Principles Of Geology
by Charles Lyell

I.—Uniformity in Geological Development

According to the speculations of some writers, there have been in the past history of the planet alternate periods of tranquillity and convulsion, the former enduring for ages, and resembling the state of things now experienced by man; the other brief, transient, and paroxysmal, giving rise to new mountains, seas, and valleys, annihilating one set of organic beings, and ushering in the creation of another. These theories, however, are not borne out by a fair interpretation of geological monuments; but, on the contrary, nature indicates no such cataclysms, but rather progressive uniformity.

Igneous rocks have been supposed to afford evidence of ancient paroxysms of nature, but we cannot consider igneous rocks proof of any exceptional paroxysms. Rather, we find ourselves compelled to regard igneous rocks as an aggregate effect of innumerable eruptions, of various degrees of violence, at various times, and to consider mountain chains as the accumulative results of these eruptions. The incumbent crust of the earth is never allowed to attain that strength and coherence which would be necessary in order to allow the volcanic force to accumulate and form an explosive charge capable of producing a grand paroxysmal eruption. The subterranean power, on the contrary, displays, even in its most energetic efforts, an intermittent and mitigated intensity. There are no proofs that the igneous rocks were produced more abundantly at remote periods.

Nor can we find proof of catastrophic discontinuity when we examine fossil plants and fossil animals. On the contrary, we find a progressive development of organic life at successive geological periods.

In Palæozoic strata the entire want of plants of the most complex organisation is very striking, for not a single dicotyledonous angiosperm has yet been found, and only one undoubted monocotyledon. In Secondary, or Mesozoic, times, palms and some other monocotyledons appeared; but not till the Upper Cretaceous era do we meet with the principal classes and orders of the vegetable kingdom as now known. Through the Tertiary ages the forms were perpetually changing, but always becoming more and more like, generically and specifically, to those now in being. On the whole, therefore, we find progressive development of plant life in the course of the ages.

In the case of animal life, progression is equally evident. Palæontological research leads to the conclusion that the invertebrate animals flourished before the vertebrate, and that in the latter class fish, reptiles, birds, and mammalia made their appearance in a chronological order analogous to that in which they would be arranged zoologically according to an advancing scale of perfection in their organisation. In regard to the mammalia themselves, they have been divided by Professor Owen into four sub-classes by reference to modifications of their brain. The two lowest are met with in the Secondary strata. The next in grade is found in Tertiary strata. And the highest of all, of which man is the sole representative, has not yet been detected in deposits older than the Post-Tertiary.

It is true that in passing from the older to the newer members of the Tertiary system we meet with many chasms, but none which separate entirely, by a broad line of demarcation, one state of the organic world from another. There are no signs of an abrupt termination of one fauna and flora, and the starting into life of new and wholly distinct forms. Although we are far from being able to demonstrate geologically an insensible transition from the Eocene to the Miocene, or even from the latter to the recent fauna, yet the more we enlarge and perfect our general survey the more nearly do we approximate to such a continuous series, and the more gradually are we conducted from times when many of the genera and nearly all the species were extinct to those in which scarcely a single species flourished which we do not know to exist at present. We must remember, too, that many gaps in animal and floral life were due to ordinary climatic and geological factors. We could, under no circumstances, expect to meet with a complete ascending series.

The great vicissitudes in climate which the earth undoubtedly experienced, as shown by geological records, have been held to be themselves proof of sudden violent revolutions in the life-history of the world. But all the great climatic vicissitudes can be accounted for by the action of factors still, in operation—subsidences and elevations of land, alterations in the relative proportions and position of land and water, variations in the relative position of our planet to the sun and other heavenly bodies.

Altogether, the conclusion is inevitable that from the remotest period there has been one uniform and continuous system of change in the animate and inanimate world, and accordingly every fact collected respecting the factors at present at work in forming and changing the world, affords a key to the interpretation of its part. And thus, although we are mere sojourners on the surface of the planet, chained to a mere point in space, enduring but for a moment of time, the human mind is enabled not only to number worlds beyond the unassisted ken of mortal eye, but to trace the events of indefinite ages before the creation of our race, and to penetrate into the dark secrets of the ocean and the heart of the solid globe.

II.—Changes in the Inorganic World now in Progress

The great agents of change in the inorganic world may be divided into two principal classes—the aqueous and the igneous. To the aqueous belong rain, rivers, springs, currents, and tides, and the action of frost and snow; to the igneous, volcanoes and earthquakes. Both these classes are instruments of degradation as well as of reproduction. But they may also be regarded as antagonist forces, since the aqueous agents are incessantly labouring to reduce the inequalities of the earth's surface to a level; while the igneous are equally active in restoring the unevenness of the external crust, partly by heaping up new matter in certain localities, and partly by depressing one portion of the earth's envelope and forcing out another.

We will treat in the first place of the aqueous agents.

