ART. XIII. Essay on the Theory of the Earth: Translated from the French of M. CUVIER, perpetual Secretary of the French Institute, Professor, Administrator of the Museum of Natural History, &c. By ROBERT KERR, F.R.S.E. and F.A.S.E., with Mineralogical Notes, and an Account of CUVIER'S Gealogical Discoveries: By PROFESSOR JAMESON. Edinburgh, 1813. Blackwood, &c.
In giving to the treatise here announced the name of an Essay on the Theory of the Earth, the Editor has taken a liberty that is certainly not warranted by the original. The title of the French work makes no mention whatever of the theory of the earth. The fact is, that M. CUVIER having published, in the Annales de Museum, a succession of memoirs on the fossil remains of animals found in the strata around Paris, (of which an account was given in the 20th vol. of this Journal), was very naturally led to extend an inquiry, that became ever moment more interesting, to the fossil remains of land animals, wherever they had been found. His subject being thus enlarged, he has united the parts of a most ingenious and laborious investigation, in one work, comprehending four volumes in quarto, under the title of Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles des Quadrupedes. To this valuable and interesting book he has prefixed a Dissertation, (Discours Preliminaire), the same that appears here as an Essay on the Theory of the Earth. We are not sure that the author himself will be very thankful for this change of appellation. The preliminary discourse is a general view of the conclusions derived from certain animal remains, compared with the mineral beds in which they are contained, and with the principles of comparative anatomy. This subject, though of great importance, and of no small extent, is yet of too limited a nature to be regarded as a theory of the earth. A name that would have more exactly described the work, without departing from the conciseness essential to a title-page, might easily have been devised. Considerations, for instance, on the Fossil Remains of Quadrupeds, would have been a title much more appropriate.
This translation has been made with singular expedition. The work was received about the middle of last summer; and the translation made its appearance in the beginning of winter. It seems, notwithstanding this haste, to be executed not only with fidelity, but with some degree of elegance; and the editor, Professor Jameson, has added notes, besides giving a very distinct and concise view of Cuvier's principal geological discoveries, which cannot fail to be very acceptable to those who have not an opportunity of perusing the large work and which will be found very useful by those who have.
The Dissertation begins with a sketch of the present condition of the earth's surface. It is known, that the lowest and most level parts of that surface, when pierced to a great depth, exhibit horizontal strata of rock, composed of different materials; and, in particular, abounding with marine productions. Similar strata compose the hills even to a great height. The shells are often so numerous, as nearly to constitute the main body of the strata; and sometimes in so perfect a state, that their most delicate parts are completely preserved, their sharpest ridges, and their finest processes. The levels on which they are now found, are far above that of the ocean, and at heights to which the sea could not reach by the action of any known cause. Every part of the earth, every continent, and every island, exhibits the same phenomenon. We are therefore unavoidably led to conclude, that the sea, at one period or another, has covered all our plains, and has remained there for a long time in a state of tranquillity. The latter circumstance was necessary for the formation of deposits so regular and extensive as those in which many of the marine exuviaeare contained.
The traces of revolution become still more apparent when we ascend a little higher, and approach nearer to the great chains of mountains. Beds of shells are still found in these situations, quite as numerous also, and as well preserved, but not of the same species with those in the less elevated regions. The beds which contain them, are not in general horizontal, but are often highly inclined, and sometimes even vertical. In the plains and low hills it was necessary to dig deep, in order to discover the succession of the strata; but here we perceive it by means of the valleys which slow or violent action has produced, and which disclose the edges of the strata to the eye of the observer.
These inclined or vertical strata, though on a higher level, do not rest on the horizontal strata of the plains, but, on the contrary, are situated under them. The level are in fact placed on the declivities of the inclined strata; and when we dig through the horizontal strata in the neighbourhood of the inclined, these last are invariably found below the other. Sometimes, indeed, the summits of the inclined strata are surmounted by the horizontal, and the former are therefore of more ancient formation than the latter. Having, however, been formed, as they must necessarily have been, in a horizontal position, they have been subsequently shifted into their inclined or vertical situation, and that too before the horizontal strata were placed above them.
The sea, therefore, previous to the formation of the horizontal strata, had formed others, which by some means had been broken, lifted up, and disturbed in a thousand ways. This second result is not less obvious, nor less clearly demonstrated, than the first.
Amid the changes which have thus happened, both to the sea and the strata it had deposited, it was hardly possible that the same species of animals should continue to live. Accordingly, not only the species, but even the genera, change with the strata. The shells in the more ancient formations have figures peculiar to themselves; and they gradually disappear, till they are not to be found at all in the more recent beds, and still less in the seas which now exist. On the contrary, the shells of the recent strata resemble those which still exist in the sea, and in such a degree as to appear of the same genera. Indeed, in the last formed of these strata, there are some species which the eye of the most exert naturalist cannot distinguish from some of those which at present inhabit the ocean.
Hence it is reasonable to conclude, that a succession of changes in animal natures has taken place, corresponding no doubt to that in the chemical properties of the fluid which they inhabited. When the sea last receded from our Continent, its inhabitants were not very different from those which it continues to support.
