Theory of the Earth, by James Hutton, [1788 and 1795], at sacred-texts.com
Of Physical Systems, and Geological Theories, in general.
In the first chapter I have given a general theory of the earth, with such proofs as I thought were sufficient for the information of intelligent men, who might satisfy themselves by examining the facts on which the reasoning in that theory had been founded.
In the second chapter, I have endeavoured to remove the objections which have been made to that theory, by a strenuous patron of the commonly received opinion of mineralogists and geologists,—an opinion which, if not diametrically opposite, differs essentially from mine. But now I am to examine nature more particularly, in order to compare those different opinions with the actual state of things, on which every physical theory must be founded. Therefore, the opinions of other geologists should be clearly stated, that so a fair comparison may be made of theories which are to represent the system of this earth.
Now, if I am to compare that which I have given as a theory of the earth, with the theories given by others under that denomination, I find so little similarity, in the things to be compared, that no other judgment could hence be formed, perhaps, than that they had little or no resemblance. I see certain treatises named Theories of the Earth; but, I find not any thing that entitles them to be considered as such, unless it be their endeavouring to explain certain appearances which are observed in the earth. That a proper theory of the earth should explain all those appearances is true; but, it does not hold, conversely, that the explanation of an appearance should constitute a theory of the earth. So far as the theory of the earth shall be considered as the philosophy or physical knowledge of this world, that is to say, a general view of the means by which the end or purpose is attained, nothing can be properly esteemed such a theory unless it lead, in some degree, to the forming of that general view of things. But now, let us see what we have to examine in that respect.
We have, first, Burnet's Theory of the Earth. This surely cannot be considered in any other light than as a dream, formed upon the poetic fiction of a golden age, and that of iron which had succeeded it; at the same time, there are certain appearances in the earth which would, in a partial view of things, seem to justify that imagination. In Telliamed, again, we have a very ingenious theory, with regard to the production of the earth above the surface of the sea, and of the origin of those land animals which now inhabit that earth. This is a theory which has something in it like a regular system, such as we might expect to find in nature; but, it is only a physical romance, and cannot be considered in a serious view, although apparently better founded than most of that which has been wrote upon the subject.
We have then a theory of a very different kind; this is that of the Count de Buffon. Here is a theory, not founded on any regular system, but upon an irregularity of nature, or an accident supposed to have happened to the sun. But, are we to consider as a theory of the earth, an accident by which a planetary body had been made to increase the number of these in the solar system? The circumvolution of a planetary body (allowing it to have happened in that manner) cannot form the system of a world, such as our earth exhibits; and, in forming a theory of the earth, it is required to see the aptitude of every part of this complicated machine to fulfil the purpose of its intention, and not to suppose the wise system of this world to have arisen from, the cooling of a lump of melted matter which had belonged to another body. When we consider the power and wisdom that must have been exerted in the contriving, creating, and maintaining this living world which sustains such a variety of plants and animals, the revolution of a mass of dead matter according to the laws of projectiles, although in perfect wisdom, is but like a unite among an infinite series of ascending numbers.
After the theory of that eloquent writer, founded on a mere accident, or rather the error of a comet which produced the beautiful system of this world, M. de Luc, in his Theory of the earth, has given us the history of a disaster which befell this well contrived world;—a disaster which caused the general deluge, and which, without a miracle, must have undone a system of living beings that are so well adapted to the present state of things. But, surely, general deluges form no part of the theory of the earth; for, the purpose of this earth is evidently to maintain vegetable and animal life, and not to destroy them.
Besides these imaginary great operations in the natural history of this earth, we have also certain suppositions of geologists and mineralists with regard to the effect of water, for explaining to us the consolidation of the loose materials of which the strata of the earth had been composed, and also for producing every other appearance, or any which shall happen to occur in the examination of the earth, and require to be explained. That this is no exaggerated representation, and that this is all we have as a theory, in the suppositions of those geologists, will appear from the following state of the case.
