IV. THE ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN GEOLOGY
But have we any proof that such formation of rocks in an ocean-bed has, in fact, occurred? To be sure we have. It is furnished by every bed of limestone, every outcropping fragment of fossil-bearing rock, every stratified cliff. How else than through such formation in an ocean-bed came these rocks to be stratified? How else came they to contain the shells of once living organisms imbedded in their depths? The ancients, finding fossil shells imbedded in the rocks, explained them as mere freaks of "nature and the stars." Less superstitious generations had repudiated this explanation, but had failed to give a tenable solution of the mystery. To Hutton it is a mystery no longer. To him it seems clear that the basis of the present continents was laid in ancient sea-beds, formed of the detritus of continents yet more ancient.
But two links are still wanting to complete the chain of Hutton's hypothesis. Through what agency has the ooze of the ocean-bed been transformed into solid rock? and through what agency has this rock been lifted above the surface of the water to form new continents? Hutton looks about him for a clew, and soon he finds it. Everywhere about us there are outcropping rocks that are not stratified, but which give evidence to the observant eye of having once been in a molten state. Different minerals are mixed together; pebbles are scattered through masses of rock like plums in a pudding; irregular crevices in otherwise solid masses of rock—so-called veinings—are seen to be filled with equally solid granite of a different variety, which can have gotten there in no conceivable way, so Hutton thinks, but by running in while molten, as liquid metal is run into the moulds of the founder. Even the stratified rocks, though they seemingly have not been melted, give evidence in some instances of having been subjected to the action of heat. Marble, for example, is clearly nothing but calcined limestone.
With such evidence before him, Hutton is at no loss to complete his hypothesis. The agency which has solidified the ocean-beds, he says, is subterranean heat. The same agency, acting excessively, has produced volcanic cataclysms, upheaving ocean-beds to form continents. The rugged and uneven surfaces of mountains, the tilted and broken character of stratified rocks everywhere, are the standing witnesses of these gigantic upheavals.
And with this the imagined cycle is complete. The continents, worn away and carried to the sea by the action of the elements, have been made over into rocks again in the ocean-beds, and then raised once more into continents. And this massive cycle, In Hutton's scheme, is supposed to have occurred not once only, but over and over again, times without number. In this unique view ours is indeed a world without beginning and without end; its continents have been making and unmaking in endless series since time began.
Hutton formulated his hypothesis while yet a young man, not long after the middle of the century. He first gave it publicity in 1781, in a paper before the Royal Society of Edinburgh:
"A solid body of land could not have answered the purpose of a habitable world," said Hutton, "for a soil is necessary to the growth of plants, and a soil is nothing but the material collected from the destruction of the solid land. Therefore the surface of this land inhabited by man, and covered by plants and animals, is made by nature to decay, in dissolving from that hard and compact state in which it is found; 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 our 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 movable materials, delivered into the sea, cannot, for a long continuance, rest upon the shore, for by the agitation of the winds, the tides, and the currents every movable 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 then 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 the 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 everything 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 has 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 in the course of nature cannot be limited by time must proceed in a continual succession. We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the destruction 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.