When we ascend to point of still greater elevation, and advance towards the summits of the highest mountains, the remains of marine animals grow more rare, and at length disappear entirely. We arrive at strata of a different nature, which contain no vestiges at all of living creatures: Nevertheless the crystallization, and many other characters of these rocks, show that they have been formed in a fluid; their inclined position and their slopes, show that they have been moved and overturned; and the oblique manner in which they sink underthe shelly strata, shows that they have been formed before them. We are thus brought to the primitive or primordial mountains, which traverse our continents in various directions, forming as it were the skeleton of frame work of the globe.
In the disposition of these rocks, a certain degree of order and regularity is observed to prevail, insomuch that wherever the more recent strata have been dug through, and the external crust of the earth penetrated to a considerable depth, the same order of stratification is generally found. The crystallized marbles never cover the shelly strata, and the granite mass never rests on the crystallized marble. This arrangement is never inverted, and, though some members of the series may be wanting, there is no instance in which, were they are present, they do not preserve nearly the same place relatively to one another.
It is impossible, therefore, to deny that the waters of the sea have formerly, and for a long time, covered those masses of matter which now constitute our highest mountains; and farther, that these waters, for along time, did not support any living thing.
After this sketch of the natural history of the globe for the ages that are past, CUVIER proceeds to examine the changes which are happening at present on the surface of the earth. There are, says he, four causes in full activity, which contribute to change the condition of the earth's surface. These are, the rains and thaws which wear down the steep mountains, and occasion their fragments to collect at their bottoms;--the streams of water which sweep away these fragments, and deposit them when their current is abated;--the sea, which undermines the foundations of the more elevated coasts, and throws up hillocks of sand where the shore is flat;--and finally volcanoes, which pierce through the most solid strata, and either elevate or scatter abroad the vast quantity of matter which they force up from below.
These are the different causes of change, the effects of which our author endeavours briefly to trace and to estimate. He seems to consider them, on the whole, as but of small amount, and as inadequate to produce those changes which have undoubtedly taken place over the face of the earth.
He next treats of the astronomical causes of revolution on the surface of the Earth; such as, the change in the position of the Earth's axis; in the obliquity of the Ecliptic; the rapidity of the Earth's rotation, &c. These he considers, and we believe justly, as unsupported by evidence from facts, or from the principles of physical astronomy. To this general remark, we would only beg leave to offer one exception, derived from the spheroidal figure of the Earth. Many circumstances make it probable, that this figure, now so nearly adjusted to that which the centrifugal force, arising from rotation on its axis, would have given to a fluid mass of the magnitude and mean density of the earth, has been acquired by the slow progress and alternation of the waste, and renovation of the strata which compose the earth. If this be true, the original figure of the earth may have been extremely unlike the present; it may have been vastly irregular; and in the course of the changes which it has undergone, the axis of rotation may have changed its position, and have passed through a series of variations, that may have affected the distribution of the waters on the surface of the earth, the proportions of heat and cold, and the characters of the animals that inhabited the ocean.
Such causes, however, are not considered by our author as sufficient to explain those changes in the animal kingdom which he has done so much to ascertain. "The irruptions," says he," of the sea, and its retreats, have neither been slow nor gradual; the catastrophes have been sudden: And this is easily proved, especially with regard to the last of them, the traces of which are most conspicuous. In the northern regions, it has left the carcases of some large quadruped which the ice had arrested, and which are preserved, even to the present day, with their skin, their hair, and their flesh. If they had not been frozen as soon as killed, they must quickly have been decomposed by putrefaction; but this eternal frost could not have taken possession of the regions which these animals inhabited, except by the same cause which destroyed them. This cause must therefore have been as sudden as its effect. The breaking to pieces and overturnings of the strata which happened in former catastrophes, show, plainly enough, that they were sudden and violent like the last; and the heaps of debrisand rounded pebbles which are found in various places among the solid strata, demonstrate the vast force of the motions excited in the mass of waters by these overturnings."
Nothing is more certain, than that all the changes which we discover on examining the interior of the earth, are not to be ascribed to such slow operating causes as are now at work on the surface. Of this truth we are fully convinced, though we are perhaps disposed to ascribe much more to those causes than the French naturalist is willing to allow. "The necessity," he observes, "to which naturalists have been reduced, of seeking for causes different from those which we still observe in activity, is the very thing which has forced them to make so many extraordinary suppositions, and to lose themselves in so many erroneous and contradictory speculations, that the very name of their science, as I have elsewhere said, has become ridiculous in the opinion of prejudiced persons, who, only seeing the systems which it has exploded, forget the extensive and important series of facts which it has brought to light and established."
The author takes occasion, in a note, to explain the opinion to which he here alludes.
"When I formerly mentioned," says he, "the science of geology, I only expressed a well known truth, without presuming to give my own opinion, as some respectable geologists seem to have believed. If their mistake arose from my expressions having been rather equivocal, I take this opportunity of explaining my meaning."
We have great pleasure in meeting with this explanation; for we had indeed supposed that CUVIER, in the passage here referred to, was subscribing to the opinion which he expressed; and were sorry to think that a science, of which we thought favourably, notwithstanding the mistakes into which its followers had often fallen, should have come under the censure of a critic so judicious and well informed. We are glad to find that in this respect we were mistaken.
