FACTS, FANCIES, AND NEBULOUS THOUGHTS1
Whatever may have been the original condition of the material of the earth, and whether or not it was once in a nebulous state, the early conceptions of its nature certainly were nebulous in the minds of men until little more than a century ago. It seems marvelous how some of the fanciful speculations concerning the earth ever originated. For centuries people believed tales which now seem so obviously impossible that we marvel that they were seriously considered by any one. But wild speculations gradually gave way as facts accumulated. Many of the myths, legends, and folklore tales have been relegated to the realm of fiction.
Forget the past and look forward is a good rule, but it is sometimes worth while to look backward and view the mistakes made in the past, for by so doing we may avoid blunders. A glance backward over the events recorded in the history of earth science may well cause us to approach the subject with humble spirit.
The insistence on sharp discrimination between fact and fancy is relatively modern. The progress of thought from speculation without facts to demonstration by means of facts was slow and painful. The history of it fills many a volume. Only a few of the great number of recorded incidents can be mentioned here, but it seems desirable to recall a sufficient number of them to indicate the long struggle after geologic truth.
During the early centuries of recorded history scholars, especially among the Greeks, began to observe facts that tended to force modification of the still older traditions. Had that tendency continued, we might now be far in advance of our present intellectual position. But the Dark Ages followed and much was lost.
With the revival of learning, about the fifteenth century, began the accumulation of data which forced the overthrow of many a wild speculation and which is continually forcing the modification of hypotheses at the present time. We no longer depend on the spirits and goblins of the "medicine man" for revelation in explanation of natural phenomena. To the enlightened mind explanations must harmonize with observed fact and with demonstrated law.
As early as 614 B.C. traditions were being subjected to tests, for Xenophanes concluded from the occurrence of sea shells found in the inland hills of Malta that these hills had formerly been submerged. At the time of Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) fancy and fable were giving place to fact in the minds of thoughtful men. The "Father of History" cautiously suggested that the famous gorge of Tempe, which some attributed to Hercules, who was said to have split the mountain, was not formed by the hero but rather that "the mountain had been torn asunder by an earthquake." Modern thinkers have other explanations, but it is interesting to note that more than twenty-three centuries ago some men were explaining natural phenomena in terms that seem surprisingly modern. Herodotus and others noted the occurrence of petrified shells in the Egyptian hills and concluded from them that the sea had once spread over that country.
Empedocles (492-430 B.C.), a Greek philosopher of Sicily, gave to the world the conception that the earth's center was composed of molten material. He formed this opinion by observing the volcanic activities of Mount Etna. Tradition says that he met his death by falling into the crater of that volcano. One account states that he cast himself into the crater in the hope that men finding no trace of him would suppose him translated but that his secret was betrayed by one of his sandals, which was given up by the volcano.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) had little to say on geologic subjects, but some of the things which he did say seem strangely modern. For example, "The sea now covers tracts that were formerly dry land, and dry land will one day reappear where we now find sea. We must look on these mutations as following each other in a certain order and with a certain periodicity."
Progress of Greeks, Romans, and Arabs
Theophrastus (368-284 B.C.), a pupil of Aristotle, wrote a special work on fossils. This work is lost, but Pliny refers to it. The idea that sea and land had changed places persisted to the time of Strabo (66? B.C.-24? A.D.), who wrote "Everyone will admit that at many periods a great portion of the mainland has been covered and again left bare by the sea." But in spite of this opinion he seems to be puzzled over the occurrence of fossils. When standing by the pyramids of Egypt he noticed that the blocks of stone that had been brought from the quarries contained pieces which in shape and size resembled lentils. He was told that these were remnants of the food of the workmen turned to stone. He rejected this explanation as improbable but did not suggest a likely origin for them. It is now known that these lentil-like bodies are fossil shells called nummulites. They are so numerous that the rock containing them is called the Nummulitic limestone.
Some of the Romans adopted in part the Greek conceptions and made considerable additions from observed facts. Suetonius relates that the Emperor Augustus decorated his villa at Capri with huge fossil bones, which at that time were supposed to be the remains of a giant race. Pliny (23-79 A.D.), who made large contributions to human knowledge, will always be remembered as the first martyr to natural science, for he lost his life in an endeavor to fathom the secrets of the great eruption of Vesuvius at the time Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed.
