Read CHAPTER IX of History of the Intellectual Development of Europe‚ Volume II, free online book, by John William Draper, on



A victory could not be more complete nor a triumph more brilliant than that which had been gained by science in the contest concerning the position of the earth. Though there followed closely thereupon an investigation of scarcely inferior moment that respecting the age of the earth so thoroughly was the ancient authority intellectually crushed that it found itself incapable of asserting by force the Patristic idea that our planet is less than six thousand years old.

Of the intentions of God it becomes us, therefore, to speak with reverence and reserve. In those ages when there was not a man upon the earth, what was the object? Was the twilight only given that the wolf might follow his fleeing prey, and the stars made to shine that the royal tiger might pursue his midnight maraudings? Where was the use of so much that was beautiful and orderly, when there was not a solitary intellectual being to understand and enjoy? Even now, when we are so much disposed to judge of other worlds from their apparent adaptedness to be the abodes of a thinking and responsible order like ourselves, it may be of service to remember that this earth itself was for countless ages a dungeon of pestiferous exhalations and a den of wild beasts.

So long as science was oppressed with the doctrine of the human destiny of the universe, which, as its consequence, made this earth the great central body, and elevated man to supreme importance, there was much difficulty in treating the problem of the age of the world. The history of the earth was at first a wild and fictitious cosmogony. Scientific cosmogony arose, not from any theological considerations, but from the telescopic ascertainment of the polar compression of the planet Jupiter, and the consequent determination by Newton that the earth is a spheroid of revolution. With a true cosmogony came a better chronology. The patristic doctrine had been that the earth came into existence but little more than five thousand years ago, and to this a popular opinion long current was added, that its end might be very shortly expected. From time to time periods were set by various authorities determining the latter event, and, as true knowledge was extinguished, the year 1000 came to be the universally appointed date. In view of this, it was not an uncommon thing for persons to commence their testamentary bequests with the words, “In expectation of the approaching end of the world.” But the tremendous moment passed by, and still the sun rose and set, still the seasons were punctual in their courses, and Nature wore her accustomed aspect. A later day was then predicted, and again and again disappointment ensued, until sober-minded men began to perceive that the Scriptures were never intended to give information on such subjects, and predictions of the end of the world fell into discredit, abandoned to the illiterate, whose morbid anticipations they still amuse.

As it was thus with the end of our planet, so it was as regards her origin. By degrees evidence began to accumulate casting a doubt on her recent date, evidence continually becoming more and more cogent. In no insignificant manner did the establishment of the heliocentric theory, aided by the discoveries of the telescope, assist in this result. As I have said, it utterly ruined past restoration the doctrine of the human destiny of the universe. With that went down all arguments which had depended on making man the measure of things. Ideas of unexpected sublimity as to the scale of magnitude on which the world is constructed soon enforced themselves, and proved to be the precursors of similar ideas as to time. At length it was perceived by those who were in the van of the movement that the Bible was never intended to deliver a chronological doctrine respecting the beginning any more than the end of things, and that those well-meaning men who were occupied in wresting it from its true purposes were engaged in an unhappy employment, for its tendency could be no other than to injure the cause they designed to promote. Nevertheless, so strong were the ancient persuasions, that it was not without a struggle that the doctrine of a long period forced its way a struggle for the age of the earth, which, in its arguments, in its tendencies, and in its results, forcibly recalls the preceding one respecting the position of the earth; but, in the end, truth overrode all authority and all opposition, and the doctrine of an extremely remote origin of our planet ceased to be open to dispute.

In a scientific conception of the universe, illimitable spaces are of necessity connected with limitless time.

If any sudden visible effect took place in the sun, we should not see it at the absolute moment of its occurrence, but about eight minutes and thirteen seconds later, this being the time required for light to cross the intervening distance. All phenomena take place in reality anterior to the moment at which we observe them by a time longer in proportion as the distance to be travelled is greater.

There are objects in the heavens so distant that it would take many hundreds of thousands of years for their light to reach us. Then it necessarily follows, since we can see them, that they must have been created and must have been shining so long.