"Whence comes it," (says he)
that there should be so much contrariety in the solutions of the same problem given by men who proceed on the same principles? This may have been occasioned by the conditions of the problem never having been all taken into consideration, by which it has remained hitherto undetermined, and susceptible of many solutions, all equally good, when such and such conditions are abstracted, and all equally gad, when a new condition comes to be known, or when the attention has been directed to some known condition which had been before neglected.
For our part, though we see in all geological systems great defects, and in some of them great absurdities, we cannot but think that they are steps by which men have approximated, and are gradually approximating to the truth. The discovery that a theory is erroneous, brings us nearer to that which is right; and by successive exclusions, we advance gradually to the truth. Philosophy affords but few instances where opinion has settled on what is right, before it had wandered through all the suppositions that are wrong.
It has been already mentioned, as one of our author's general positions, that the cause of the destruction of the animals of which the remains are now so curiously preserved, has been something of sudden and instantaneous operation. Of this, however, we do not think that the proof is quite satisfactory; and though the thing may be true in some instances, we believe that in far the greater number it cannot be admitted. The rhinoceros, of which the skeleton with some parts of the muscles and the hide, was found near the banks of the Lena, must no doubt have been frozen soon after its death, otherwise the fleshy parts could not have escaped corruption. the same may be said of the great carcase recently discovered, included in a mass of ice on the shores of the Frozen Ocean. Some local catastrophe may have overwhelmed these, and perhaps a great number of other animals; but we cannot suppose that it has extended to those of which the remains are found in the alluvial beds all over the world. These are so numerous, they are so far scattered, and have so little to do with the effects of ice as a preservative, that we cannot suppose the cases to be similar. The quantity of the fossil bones, is in many instances too great to proceed from the animals of one generation; and must have been supplied from those of many ages, which have fed successively on the banks of the great rivers, and of which the bones have been buried in the mud and sand, thrown out by these rivers on their banks.
That local inundations, or catastrophes, have been very frequent, will be easily admitted, if we ascribe them to the depression of the land, rather than the rising of the sea. The change of the level of the sea, infers a change of level over the whole of its surface; that of the land extends no farther than a particular country. The latter is, of the two, the hypothesis far the best calculated to resolve the enigmas of the mineral kingdom.
The next object, is to show that there is little probability of discovering any new species among the larger quadrupeds now living. It is shown, also, that the larger animals of the old continent, were all well known to the ancients: the observations on this subject, as well as on the fabulous animals of antiquity, are highly interesting, and full of learning and ingenuity. CUVIER treats next of the means of distinguishing the genera and species of the fossil bones of quadrupeds. He observes,
that, the parts of the animal system are so tied together from their nature, that the most certain rules may be deduced by a careful study of the parts, and by accurate and repeated observation. Any one," says he, "who observes the print of a cloven hoof, may conclude that it has been left by a ruminating animal; so that a single footmark may clearly indicate to the observer, the forms of the teeth, of the jaws, of the vertebrae, of the leg-bones, thighs, shoulders, &c. of the animal which left the mark.
From the mere comparison of observations, where theory is unable to direct, we also procure astonishing results; insomuch, that when we find merely the extremity of a well preserved bone, we are able, by careful examination, assisted by analogy and exact comparison, to determine the species to which it once belonged, as certainly as if we had the entire animal before us. Before venturing to put entire confidence in this method of investigation, I have very frequently tried it with portions of bones belonging to known animals; and always with such complete success, that I now entertain no doubt with regard to the results which it affords."
"In this matter, we have ascertained and classified the fossil remains of 78 different quadruped in the viviparous and oviparous classes. Forty-nine of these are distinct species, hitherto entirely unknown to naturalists. Eleven or twelve others have such entire resemblance to species already known, as to leave no doubt whatever of their identity; and the remaining 16 or 18, have considerable traits of resemblance to known species: But the comparison has not yet been made with such precision, as to remove all uncertainty. Of the 49 new, or hitherto unknown species, 27 belong to 7 new genera; while the other 22 new species belong to 16 genera or subgenera already known. The whole number of genera and subgenera, to which the fossil remains of quadruped, hitherto investigated, are referable, are 36, including those belonging both to known and unknown species. In order to connect these remains with the natural history of the globe itself, it would be desireable to ascertain the particular strata in which each species was found, and to inquire if there were any general laws which connected their position among the strata, with their resemblance to the species actually living on the surface of the earth." On this subject, CUVIER has made the following observation: "It seems, in the firstplace, clearly ascertained, that the remains of oviparous quadrupeds belong to more ancient strata than those of viviparous quadrupeds. The crocodiles of Honfleur and of England are underneath the chalk. The lizards of Thuringia are still more ancient, if the slate in which they are contained is to be placed, as some mineralogists suppose, among the most ancient of the secondary formations.
The earliest appearance of fossil bones seems to indicate, that dry land and fresh water existed before the formation of the chalk strata. But it is not till we arrive at strata of a far more recent date, that we come to the fossil remains of mammiferous land quadrupeds. We begin, indeed, to discover the bones of mammiferous sea animals, such as the Lamantin and the seal, in the shell limestone which immediately covers the chalk in the neighbourhood of Paris; but no bones of mammiferous land animals are to be found in that formation, nor till we come to those which lie over this limestone stratum; after which the bones of land quadrupeds are discovered in great abundance.