But although considerable progress was made by the Greek and Roman writers toward conceiving an orderly sequence of terrestrial events, not one of them conceived the idea that fossils could be used as witnesses of such events. This great step toward a science of the earth was reserved for more modern thinkers.
But although a few of the ancients had clear vision, speculation without observation was more general than the accumulation of facts. Fanciful explanations, springing apparently from some fertile imagination without recourse to observed facts, were accepted and reiterated for centuries. Even the very slight advance that had been made by the classical writers toward developing a science of the earth was lost after the barbarians overthrew the power of Rome. Progress in this, as in many other branches of learning, was arrested for centuries. Thereafter, through long, barren ages, narrow, cloistered scholasticism prevailed.
Curious Explanation of Fossils
During the centuries of the Dark Ages little advance was made in geologic science. The Arabs did something toward intellectual progress, but their activities were not directed to geologic research. Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.), an Arabian commentator of Aristotle, followed that philosopher in advocating the theory of spontaneous generation,1 and outdid his master in picturesque explanation when he suggested that fossils had been "brought forth in the bowels of the earth by virtue of that creative force of nature which had continually striven to produce the organic out of the inorganic" and that "fossils were unsuccessful attempts of nature, the form having been produced but no animal life bestowed."
Many an echo of this idea was heard centuries later, when theologians became alarmed about fossils, which they undertook to explain as "unsuccessful attempts of the Creator, or forms never endowed with life"; "models of His works rejected by the Great Artificer"; "outlines of future creations"; "objects placed in the strata to bring to naught human curiosity."
Avicenna was in some respects far ahead of his time. He accounts for mountains in two ways that seem surprisingly modern. He asserts that they may arise "either from uplifting of the ground, such as takes place in earthquakes, or from the effects of running water and wind in hollowing out valleys." Although strongly influenced by the older philosophy, which was based largely on speculation, he was a forerunner of those who base their philosophy on things that they observe. He was separated in time from the old Greek philosophy by nearly a thousand years and from the new philosophy of the present time by a period nearly as long.
Dark Ages and Backward Steps
During the long intellectual night that followed the fall of the Roman Empire the slight advance made by the ancient philosophers toward a rational interpretation of natural phenomena was almost forgotten. Learning was confined chiefly to the monasteries and directed mainly to such subjects as could be pursued within the shelter of their walls. This naturally excluded the science of the earth, which requires study in the open, wide observation, and the collection of great volumes of exact information.
A famous geologist emphasized the necessity for study in the open when he said three things are absolutely necessary in the study of geology. The first is travel; the second is travel; and the third is TRAVEL.
An especially unfortunate decline took place during the Dark Agesa slip backward toward the primitive age, when little distinction was made between legend, religion, and fact. When parts of the ancient Hebrew writings were collected and combined as The Scriptures, the legendary accounts of Creation were included and were generally accepted as divine revelation.
On this subject, Von Zittel says: "The Mosaic account of Creation was incorporated in the Bible of the Christian Church and unfortunately became invested with a scientific value by the Church. This retarded the development of geology for many centuries, inasmuch as theologians regarded the Mosaic account as an essential dogma of the Christian Church and sought to suppress any investigations and writings of scientific interest which did not harmonize with it."
There is a temptation to censure those who tried to suppress what they believed to be erroneous, and to smile at the gullibility of those who knew no better than to mistake "authoritative" assertions for demonstrated facts. Perhaps, however, our judgment both of the honest dogmatist and of his unsuspecting dupe will be mellowed if we reflect that some of the common beliefs of our day rest on assertions rather than on demonstrations.
Truth and Martyrdom
In the mental darkness of the long intellectual night men lost sight of the contributions made by the ancients. Even so great a catastrophe as that which overwhelmed Pompeii was forgotten. Facts that had been part of common knowledge centuries before must be discovered again. The rediscovery seems to have begun with the revival of learning in the fifteenth century, but under what different conditions from those of the days of Greece and Rome! Ecclesiastical habits of thought had now gained ascendancy over the minds of men, and mistaken zealots sought to suppress, by force if necessary, opinions that ran counter to their own doctrines. But some sturdy characters defied authority, spoke or wrote what they believed, and suffered the consequences.