The velocity with which light moves was first determined by the Danish astronomer Roemer from the eclipses of Jupiter’s satellites, November, 1675. It was, therefore, a determination of the rate for reflected solar light in a vacuum, and gave 198,000 miles in a second. In 1727, Bradley determined it for direct stellar light by his great discovery of the aberration of the fixed stars. More recently, the experiments of M. Foucault and those of M. Fizeau, by the aid of rotating mirrors or wheels, have confirmed these astronomical observations, Fizeau’s determination of the velocity approaching that of Roemer. Probably, however, the most correct is that of Struve, 191,515 miles per second.

In such a state of things, what could be more unwise than to attempt to force opinion by the exercise of authority? How unspeakably mischievous had proved to be a like course as respects the globular form of the earth, which did not long remain a mere mathematical abstraction, but was abruptly brought to a practical issue by the voyage of Magellan’s ship. And on this question of the age of the earth it would have been equally unwise to become entangled with or committed to the errors of patristicism errors arising from well-meant moral considerations, but which can never exert any influence on the solution of a scientific problem.

Not only were evidences thus offered of the existence of a high temperature, and, therefore, of the lapse of a long time by the present circumstances of the globe; every trace of its former state, duly considered, yielded similar indications, the old evidence corroborating the new. And soon it appeared that this would hold good whether considered in the inorganic or organic aspect.

To the astronomer such a concession is nothing extraordinary. It is not because of the time required that he entertains any doubt that the sun and his system accomplish a revolution round a distant centre of gravity in nineteen millions of years, or that the year of epsilon Lyrae is half a million of ours. He looks forward to that distant day when Sirius will disappear from our skies, and the Southern Cross be visible, and Vega the polar star. He looks back to the time when gamma Draconis occupied that conspicuous position, and the builders of the great pyramid, B.C. 3970, gave to its subterranean passage an inclination of 26 deg. 15’, corresponding to the inferior culmination of that star. He tells us that the Southern Cross began to be invisible in 52 deg. 30’ N., 2900 years before our era, and that it had previously attained an altitude of more than 10 deg.. When it disappeared from the horizon of the countries on the Baltic, the pyramid of Cheops had been erected more than a thousand years.

How was it possible to conceive that beds many hundred feet in thickness should have been precipitated suddenly from water? Their mechanical condition implied slow disintegration and denudation in other localities to furnish material; their contents showed no trace of violence; they rather proved the deposition to have occurred in a tranquil and quiet way. What interpretation could be put upon facts continually increasing in number like those observed in the south-east of England, where fresh-water beds a thousand feet thick are covered by other beds a thousand feet thick, but of marine origin? What upon those in the north of England, where masses once uplifted a thousand feet above the level, and, at the time of their elevation, presenting abrupt precipices and cliffs of that height, as is proved by the fractures and faults of the existing strata, have been altogether removed, and the surface left plain? In South Wales there are localities where 11,000 feet in thickness have been bodily carried away. Whether, therefore, the strata that have been formed, and which remain to strike us with astonishment at their prodigious mass, were considered; or those that have been destroyed, not, however, without leaving unmistakable traces of themselves; the processes of wearing away to furnish material as well as the accumulation, of necessity required the lapse of long periods of time. The undermining of cliffs by the beating of the sea, the redistribution of sands and mud at the bottom of the ocean, the washing of material from hills into the lowlands by showers of rain, its transport by river courses, the disintegration of soils by the influence of frost, the weathering of rocks by carbonic acid, and the solution of limestone by its aid in water these are effects which, even at the quickest, seem not to amount to much in the course of the life of a man. A thousand years could yield but a trifling result.