Thus we are led to conclude, that the oviparous quadrupeds began to exist along with the fishes, at the commencement of the period which produced the secondary formations, and that the land quadrupeds did not appear till long afterwards.
There is also a determinate order observable in the disposition of the bones of this latter kind, with respect to the strata in which they are found. The genera, which are now unknown; as the palaeotheria, anaplotheria, &c. are found in the most ancient of the formations of which we now speak, or those which are directly over the coarse limestone. They are chiefly what occupy the regular strata deposited from the fresh water. Along with them are found some lost species of known genera, but in small numbers.
The most remarkable of the unknown species belonging to known genera, as the fossil elephant, rhinoceros, and mastodonton, are never found along with those more ancient genera, but are contained in alluvial formations of a later date, and never in the regular rocky strata.
Lastly, the bones of species apparently the same with those now living on the earth, are never found, except in the very latest alluvial depositions, such as are either formed on the sides of rivers, or at the bottoms of antient lakes or marshes now dried up. These bones, though the most recent of all, from being nearest to the surface, are the worst preserved.
These are the laws, as far as our author's observations extend, which connect the unknown species with the strata in which they are lodged. It is curious to remark a kind of convergency, if we may call it so, both in the animals that inhabited the earth, and in the superficies of the earth itself, to the state in which they are now found. As the land came nearer to its resent form, its inhabitants approached nearer to their present condition. Can it be doubted, that a vast number of ages was necessary for bringing about such important changes?
It must, however, be observed, that the extent to which these observations reach is not considerable: IT is to the chalk country round Paris, and perhaps only to a part of it--no other tract on the earth's surface having yet been subjected to the same scrupulous and elaborate examination. CUVIER, indeed, gives the preceding results with that degree of diffidence which suits so new an inquiry, and one where the conclusions have not yet been verified by corresponding observations.
He goes on, after this, in another article, to show, that the extinct species of quadrupeds are not varieties of the species presently existing; and he proves, in a very satisfactory manner, that the distance between these fossil species and the living species, to which they have the greatest affinity, is much greater than is ever found among the varieties of the same species.
The conclusion of this article is highly deserving of notice.
When I endeavoured to prove,
[says he], ;that the rocky strata contain the remains of several
This is the reflection of a man of great general views, who had deeply considered the subject before him, and discovered what is probably the true relation between the strata of the mineral kingdom, and the fossil remains which they contain. For the productions of the such local catastrophes as are here supposed, the rising and falling of the level of the land is a cause much better accommodated than a similar change in the level of the sea.
It is here observed, that among the bones found in a fossil state, those of the human species have never been discovered. Several of those specimens which passed for being remains of the latter kind, CUVIER himself has carefully examined; and the judgment of so able a naturalist must be held as decisive. The fossil bones which SPALLANZANI brought from the island of Cerigo, are of that number; and our author has no difficulty of affirming, that not a single fragment among them ever belonged to a human skeleton. He pronounces the same sentence on the specimen which Scheuchzer called Homo diluvii testis.
The next article undertakes to prove, that the population of the world is but recent, and that its present surface is by no means of very ancient formation. In the proof of the last of these propositions, we do not think that our author has been successful, and shall take the liberty of stating our objection to his reasoning.
By a careful examination," says he, "of what has taken place on the surface of the globe since it has been laid dry for the last time, and its continents have assumed their present form, at least in such parts as are somewhat elevated above the level of the ocean, it may be clearly seen that this last revolution, and consequently the establishment of our existing societies, could not have been very ancient. This result is one of the best established, and least attended to in rational zoology; and it is so much the more valuable, as it connects natural and civil history together in one uninterrupted series.
The argument by which CUVIER endeavours to establish a result which he considers as so certain and important, is, in its form and intention, perfectly logical. To judge of the time in which a certain work has been accomplished, we must ascertain the rate of working, or the quantity of work done in a given time; and if we then can measure also the whole work that has been performed, we may be enabled to calculate the time of the performance with some tolerable exactness. This is the method followed by our author; but in the manner of ascertaining his data, we think great errors have been introduced. These errors affect both the things to be determined, viz. the rate of working, and the total effect produced. The first is made much too great, and the latter much too small; on which account, the time taken up by the action must fall vastly short of the truth.
"It must be," says CUVIER, "since the last retreat of the waters, that the acclivities of our mountains have begun to disintegrate, and to form slopes of the debris at their bottoms and upon their sides; that our rivers have begun to flow in their present courses, and to form alluvial depositions."