They suppose water the agent employed in forming the solid bodies of the earth, and in producing those crystallised bodies which appear in the mineral kingdom. That this is a mere supposition will appear by considering; first, that they do not know how this agent water is to operate in producing those effects; nor have they any direct proof of the fact which is alleged, from a very fallaceous analogy; and, secondly, that they cannot tell us where this operation is to be performed. They cannot say that it is in the earth above the level of the sea: for, the same appearances are found as deep as we can examine below that level; besides, we see that water has the opposite effect upon the surface of the earth, through which it percolates dissolving soluble substances, and thus resolving solid bodies in preparing soil for plants. If, again, it be below the level of the sea, that strata of the earth are supposed to be consolidated by the infiltration of that water which falls from the heavens; this cannot be allowed, so far as whatever of the earth is bibulous, in that place, must have been always full of water, consequently cannot admit of that supposed infiltration.
But allowing those suppositions to be true, there is nothing in them like a theory of the earth,—a theory that should bring the operations of the world into the regularity of ends and means, and, by generalizing these regular events, show us the operation of perfect intelligence forming a design; they are only an attempt to show how certain things, which we see, have happened without any perceivable design, or without any farther design than this particular effect which we perceive. If we believe that there is almighty power, and supreme wisdom employed for sustaining that beautiful system of plants and animals which is so interesting to us, we must certainly conclude, that the earth, on which this system of living things depends, has been constructed on principles that are adequate to the end proposed, and procure it a perfection which it is our business to explore. Therefore, a proper system of the earth should lead us to see that wise contraction, by which this earth is made to answer the purpose of its intention and to preserve itself from every accident by which the design of this living world might be frustrated as this world is an active scene. or a material machine moving in all its parts, we must see how this machine is so contrived, as either to have those parts to move without wearing and decay, or to have those parts, which are wasting and decaying, again repaired.
A rock or stone is not a subject that, of itself, may interest a philosopher to study; but, when he comes to see the necessity of those hard bodies, in the constitution of this earth, or for the permanency of the land on which we dwell, and when he finds that there are means wisely provided for the renovation of this necessary decaying part, as well as that of every other, he then, with pleasure, contemplates this manifestation of design, and thus connects the mineral system of this earth with that by which the heavenly bodies are made to move perpetually in their orbits. It is not, therefore, simply by seeing the concretion of mineral bodies that a philosopher is to be gratified in his his intellectual pursuit, but by the contemplation of that system in which the necessary resolution of this earth, while at present it serves the purpose of vegetation, or the fertility of our soil, is the very means employed in furnishing the materials of future land.
It is such a view as this that I have endeavoured to represent in the theory which I have given. I have there stated the present situation of things, by which we are led to perceive a former state; and, from that necessary progress of actual things, I have concluded a certain system according to which things will be changed, without any accident or error. It is by tracing this regular system in nature that a philosopher is to perceive the wisdom with which this world has been contrived; but, he must see that wisdom founded upon the aptitude of all the parts to fulfil the intention of the design; and that intention is to be deduced from the end which is known to be attained. Thus we are first to reason from effect to cause, in seeing the order of that which has already happened; and then, from those known causes, to reason forwards, so as to conceive that which is to come to pass in time. Such would be the philosophy of this earth, formed by the highest generalisation of phenomena, a generalisation which had required the particular investigation of inductive reasoning.
That no such theory as this, founded upon water as an agent operating in the changes of this earth, has yet appeared, will, I believe be easily allowed. With regard again to fire as an agent in the mineral operations of this earth, geologists have formed no consistent theory. They see volcanoes in all the quarters of the globe, and from those burning mountains, they conjecture other mountains have been formed. But a burning mountain is only a matter of fact; and, they have not on this formed any general principle, for establishing what may be called a theory of the earth. Those who have considered subterraneous fires as producing certain effects, neither know how these have been procured, nor do they see the proper purpose for which they are employed in the system of this world. In this case, the agent fire is only seen as a destructive element, in like manner as deluges of water have been attributed by others to changes which have happened in the natural state of things. These operations are seen only as the accidents of nature, and not as part of that design by which the earth, which is necessarily wasted in the operations of the world, is to be repaired.