Rain and Rivers. When one considers that in some parts of the world as much as 500 or 600 inches of rain may fall annually, it is easy to believe that rain qua rain may be a denuding and plastic agent, and in some parts of the world we find evidence of its action in earth pillars or pyramids. The best example of earth pillars is seen near Botzen, in the Tyrol, where there are hundreds of columns of indurated mud, varying in height from 20 feet to 100 feet. These columns are usually capped by a single stone, and have been separated by rain from the terrace of which they once formed a part.

As a rule, however, rain acts through rivers. The power of rivers to denude and transport is exemplified daily. Even a comparatively small stream when swollen by rain may move rocks tons in weight, and may transport thousands of tons of gravel. The greatest damage is done when rivers are dammed by landslips or by ice. In 1818 the River Dranse was blocked by ice, and its upper part became a lake. In the hot season the barrier of ice gave way, and the torrent swept before it rocks, forests, houses, bridges, and cultivated land. For the greater part of its course the flood resembled a moving mass of rock and mud rather than of water. Some fragments of granite rock of enormous size, which might be compared to houses, were torn out and borne down for a quarter of a mile.

The rivers of unmelted ice called the glaciers act more slowly, but they also have the power of transporting gravel, sand, and boulders to great distances, and of polishing and scoring their rocky channels. Icebergs, too, are potent geological agents. Many of them are loaded with 50,000 to 100,000 tons of rock and earth, which they may carry great distances. Also in their course they must break, and polish, and scratch the peaks and points of submarine mountains.

Coast ice, likewise, may transport rocks and earth. Springs also must be considered as geological agents affecting the face of the globe.

But running water not only denudes it, but also creates land, for lakes, seas, rivers are seen to form deltas. That Egypt was the gift of the Nile was the opinion of the Egyptian priests, and there can be no doubt that the fertility of the alluvial plain above Cairo, and the very existence of the delta below that city, are due to the action of that great river, and to its power of transporting mud from the interior of Africa and depositing it on its inundated plains as well as on that space which has been reclaimed from the Mediterranean and converted into land. The delta of the Ganges and Brahmapootra is more than double that of the Nile. Even larger is the delta of the Mississippi, which has been calculated to be 12,300 square miles in area.

Tides and Currents. The transporting and destroying and constructive power of tides and currents is, in many respects, analogous to that of rivers, but extends to wider areas, and is, therefore, of more geological importance. The chief influence of the ocean is exerted at moderate depths below the surface on all areas which are slowly rising, or attempting, as it were, to rise above the sea; but its influence is also seen round the coast of every continent and island.

We shall now consider the igneous agents that act on the earth's surface. These agents are chiefly volcanoes and earthquakes, and we find that both usually occur in particular parts of the world. At various times and at various places within historical times volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have both proved their potency to alter the face of the earth.

The principal geological facts and theories with regard to volcanoes and earthquakes are as follows.

The primary causes of the volcano and the earthquake are to a great extent the same, and connected with the development of heat and chemical action at various depths in the interior of the globe.

Volcanic heat has been supposed to be the result of the original high temperature of the molten planet, and the planet has been supposed to lose heat by radiation. Recent inquiries, however, suggest that the apparent loss of heat may arise from the excessive local development of volcanic action.

Whatever the original shape of our planet, it must in time have become spheroidal by the gradual operation of centrifugal force acting on yielding materials brought successively within its action by aqueous and igneous causes.

The heat in mines and artesian wells increases as we descend, but not in uniform ratio in different regions. Increase at a uniform ratio would imply such heat in the central nucleus as must instantly fuse the crust.

Assuming that there are good astronomical grounds for inferring the original fluidity of the planet, yet such pristine fluidity need not affect the question of volcanic heat, for the volcanic action of successive periods belongs to a much more modern state of the globe, and implies the melting of different parts of the solid crust one after the other.

The supposed great energy of the volcanic forces in the remoter periods is by no means borne out by geological observations on the quantity of lava produced by single eruptions in those several periods.

The old notion that the crystalline rocks, whether stratified or unstratified, such as granite and gneiss, were produced in the lower parts of the earth's crust at the expense of a central nucleus slowly cooling from a state of fusion by heat has now had to be given up, now that granite is found to be of all ages, and now that we know the metamorphic rocks to be altered sedimentary strata, implying the denudation of a previously solidified crust.

The powerful agency of steam or aqueous vapour in volcanic eruptions leads us to compare its power of propelling lava to the surface with that which it exerts in driving water up the pipe of an Icelandic geyser. Various gases also, rendered liquid by pressure at great depths, may aid in causing volcanic outbursts, and in fissuring and convulsing the rocks during earthquakes.

The chemical character of the products of recent eruptions suggests that large bodies of salt water gain access to the volcanic foci. Although this may not be the primary cause of volcanic eruptions, which are probably due to the aqueous vapour intimately mixed with molten rock, yet once the crust is shattered through, the force and frequency of eruptions may depend in some measure on the proximity of large bodies of water.

The permanent elevation and subsidence of land now observed, and which may have been going on through past ages, may be connected with the expansion and contraction of parts of the solid crust, some of which have been cooling from time to time, while others have been gaining heat.