We have already alluded to another point of view from which these mechanical effects were considered. The level of the land and sea has unmistakably changed. There are mountain éminences ten or fifteen thousand feet in altitude in the interior of continents over which, or through which shells and other products of the sea are profusely scattered. And though, considering the proverbial immobility of the solid land and the proverbial instability of the water, it might at first be supposed much more likely that the sea had subsided than that the land had risen, a more critical examination soon led to a change of opinion. Before our eyes, in some countries, elevations and depressions are taking place, sometimes in a slow secular manner, as in Norway and Sweden, that peninsula on the north rising, and on the south sinking, at such a rate that, to accomplish the whole seven hundred feet of movement, more than twenty-seven thousand years would be required if it had always been uniform as now. Elsewhere, as on the south-western coast of South America, the movement is paroxysmal, the shore line lifting for hundreds of miles instantaneously, and then pausing for many years. In the Morea also, range after range of old sea cliffs exist, some of them more than a thousand feet high, with terraces at the base of each; but the Morea has been well known for the last twenty-five centuries, and in that time has undergone no material change. Again, in Sicily, similar interior sea-cliffs are seen, the rubbish at their bases containing the bones of the hippopotamus and mammoth, proofs of the great change the climate has undergone since the sea washed those ancient beaches. Italy, pre-eminently the historic country, in which, within the memory of man, no material change of configuration has taken place since the Pleistocene period, very late geologically speaking has experienced elevations of fifteen hundred feet. The seven hills of Rome are of the Pliocene, with fluviatile deposits and recent terrestrial shells two hundred feet above the Tiber. There intervened between the older Pliocene and the newer a period of enormous length, as is demonstrated by the accumulated effects taking place in it, and, indeed, the same may be said of every juxtaposed pair of distinctly marked strata. It demanded an inconceivable time for beds once horizontal at the bottom of the sea to be tilted to great inclinations; it required also the enduring exertion of a prodigious force. Ascent and descent may be detected in strata of every age: movements sometimes paroxysmal, but more often of tranquil and secular kind. The coal-bearing strata, by gradual submergence, attained in South Wales a thickness of 12,000 feet, and in Nova Scotia, a total thickness of 14,570 feet; the uniformity of the process of submergence and its slow steadiness is indicated by the occurrence of erect trees at different levels: seventeen such repetitions may be counted in a thickness of 4515 feet. The age of the trees is proved by their size, some being four feet in diameter. Round them, as they gradually went down with the subsiding soil, calamités grew at one level after another. In the Sidney coal-field fifty-nine fossil forests thus occur in superposition.

If the mean annual heat of the earth’s surface were slowly to rise, and, in the course of some centuries, the temperature now obtaining in Florida should obtain in New York, the orange and lemon would certainly be found here. With the increasing heat those plants would commence a northward march, steadily advancing as opportunity was given. Or, if the reverse took place, and for any reason the heat of the torrid zone declined until the winter’s cold of New York should be at last reached under the equator, as the descent went on the orange and lemon would retreat within a narrow and narrower region, and end by becoming extinct, the conditions of their exposure being incompatible with the continuance of their life. From such considerations it is therefore obvious that not only does heat arrange the limits of the distribution of plants, erecting round them boundaries which, though invisible, are more insuperable than a wall of brass, it also regulates their march, if march there is to be nay, even controls their very existence, and to genera, and species, and individuals appoints a period of duration.

Through the operation of this law of extinction and of creation, animated nature, both on the continents and in the seas, has undergone a marvellous change. In the lias and oolitic seas, the Enaliosauria, Cetiosauria, and Crocodilia dominated as the Delphinidae and Balaenidae do in ours; the former have been eliminated, the latter produced. Along with the cetaceans came the soft-scaled Cycloid and Ctenoid fishes, orders which took the place of the Ganoids and Placoids of the Mesozoic times. One after another successive species of air-breathing reptiles have emerged, continued for their appointed time to exist, and then died out. The development has been, not in the descending, but in the ascending order; the Amphitheria, Spalacotheria, Triconodon of the Mesozoic times were substituted by higher tertiary forms. Nor have these mutations been abrupt. If mammals are the chief characteristic of the Tertiary ages, their first beginnings are seen far earlier; in the triassic and oolitic formations there are a few of the lower orders struggling, as it were, to emerge. The aspect of animated nature has altogether changed. No longer does the camelopard wander over Europe as he did in the Miocene and Pliocene times; no longer are great elephants seen in the American forests, the hippopotamus in England, the Rhinoceros in Siberia. The hand of man has introduced in the New the horse of the Old World; but the American horse, that ran on the great plains contemporary with the mégathérium and megalonyx, has for tens of thousands of years been extinct. Even the ocean and the rivers are no exception to these changes.

Does not this progression of life in our planet suggest a like progression for the solar system, which in its aggregate is passing in myriads of years through all organic phases? May we not also, from our solar system, rise to a similar conception for the universe?

There are two very important considerations, on which we must dwell for the complete understanding of the consequences of these changes: 1st. The mechanism of the declining temperature; 2d. Its effect in the organic world.

