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Theory of the Earth, by James Hutton, [1788 and 1795], at








THEORY of the EARTH; or an Investigation of the Laws observable in the Composition, Dissolution, and Restoration, of Land upon the Globe.


Prospect of the Subject to be treated of.

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 animal 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, counteract, 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 than 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 object of our inquiries. 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 comprehensive view of this mechanism of the globe, by which it is adapted to the purpose of being 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 this world, by raising up the water of the ocean, and pouring it forth upon the surface of the earth.

Such is the mechanism of the globe: Let us now mention some of those powers by which motion is produced, and activity procured to the mere machine.

First, There is the progressive force, or moving power, by which this planetary body, if solely actuated, would depart continually from the path which it now pursues, and thus be for ever removed from its end, whether as a planetary body, or as a globe sustaining plants and animals, which may be termed a living world.

But this moving body is also actuated by gravitation, which inclines it directly to the central body of the sun. Thus it is made to revolve about that luminary, and to preserve its path.

It is also upon the same principles, that each particular part upon the surface of this globe, is alternately exposed to the influence of light and darkness, in the diurnal rotation of the earth, as well as in its annual revolution. In this manner are produced the vicissitudes of night and day, so variable in the different latitudes from the equator to the pole, and so beautifully calculated to equalise the benefits of light, so variously distributed in the different regions of the globe.

Gravitation, and the vis infita of matter, thus form the first two powers distinguishable in the operations of our system, and wisely adapted to the purpose for which they are employed.

We next observe the influence of light and heat, of cold and condensation. It is by means of these two powers that the various operations of this living world are more immediately transacted; although the other powers are no less required, in order to produce or modify these great agents in the economy of life, and system of our changing things.

We do not now inquire into the nature of those powers, or investigate the laws of light and heat, of cold and condemnation, by which the various purposes of this world are accomplished; we are only to mention those effects which are made sensible to the common understanding of mankind, and which necessarily imply a power that is employed. Thus, it is by the operation of those powers that the varieties of season in spring and autumn are obtained, that we are blessed with the vicissitudes of summer's heat and winter's cold, and that we possess the benefit of artificial light and culinary fire.

We are thus bountifully provided with the necessaries of life; we are supplied with things conducive to the growth and preservation of our animal nature, and with fit subjects to employ and to nourish our intellectual powers.

There are other actuating powers employed in the operations of this globe, which we are little more than able to enumerate; such are those of electricity, magnetism, and subterraneous heat or mineral fire.

Powers of such magnitude or force, are not to be supposed useless in a machine contrived surely not without wisdom; but they are mentioned here chiefly on account of their general effect; and it is sufficient to have named powers, of which the actual existence is well known, but of which the proper use in the constitution of the world is still obscure. The laws of electricity and magnetism have been well examined by philosophers; but the purposes of those powers in the economy of the globe have not been discovered. Subterraneous fire, again, although the most conspicuous in the operations of this world, and often examined by philosophers, is a power which has been still less understood, whether with regard to its efficient or final cause. It has hitherto appeared more like the accident of natural things, than the inherent property of the mineral region. It is in this last light, however, that I wish to exhibit it, as a great power acting a material part in the operations of the globe, and as an essential part in the constitution of this world.

We have thus surveyed the machine in general, with those moving powers, by which its operations, diversified almost ad infinitum, are performed. Let us now confine our view, more particularly, to that part of the machine on which we dwell, that so we may consider the natural consequences of those operations which, being within our view, we are better qualified to examine.

This subject is important to the human race, to the possessor of this world, to the intelligent being Man, who foresees events to come, and who, in contemplating his future interest, is led to inquire concerning causes, in order that he may judge of events which otherwise he could not know.

If, in pursuing this object, we employ our skill in research, not in forming vain conjectures; and if data are to be found, on which Science may form just conclusions, we should not long remain in ignorance with respect to the natural history of this earth, a subject on which hitherto opinion only, and not evidence, has decided: For in no subject, perhaps, is there naturally less defect of evidence, although philosophers, led by prejudice, or misguided by false theory, may have neglected to employ that light by which they should have seen the system of this world.