Now, in these words, since our rivers have begun to flow in their present courses, we conceive that a great error is concealed. Whether the land was laid dry by the sea retiring to a lower level, or by the land itself rising to a higher level, is not material to the present question. While the surface was covered by water to a great depth resting above it, there was no physical agent whatever that could be supposed to cut out or to prepare for the rivers any thing like the courses in which they now flow and discharge themselves into the sea. There is, indeed, no where any physical agent by which this operation, or this great system of operations, can have been effected. Great original inequalities were no doubt left behind by the sea when it retired; but that there should be any system of lines or canals connecting all these inequalities, with a declivity nearly uniform from the one end to the other, it were altogether unreasonable to suppose. No agent having the least tendency to produce this effect could act on a surface deeply immersed under a fluid, and where the pressure of that fluid tended to reserve an equilibrium in all directions. Chance, or the cooperation of accidental causes, could never produce so steady an effect over a vast extent, and in circumstances so extremely diversified. Let us take, for an example, the basin of any great river; as of the Danube, and its numerous branches. These branches, though they wind from every side through a vast labyrinth, come to join the main trunk, with courses of such uniform declivity, that they are rarely dammed up into lakes, or precipitated into cataracts. How comes it about, that from the Alps on the one hand, and the Carpathian mountains on the other, the waters have found canals by which, notwithstanding the innumerable inequalities that abound in this tract, they are conducted with a regular descent over an extent of many thousand square miles? Among the multitude of agents which Nature employs in her operations, there is only one, the waters themselves, to whom this work might be safely entrusted. These, by occupying the original depressions of the surface, and by rising to such heights as enabled them to form a communication with one another, would require nothing but time to bring the surface into its present condition. Nature herself would furnish the instruments or tools necessary for the work. The running of the waters, the stones, the gravel and earth that they would carry along with them, the masses of ice that would occasionally be formed, would serve to open up a passage to the sea; and the Danube, with its thousand branches, would come at last to discharge its waters, through one main trunk, into the Euxine. In this way has been formed the whole system of valleys now existing on the surface of the earth, and, of consequence, the whole form and shape of the mountains is to be regarded as the work of the waters themselves, determined, in their first operations, by the primitive inequalities of the surface, and modified, during their whole action, by the position and the structure of the rocks through which they had to cut their way.
The waters, it is obvious, were not opposed, in these operations, merely by loose earth, or other unconsolidated materials. they were opposed by the hardest rocks, and were constantly resisted by a power which nothing but the lapse of ages could enable them to overcome.
In the Essay before us, rivers are considered as working only on sand or mud; but the removal of these is a small part of the task which they have had to perform. They have had the rocks themselves to cut down; and they clearly express their having done so, when the rock is hard enough to retain, for a long time, the impressions which it has received. A narrow channel hollowed out of the solid rock, of great depth, and no broader than is sufficient to contain the torrent that runs in it, leaves no doubt as to the agent by which it was made, and one as to the fact, that a great length of time has been required. In the estimate here made of the action of rivers, all the operations of this kind are excluded.
In the same manner, with respect to the coasts, the view taken is equally limited; and it is only those low shores formed of alluvial deposits that come within the scope of the argument.
We must therefore object, both to the rate of working, as our author has stated it, and to the quantity of work that has been performed. From the celerity with which the contention of a river and a tide may throw up a bar at the mouth of the former; from the rapidity with which the wind may transport hills of moveable sand on a low coast, or with which vegetables, by the stagnation of water, may be converted into peat , we cannot reason at all as to the time which a torrent will take to cut through a rock of marble, of granite, or of silex. Yet the latter are the great operations which the rivers have had to perform; and they only get the perpetual supply of mud and sand and gravel with which they are provided, by corroding and disintegrating the hard substances that oppose their course.
Such seems to us the fair estimate of the work that was necessary to be performed, before the surface of the land, as it was left by the waters of the sea, could attain the form which it has at the present moment. If there is any other physical agent that can be shown to be adequate to the same effect, we shall be content that the waters should share with it the glory of performing the great work that we have ascribed to them. But if there is no such agent; if there is no power of any kind that has the necessary force, and , must more, the principle necessary to direct that force, we shall be under the necessity of acquiescing in the conclusion just deduced, and of considering it as one of the fixt and ascertained facts in the natural history of the globe.
The next part of the argument considers the proofs, arising from tradition, of a great catastrophe and subsequent renewal of the human race. It is here assumed, as a point already proved, that the natural history of the globe every where informs us, that the commencement of the present order of things cannot be dated from a very remote period. We have just seen, however, that the argument brought in support of this assertion, is by no means conclusive; and, that so far as the question is purely physical, and relates to the earth itself, no doubt can be entertained that the present order goes back to a period much beyond the limits of historical record. Our author is of the contrary opinion.
"It is easy to see," says he," that though naturalists might have ranged sufficiently wide within the limits prescribed by the book of Genesis, they very soon found themselves in too narrow bounds; and when they had succeeded in converting the six days employed in the work of creation, into so many periods of indefinite length, their systems took a flight proportioned to the periods which they could then dispose of at pleasure."
To the charge that is here made, we believe that most Geologists will be obliged to plead guilty; and, though we do by no means think hat it is the business of theory to explain the first origin of things, or the events that must have happened during the six days referred to by our author, whether they are to be literally or figuratively understood; yet, we admit that it would be very difficult to suppose that even the series of changes which are the legitimate objets of geological discussion, can be brought completely within the limits of a few thousand years. The concessions even of the most sound theologians admit, that the literal interpretation of the Mosaic account of the origin of things is not essential to an orthodox system of religious belief. We have the authority of the late Bishop HORSLEY to support us in this assertion; which is also admitted by the editor of this Essay, in a preface which is certainly not chargeable with any undue liberality of sentiment. The origin, however, of society, and the renewal, if not the beginning of the human race, we most readily admit, cannot, with any regard to the testimony, either of sacred or profane writers, be carried back to a very remote period. IT must be admitted that it goes back no farther than six or seven thousand years; and all that we contend for is, the liberty of placing it somewhat beyond the latest of the dates which have been assigned to it, and to which CUVIER seems desirous that it should be reduced.