So far from employing heat or subterraneous fire as an agent in the mineral operations of the earth, the volcanic philosophers do not even attempt to explain upon that principle the frequent nodules of calcareous, zeolite, and other spatose and agaty substances, in those basaltic bodies which they consider as lavas. Instead then of learning to see the operation of heat as a general principle of mineral consolidation and crystallization, the volcanic philosophers endeavour to explain those particular appearances, which they think inconsistent with fusion, by aqueous infiltration, no otherwise than other mineralists who do not admit the igneous origin of those basaltic bodies. Thus, that great agent, subterraneous heat, has never been employed by geologists, as a general principle in the theory of the earth; it has been only considered as an occasional circumstance, or as the accident of having certain mineral bodies, which are inflammable, kindled in the earth, without so much as seeing how that may be done.
This agent heat, then, is a new principle to be employed in forming a theory of the earth; a principle that must have been in the constitution of this globe, when contrived to subsist as a world, and to maintain a system of living bodies perpetuating their species. It is therefore necessary to connect this great mineral principle, subterraneous fire or heat, with the other operations of the world, in forming a general theory. For, whether we are to consider those great and constant explosions of mineral fire as a principal agent in the design, or only as a casual event depending upon circumstances which give occasion to an operation of such magnitude, here is an object that must surely have its place in every general theory of the earth.
In examining things which actually exist, and which have proceeded in a certain order, it is natural to look for that which had been first; man desires to know what had been the beginning of those things which now appear. But when, in forming a theory of the earth, a geologist shall indulge his fancy in framing, without evidence, that which had preceded the present order of things, he then either misleads himself, or writes a fable for the amusement of his reader. A theory of the earth, which has for object truth, can have no retrospect to that which had preceded the present order of this world; for, this order alone is what we have to reason upon; and to reason without data is nothing but delusion. A theory, therefore, which is limited to the actual constitution of this earth, cannot be allowed to proceed one step beyond the present order of things.
But, having surveyed the order of this living world, and having investigated the progress of this active scene of life, death and circulation, we find ample data on which to found a train of the most conclusive reasoning with regard to a general design. It is thus that there is to be perceived another system. of active things for the contemplation of our mind;—things which, though not immediately within our view, are not the less certain in being out of our sight; and things which must necessarily be comprehended in the theory of the earth, if we are to give stability to it as a world sustaining plants and animals. This is a mineral system, by which the decayed constitution of an earth, or fruitful surface of habitable land, may be continually renewed in proportion as it is wasted in the operations of this world.
It is in this mineral system that I have occasion to compare the explanations, which I give of certain natural appearances, with the theories or explanations which have been given by others, and which are generally received as the proper theory of those mineral operations. I am, therefore, to examine those different opinions, respecting the means employed by nature for producing particular appearances in the construction of our land, appearances which must be explained in some consistent mineral theory.
These appearances may all be comprehended under two heads, which are now to be mentioned, in order to see the importance of their explanation, or purpose which such an explanation is to serve in a theory of the earth. The first kind of these appearances is that of known bodies which we find composing part of the masses of our land, bodies whose natural history we know, as having existed in another state previous to the composition of this earth where they now are found; these are the relicts or parts of animal and vegetable bodies, and various stony substances broken and worn by attrition, all which had belonged to a former earth. By means of these known objects, we are to learn a great deal of the natural history of this earth; and, it is in tracing that history, from where we first perceive it, to the present state of things, that forms the subject of a geological and mineralogical theory of this earth. But, we are more especially enabled to trace those operations of the earth, by means of the second kind of appearances, which are now to be mentioned.
These again are the evident changes which those known bodies have undergone, and which have been induced upon such collected masses of which those bodies constitute a part. These changes are of three sorts; first, the solid state, and various degrees of it, in which we now find those masses which had been originally formed by the collection of loose and incoherent materials; secondly, the subsequent changes which have evidently happened to those consolidated masses which have been broken and displaced, and which have had other mineral substances introduced into those broken and disordered parts; and, lastly, that great change of situation which has happened to this compound mass formed originally at the bottom of the sea, a mass which, after being consolidated in the mineral region, is now situated in the atmosphere above the surface of the sea.