But to proceed in pursuing a little farther our general or preparatory ideas. A solid body of land could not have answered the purpose of a habitable world; for, a soil is necessary to the growth of plants; and a soil is nothing but the materials collected from the destruction of the solid land. Therefore, the surface of this land, inhabited by man, and covered with plants and animals, is made by nature to decay, in dissolving from that hard and, compact state in which it is found below the soil; and this soil is necessarily washed away, by the continual circulation of the water, running from the summits of the mountains towards the general receptacle of that fluid. The heights of our land are thus levelled with the shores; our fertile plains are formed from the ruins of the mountains; and those travelling materials are still pursued by the moving water, and propelled along the inclined surface of the earth 1 These moveable materials, delivered into the sea, cannot, for a long continuance, rest upon the shore; for, by the agitation of the winds, the tides and currents, every moveable thing is carried farther and farther along the shelving bottom of the sea, towards the unfathomable regions of the ocean.

If the vegetable soil is thus constantly removed from the surface of the land, and if its place is thus to be supplied from the dissolution of the solid earth, as here represented, we may perceive an end to this beautiful machine; an end, arising from no error in its constitution as a world, but from that destructibility of its land which is so necessary in the system of the globe, in the economy of life and vegetation.

The immense time necessarily required for this total destruction of the land, must not be opposed to that view of future events, which is indicated by the surest facts, and most approved principles. Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon this globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession. We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the deduction of our land, so far as effected by those operations which are necessary in the purpose of the globe, considered as a habitable world; and, so far as we have not examined any other part of the economy of nature, in which other operations and a different intention might appear.

We have now considered the globe of this earth as a machine, constructed upon chemical as well as mechanical principles, by which its different parts are all adapted, in form, in quality, and in quantity, to a certain end; an end attained with certainty or success; and an end from which we may perceive wisdom, in contemplating the means employed.

But is this world to be considered thus merely as a machine, to last no longer than its parts retain their present position, their proper forms and qualities? Or may it not be also considered as an organized body? such as has a constitution in which the necessary decay of the machine is naturally repaired, in the exertion of those productive powers by which it had been formed.

This is the view in which we are now to examine the globe; to see if there be, in the constitution of this world, a reproductive operation, by which a ruined constitution may be again repaired, and a duration or stability thus procured to the machine, considered as a world sustaining plants and animals.

If no such reproductive power, or reforming operation, after due inquiry, is to be found in the constitution of this world, we should have reason to conclude, that the system of this earth has either been intentionally made imperfect, or has not been the work of infinite power and wisdom.

Here is an important question, therefore, with regard to the constitution of this globe; a question which, perhaps, it is in the power of man's sagacity to resolve; and a question which, if satisfactorily resolved, might add some lustre to science and the human intellect.

Animated with this great, this interesting view, let us strictly examine our principles, in order to avoid fallacy in our reasoning; and let us endeavour to support our attention, in developing a subject that is vast in its extent, as well as intricate in the relation of parts to be stated.

The globe of this earth is evidently made for man. He alone, of all the beings which have life upon this body, enjoys the whole and every part; he alone is capable of knowing the nature of this world, which he thus possesses in virtue of his proper right; and he alone can make the knowledge of this system a source of pleasure, and the means of happiness.

Man alone, of all the animated beings which enjoy the benefits of this earth, employs the knowledge which he there receives, in leading him to judge of the intention of things, as well as of the means by which they are brought about; and he alone is thus made to enjoy, in contemplation as well as sensual pleasure, all the good that may be observed in the constitution of this world; he, therefore, should be made the first subject of inquiry.

Now, if we are to take the written history of man for the rule by which we should judge of the time when the species first began, that period would be but little removed from the present state of things. The Mosaic history places this beginning of man at no great distance; and there has not been found, in natural history, any document by which a high antiquity might be attributed to the human race. But this is not the case with regard to the inferior species of animals, particularly those which inhabit the ocean and its shores. We find, in natural history, monuments which prove that those animals had long existed; and we thus procure a measure for the computation of a period of time extremely remote, though far from being precisely ascertained.

