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Time and Life   By: (1825-1895)

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by Thomas H. Huxley

[footnote] "Macmillan's Magazine", December 1859.

EVERYONE knows that that superficial film of the earth's substance, hardly ten miles thick, which is accessible to human investigation, is composed for the most part of beds or strata of stone, the consolidated muds and sands of former seas and lakes, which have been deposited one upon the other, and hence are the older the deeper they lie. These multitudinous strata present such resemblances and differences among themselves that they are capable of classification into groups or formations, and these formations again are brigaded together into still larger assemblages, called by the older geologists, primary, secondary, and tertiary; by the moderns, palaeozoic, mesozoic, and cainozoic: the basis of the former nomenclature being the relative age of the groups of strata; that of the latter, the kinds of living forms contained in them.

Though but a film if compared with the total diameter of our planet, the total series of formations is vast indeed when measured by any human standard, and, as all action implies time, so are we compelled to regard these mineral masses as a measure of the time which has elapsed during their accumulation. The amount of the time which they represent is, of course, in the inverse proportion of the intensity of the forces which have been in operation. If, in the ancient world, mud and sand accumulated on sea bottoms at tenfold their present rate, it is clear that a bed of mud or sand ten feet thick would have been formed then in the same time as a stratum of similar materials one foot thick would be formed now, and 'vice versa'.

At the outset of his studies, therefore, the physical geologist had to choose between two hypotheses; either, throughout the ages which are represented by the accumulated strata, and which we may call 'geologic time', the forces of nature have operated with much same average intensity as at present, and hence the lapse of time which they represent must be something prodigious and inconceivable, or, in the primeval epochs, the natural powers were infinitely more intense than now, and hence the time through which they acted to produce the effects we see was comparatively short.

The earlier geologists adopted the latter view almost with one consent. For they had little knowledge of the present workings of nature, and they read the records of geologic time as a child reads the history of Rome or Greece, and fancies that antiquity was grand, heroic, and unlike the present because it is unlike his little experience of the present.

Even so the earlier observers were moved with wonder at the seeming contrast between the ancient and the present order of nature. The elemental forces seemed to have been grander and more energetic in primeval times. Upheaved and contorted, rifted and fissured, pierced by dykes of molten matter or worn away over vast areas by aqueous action, the older rocks appeared to bear witness to a state of things far different from that exhibited by the peaceful epoch on which the lot of man has fallen.

But by degrees thoughtful students of geology have been led to perceive that the earliest efforts of nature have been by no means the grandest. Alps and Andes are children of yesterday when compared with Snowdon and the Cumberland hills; and the so called glacial epoch that in which perhaps the most extensive physical changes of which any record remaining occurred is the last and the newest of the revolutions of the globe. And in proportion as physical geography which is the geology of our own epoch has grown into a science, and the present order of nature has been ransacked to find what, 'hibernice', we may call precedents for the phenomena of the past, so the apparent necessity of supposing the past to be widely different from the present has diminished... Continue reading book >>

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