Deep Time

Earlier I quoted this passage from Aristotle:

The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where there is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. But we must suppose these changes to follow some order and cycle. The principle and cause of these changes is that the interior of the earth grows and decays, like the bodies of plants and animals. Only in the case of these latter the process does not go on by parts, but each of them necessarily grows or decays as a whole, whereas it does go on by parts in the case of the earth. Here the causes are cold and heat, which increase and diminish on account of the sun and its course. It is owing to them that the parts of the earth come to have a different character, that some parts remain moist for a certain time, and then dry up and grow old, while other parts in their turn are filled with life and moisture. Now when places become drier the springs necessarily give out, and when this happens the rivers first decrease in size and then finally become dry; and when rivers change and disappear in one part and come into existence correspondingly in another, the sea must needs be affected.

While Aristotle clearly has some empirical evidence for his claims, a large part of his motivation for saying these things is his opinion that the earth is eternal, which is primarily a philosophical position. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, however, geologists began to adopt similar opinions, this time because they found it necessary in order to explain the details of what they found in the rocks of the earth.

James Hutton begins his Theory of the Earth with a general account of the earth as a place intended to support plant and animal life:

When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of those several parts, the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end. We perceive a fabric, erected in wisdom, to obtain a purpose worthy of the power that is apparent in the production of it.

We know little of the earth’s internal parts, or of the materials which compose it at any considerable depth below the surface. But upon the surface of this globe, the more inert matter is replenished with plants, and with animal and intellectual beings.

Where so many living creatures are to ply their respective powers, in pursuing the end for which they were intended, we are not to look for nature in a quiescent state; matter itself must be in motion, and the scenes of life a continued or repeated series of agitations and events.

This globe of the earth is a habitable world; and on its fitness for this purpose, our sense of wisdom in its formation must depend. To judge of this point, we must keep in view, not only the end, but the means also by which that end is obtained. These are, the form of the whole, the materials of which it is composed, and the several powers which concur, counteract, or balance one another, in procuring the general result.

The form and constitution of the mass are not more evidently calculated for the purpose of this earth as a habitable world, than are the various substances of which that complicated body is composed. Soft and hard parts variously combine to form a medium consistence, adapted to the use of plants and animals; wet and dry are properly mixed for nutrition, or the support of those growing bodies; and hot and cold produce a temperature or climate no less required than a soil: Insomuch, that there is not any particular, respecting either the qualities of the materials, or the construction of the machine, more obvious to our perception, than are the presence and efficacy of design and intelligence in the power that conducts the work.

Let us begin with some general sketch of the particulars now mentioned.

1st, There is a central body in the globe. This body supports those parts which come to be more immediately exposed to our view, or which may be examined by our sense and observation. This first part is commonly supposed to be solid and inert; but such a conclusion is only mere conjecture; and we shall afterwards find occasion, perhaps, to form another judgment in relation to this subject, after we have examined strictly, upon scientific principles, what appears upon the surface, and have formed conclusions concerning that which must have been transacted in some more central part.

2dly, We find a fluid body of water. This, by gravitation, is reduced to a spherical form, and by the centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation, is become oblate. The purpose of this fluid body is essential in the constitution of the world; for, besides affording the means of life and motion to a multifarious race of animals, it is the source of growth and circulation to the organized bodies of this earth, in being the receptacle of the rivers, and the fountain of our vapours.

3dly, We have an irregular body of land raised above the level of the ocean. This, no doubt, is the smallest portion of the globe; but it is the part to us by far most interesting. It is upon the surface of this part that plants are made to grow; consequently, it is by virtue of this land that animal life, as well as vegetation, is sustained in this world.

Lastly, We have a surrounding body of atmosphere, which completes the globe. This vital fluid is no less necessary, in the constitution of the world, than are the other parts; for there is hardly an operation upon the surface of the earth, that is not conducted or promoted by its means. It is a necessary condition for the sustenance of fire; it is the breath of life to animals; it is at least an instrument in vegetation; and, while it contributes to give fertility and health to things that grow, it is employed in preventing noxious effects from such as go into corruption. In short, it is the proper means of circulation for the matter of this world, by raising up the water of the ocean, and pouring it forth upon the surface of the earth.