In examining things present, we have data from which to reason with regard to what has been; and, from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen hereafter. Therefore, upon the supposition that the operations of nature are equable and steady, we find, in natural appearances, means for concluding a certain portion of time to have necessarily elapsed, in the production of those events of which we see the effects.

It is thus that, in finding the relics of sea-animals of every kind in the solid body of our earth, a natural history of those animals is formed, which includes a certain portion of time; and, for the ascertaining this portion of time, we must again have recourse to the regular operations of this world. We shall thus arrive at facts which indicate a period to which no other species of chronology is able to remount.

In what follows, therefore, we are to examine the construction of the present earth, in order to understand the natural operations of time past; to acquire principles, by which we may conclude with regard to the future course of things, or judge of those operations, by which a world, so wisely ordered, goes into decay; and to learn, by what means such a decayed world may be renovated, or the waste of habitable land upon the globe repaired.

This, therefore, is the object which we are to have in view during this physical investigation; this is the end to which are to be directed all the steps in our cosmological pursuit.

The solid parts of the globe are, in general, composed of sand, of gravel, of argillaceous and calcareous strata, or of the various compositions of these with some other substances, which it is not necessary now to mention. Sand is separated and sized by streams and currents; gravel is formed by the mutual attrition of stones agitated in water; and marly, or argillaceous strata, have been collected, by subsiding in water with which those earthy substances had been floated. Thus, so far as the earth is formed of these materials, that solid body would appear to have been the production of water, winds, and tides.

But that which renders the original of our land clear and evident, is the immense quantities of calcareous bodies which had belonged to animals, and the intimate connection of these masses of animal production with the other strata of the land. For it is to be proved, that all these calcareous bodies, from the collection of which the strata were formed, have belonged to the sea, and were produced in it.

We find the marks of marine animals in the most solid parts of the earth; consequently, those solid parts have been formed after the ocean was inhabited by those animals which are proper to that fluid medium. If, therefore, we knew the natural history of those solid parts, and could trace the operations of the globe, by which they had been formed, we would have some means for computing the time through which those species of animals have continued to live. But how shall we describe a process which nobody has seen performed, and of which no written history gives any account? This is only to be investigated, first, in examining the nature of those solid bodies, the history of which we want to know; and, 2dly, In examining the natural operations of the globe, in order to see if there now actually exist such operations, as, from the nature of the solid bodies, appear to have been necessary to their formation.

But, before entering more particularly into those points of discussion, by which the question is to be resolved, let us take a general view of the subject, in order to see what it is which science and observation must decide.

In all the regions of the globe, immense masses are found, which, though at present in the most solid state, appear to have been formed by the collection of the calcareous exuviae of marine animals. The question at present is not, in what manner those collections of calcareous relics have become a perfect solid body, and have been changed from an animal to a mineral substance; for this is a subject that will be afterwards considered; we are now only inquiring, if such is truly the origin of those mineral masses.

That all the masses of marble or limestone are composed of the calcareous matter of marine bodies, may be concluded from the following facts:

1st, There are few beds of marble or limestone, in which may not be found some of those objects which indicate the marine origin of the mass. If, for example, in a mass of marble, taken from a quarry upon the top of the Alps or Andes 2, there shall be found one cockle-shell, or piece of coral, it must be concluded, that this bed of stone had been originally formed at the bottom of the sea, as much as another bed which is evidently composed almost altogether of cockle-shells and coral. If one bed of limestone is thus found to have been of a marine origin, every concomitant bed of the same kind must be also concluded to have been formed in the same Manner.

We thus shall find the greatest part of the calcareous masses upon this globe to have originated from marine calcareous bodies; for whether we examine marbles, limestones, or such solid masses as are perfectly changed from the state of earth, and are become compact and hard, or whether we examine the soft, earthy, chalky or marly strata, of which so much of this earth is composed, we still find evident proofs, that those beds had their origin from materials deposited at the bottom of the sea; and that they have the calcareous substance which they contain, from the same source as the marbles or the limestones.