Some utterances of truth cost the speaker's life. In the year 1553 Michael Servetus was condemned for heresy and burned at the stake. Servetus had done much toward the advancement of science. One service was the preparation of an edition of Ptolemy's Geography, in which Judea was spoken of not as "a land flowing with milk and honey" but, in strict accordance with the truth, as in the main meager, barren, and inhospitable. At his trial John Calvin used this quotation against him with telling effect and argued that it "necessarily inculpated Moses, and grievously outraged the Holy Ghost."
Giordano Bruno, a natural philosopher of considerable insight, who followed Copernicus in teaching that the earth moved about the sun, and who denied that there had ever been a universal Deluge, was long hunted from land to land and, after being imprisoned for six years, was finally burned for heresy at Rome in 1600. Bruno's belated reward for standing faithfully for the truth came nearly 300 years later, when his statue was erected on the spot where he was martyred. A reprint of his ideas appeared about the same time (Boll. Soc. Natur. Napoli, 1895). He described the earth as a spherical body, on whose surface the depths of the ocean were greater than the heights of the mountains. His statement is confirmed by the discovery of an ocean depth of 32,088 feet about 40 miles north of the island of Mindanao, one of the Philippine Islands, and the determination that the highest point of land, Mount Everest, reaches an altitude of 30,292 feet. In his writings is found the statement, now familiar to every school boy, that mountains are no higher in proportion to the size of the earth than the wrinkles on the skin of a dried apple.
In sharp contrast with such bold characters as Bruno were politic thinkers who veiled their ideas in various ways or suppressed their writings during their lifetime; but many threw reason to the winds and wrote volumes of arrant nonsense, which were published seemingly from no better motive than that they catered to the opinions of those who were in places of power.
A striking illustration of the fear inspired by ecclesiastical authority is found in the manner in which De Maillet recorded his convictions. He wrote in 1715 and 1716, but his writings were not put in type until 1735 and were not distributed until 1748, three years after his death. Because of their heterodoxy he would not allow them to appear in print during his lifetime. Furthermore, the unorthodox ideas presented are by him attributed to an Indian philosopher, whom he called Telliamedhis own name spelled backward.
On the other hand, it may be comforting to some but annoying to others to know that the Middle Ages had no monopoly on intolerance, and that a similar spirit prevails at the present time in some places, where men are brought to trial for teaching what they regard as true.
Bruno was an enthusiastic supporter of the natural philosophy advocated by Copernicus, and during his travels through Europe he became disgusted with the attitude of scholars of his time. It is said that an Oxford statute then (in 1583) provided that masters and bachelors who did not follow Aristotle were liable to a fine of five shillings for each point of divergence.
Those who are inclined to smile derisively at this statute may do well to reflect that one commonwealth of the highly enlightened United States of America has a similar law under which a teacher was found guilty and fined for a similar offense in the year 1925.
Science and Dogma
The struggle between scientific and ecclesiastic thought, which was so bitter for centuries, centered in the origin and development of life. It began with a conflict over the nature of fossils. The explanation of the ancient Greek and Roman writers, who had reached the conclusion that fossils were the remains of plants and animals, was accepted by only a few who would not deny the evidence of their own senses and who were bold enough to follow logically the course shown by observed facts.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) had seen many fossil shells while constructing canals in northern Italy. He ridiculed the belief of his contemporaries that the shells originated "under the influence of the stars" and correctly interpreted them as due to submergence of the land beneath sea level. Some other men of his time held similar views, although these views were much tainted with the idea of a sudden flood.
Georg Bauer (Agricola) (1494-1555), the "father of mineralogy," regarded some fossils as of mineral origin and others as originating from living beings. Mercati (1574) described and figured fossil shells that had been gathered into the Vatican by Pope Sixtus V, but denied their organic nature. He concluded that they were "stones that had assumed their present shapes under the influence of celestial bodies."
Although a few were trying to find a satisfactory explanation of fossils, men were not lacking to deny that fossils had anything to do with life. Falloppio (1557), when he saw the petrified bones of elephants, the teeth of sharks, shells and other easily recognized fossils, refused to admit that they were anything but earthy concretions, because he deemed that a simpler solution of the problem than to suppose that the waters of the Deluge could have reached as far as Italy.
