Theory of the Earth
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Pages (PDF): 646
Publication Date: 1788-1795
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This ebook is comprised of Hutton's 1788 paper 'Theory of the Earth', read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as well as Volumes 1 and 2 of his book of the same name. Although his books, filled with long quotes in French, make difficult reading, Hutton deserves to be better known as one of the makers of the modern view of the Earth.
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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 animals 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, counter-act, 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 that 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.
IN taking this view of things, where ends and means are made the object of attention, we may hope to find a principle upon which the comparative importance of parts in the system of nature may be estimated, and also a rule for selecting the objet of our enquiries. Under this direction, science may find a fit subject of investigation in every particular, whether of form, quality, or active power, that presents itself in this system of motion and of life; and which, without a proper attention to this character of the system, might appear anomalous and incomprehensible.
IT is not only by seeing those general operations of the globe which depend upon its peculiar construction as a machine, but also by perceiving how far the particulars, in the construction of that machine, depend upon the general operations of the globe, that we are enabled to understand the constitution of this earth as a thing formed by design. We shall thus also be led to acknowledge an order, not unworthy of Divine wisdom, in a subject which, in another view, has appeared as the work of chance, or as absolute disorder and confusion.
TO acquire a general or comprehensible view of this mechanism of the globe, by which it is adapted to the purpose of forming a habitable world, it is necessary to distinguish three different bodies which compose the whole. These are, a solid body of earth, an aqueous body of sea, and an elastic fluid of air.
IT is the proper shape and disposition of these three bodies that form this globe into a habitable world; and it is the manner in which these constituent bodies are adjusted to each other and the laws of action by which they are maintained in their proper qualities and respective departments, that form the Theory of the machine which we are now to examine. 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 the world by raising up the water of the ocean, and pouring it forth upon the surface of the earth.
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