2dly, In those calcareous strata, which are evidently of marine origin, there are many parts that are of a sparry structure, that is to say, the original texture of those beds, in such places, has been dissolved, and a new structure has been assumed, which is peculiar to a certain state of the calcareous earth. This change is produced by crystallisation, in consequence of a previous state of fluidity, which has so disposed the concreting parts, as to allow them to assume a regular shape and structure proper to that substance. A body, whose external form has been modified by this process, is called a crystal; one whose internal arrangement of parts is determined by it, is said to be of a sparry structure; and this is known from its fracture.

3dly, There are, in all the regions of the earth, huge masses of calcareous matter, in that crystalline form of sparry state, in which perhaps no vestige can be found of any organised body, nor any indication that such calcareous matter had belonged to animals; but as, in other masses, this sparry structure, or crystalline state, is evidently assumed by the marine calcareous substances, in operations which are natural to the globe, and which are necessary to the consolidation of the strata, it does not appear, that the sparry masses, in which no figured body is formed, have been originally different from other masses, which, being only crystallised in part, and in part still retaining their original form, leave ample evidence of their marine origin 3.

We are led, in this manner, to conclude, that all the strata of the earth, not only those consisting of such calcareous masses, but others superincumbent upon these, have had their origin at the bottom of the sea, by the collection of sand and gravel, of shells, of coralline and crustaceous bodies, and of earths and clays, variously mixed, or separated and accumulated. Here is a general conclusion, well authenticated in the appearances of nature, and highly important in the natural history of the earth.

The general amount of our reasoning is this, that nine-tenths, perhaps, or ninety-nine hundredths of this earth, so far as we see, have been formed by natural operations of the globe, in collecting loose materials, and depositing them at the bottom of the sea; consolidating those collections in various degrees, and either elevating those consolidated masses above the level on which they were formed, or lowering the level of that sea.

There is a part of the solid earth which we may at present neglect, not as being persuaded that this part may not also be found to come under the general rule of formation with the rest, but as considering this part to be of no consequence in forming a general rule, which shall comprehend almost the whole, without doing it absolutely. This excluded part consists of certain mountains and masses of granite. These are thought to be still older in their formation, and are said never to be found superincumbent on strata which must be acknowledged as the productions of the sea.

Having thus found the greater part, if not the whole, of the solid land to have been originally composed at the bottom of the sea, we may now, in order to form a proper idea of these operations, suppose the whole of this seaborn land to be again dispersed along the bottom of the ocean, the surface of which would rise proportionally over the globe. We would thus have a spheroid of water, with granite rocks and islands scattered here and there. But this would not be the world which we inhabit; therefore, the question now is, how such continents, as we actually have upon the globe, could be erected above the level of the sea.

It must be evident, that no motion of the sea, caused by this earth revolving in the solar system, could bring about that end; for let us suppose the axis of the earth to be changed from the present poles, and placed in the equinoctial line, the consequence of this might, indeed, be the formation of a continent of land about each new pole, from whence the sea would run towards the new equator; but all the rest of the globe would remain an ocean. Some new points might be discovered, and others, which before appeared above the surface of the sea, would be sunk by the rising of the water; but, on the whole, land could only be gained substantially at the poles. Such a supposition, as this, if applied to the present state of things, would be destitute of every support, as being incapable of explaining what appears.

But even allowing that, by the changed axis of the earth, or any other operation of the globe, as a planetary body revolving in the solar system, great continents of land could have been erected from the place of their formation, the bottom of the sea, and placed in a higher elevation, compared with the surface of that water, yet such a continent as this could not have continued stationary for many thousand years; nor could a continent of this kind have presented to us, every where within its body, masses of consolidated marble, and other mineral substances, in a state as different as possible from that in which they were, when originally collected together in the sea.

Consequently, besides an operation, by which the earth at the bottom of the sea should be converted into an elevated land, or placed high above the level of the ocean, there is required, in the operations of the globe, a consolidating power, by which the loose materials that had subsided from water, should be formed into masses of the most perfect solidity, having neither water nor vacuity between their various constituent parts, nor in the pores of those constituent parts themselves.