"The Pentateuch," he observes,
has existed in its present form, at least ever since the separation of the ten tribes under Jeroboam, when it was received as authentic by the Samaritans, as well as by the Jews; and this assures us of the actual antiquity of that book being not less than two thousand eight hundred years. Besides this, we have no reason to doubt of the book of Genesis having been composed by Moses, which adds five hundred years to its antiquity.
Moses and his people came out of Egypt, which is universally allowed to have been the most anciently civilized kingdom on the borders of the Mediterranean. The legislator of the Jews could have no motive for shortening the duration of the nations; and would even have disgraced himself in the estimation of his own people, if he had promulgated a history of the human race contradictory to that which they must have learnt by tradition in Egypt. We may therefore conclude, that the Egyptians had at this time no other notions, respecting the antiquity of the human race, than are contained in the book of Genesis.
Here we must remark, that this learned and ingenious writer, in defending the Mosaic chronology, has employed an argument in which the wound and serious theologian will hardly acquiesce, viz. that MOSES derived his information concerning the origin of the world, and of the deluge, from the traditions of the Egyptians; and that he could not have ventured to teach opinions concerning these matters, different from those commonly received. This, however, is to form a notion of the Legislator of the Jews, very little agreeable to the character in which he appears in his own writings; and by no means consistent with the superiority which his religious system undoubtedly possessed above those of the nations by which he was surrounded. We have here an instance of the danger of mixing religious and philosophical opinions with one another, and a proof how readily, as Lord BACON long ago observed, from the union of these two things the corruption of both is likely to ensue; a fantastical philosophy on the one hand, and a heterodox religion on the other.
Whatever be determined on that point,
it seems material to remark, that the deluge, such as it is described by MOSES,
cannot well be supposed to have left any proof of its existence among the monuments
of the mineral kingdom. Its duration was too short to have allowed such monuments
to be produced. The face of the earth was covered by the waters above the tops
of the mountains, only for the space of five months, or 150 days; and, after
the end of that time,
It seems probable, therefore, that this great catastrophe, destined to cut off men and animals, would produce no other durable effect upon the surface of the earth; none certainly that could be supposed to remain distinctly visible, at the distance of some thousand years. We are therefore at a loss to know what the Editor means to speak of when he says, "the Deluge, one of the grandest naturalevents described in the Bible, is equally confirmed, with regard to its extent and the period of its occurrence, by a careful study of the various phenomena observed on and near the earth's surface." It would be highly satisfactory, no doubt, if this pious and learned naturalist, would point out any of the phenomena now existing which may fairly be called monuments of the deluge; understanding that deluge to be just what it is recorded to have been, without any such commentaries as have sometimes been applied to it. It must be the genuine deluge of the Scriptures, not that which has been so highly coloured by the eloquence of BURNET, or so nicely analysed by the geometry of WHISTON; must less those reciprocations of the universal waterso familiar to the followers of WERNER; nor even the torrent, or the debacle, of PALLAS and SAUSSURE: It must be the simple and quiet ascent of the waters above the tops of the mountains, their sojourning there for 150 days, and their peaceable retreat. We conceive that such an event could not record itself in any other way than by the deep impression it must make on the minds of the few who survived the general calamity. If we are in an error, we shall be glad to be set right.
The antiquity and origin of nations is a subject of great difficulty, and one where the light is so scanty, that there is no apology for dogmatical assertion. Though we think that there is reason to go farther back than the ordinary computation seems to authorise, we do not suppose ourselves entitled to draw this conclusion with perfect decision. Neither, on the other hand, can we admit with this commentator, that the age of the human race is, in the work before us, satisfactorily determined by an appeal to natural appearances; and that the pretended great antiquity of some nations, so much insisted on by certain philosophers, is thereby shown to be entirely unfounded.
We mean not in any degree to blame the intentions of the learned Editor; but it is impossible to shut one's eyes against the effects which such insinuations as the preceding are calculated, if not intended, to produce. They are calculated to hold up those who do not acquiesce in the opinions contained in this work as objects of suspicion, and as men who cherish notions unfavourable to religion. This, however, is not an interpretation that should rashly be given to mere literary or scientific speculations. The system of COPERNICUS might as well be stated, as it once was, to be inconsistent with the authority of the Scriptures; and all those who hold the reality of the earth's motion, should be considered as disputing the authenticity of the sacred writings. It is unnecessary to expose the error of opinions, not more hurtful to the interests of science, than contrary to the spirit of religion.