In this manner we are led to the system of the world, or theory of the earth in general; for, that great change of situation, which our land has undergone, cannot be considered as the work of accident, or any other than an essential part in the system of this world. It is therefore a proper view of the necessary connection and mutual dependence of all those different systems of changing things that forms the theory of this earth as a world, or as that active part of nature which the philosophy of this earth has to explore. The animal system is the first or last of these; next comes the vegetable system, on which the life of animals depends; then comes the system of this earth, composed of atmosphere, sea, and land, and comprehending the various chemical, mechanical, and meteorologically operations which take place upon that surface where vegetation must proceed; and, lastly, we have the mineral system to contemplate, a system in which the wasting surface of the earth is employed in laying the foundation of future land within the sea, and a system in which the mineral operations are employed in concocting that future land.
Now, such must surely be the theory of this earth, if the land is continually wasting in the operations of this world; for, to acknowledge the perfection of those systems of plants and animals perpetuating their species, and to suppose the system of this earth on which they must depend, to be imperfect, and in time to perish, would be to reason inconsistently or absurdly. This is the view of nature that I would wish philosophers to take; but, there are certain prejudices of education or prepossession of opinion among them to be overcome, before they can be brought to see those fundamental propositions,—the wasting of the land, and the necessity of its renovation by the co-operation of the mineral system. Let us then consider how men of science, in examining the mineral state of things, and reasoning from those appearances by which we are to learn the physiology of this earth, have misled themselves with regard to physical causes, and formed certain mineralogical and geological theories, by which their judgment is so perverted, in examining nature, as to exclude them from the proper means of correcting their first erroneous notions, or render them blind to the clearest evidence of any other theory that is proposed.
When men of science reason upon subjects where the ideas are distinct and definite, with terms appropriated to the ideas, they come to conclusions in which there is no difference of opinion. It is otherwise in physical subjects, where things are to be assimilated, in being properly compared; there, things are not always compared in similar and equal circumstances or conditions; and there, philosophers often draw conclusions beyond the analogy of the things compared, and thus judge without data. When, for example, they would form the physical induction, with regard to the effect of fire or water upon certain substances in the mineral regions, from the analogy of such events as may be observed upon the surface of the earth, they are apt to judge of things acting under different circumstances or conditions, consequently not producing similar effects; in which case, they are judging without reason, that is, instead of inductive reasoning from actual data or physical truth, they are forming data to themselves purely by supposition, consequently, so far as these, imagined data may be wrong, the physical conclusion, of these philosophers may be erroneous.
It is thus that philosophers have judged, with regard to the effects of fire and water upon mineral substances below the bottom of the sea, from what their chemistry had taught them to believe concerning bodies exposed to those agents in the atmosphere or on the surface of the earth. If in those two cases the circumstances were the same, or similar, consequently the conditions of the action not changed, then, the inductive reasoning, which they employ in that comparison, would be just; but, so far as it is evidently otherwise, to have employed that inductive conclusion for the explanation of mineral appearances, without having reason to believe that those changed circumstances of the case should not make any difference in the action or effect, is plainly to have transgressed the rules of scientific reasoning; consequently, instead of being a proper physical conclusion, it is only that imperfect reasoning of the vulgar which, by comparing things not properly analysed or distinguished, is so subject to be erroneous. This vague reasoning, therefore, cannot be admitted as a part of any geological or mineral theory. Now I here maintain, that philosophers have judged in no other manner than by this false analogy, when they conclude that water is the agent by which mineral concretions have been formed. But it will be proper to state more particularly the case of that misunderstanding among mineral philosophers.
In forming a geological theory, the general construction of this earth, and the materials of which it is composed, are such visible objects, and so evident to those who will take the pains to examine nature, that here is a subject in which there cannot be any doubt or difference of opinion. Neither can there be any dispute concerning the place and situation of mass when it was first formed or composed; for, this is clearly proved, from every concomitant circumstance, to have been at the bottom of the sea. The only question in this case, that can be made, is, How that mass comes now to be a solid body, and above the surface of the sea in which it had been formed?
With regard to the last, the opinions of philosophers have been so dissonant, so vague, and so unreasonable, as to draw to no conclusion. Some suppose the land to be discovered by the gradual retreat of the ocean, without proposing to explain to us from whence had come the known materials of a former earth, which compose the highest summits of the mountains in the highest continents of the earth. Others suppose the whole of a former earth to have subsided below the bottom even of the present sea, and together with it all the water of the former sea, from above the summits of the present mountains, which had then been at the bottom of the former sea. The placing of the bottom of the sea, or any part of it, in the atmosphere so as to be dry land, is no doubt a great operation to be performed, and a difficult task to be explained; but this is only an argument the more for philosophers to agree in adopting the most reasonable means.