Here we find a curious conflict between ecclesiastical thought and the philosophy of Aristotle, who had written against a universal flood. Martin Lister (1638-1711), a learned Englishman, "combatted the idea that the fossils could have proceeded from animals" (see Philos. Trans. Roy. Soc. London, 1671), although he pointed out that different rocks were characterized by special kinds of fossils and compared these with living forms.
Fossils and the Deluge
About the same time Steno (1631-1687) suggested that certain petrified bones of an elephant were relics of the African elephants brought into Italy by Hannibal. Although a skilled anatomist he hesitated at first to admit that certain fossils were really shark's teeth, but later in life he gave to the world the important geologic principle that stratified rocks are formed from sediments deposited layer on layer, that the fossils they contain result from plants and animals buried in the sediments at the time they were laid down, and that from the strata a succession of geologic events may be determined. He even presented a geologic history of Tuscany. But Steno was also a theologian and felt the necessity of limiting geologic time to 6000 years. He argues that some of the fossils "must be as old as the general Deluge."
On every hand, men were not lacking who honestly and piously tried to reconcile the occurrence of fossils with their theological doctrines. Inasmuch as the account of the Deluge contained in the Mosaic writings was accepted as history, it was appealed to in explanation of the remains of marine animals found in rocks high in the mountains. The Deluge during which "all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered" seemed to some a satisfactory explanation, and many of the most ludicrous incidents in the history of geologic science cluster about the endeavor to make observed facts fit this belief in a universal flood.
Robert Hooke (1635-1703), a brilliant English scholar, first suggested the use of fossils in revealing the history of the earth. The nature of these fossils was hardly established before those who believed in the Flood claimed them as "vestiges from the earlier creation interred in the earth during the great Deluge." This idea was widely taught, among others by Schuechzer, a professor at Zurich, who found what he supposed to be "the skeleton of one of these nefarious men whose sins brought upon the world the dire misfortune of the Deluge." Cuvier later determined that this skeleton represents a gigantic salamander and named it Andreas Schuechzeri in honor of its finder. The bones are now in Teyler Museum, in Haarlem.
Among the works of Schuechzer is a small volume published in 1708, which is noted for its quaint humor. The fossil fishes are reported as assembled in council to protest against their treatment by the descendants of the wicked men that brought on the Flood, by which these very fishes had been entombed. They discourse of "the irrefragable witness of the universal Deluge, which, by the care of Providence, their dumb race places before unbelievers for the conviction of the most daring atheists." Specimens of their fossil brethren are appealed topike, trout, eel, perch, sharkand their well-preserved minute structure of teeth, bones, scales, and fins pointed to as a triumphant demonstration that such perfect anatomical details could be fabricated by no inorganic process within the rocks, as had been maliciously affirmed.
The discovery of shells on the Alps was hailed as confirming the reality of the Deluge which covered all the high hills. The difficulty of washing them up the mountain side seems not to have appeared serious. To those whose credulity could encompass such a flood, a little matter of pebbles washed uphill was of small consequence.
In this connection it may comfort some to know that the ecclesiastical writers were not the only ones to advance ludicrous explanations. Voltaire (1694-1778) suggested (was it in earnest or in jest?) that the shells found on the Alps were the discarded remains of bivalves carried there as food by the pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land.
It is surprising how persistently thoughtful men clung to the idea that the fossils or "figured stones" originated in ways that now seem so absurd. On this point Geikie remarks: "It is almost incredible how long some of these ignorant beliefs lasted and what an amount of argument and patience had to be expended in killing them. I have been told that even within the last century a learned divine of the University of Oxford used to maintain an opinion that the fossils in the rocks had been purposely placed there by the devil in order to deceive, mislead, and perplex mankind."
According to Von Zittel this school of thought, which had flourished for more than two centuries, was brought to an end by the pranks of school boys. He says:
"A semi-tragic, semi-comic event brought this literature to a close. Johannes Bartholomew Beringer, a professor in the University of Würzburg, published in 1726 a paleontological work entitled 'Lithographia Würzeburgensis.' In it a number of true fossils were illustrated, belonging to the Muschelkalk or middle Triassic of North Bavaria and beside these were more or less remarkable forms, even sun, moon, stars, and Hebraic letters, said to be fossils, and described and illustrated as such by the professor. As a matter of fact the students, who no longer believed in the Greek myth of self-generation in the rocks, had placed artificially-concocted forms in the earth and during excursions had inveigled the credulous professor to those particular spots and discovered them! But when at last Beringer's own name was found, apparently in fossil form, in the rocks the mystery was revealed to the unfortunate professor. He tried to buy up and destroy his published work, but in 1767 a new edition of the work was published, and the book is preserved as a curiosity. Many of the false fossils (Lügensteine) may be seen in the mineral collections at Bamberg, and there are also specimens in the university collection at Würzburg, Munich, and other places."