The state of the question seems to be this.--No one, we are persuaded, means to reason in this matter against the authority of the Mosaic history, not even the philosophers whom the editor views with so suspicious an eye: But the Hebrew text having fixed the renovation of the human race to the year 2348 (see BLAIR'S Chronology) before the Christian era; and all deductions that depend on numbers, or on a series of numbers contained in an ancient manuscript, being subject to considerable uncertainty from the chances of interpolation and corruption; it is therefore reasonable, in an inquiry into the origin of nations, to state the facts from all different quarters, as far as they are known, supposing them too to be subject to uncertainty from like causes; and taking care, in the inquiry, to exclude all dogmatism and partiality. It is probable that, in this way, a mean result may be obtained nearer to the truth, than any single one that we are in possession of . The infallibility of the inspired writings does by no means preclude this appeal; because these writings, especially in what regards numerical expression, must partake of that uncertainty, which passing repeatedly through the hands of ignorant and careless transcribers, has a tendency to produce. It seems reasonable, in such a case, that all the evidence which can be brought forward, should be examined; leaving it with the great jury of mankind to determine the weight that is due to the testimony of each of the witnesses adduced, and the mean result of the whole united evidence. Why should not antiquaries and scholars do as astronomers and mathematicians are wont to do, where there is a chance of error? They bring forward the observations they have made, or the measures they have taken, ascribing to each of them a weight proportional, as nearly as they can estimate, to its accuracy; and they then take the mean of all, as the result nearest to the truth. This is what we wish to do on the present occasion. Take from all the different sources of information, the best result you can obtain; take no care, while you are doing so, of its consistency with other results, but let each of them answer for itself. When this process is fairly and extensively performed, let the mean be struck as in the cases above referred to; and there is very little doubt that a result will be obtained, which will detect the corruptions, from which neither the texts of sacred or profane historians can always be exempted.
Agreeably to this rule, we go on to state several arguments, leading to results that differ considerably from those of CUVIER, but that appear to us very deserving of attention. With a view of reducing the period of the great catastrophe, so often alluded to, to a date as recent as possible, CUVIER endeavours to take off the force of such facts as would carry back that catastrophe to a period somewhat more remote. MACROBIUS, says he, assures us, that collections of observations of eclipses made in Egypt, were preserved, which presupposed uninterrupted labour for at least 1200 years before the reign of ALEXANDER. It is said, too, by SIMPLICIUS, in his commentary on ARISTOTLE, that some astronomical observations of the Chaldeans were sent by CALLISTHENES to that philosopher, which reached back 1903 years from the year 331 before Christ, at which time Babylon was taken by ALEXANDE; which therefore goes back almost within a century of the common epoch of the Deluge. To both these facts, it is objected, that if such observations had existed, how comes it that PTOLEMY, to whom they must have been so extremely valuable, makes use of none that go back farther than the era of Nabonassar, 747 years before Christ? There is, however, a circumstance, that ought to be taken into account, before the relations of MACROBIUS and SIMPLICIUS are entirely set aside. To an astronomer like Ptolemy, who was endeavouring to settle the mean motions of the heavenly bodies, no observation could be of any use, of which the date was not fixed with very great precision. Now, accuracy of date was a matter in which these ancient observations were most likely to prove defective. An exact reckoning of time, by which the interval between remote events could be correctly measured, was very long of being obtained; and men had observed the heavens for a great while, before they could mark with accuracy the dates of their observations.
The observations of the Chaldeans, therefore, might be very authentic; as facts, they might be infinitely valuable: but they might be of no use at all to an astronomer, who was merely computing tables of the motions of the sun and the planets. There is many a curious and important observation, both in ancient and in modern times, that would have been rejected as useless by DELAMBRE and BURKHARDT, in the formation of those astronomical tables, by which they have lately merited the gratitude of the scientific world. The same was the case with PTOLEMY; and to find that he makes no mention of certain antient observations, affords no argument at all against their existence, or against his knowledge of them.
Again, our author endeavours to invalidate the argument which derives a presumption of the great antiquity of civilization and scientific acquirement in India and Chaldea, from the fact, that in these countries there was great knowledge in astronomy; as, of the length of the year, the precession of the equinoxes, the relative motions of the sun and moon, &c. 1000 or 1200 years at least before the beginning of the Christian era. It is argued, that the beginning of astronomical observation must have preceded that date by many centuries.
"But to explain all this," it is said,
Without the necessity of any prodigious antiquity, it may be remarked, that a nation may well be expected to make rapid progress in any particular science, that has no other to attend to; and that, with the Chaldeans especially, the perpetual serenity and clearness of their sky, the pastoral life which they led, and the peculiar superstition to which they were addicted, rendered the stars a general object of attention. They had also colleges, or societies, of their most respectable men, appointed to make astronomical observations, and to put them upon record. Let us suppose also, that among so many persons who had nothing else to do, there were two or three possessed of singular talents for the study of geometrical science; and every thing known to that people might easily have been accomplished in a very few centuries.
The position laid down here, that a nation may make great progress in one science, which has only one to attend to, seems not very conformable to what has occurred, or to what, from the nature of the human mind, might be expected to occur in the history of science. The time when knowledge has advanced fastest, has been, when it was pursued in many different branches; and nothing seems more certain, that that one science can never make great progress when it stands alone, and is separate from the rest. The astronomer requires the assistance of the mechanic and the optician; if he is destitute of their help, and if his instruments are very imperfect, there is nothing but time that can bring out any valuable result from his observations. In the absence of accurate instruments and exact observation, it was only great length of time that could make it possible to discover the long periods and the slow motions with which, as far back as eleven or twelve hundred years before our era, we find that astronomers were acquainted. When two observations are compared together, the length of time between them will stand in the place of accuracy, the errors bearing a less proportion to the whole. If, therefore, we find a tolerably accurate estimate of the mean motions of the heavenly bodies, in the possession of a people not furnished with good instruments, we may be assured that the antiquity of observation has supplied the place of such instruments, and that age has given a value to facts, which, without it, they could not have possessed. In this, we have very little doubt that all astronomers will agree. CUVIER however proceeds,
Three hundred years did not intervene between COOPERNICUS and DE LA PLACE, the celebrated author of Mechanique Celeste; yet some wish to believe that the Hindoos must have had many thousand years to discover their astronomical rules.
