Principles of Geology

by Sir Charles Lyell (1850)


In the concluding chapters of the first book, I examined in detail a great variety of arguments which have been adduced to prove the distinctness of the state of the earth's crust at remote and recent epochs. Among other supposed proofs of this distinctness, the dearth of calcareous matter, in the ancient rocks above adverted to, might have been considered. But it would have been endless to enumerate all the objections urged against those geologists who represent the course of nature at the earliest periods as resembling in all essential circumstances the state of things now established. We have seen that, in opposition to this doctrine, a strong desire has been manifested to discover in the ancient rocks the signs of an epoch when the planet was uninhabited, and when its surface was in a chaotic condition and uninhabitable. The opposite opinion, indeed, that the oldest of the rocks now visible may be the last monuments of an antecedent era in which living beings may already have peopled the land and water, has been declared to be equivalent to the assumption that there never was a beginning to the present order of things.

With equal justice might an astronomer be accused of asserting that the works of creation extended throughout infinite space because he refuses to take for granted that the remotest stars now seen in the heavens, are on the utmost verge of the material universe. Every improvement of the telescope has brought thousands of new worlds into view; and it would, therefore, be rash and unphilosophical to imagine that we already survey the whole extent of the vast scheme, or that it will ever be brought within the sphere of human observation.

But no argument can be drawn from such premises in favour of the infinity of the space that has been filled with worlds; and if the material universe has any limits, it then follows, that it must occupy a minute and infinitesimal point in infinite space.

So if, in tracing back the earth's history, we arrive at the monuments of events which may have happened millions of ages before our times, and if we still find no decided evidence of a commencement, yet the arguments from analogy in support of the probability of a beginning remain unshaken; and if the past duration of the earth be finite, then the aggregate of geological epochs, however numerous, must constitute a mere moment of the past, a mere infinitesimal portion of eternity.

It has been argued, that, as the different states of the earth's surface, and the different species by which it has been inhabited, have all had their origin, and many of them their termination, so the entire series may have commenced at a certain period. It has also been urged, that, as we admit the creation of man to have occurred at a comparatively modern epoch--as we concede the astonishing fact of the first introduction of a moral and intellectual being--so also we may conceive the first creation of the planet itself

I am far from denying the weight of this reasoning from analogy; but, although it may strengthen our conviction, that the present system of change has not gone on from eternity, it cannot warrant us in presuming that we shall be permitted to behold the signs of the earth's origin, or the evidences of the first introduction into it of organic beings. We aspire in vain to assign limits to the works of creation in space, whether we examine the starry heavens, or that world of minute animalcules which is revealed to us by the microscope. We are prepared, therefore, to find that in time also the confines of the universe lie beyond the reach of mortal ken. But in whatever direction we pursue our researches, whether in time or space, we discover every where the clear proofs of a Creative Intelligence, and of His foresight, wisdom, and power.

As geologists, we learn that it is not only the present condition of the globe which has been suited to the accommodation of myriads of living creatures, but that many former states also have been adapted to the organization and habits of prior races of beings. The disposition of the seas, continents, and islands, and the climates, have varied; the species likewise have been changed; and yet they have all been so modelled, on types analogous to those of existing plants and animals, as to indicate, throughout, a perfect harmony of design and unity of purpose. To assume that the evidence of the beginning or end of so vast a scheme lies within the reach of our philosophical inquiries, or even of our speculations, appears to be inconsistent with a just estimate of the relations which subsist between the finite powers of man and the attributes of an Infinite and Eternal Being