Although scientific men ceased to talk about "figured stones" and no longer believed that the clay images on which the boys had placed the name "Jehovah" in Hebrew characters had been autographed by deity, the idea seems to have lived in the popular mind. In a poem by the English poet Cowper (1731-1800) may be read the lines:
Some drill and bore
The passing of the belief in the Deluge was slow and its death struggles are too painful to be ludicrous. The mental contortions of its adherents, who piously tried to defend it, but whose reason forced them to abandon it, seem almost pathetic. Even as late as the early part of the eighteenth century men recognized as intellectual leaders of their time were busy arguing about Noah's flood and devising such unnatural and even miraculous explanations of fossils as has been cited.
The Swiss naturalist, Bertrand, suggested that the fossil plants and animals had been placed in the rocks "directly by the Creator, with the design of displaying thereby the Harmony of His work and the agreement of the productions of the sea with those of the land." And Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709), who seems to have been one of the strong thinkers of his time, described a thousand species of British fossils and states that the shells are partly due "to fish spawn received into the chinks of the earth in the water of the Deluge." But in his correspondence he brought forward a number of shrewd arguments against ascribing to Noah's flood the fossil shells and plants "which have so much excited our admiration and indeed baffled our reasoning."
Persistence of Beliefs
Although the Deluge is no longer a live topic in geology, the Mosaic narrative of the flood is still accepted as authentic history by great numbers of people. Just as the Tortoise-theory of the earth persists among the Hindoos and the hero-myths among the American Indians, the belief in the Deluge will probably endure in some quarters for centuries to come.
The undying character of the belief in the Deluge was vividly brought to me a few years ago while I was examining coal deposits in western Colorado. A man who accepted the account of the flood as history was living on the side of Grand Mesa, near the outcrop of one of the beds of coal. He had noticed that the coal crops out in many places at the same altitude. In a published pamphlet he expresses the belief that trees uprooted by Noah's flood had floated to the side of the mesa as the waters subsided and had been forced by the beating waves into the hillside along the water line and there turned to coal.
The publication of fantastic speculations is not confined to those living far from centers of culture. Even as late as 1885 a volume was published in Boston in which the author, a college president, spreads arguments over nearly 500 printed pages in support of his idea that the Garden of Eden was situated at the north pole.
Some would gladly regard this work as satire, but in the preface the author asserts that the book "is a thoroughly serious and sincere attempt to solve a fascinating problem." The conclusion, that the "treatise opened with a pathetic pictureit must close with another," is true. The treatise seems pathetic in quite a different sense than that intended. The author says that the polar region is "Men no longer. Even could some new Columbus penetrate to the secret center of this Wonderland of the Ages he could but hurriedly kneel amid a frozen desolation and dumb with nameless awe let fall a few hot tears above the buried and desolated hearthstone of Humanity's earliest and loveliest home." The author had no means of knowing that a man would one day reach the north pole. In Peary's account of his experience he makes no mention of hot tears, but states that on sounding the ocean he failed to reach bottom at a depth of 9,000 feet. Needless to say, no "hearthstone" was found.
Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones
It may be questioned whether so many mistaken conceptions and wornout opinions should be recalled. The earlier ones at least should not be held up to ridicule. They were stepping stones by which we rose to higher things. For the later ones there is less excuse. They are stumbling blocks rather than stepping stones.
In my opinion a review of the long struggle for the truth, the mental groping in the twilight of learning, has two important applications at the present time. Many a modern thinker honestly believes that his conclusions are correct and final. Thousands of his predecessors, at whose conclusions we smile, believed with equal honesty that their conclusions were final. The man who is wise will accept the lessons of history and will sharply scrutinize his own conclusions. He will be his own most ruthless critic. Furthermore, he will state his conclusions cautiously, knowing that they will be tested in the future and will be accepted only in so far as they harmonize with facts.