Age after age the sunbeams continued their work, changing the mechanical relations and composition of the atmosphere, the constitution of the sea, and the appearance of the surface of the earth. There was a prodigious growth of ferns, lepidodendra, equisetaceae, coniferae. The percentage of oxygen in the air continually increased, that of carbonic acid continually declined; the pressure of the air correspondingly diminished, partly because of the replacement of a heavy gas by a lighter one, and partly because of the general decline of temperature slowly taking place, which diminished the absolute volume of vapour. The sea, in its deepest abysses, was likewise affected by the sunlight; not directly, but in an indirect way; for, as the removal of carbonic acid from the atmosphere went on, portions of that gas were perpetually surrendered by the ocean in order to maintain a diffusion-equilibrium between its dissolved gas and the free gas of the air. And now no longer could be held in transparent solution by the water those great quantities of carbonate of lime which had once been concealed in it, the deposit of a given weight of coal in the earth being inevitably followed by the deposit of an equivalent weight of carbonate of lime in the sea. This might have taken place as an amorphous precipitate; but the probabilities were that it would occur, as in fact it did, under forms of organization in the great limestone strata coeval with and posterior to the coal. The air and the ocean were thus suffering an invisible change through the disturbing agency of the sun, and the surface of the solid earth was likewise undergoing a more manifest, and, it may be said, more glorious alteration. Plants, in wild luxuriance, were developing themselves in the hot and dank climate, and the possibility was now approaching for the appearance of animal types very much higher than any that had yet existed. In the old heavy atmosphere, full of a noxious gas, none but slowly-respiring cold-blooded animals could maintain themselves; but after the great change in the constitution of the air had been accomplished, the quickly-respiring and hot-blooded forms might exist. Hitherto the highest advancement that animal life could reach was in batrachian and lizard-like organisms; yet even these were destined to participate in the change, increasing in magnitude and vital capacity. The pterodactyl of the chalk, a flying lizard, measures nearly seventeen feet from tip to tip of its wings. The air had now become suitable for mammals, both placental and implacental, and for birds. One after another, in their due order, appeared the highest vertebrates: marine, as the cetacean; aerial, as the bat; and in the terrestrial, reaching, in the Eocene, quadrumanous animals, but not, until after the Pliocene, man.

But, though it may at first sight have appeared that an admission of the doctrine of catastrophes is in harmony with a providential government of the world, and that the emergence of different organic forms in successive ages is a manifestation of creative intervention, of which it was admitted that as many as from twelve to twenty, if no more, successive instances might be recognized, we may well congratulate ourselves that those important doctrines rest upon a far more substantial basis. Rightly considered, the facts lead to a very different conclusion. Physiological investigations have proved that all animals, even man, during the process of development, pass in succession through a definite cycle of forms. Starting from a simple cell, form after form, in a definite order is assumed. In this long line of advance the steps are ever, in all individuals, the same. But no one would surely suppose that the changed aspect at any moment presented is due to a providential interposition. On the contrary, it is the inevitable result of what has been taking place under the law of development, and the sure precursor of what is about to follow. In the organic world, the successive orders, and genera, and species are the counterparts of these temporary embryonic forms of the individual. Indeed, we may say of those successive geological beings that they are mere embryos of the latest embryos that had gained a power of reproduction. How shall we separate the history of the individual from the history of the whole? Do not the fortunes and way of progress of the one follow the fortunes and way of progress of the other? If, in a transitory manner, these forms are assumed by the individual, equally in a transitory manner are they assumed by the race. Nor would it be philosophical to suppose that the management in the one instance differs from the management in the other. If the one is demonstrably the issue of a law in action, so must the other be too. It does not matter that the entire cycle is passed through by the individual in the course of a few months, while in the race it demands ages. The standard of time that ought to be applied is the respective duration of life. In man it is much if he attains to threescore years and ten; but the entire period of human record, embracing several thousand years, offers not a single instance of the birth, maturity, and death of a species. They, therefore, who think they find, in the successive species that have in an orderly manner replaced each other in the life of the earth, the sure proof of Divine intervention, would do well to determine at what point the production of such forms by law ceases, and at what point their production by the immediate act of God begins. Their task will be as hard to tell where one colour in the rainbow ends and where the next commences. They will also do well to remember that, in great mundane events, the scale of time is ample, and that there may be no essential difference between a course that is run over in a few days and one that requires for its completion thousands of centuries.