But though philosophers differ so widely in that point, this is not the case with regard to the concretion of mineral bodies; here mineralists seem to be almost all of one mind, at the same time without any reason, at least, without any other reason than that false analogy which they have inconsiderately formed from the operations of the surface of this earth. This great misunderstanding of mineralists has such an extensive and baneful effect in the judging of geological theories, that it will be proper here to explain how that has happened, and to show the necessity of correcting that erroneous principle before any just opinion can be formed upon the subject.
Fire and water are two great agents in the system of this earth; it is therefore most natural to look for the operation of those agents in the changes which are made on bodies in the mineral regions; and as the consolidated state of those bodies, which had been collected at the bottom of the sea, may have been supposed to be induced either by fusion, or by the concretion from a solution, we are to consider how far natural appearance lead to the conclusion of the one or other of those two different operations. Here, no doubt, we are to reason analogically from the known power and effects of those great agents; but, we must take care not to reason from a false analogy, by misunderstanding the circumstances of the case, or not attending to the necessary conditions in which those agents act.—We must not conclude that fire cannot burn in the mineral regions because our fires require the ventilation of the atmosphere; for, besides the actual exigence of mineral fire being a notorious matter of fact, we know that much more powerful means may be employed by nature, for that mineral purpose of exciting heat, than those which we practise.—We must not conclude that mineral marble is formed in the same manner as we see a similar stony substance produced upon the surface of the earth, unless we should have reason to suppose the analogy to be complete. But, this is the very error into which mineral philosophers have fallen; and this is the subject which I am now to endeavour to illustrate.
The manner in which those philosophers have deceived themselves when reasoning upon the subject of mineral concretion, is this: They see, that by means of water a stony substance is produced; and, this stony body so much resembles mineral marble as to be hardly distinguishable in certain cases. These mineral philosophers then, reasoning in the manner of the vulgar, or without analysing the subject to its principle, naturally attribute the formation of the mineral marble to a cause of the same sort; and, the mineral marble being found so intimately connected with all other mineral bodies, we must necessarily conclude, in reasoning according to the soundest principles, that all those different substances had been concreted in the same manner. Thus, having once departed one step from the path of just investigation, our physical science is necessarily bewildered in the labyrinth of error. Let us then, in re-examining our data, point out where lies that first devious step which had been impregnated with fixed air, or carbonic acid gas, (as it is called), dissolves a certain portion of mild calcareous earth or marble; consequently such acidulated water, that is, water impregnated with this gas, will, by filtrating through calcareous substances, become saturated with that solution of marble; and, this solution is what is called a petrifying water. When this solution is exposed to the action of the atmosphere, the acid gas, by means of which the stony substance is dissolved, evaporates from the solution, in having a stronger attraction for the atmospheric air; it is then that the marble, or calcareous substance, concretes and crystallises, separating from the water in a sparry state, and forming a very solid stone by the successive accretion from the solution, as it comes to be exposed to the influence of the atmosphere in flowing over the accumulating body. Here is the source of their delusion; for, they do not distinguish properly the case of this solution of a stony substance concreting by means of the separation of its solvent, and the case of such a solution being in a place where that necessary condition cannot be supposed to exist; such as, e.g., the interstices among the particles of sand, clay, etc. deposited at the bottom of the sea, and accumulated in immense stratified masses.
No example can better illustrate how pernicious it is to science to have admitted a false principle, on which a chain of reasoning is to proceed in forming a theory. Mineral philosophers have founded their theory upon that deceitful analogy, which they had concluded between the stalactical concretions of petrifying waters and the marble formed in the mineral regions; thus, blinded by prejudice, they shut the door against the clearest evidence; and it is most difficult to make them see the error of their principle. But this is not to be wondered at, when we consider how few among philosophising men remount to the first principles of their theory; and, unless they shall thus remount to that first step, in which the concreting operation of a dissolved stony substance is supposed to take place without the necessary conditions for the petrifying operation, it is impossible to be convinced that their theory, thus formed with regard to mineral concretion, is merely supposition, and has no foundation in matter of fact from whence it should proceed.