The second application is one of encouragement for the too-timid thinker. Too often modesty is misinterpreted as weakness, and ideas potentially great are killed by so-called authority. Inspection of the historic records show that often a new idea has a hard struggle for existence. But if the idea is good, opposition to it may die in time.
The Theory of Copernicus
At the risk of repetition I refer again to the story of Copernicus, which illustrates this point in a striking manner.
After years of thought this Polish philosopher concluded that a belief which was almost universal in his time was incorrectthat the earth was not the center of the universe. Instead, he conceived the idea which is now common, that the sun is the center of our system and that the earth moves about it. Fortunately for his peace of mind his ideas were not published until the day of his death. The volume containing this revolutionary conception was placed in his hands on his deathbed.
But when his teachings became known, a storm of protest broke. They were branded as "unscriptural" and were "forbid den." Martin Luther stigmatized Copernicus as "an upstart and a fool"; in 1616 Galileo was admonished not to teach the theory of Copernicus, and "all books which affirm the motion of the earth" were forbidden. Even to the end of the seventeenth century his theory was held to be "unsafe science," and university professors were forced to take oath not to hold the Copernican theory as to the movements of the heavenly bodies. Still later, it is said that certain schools advertised that children would be taught that "the earth is round or flat, as parents may desire."
Let not the modest thinker be discouraged because "wise" men smile at his presumption and refuse to listen. Large things grow from small beginnings. No great conception springs into being like Pallas Athena from the head of Zeus, fully grown. I can perhaps best illustrate this fact by an actual example.
In 1785 James Hutton read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh a short paper on a "Theory of the Earth." European thought regarding things which later were grouped under the head of "Geology" was then dominated by Werner. Hutton's modest essay, later recognized as a turning point in the history of geologic science, attracted little attention at first and denunciation later, but, although he made little stir in the world during his lifetime, Hutton is recognized today as one of the founders of modern geology.
The advance in natural science, so painfully slow at first, gradually gained impetus. A little more than a century ago enough knowledge concerning the earth had been gathered to form a science of geology. Bruno's conception of the spherical shape of the earth; Steno's determination of the nature of stratified rocks; Arduino's arrangement of the sedimentary rocks into Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Volcanic; and Buffon's subdivision of the history of the earth into long periods were followed in the later part of the eighteenth century by such great strides toward enlightenment that the eighteenth century may appropriately be termed the period of the dawn in geology. Many men took part in the awakening. A recital of the complete story would be too long for present purposes, but mention of some of its main features may be of general interest.
One of the most important features was the change in method of thought from speculation without facts to reasoning from facts. The reliance on revelation, which had been strong in the minds of men, had begun to weaken. Advance toward orderly arrangement of facts was slow at first, but progress has been steady.
Belief Versus Fact
In the progress toward the belief in physical law, an important step was taken by Desmarest (1725-1815), who, unlike his predecessors, tried to argue entirely from evident facts and allowed himself no theoretical speculation. This method, so common now that we take it for granted, attracted the attention of his intellectual contemporaries and gained for him admittance into influential circles. But unfortunately his revolutionary attitude did not find favor in all places.
Werner (1749-1817), who is often called the founder of modern geology, exhibited a curious admixture of characteristics. He was an enthusiastic collector of facts, a strong teacher, but a dogmatic theorist, who saw only those facts which seemed to confirm his speculations. Before he had ever been out of Saxony he taught that rock formations were universal and that they could be recognized by the same characteristics the world over. He assumed the former existence of a universal ocean which overtopped all mountains, and he even taught that basalt was of sedimentary origin. The necessity of having land somewhere from which to derive the sediments for the formations seems not to have interfered with his complacency. Perhaps he argued as one of his followers did, "when you meet with an insuperable difficulty look it steadfastly in the faceand pass on." He and his followers boasted that they accepted only facts and discarded all theory, yet at the same time they argued in support of a theory of the earth that was almost as fantastic as the flood-theory of their predecessors.
But while Werner was establishing his "authority," which was recognized so widely over Europe, James Hutton (1726-1797) was working quietly in Scotland, as already noted, toward conclusions that are now generally accepted as well founded. Hutton, like Desmarest, tried to base every conclusion on observed fact, and, as the title of one of his papers expresses it, to progress "from sense to science." His "Theory of the Earth," published in preliminary form in 1785, and in its finished form ten years later, was based chiefly on observation. It is regarded as marking one of the great advances toward a well-ordered science of the earth.