Here is an operation of the globe, whether chemical or mechanical, which is necessarily connected with the formation of our present continents: Therefore, had we a proper understanding of this secret operation, we might thereby be enabled to form an opinion, with regard to the nature of that unknown power, by which the continents have been placed above the surface of that water wherein they had their birth.

If this consolidating operation be performed at the bottom of the ocean, or under great depths of the earth, of which our continents are composed, we cannot be witnesses to this mineral process, or acquire the knowledge of natural causes, by immediately observing the changes which they produce; but though we have not this immediate observation of those changes of bodies, we have, in science, the means of reasoning from distant events; consequently, of discovering, in the general powers of nature, causes for those events of which we see the effects.

That the consolidating operation, in general, lies out of the reach of our immediate observation, will appear from the following truth: All the consolidated masses, of which we now inquire into the cause, are, upon the surface of the earth, in a state of general decay, although the various natures of those bodies admit of that dissolution in very different degrees 4

From every view of the subject, therefore, we are directed to look into those consolidated masses themselves, in order to find principles from whence to judge of those operations by which they had attained their hardness or consolidated state.

It must be evident, that nothing but the most general acquaintance with the laws of acting substances, and with those of bodies changing by the powers of nature, can enable us to set about this undertaking with any reasonable prospect of success; and here the science of Chemistry must be brought particularly to our aid; for this science, having for its object the changes produced upon the sensible qualities, as they are called, of bodies, by its means we may be enabled to judge of that which is possible according to the laws of nature, and of that which, in like manner, we must consider as impossible.

Whatever conclusions, therefore, by means of this science, shall be attained, in just reasoning from natural appearances, this must be held as evidence, where more immediate proof cannot be obtained; and, in a physical subject, where things actual are concerned, and not the imaginations of the human mind, this proof will be considered as amounting to a demonstration.


v1:1 M. de Luc, in his second letter to me, published in the Monthly Review for 1790, says, "You ought to have proved that both gravel and sand are carried from our continents to the sea; which, on the contrary, I shall prove not to be the case." He then endeavours to prove his assertion, by observing, that, in certain places where there is not either sufficient declivity in the surface, or force in the running water, gravel and sand are made to rest, and do not travel to the sea. This surely is a fact to which I most readily assent; but, on the other hand, I hope he will acknowledge, that, where there is sufficient declivity in the surface, or force in the running water, sand, gravel, and stones, are travelled upon the land, and are thus carried into the sea—at last. This is all that my theory requires, and this is what I believe will be admitted, without any farther proof on my part.

v1:2 "Cette sommité élevée de 984 toises au dessus de notre lac, et par conséquent de 1172 au dessus de la mer, est remarquable en ce que l'on y voit des fragmens d'huîtres pétrifiés.—Cette montagne est dominée par un rocher escarpé, qui s'il n'est pas inaccessible, est du moins d'un bien difficile accès; il paroît presqu'entièrement composé de coquillages pétrifiés, renfermés dans un roc calcaire, ou marbre grossier noirâtre. Les fragmens qui s'en détachent, et que l'on rencontre en montant à la Croix de fer, sont remplis de turbinites de différentes espèces." M. DE SAUSSURE, Voyage dans les Alpes, p. 394.

v1:3 M. de Saussure, describing the marble of Aigle, says, "Les tables polies de ce marbre présentent fréquemment des coquillages, dont la plupart sont des peignes striés, et de très-beaux madrépores. Tous ces corps marins on pris entierement la nature et le grain même du marbre, on n'y voit presque jamais la coquille sous sa forme originaire."

v1:4 Stalactical and certain ferruginous concretions may seem to form an exception to the generality of this proposition. But an objection of this kind could only arise from a partial view of things; for the concretion here is only temporary; it is in consequence of a solution, and it is to be followed by a dissolution, which will be treated of in its proper place.

Next: Section II. An Investigation of the Natural Operations employed in consolidating the Strata of the Globe