But this is not all; for, even supposing their theory to be well founded and just, it is plainly contradicted by natural appearances. According to that theory of aqueous consolidation, all the stratified bodies, of which this earth in general consists, should be found in the natural order of their regular formation; but, instead of this, they are found every where disturbed in that order more or less; in many places this order and regularity is so disturbed as hardly to be acknowledged; in most places we find those stratified bodies broken, dislocated, and contorted, and this aqueous theory of mineralists has neither the means for attaining that end, were it required in their theory, nor have they any such purpose in their theory, were that end attainable by the means which they employ. Thus blinded by the prejudice of a false analogy, they do not even endeavour to gratify the human understanding (which naturally goes in quest of wisdom and design) by forming a hypothetical or specious theory of the mineral system; and they only amuse themselves with the supposition of an unknown operation of water for the explanation of their cabinet specimens, a supposition altogether ineffectual for the purpose of forming a habitable earth, and a supposition which is certainly contradicted by every natural appearance.
Thus, in examining geological and mineralogical theories, I am laid under the disagreeable necessity of pointing out the errors of physical principles which are assumed, the prejudices of theoretical opinions which have been received, and the misconceived notions which philosophers entertain with regard to the system of nature, in which may be perceived no ineffectual operation, nor any destructive intention, but the wise and benevolent purpose of preserving the present order of this world. But, though thus misled with regard to the cause of things, naturalists are every where making interesting observations in the mineral kingdom, I shall therefore avail myself of that instructive information, for the confirmation of my theory.
It may now be proper to consider what must be required, in order to have a geological and mineral theory established upon scientific principles, or on such grounds as must give conviction to those who will examine the subject; for, unless we may clearly see that there are means for attaining that desirable end, few philosophers will be persuaded to pursue this branch of knowledge.
A theory is nothing but the generalization of particular facts; and, in a theory of the earth, those facts must be taken from the observations of natural history. Nature is considered as absolutely true; no error or contradiction can be found in nature. For, if such contradiction were truly found, if the stone, for example, which fell to day were to rise again to-morrow, there would be an end of natural philosophy, our principles would fail, and we would no longer investigate the rules of nature from our observations.
Every natural appearance, therefore, which is explained, i.e. which is made to come into the order of things that happen, must so far confirm the theory to which it then belongs. But is it necessary, that every particular appearance, among minerals, should be thus explained in a general theory of the earth? And, is any appearance, which is not explained by it, to be considered as sufficient to discredit or confute a theory which corresponded with every other appearance? Here is a question which it would require some accuracy to resolve.
If we knew all the powers of nature, and all the different conditions in which those powers may have their action varied, that is to say, if we were acquainted with every physical cause, then every natural effect, or all appearances upon the surface of this earth, might be explained in a theory that were just. But, seeing that this is far from being the case, and that there may be many causes of which we are as yet ignorant, as well as certain conditions in which the known action of powers may be varied, it must be evident, that a theory of the earth is not to be confuted by this argument alone, That there are, among natural bodies, certain appearances which are not explained by the theory. We must admit, that, not having all the data which natural philosophy requires, we cannot pretend to explain every thing which appears; and that our theories, which necessarily are imperfect, are not to be considered as erroneous when not explaining every thing which is in nature, but only when they are found contrary to or inconsistent with the laws of nature, which are known, and with which the case in question may be properly compared.
But we may have different theories to compare with nature; and, in that case, the question is not, How far any of those theories should explain all natural appearances? but, How far any one particular theory might explain a phenomenon better than another? In this case of comparison, it will be evident, that if one theory explains natural appearances, then the opposite to that theory cannot be supposed to explain the same appearances. If for example, granite, porphyry, or basaltes, should be found naturally formed by fusion, the formation of those stones could not be supposed in any case as formed by water, although it could not be demonstrated that water is incapable of forming those mineral productions.