But why did so little time intervene between Copernicus and La Place? Why has the progress of science been so rapid in the comparatively short interval that elapsed between these two great men? Precisely because astronomy was not the only science then cultivated; because all the sciences, on the contrary, were coming forward, and advancing together with a uniformity and steadiness of which there is no former example. the labours of every scientific man were felt as an assistance and encouragement by all the rest; a general spirit of activity spread itself into every department, and the powers of the mind seemed raised to a higher level. The ardour and patience necessary to discovery , and characteristic of genius, can hardly be produced without the example and the sympathy of numbers, animated by the same motives, and zealous in pursuing the same objects.
The benefit that one science may receive from the culture of another, even the most remote, cannot be better exemplified, than by the circumstances that have given occasion to the work before us, where the Anatomist affords such valuable assistance to the Geologist, and brings the structure of the animal body to give such important information concerning the revolutions of the globe. the bones of the Megatherion, or the Mastodonton, two hundred years ago, might have given occasion to a new chapter in the Osteology of the Giants; but would have added nothing to the stock of real knowledge. In the hands of a man of science, and a philosopher, they have struck out one of the greatest lights that has yet been cast on the natural history of the globe. It is certain, then, that the moments of most rapid progress in any science, are those in which all the sciences are advancing, and all supporting one another. When they are separate, their progress is unavoidably slow; and nothing can be more fallacious, than to take their rate of advancement in a state of high improvement, as a measure of the progress they might be expected to have made in the infancy of knowledge.
In the prosecution of this argument, an attack is next made, as indeed it could not fail to be, on the antiquity of the astronomy of India. Our author is of opinion, that the proofs which have appeared conclusive in favour of that antiquity, are of little weight, and have most of them been satisfactorily refuted. He quotes particularly the Systeme du Monde, and the Paper of BENTLEY in the Asiatic Researches. With respect to the first, it is true, that LA PLACE has shown, that in as much as concerns the mean motion of Jupiter, there is a very recent, and well as a very ancient period, to which the determination of that motion, in the Indian Tables, may be referred. Of course, he refers them to the most recent; and if there were not a multitude of facts pointing to the other, we should think the latter conclusion extremely reasonable. But, circumstanced as things are, we think it can be shown, in a satisfactory manner, that the ancient era is the more probable of the two. AS to BENTLEY'S argument, it has in reality been refuted by anticipation in the Astronomie Orientalemore than once. When the astronomical era of the Caly-yug is said to have been computed backward, the question always recurs, How came the mean motions of the Sun and Moon to be known, with such accuracy, than in calculating for an interval of more than 4000 years, they should agree with the best tables of modern astronomy? The tedious and obscure argumentation of Mr. BENTLEY never brings us nearer to the solution of this problem. Indeed, the number of independent arguments by which M. BAILLY has established the reality of the epoch 3102 A. C. is such, that it seems better ascertained than any date not within the sphere of regular historical record. We cannot now enter more fully on this subject. But though the tide of opinion seems, for some time past, to have set strongly against the high antiquity of the sciences of the East, it does not appear that the main arguments of the Historian of astronomy have ever been refuted. Conformably, therefore, to the principle laid down above, in settling the remotest point to which the history of our sciences can extend, we would regard the Indian astronomy as one fact, and one that must be allowed considerable weight, when the last result is to be obtained. At the same time it must be allowed, that the early date of that Astronomy, and the usual date of the deluge, may be perfectly reconciled, on the supposition that the former is a fragment of antediluvian science, which had escaped the general destruction.
We conclude with observing, that the natural history of the globe has never made a greater step than by the observations and results contained in the great work to which this Preliminary Dissertation belongs. The industry, the skill, and the enlarged views of the author, are entitled to the highest praise; and in differing from him, as to a few of his subordinate conclusions, we hope that we have not failed in the respect due to a man who has laid science under so many and so great obligations.
We observe, in the passages where Astronomy is treated of, that some mistakes have been committed by the translator. Speaking of the Zodiac in the temple at Dendera, he makes CUVIER say, "Nothing can be drawn from its division into bands of six signs each, as indicative of the colures proceeding from the procession of the Equinoxes," &c. The term, processionfor precession, we suppose to be merely a typographical error; but to speak of the colures proceeding from the precession of the equinoxes, is inaccurate, and indeed absurd. The French is, "La position des colures resultant de la precession des equinoxes"--the position of the colures produced by the precession; for it is the position of the colures, not the colures themselves, that is affected by the precession. In the course of the same sentence, there is another error. Instead of the words, "shows how inaccurate were their observations;" it ought to be, "shows that they had no observed it," viz. the time in which the beginning of the year travels over the whole of the zodiac. (p. 165). There occur other inaccuracies of this kind; though, on the whole, the translation is well executed.
Anon. 'Essay on the Theory of the Earth'. The Edinburgh Review and London Critical Journal. January 1814.
2 February 2012