The account here is much like that of Genesis 1, distinguishing the various parts of the “heavens and the earth,” and explaining their form in relation to plants, animals, and human beings.

After going on to discuss some of the efficient causes involved in the changes of the earth, he raises a problem:

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

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

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

We have now considered the globe of this earth as a machine, constructed upon chemical as well as mechanical principles, by which its different parts are all adapted, in form, in quality, and in quantity, to a certain end; an end attained with certainty or success; and an end from which we may perceive wisdom, in contemplating the means employed.

But is this world to be considered thus merely as a machine, to last no longer than its parts retain their present position, their proper forms and qualities? Or may it not be also considered as an organized body? such as has a constitution in which the necessary decay of the machine is naturally repaired, in the exertion of those productive powers by which it had been formed.

This is the view in which we are now to examine the globe; to see if there be, in the constitution of this world, a reproductive operation, by which a ruined constitution may be again repaired, and a duration or stability thus procured to the machine, considered as a world sustaining plants and animals.

If no such reproductive power, or reforming operation, after due inquiry, is to be found in the constitution of this world, we should have reason to conclude, that the system of this earth has either been intentionally made imperfect, or has not been the work of infinite power and wisdom.

His point is that water, time and weather tend to destroy the land and in particular the soil, which is necessary for plants and animals. So unless there is some means to bring about new land and new soil, the whole system will necessarily come to an end. According to him, if this is the case, it means that “we should have reason to conclude, that the system of this earth has either been intentionally made imperfect, or has not been the work of infinite power and wisdom.” I would simply respond that infinite power and wisdom could easily have reasons for the system of the earth to be imperfect in this particular way. However, he is not trying to establish by this argument that there is in fact such a system to renew the land and soil. Rather, he is trying to make it less surprising when we verify from experience that there is such a system, and this verification does not depend on this argument.

A careful investigation of the presently existing land and soil, he says, indicates the passage of vast periods of time:

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

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

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

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

He proceeds to argue that the land which currently exists, at least most of it, was formed in water:

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

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

We find the marks of marine animals in the most solid parts of the earth; consequently, those solid parts have been formed after the ocean was inhabited by those animals which are proper to that fluid medium. If, therefore, we knew the natural history of those solid parts, and could trace the operations of the globe, by which they had been formed, we would have some means for computing the time through which those species of animals have continued to live. But how shall we describe a process which nobody has seen performed, and of which no written history gives any account? This is only to be investigated, first, in examining the nature of those solid bodies, the history of which we want to know; and, 2dly, In examining the natural operations of the globe, in order to see if there now actually exist such operations, as, from the nature of the solid bodies, appear to have been necessary to their formation.

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

In all the regions of the globe, immense masses are found, which, though at present in the most solid state, appear to have been formed by the collection of the calcareous exuviae of marine animals. The question at present is not, in what manner those collections of calcareous relics have become a perfect solid body, and have been changed from an animal to a mineral substance; for this is a subject that will be afterwards considered; we are now only inquiring, if such is truly the origin of those mineral masses.

That all the masses of marble or limestone are composed of the calcareous matter of marine bodies, may be concluded from the following facts:

1st, There are few beds of marble or limestone, in which may not be found some of those objects which indicate the marine origin of the mass. If, for example, in a mass of marble, taken from a quarry upon the top of the Alps or Andes, there shall be found one cockle-shell, or piece of coral, it must be concluded, that this bed of stone had been originally formed at the bottom of the sea, as much as another bed which is evidently composed almost altogether of cockle-shells and coral. If one bed of limestone is thus found to have been of a marine origin, every concomitant bed of the same kind must be also concluded to have been formed in the same Manner.

We thus shall find the greatest part of the calcareous masses upon this globe to have originated from marine calcareous bodies; for whether we examine marbles, limestones, or such solid masses as are perfectly changed from the state of earth, and are become compact and hard, or whether we examine the soft, earthy, chalky or marly strata, of which so much of this earth is composed, we still find evident proofs, that those beds had their origin from materials deposited at the bottom of the sea; and that they have the calcareous substance which they contain, from the same source as the marbles or the limestones.