In the preservation of the average proportion of land and sea, the igneous agents exert a conservative power, restoring the unevenness of the surface which the levelling power of water in motion would tend to destroy. If the diameter of the planet remains always the same, the downward movements of the crust must be somewhat in excess, to counterbalance the effects of volcanoes and mineral springs, which are always ejecting material so as to raise the level of the surface of the earth. Subterranean movements, therefore, however destructive they may be during great earthquakes, are essential to the well-being of the habitable surface, and even to the very existence of terrestrial and aquatic species.

III.—Changes of the Organic World now in Progress

In 1809 Lamarck introduced the idea of transmutation of species, suggesting that by changes in habitat, climate, and manner of living one species may, in the course of generations, be transformed into a new and distinct species.

In England, however, the idea remained dormant till in 1844 a work entitled the "Vestiges of Creation" reinforced it with many new facts. In this work the unity of plan exhibited by the whole organic creation, fossil and recent, and the mutual affinities of all the different classes of the animal and vegetable kingdoms, were declared to be in harmony with the idea of new forms having proceeded from older ones by the gradually modifying influence of environment. In 1858 the theory was put on a new and sound basis by Wallace and Darwin, who added the conception of natural selection, suggesting that variations in species are naturally produced, and that the variety fittest to survive in the severe struggle for existence must survive, and transmit the advantageous variation, implying the gradual evolution of new species. Further, Darwin showed that other varieties may be perpetuated by sexual selection.

On investigating the geographical distribution of animals and plants we find that the extent to which the species of mammalia, birds, insects, landshells, and plants (whether flowering or cryptogamous) agree with continental species; or the degree in which those of different islands of the same group agree with each other has an unmistakable relation to the known facilities enjoyed by each class of crossing the ocean. Such a relationship accords well with the theory of variation and natural selection, but with no other hypothesis yet suggested for explaining the origin of species.

From what has been said of the changes which are always going on in the habitable surface of the world, and the manner in which some species are constantly extending their range at the expense of others, it is evident that the species existing at any particular period may, in the course of ages, become extinct one after the other.

If such, then, be the law of the organic world, if every species is continually losing some of its varieties, and every genus some of its species, it follows that the transitional links which once, according to the doctrine of transmutation, must have existed, will, in the great majority of cases, be missing. We learn from geological investigations that throughout an indefinite lapse of ages the whole animate creation has been decimated again and again. Sometimes a single representative alone remains of a type once dominant, or of which the fossil species may be reckoned by hundreds. We rarely find that whole orders have disappeared, yet this is notably the case in the class of reptiles, which has lost some orders characterised by a higher organisation than any now surviving in that class. Certain genera of plants and animals which seem to have been wholly wanting, and others which were feebly represented in the Tertiary period, are now rich in species, and appear to be in such perfect harmony with the present conditions of existence that they present us with countless varieties, confounding the zoologist or botanist who undertakes to describe or classify them.

We have only to reflect on the causes of extinction, and we at once foresee the time when even in these genera so many gaps will occur, so many transitional forms will be lost, that there will no longer be any difficulty in assigning definite limits to each surviving species. The blending, therefore, of one generic or specific form into another must be an exception to the general rule, whether in our own time or in any period of the past, because the forms surviving at any given moment will have been exposed for a long succession of antecedent periods to those powerful causes of extinction which are slowly but incessantly at work in the organic and inorganic worlds.

They who imagine that, if the theory of transmutation be true, we ought to discover in a fossil state all the intermediate links by which the most dissimilar types have been formerly connected together, expect a permanence and completeness of records such as is never found. We do not find even that all recently extinct plants have left memorials of their existence in the crust of the earth; and ancient archives are certainly extremely defective. To one who is aware of the extreme imperfection of the geological record, the discovery of one or two missing links is a fact of small significance; but each new form rescued from oblivion is an earnest of the former existence of hundreds of species, the greater part of which are irrevocably lost.

A somewhat serious cause of disquiet and alarm arises out of the supposed bearing of this doctrine of the origin of species by transmutation on the origin of man, and his place in nature. It is clearly seen that there is such a close affinity, such an identity in all essential points, in our corporeal structure, and in many of our instincts and passions with those of the lower animals—that man is so completely subjected to the same general laws of reproduction, increase, growth, disease, and death—that if progressive development, spontaneous variation, and natural selection have for millions of years directed the changes of the rest of the organic world, we cannot expect to find that the human race has been exempted from the same continuous process of evolution.

Such a near bond of connection between man and the rest of the animate creation is regarded by many as derogatory to our dignity. But we have already had to exchange the pleasing conceptions indulged in by poets and theologians as to the high position in the scale of being held by our early progenitors for humble and more lowly beginnings, the joint labours of the geologist and archæologist having left us in no doubt of the ignorance and barbarism of Palæolithic man.

It is well, too, to remember that the high place we have reached in the scale of being has been gained step by step, by a conscientious study of natural phenomena, and by fearlessly teaching the doctrines to which they point. It is by faithfully weighing evidence without regard to preconceived notions, by earnestly and patiently searching for what is true, not what we wish to be true, that we have attained to that dignity, which we may in vain hope to claim through the rank of an ideal parentage.

End of Principles Of Geology by Charles Lyell