In like manner, if those three bodies were proved to have been actually formed by water alone, then, in other cases where we should have no proof, they could not be supposed as having been formed by fire or fusion. It must be evident, that an equal degree of proof of those two different propositions would leave our judgment in suspence, unless that proof were perfect, in which case, we would have two different causes producing similar effects. But, if we shall have a sufficient proof upon the one side, and only a presumptive proof or probability upon the other, we must reject that probability or presumption, when opposed by a proof, although that proof were only an induction by reasoning from similar effects as following similar causes. A fortiori, if there be on one side a fair induction, without the least suspicion of error, and on the other nothing but a mere presumption founded upon a distant analogy, which could not even properly apply, then, the inductive proof would be as satisfactory as if there had not been any supposition on the opposite side.
So far as a theory is formed in the generalization of natural appearances, that theory must be just, although it may not be perfect, as having comprehended every appearance; that is to say, a theory is not perfect until it be founded upon every natural appearance; in which case, those appearances will be explained by the theory. The theory of gravitation, though no ways doubtful, was not so perfect before the shape of this globe had been determined by actual measurement, and before the direction of the plummet had been tried upon Shihallion, as after those observations had been made. But a theory which should be merely hypothetical, or founded upon a few appearances, can only be received as a theory, after it has been found to correspond properly with nature; it would then be held a proper explanation of those natural appearances with which it corresponded; and, the more of those phenomena that were thus explained by the theory, the more would that, which had been first conjectural, be converted into a theory legitimately founded upon natural appearances.
Matter of fact is that upon which science proceeds, by generalization, to form theory, for the purpose of philosophy, or the knowledge of all natural causes; and it is by the companion of these matters of fact with any theory, that such a theory will be tried. But, in judging of matter of fact, let us be cautious of deceiving ourselves, by substituting speculative reasoning in place of actual events.
Nature, as the subject of our observation, consists of two sorts of objects; for, things are either active, when we perceive change to take place in consequence of such action, or they are quiescent, when we perceive no change to take place. Now, it is evident, that in judging of the active powers of nature from the quiescent objects of our information, we are liable to error, in misinterpreting the objects which we see; we thus form to ourselves false or erroneous opinion concerning the general laws of action, and the powers of nature. In comparing, therefore, generalised facts, or theory, with particular observations, there is required the greatest care, neither, on the one hand, to strain the appearances, so as to bring in to the theory a fact belonging to another class of things; nor, on the other, to condemn a proper theory, merely because that theory has not been extended to the explanation of every natural appearance.
But, besides the misinterpretation of matters of fact, we are also to guard against the misrepresentation of natural appearances. Whether warped by the prejudice of partial and erroneous theory, or deceived by the inaccuracy of superficial observation, naturalists are apt to see things in an improper light, and thus to reason from principles which cannot be admitted, and, which often lead to false conclusions. A naturalist, for example, comes to examine a cavity in the mines, he there finds water dropping down all around him, and he sees the cavity all hung with siliceous crystals; he then concludes, without hesitation, that here is to be perceived cause and effect, or that he actually sees the formation of those crystallizations from the operation of water. It is thus that I have been told by men of great mineral knowledge, men who must have had the best education upon that subject of mineralogy, and who have the superintendance of great mineral concerns in Germany, that they had actually seen nature at work in that operation of forming rock-crystal;—they saw what I have now described; they could see no more; but, they saw what had convinced them of that which, there is every reason to believe, never happened. With regard to my theory, I wish for the most rigorous examination; and do not ask for any indulgence whatever, whether with regard to the principles on which the theory is built, or for the application of the theory to the explanation of natural appearances. But, let not geologists judge my theory by their imperfect notions of nature, or by those narrow views which they take of the present state of things;—let not mineralogists condemn my theory, for no other reason but because it does not correspond with their false principles, and those gratuitous suppositions by which they had been pleased to explain to themselves every thing before. First let them look into their own theory, and correct that erroneous principle, with regard to the action of water, or the assumption of unknown causes, upon which they have reasoned in forming their vague notions of the mineral region, before they can be properly qualified to examine, impartially, a theory which employs another principle. Every thing which has come under my observation shall be, as far as I can, faithfully related; nor shall I withhold those which neither the present theory, nor any other that I am acquainted with, can, I think, explain.