Whether we consider the entire organic series in its succession, or the progress of an individual in his development, the orderly course presented might seem to indicate that the operation is taking place under a law an orderly progression being always suggestive of the operation of law. But a philosophical caution must, however, be here exercised; for deceptive appearances may lead us into the error of imputing to such a law, impressed by the Creator on the developing organism, that which really belongs to external physical conditions, which, on their part, are following a law of their own. What is here meant may be illustrated by the facts that occur on the habitable surface of a planet suffering a gradual decline of heat. On such a surface a succession of vegetable types might make its appearance, and, as these different types emerged or were eliminated, we might speak of the events as creations and extinctions, and therefore as the acts of God. Or, in the second place, we might refer them to an intrinsic force of development imparted to each germ, which reached in due season its maximum, and then declined and died out; and, comparing each type with its preceding and succeeding ones, the interrelation might be suggested to us of the operation of a controlling law. Or, in the third place, we might look to the external physical condition the decline of heat itself taking place at a determinate rate under a mathematical law, and drawing in its consequences the organic variations observed.

Now the first of these explanations in reality means the arbitrary and unchallengeable will of God, who calls into existence, and extinguishes according to his sovereign pleasure, whatever he pleases; the orderly progression we notice becoming an evidence that his volitions are not erratic, but are according to pure reason. The second implies that there has been impressed upon every germ a law of continuous organic variation it might have been through the arbitrary fiat of God. The third implies that the successive types owe their appearance and elimination to a physical influence, which is itself varying under a strict mathematical necessity; for the law of cooling, which the circumstances force on our attention, is such a strict mathematical necessity.

Now this was discovered to be the case. For instance, throughout the northern hemisphere, during the Tertiary period, an extinct placental Fauna was contemporaneous with an extinct marsupial Fauna in Australia. If the development was proceeding according to time, by an innate nisus, and not according to external influences, the types for the same epoch in the two hemispheres should be the same; if under external influences, irrespective of time, they should be, as they were found to be, different.

If true-going clocks, which owe their motion to their own internal mechanism, were started in all countries of the earth at the same instant, they would strike their successive hours simultaneously. But sun-dials, which owe their indications to an exterior cause, would in different longitudes tell different times, or, when the needful light was absent, their shadows would altogether fail.

As to the vegetable kingdom, the principles that hold for the animal again apply. At a very early period, even before the deposit of the coal, all the distinct forms of vegetable tissue were in existence, and nothing to prevent, so far as time was concerned, their being united together all over the world into similar structural combinations. And, in truth, as the botany of the Coal period proves, there was a far more extensive sameness than we see at present, simply because the distribution of heat was more uniform and climates were less marked. But from this point the diversity of form in climate distribution becomes more and more conspicuous, though we must descend, perhaps, as late as the Wealden before we discover any flowering plants, except Gymnosperms, as Conifers and Cycads. All this is what might be expected on the doctrine of external influence, but not on the doctrine of an innate and interior developmental force.

If, at this stage, attention is once again turned to the animal kingdom, we find our opinion confirmed. The diminution of carbonic acid in the atmosphere, the deposit of coal in the earth, the precipitation of carbonate of lime in the sea, the disengagement of an increased quantity of oxygen in the air, and the reduction of atmospheric pressure different effects contemporaneously occurring were soon followed by the consequence which they made possible the appearance of hot-blooded mammals. Perhaps those first arising might, like our hibernates, lead a sluggish existence, with imperfect respiration; but, as the media improved and the temperature declined, more vigorous forms of life emerged, though we have probably to descend to the Tertiary epoch before we meet with birds, which of all animals have the most energetic respiration, and possess the highest heat.

In the last place, the idea of an intrinsic force of development is in connexion with time and a progression, and only comes into prominence when we examine a limited portion or number of the things under consideration. The earth, though very beautiful, is very far from being perfect. The plants and animals we see are only the wrecks of a broken series, an incomplete, and, therefore, unworthy testimonial of the Almighty power. We should judge very inadequately of some great author if only here and there a fragmentary paragraph of his work remained; and so, in the book of organization, we must combine what is left with what we can recover from past ages and buried strata before we can rise to a comprehension of the grand argument, and intelligibly grasp the whole work.