2dly, In those calcareous strata, which are evidently of marine origin, there are many parts that are of a sparry structure, that is to say, the original texture of those beds, in such places, has been dissolved, and a new structure has been assumed, which is peculiar to a certain state of the calcareous earth. This change is produced by crystallisation, in consequence of a previous state of fluidity, which has so disposed the concreting parts, as to allow them to assume a regular shape and structure proper to that substance. A body, whose external form has been modified by this process, is called a crystal; one whose internal arrangement of parts is determined by it, is said to be of a sparry structure; and this is known from its fracture.

3dly, There are, in all the regions of the earth, huge masses of calcareous matter, in that crystalline form of sparry state, in which perhaps no vestige can be found of any organised body, nor any indication that such calcareous matter had belonged to animals; but as, in other masses, this sparry structure, or crystalline state, is evidently assumed by the marine calcareous substances, in operations which are natural to the globe, and which are necessary to the consolidation of the strata, it does not appear, that the sparry masses, in which no figured body is formed, have been originally different from other masses, which, being only crystallised in part, and in part still retaining their original form, leave ample evidence of their marine origin.

We are led, in this manner, to conclude, that all the strata of the earth, not only those consisting of such calcareous masses, but others superincumbent upon these, have had their origin at the bottom of the sea, by the collection of sand and gravel, of shells, of coralline and crustaceous bodies, and of earths and clays, variously mixed, or separated and accumulated. Here is a general conclusion, well authenticated in the appearances of nature, and highly important in the natural history of the earth.

The general amount of our reasoning is this, that nine-tenths, perhaps, or ninety-nine hundredths of this earth, so far as we see, have been formed by natural operations of the globe, in collecting loose materials, and depositing them at the bottom of the sea; consolidating those collections in various degrees, and either elevating those consolidated masses above the level on which they were formed, or lowering the level of that sea.

There is a part of the solid earth which we may at present neglect, not as being persuaded that this part may not also be found to come under the general rule of formation with the rest, but as considering this part to be of no consequence in forming a general rule, which shall comprehend almost the whole, without doing it absolutely. This excluded part consists of certain mountains and masses of granite. These are thought to be still older in their formation, and are said never to be found superincumbent on strata which must be acknowledged as the productions of the sea.

It should already be evident that insofar as his conclusion is valid, it is already clear that there would have to be a mechanism of what he calls the “reproduction” of the system of the world. If our present land was formed under water, it follows that there must be a means by which land can be taken from the water and raised above it.

There follow lengthy discussions, which I will omit, of the issues of exactly how geological strata are formed in the first place, and how they can be raised above the water.

Next he attempts to determine the constitution of the world at the time when the present land was forming under water:

We have been endeavouring to prove, that all the continents and islands 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 is not too difficult for him to show that things must have been very similar at the time:

We have already observed, that all the strata of the earth are composed either from the calcareous relicts 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 economy 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 those 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, in general, 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.


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 in 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 economy, 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 as 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 inquiring 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 its 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 bodies which form the present subject of inquiry, 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.

Mineralised wood, therefore, is the object now inquired 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 mineralised 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 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.

After establishing to his satisfaction that the previous system of the world was very similar to the present one, he begins to attempt to measure the periods of time involved:

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 aera, 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; an 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 a part 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 whence 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 state 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.

Many other such proofs will certainly occur, where the different parts of those coasts are examined by people of observation and intelligence. But it 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 not know every circumstance of its regulation. We are under a necessity, therefore, of making regular suppositions, in order to come at certain conclusions which may be compared with the present state of things.

He concludes the chapter with with a projection for the future:

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

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

We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is: But we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for any thing higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.

To the extent that one accepts the validity of Hutton’s arguments, one will accept that the earth has existed for unimaginably vast periods of past time. One might object to the conclusion that the earth will continue to exist for such periods, but in fact his argument is reasonable if it is understood as a probable argument.


2 thoughts on “Deep Time

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