One of Hutton's contributions to science was his habit of interpreting the events of the past as the results of processes that we may observe at present, and much of the progress made in the science of geology must be ascribed to him. Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who was born in the year when Hutton died, carried this method still farther and assumed that geologic agencies had never differed greatly from those now in operation.
The study of stratified rocks has always been so closely associated with the study of the fossils they contain that even so brief an account as this seems to demand reference to two conflicting lines of thought. The nature and significance of fossils were naturally determined by anatomists. Two among these stand out prominently. Lamarck (1744-1829) did much to advance the study of invertebrate fossils, and Cuvier did much to advance the study of vertebrates. In fact, Cuvier is regarded as the founder of mammalian paleontology.
These men were on opposing sides of a question which caused long and bitter controversy. Lamarck was an evolutionist; he argued for the gradual development of one form of life or species from another form. Cuvier believed in what came to be called "cataclysms." His ideas were set forth in a treatise entitled "A Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe." In it he advanced the opinion that the earth had experienced many sudden and widespread disasters, by which the land was overwhelmed by the sea. This idea was supported by the occurrence of abrupt changes in kinds of rockschanges known to geologists as unconformitiesand equally abrupt changes in kinds of fossils, as if the animals living at the time one stratum was formed had all been destroyed suddenly and a new group, represented by fossils found in a higher stratum, had been substituted for them.
Strata and Fossils
This abrupt change in the nature of the fossils was seized upon by those who believed that each plant and each animal was created in the form that it now possesses, and the cataclysms were regarded as marking periods of sudden destruction followed by the special creation of new forms of life. This question was argued long and bitterly, but the idea of gradual development of one form of life from an older form has finally prevailed, and we now know that the unconformities which impressed Cuvier denote long periods that were unrecorded in the rocks rather than cataclysms, and that during these long periods the animals and plants had changed in form to such an extent that many of them are scarcely recognizable as descendants of the older forms.
Progress and Established Law
The final overthrow of the old system of thought and the triumph of the new in the minds of most students of geology and biology was accomplished in the battle royal which took place over Darwin's theory of the origin of species. Theologians quickly sensed the serious consequences to them of Darwinism and militantly opposed it. Luther had long ago spoken their mind when he said "I hold that the animals took their being at once upon the word of God." The controversy was long and acrimonious. But the days of the Inquisition were past and scientific men no longer suffered persecution for their beliefs. They calmly persisted in gathering facts. While the theologians were "throwing Darwin to the dogs" Professor Marsh was busy discovering and exhibiting fossil birds with teeth, which are connecting links between reptiles and modern birds, and arranging his exhibit on the evolution of the horse, which Huxley asserted was absolute proof of evolution.
The orderly sequence of forms showing progressive change through the geologic ages is expressed as evolution and has come to be widely accepted in intellectual circles as a demonstrated law of nature. Nevertheless some still reject this law. Even in this year of intellectual insight, 1926, a textbook is in use in some schools which denies not only evolution but many of the established principles of geology. This curious text seems to illustrate what evolutionists call reversion to type.
I recall also that members of a small sect still argue that the earth is flat and that some of the savage tribes of western America still believe in their wolf-god.
This state of affairs is amusing to some people and amazing to others. What should be done about it? As theological thought is largely responsible for harboring beliefs that are scientifically untenable, it may not be out of place to answer this question as a similar question was answered by a wise man long ago when he said "Lest, while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them, let both grow together until the harvest."
Reversions to ancient beliefs have not of late been serious. One of the last great efforts to stem the tide of evolution was made by William E. Gladstone. But neither his great name nor the force of his pen availed against the facts. Huxley had no difficulty in pointing out his errors on the physical side and Professor Driver showed that he was in error on the spiritual side. Since that time few serious efforts have been made in support of supposed revelation as opposed to demonstrated physical law, and the attitude assumed by Arthur Stanley, Dean of Westminster, has been widely adopted. In an address on the death of the English geologist Charles Lyell, the Dean frankly admitted that there is no agreement between ancient tradition and modern thought and that Hebrew Scripture should not be distorted to speak the language of science.
Last Updated: 31-Dec-2009