that this measure was taken any otherwise than by computation, and such a measure is but little calculated to afford us the just means of a comparison with the present distance. He also says, indeed, that Sicily had been once joined with Italy. His words are: "Quondam BRUTIO agro cohaerens, mox interfuso mari avulsa" [fn. Lib. 3. cap 8]. But all that we can conclude from this history of PLINY is, that, in all times, to people considering the appearances of those two approached coasts, it had seemed probably, that the sea formed a passage between the two countries which had been once united; in like manner as is still more immediately perceived, in that smaller disjunction which is made between the island of Anglesey and the continent of Wales.
THE port of Syracuse, with the island which forms the greater and lesser, and the fountain of Arethusa, the water of which the ancients divided from the sea with a wall, do not seem to be altered. From Sicily to the coast of Egypt, there is an uninterrupted course of sea for a thousand miles; consequently, the wind, in such a stretch of sea, should bring powerful waves against those coasts. But, on the coast of Egypt, we find the rock on which was formerly built the famous tower of Pharos; and also, at the eastern extremity of the port Eunoste, the sea-bath, cut in the solid rock upon the shore. Both those rocks, buffeted immediately with the waves of the Mediterranean sea, are, to all appearance, the same at this day as they were in ancient times. [fn. Lettres sur l'Egypte, M. SAVARY].
MANY other such proofs will certainly occur, where the different parts of those coasts are examined by people of observation and intelligence. But is enough for our present purpose, that this decrease of the coasts in general has not been observed; and that it is as generally thought, that the land is gaining upon the sea, as that the sea is gaining upon the land.
TO sum up the argument, we 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 now 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.
NEITHER is it required in the actual system of this earth, that every part of the land should be dissolved in its structure, and worn away by attrition, so as to be floated in the sea. Parts of the land may often sink in a body below the level of the sea, and parts again may be restored, without waiting for the general circulation of land and water, which proceeds with all the certainty of nature, but which advances with an imperceptible progression. Many of such apparent irregularities may appear, without the least infringement on the general system. That system is comprehended in the preparation of future land at the bottom of the ocean, from those materials which the dissolution and attrition of the present land may have provided, and from those which the natural operations of the sea afford.
IN thus accomplishing a certain end, we are not to limit nature with the uniformity of an equable progression, although it be necessary in our computations to proceed upon equalities. Thus also, in the use of means, we are not to prescribe to nature those alone which we think suitable for the purpose, in our narrow view. It is our business to learn of nature (that is by observation) the ways and means, which in her wisdom are adopted; and we are to imagine these only in order to find means for further information, and to increase our knowledge from the examination of things which actually have been. It is in this manner, that intention may be found in nature; but this intention is not to be supposed, or vainly imagined, from what we may conceive to be.
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 an 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 our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,--no prospect of an end.
This is a chapter from Theory of the Earth (historical).
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