Appearances cannot well be described except in relation to some theory or general arrangement of the subject; because the particular detail, of every part in a complicated appearance, would be endless and insignificant. When, however, any question in a theory depends upon the nature of an appearance, we cannot be too particular in describing that by which the question is to be decided. But though it be sometimes proper to be minute in a particular, it is always, and above all things, necessary to be distinct; and not to confound together things which are of different natures. For, though it be by finding similarity, in things which at first sight may seem different, that science is promoted and philosophy attained, yet, we must have a distinct view of those things which are to be assimilated; and surely the lowest state of knowledge in any subject, is the not distinguishing things which, though not to common observation different, are not truly the same.
To confound, for example one stone with another, because they were both hard, friable, and heavy, would be to describe, with the superficial views of vulgar observation; whereas science specifies the weight and hardness, and thus accurately distinguishes the stone.
Before naturalists had learned to distinguish what they saw, and to describe, in known terms, those natural appearances, a theorist must have generalised only from his proper observation. This has been my case. When I first conceived my theory, few naturalists could write intelligibly upon the subject; but that is long ago, and things are much altered since; now there are most enlightened men making observations, and communicating natural knowledge. I have the satisfaction, almost every day, to compare the theory, which I had formed from my proper observations, with the actual state of things in almost every quarter of the globe.
Whether, therefore, we mean to try a theory by its application to such phenomena as are well understood, or to learn something from the application of particular phenomena to a well established theory, we shall always find it interesting to have appearances described; particularly such as may be referred to some general rule, as circumscribing it to certain conditions, or as finding rule in rule, that is to say, discovering those particular conditions in which the general laws of action may be affected.
Instead, for example, of the rule which we find in the application of heat for the fusion and evaporation of mineral substances upon the surface of this earth, we may find it necessary to consider the effect which changed circumstances produce in the mineral regions, and occasion a change of that rule of action which we have learned from experience, when melting and evaporating those substances in the atmosphere or on the surface of the earth.
It is in this manner that a theory, which was formed by the generalization of particular facts, comes to be a source of information, by explaining to us certain appearances which otherwise we could not understand. Thus, it was not the appearance of the tides that taught the theory of gravitation; it was the theory of gravitation that made us understand the appearance of the tides. In like manner, the law of gravitation, which was demonstrated from the motion of the moon in her orbit round this earth, when applied to the paths of comets, explained that appearance. Our theory, of a central fire, has been formed upon the consolidation of the strata of this earth; but this theory is to be applied for the explanation of various different appearances. In this manner, two different purposes will be served; the trying of the theory by its application to phenomena; and the explanation of phenomena by the principles laid open in the theory.
I may repeat it; a theory of the earth must ultimately depend upon matter of fact or particular observation; but those observations must be distinct, and those distinguished things must be generalised. We have just now given for an example, a distinction among stones, in knowing them by their sensible qualities. But, besides distinguishing those objects, we are also to inquire into the origin and cause of those things which are distinguished. Here, again, we take into our aid the chemical as well as the mechanical properties of these several things; and hence learn to know on what their natural form and constitution may depend. Having thus attained the natural philosophy of stones, we next inquire into the place and application of those things in nature; and in this manner we acquire some knowledge with regard to the natural constitution of this earth. We find this earth composed of known things; it is therefore the operations, required in these compositions, which form the natural philosophy of this earth, considered as a body of solid land. But, the solid land is only one part of the globe; therefore, the philosophy of the globe proceeds still farther by knowing the constitution of this planetary body, as consisting of different parts united for a purpose, which is that of a world.
The general theory of this earth as a world, will thus appear to be a complex thing, which however founded upon simple principles, contains many subjects of discussion, and requires attention to a variety of particulars. For, not only the great features of this earth are to be explained by the theory, but also the most minute appearance, such as are to be found, even with microscopic observation, in every particular part.
Thus the nature, constitution, and cause of every particular appearance in the construction of this earth, are to be investigated in a geological theory, as well as that general constitution of the world in which all the particular parts are to be employed for a purpose.
If the subject here examined shall be found properly explained, there will remain little doubt with regard to the justness of the theory, which will then be applicable to other appearances that may occur; although every appearance is not to be explained, in a manner equally satisfactory, by any theory which is not perfect.
The first subject to be examined is the modern theory of primitive mountains. I have written several chapters upon that subject, having successively acquired more light in this interesting part of the theory, by observations of my own in several places of this country, as well as from the natural history of other countries. I shall give these nearly in the order in which they occurred, or had been written.