Edward Hitchcock.

The religion of geology and its connected sciences online

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But I need not multiply proof of the functional identity of organic nature
in all ages. It may, however, be inquired, how this identity, as well as
that of anatomical structure, is reconciled with the great anomalies, both
in size and form, which have confessedly prevailed among ancient animals.
Compare the plants and animals which now occupy the northern parts of the
globe with those which flourished there in the remote periods of
geological history, and can we believe them to be portions of one great
system of organic nature?

Compare, for instance, the thirty or forty species of ferns now growing to
the height of a few inches, or one or two feet, in Europe and this
country, with the more than two hundred species already dug out of the
coal mines, many of which were forty to forty-five feet in height; or the
diminutive ground pines, and equiseta, now scarcely noticed in our
forests, with the gigantic lepidodendron, sigillaria, calamites, and
equiseta, of the carboniferous period; and who will not be struck with the
great difference between them?

Or go to Germany, and imagine the bones of the dinotherium to start out of
the soil, and become clothed with flesh and instinct with life. You have
before you a quadruped eighteen feet in length, and of proportional
height, much larger than the elephant, and with curved tusks reaching two
or three feet below its lower jaw, while no other living animal would be
found there larger than the ox, or the horse - mere pygmies by the side of
such a monster, and evidently unfit to be his contemporaries.

Again. Let the megatherium be brought back to life on the pampas of South
America, and you have an animal twelve feet long and eight feet high, with
proportions perfectly colossal. Its fore feet were a yard long, its thigh
bone three times thicker than that of the elephant, its width across the
haunches five feet, its spinal marrow a foot in diameter, and its tail,
where it was inserted into the body, two feet in diameter. What a giant in
comparison with the sloth, the anteater, and the armadillo, to which it
was allied by anatomical structure!

Still more unequal in size, as compared with living batrachians, was the
labyrinthidon, once common in England and Germany, if, indeed, the tracks
on sandstone were made by that animal. It was, in fact, a frog as large as
an ox, and perhaps as large as an elephant. Think of such animals swarming
in our morasses at the present day!

But coming back from Europe, and turning our thoughts to the animals that
trod along the shores of the estuary that once washed the base of Mount
Holyoke, in New England, we shall encounter an animal, probably of the
batrachian family, of more gigantic proportions. It was the _Otozoum
Moodii_, a biped, with feet twenty inches long, more than twice the size
of those of the labyrinthidon; yet its tracks on the imperishable
sandstone show that such a giant once trod upon the muddy shore of that
ancient estuary.

Along that same shore, also, enormous struthious birds moved in flocks,
making strides from three to five feet long, with feet eighteen inches
long, lifting their heads, it may be, from twelve to eighteen feet above
the ground, surpassing, as it appears, even the gigantic dinornis of New
Zealand, now that the feet of the latter have been discovered. I refer to
the _Brontozoum giganteum_, whose tracks are so common on the new red
sandstone of the Connecticut valley. What dwarfs are we in comparison, who
now consider ourselves lords of that valley!

Still more remarkable for peculiarities of structure was the tribe of
saurians, which were once so numerous in the northern parts of Europe and
America. The ichthyosaurus, a carnivorous marine reptile, sometimes thirty
feet long, had the snout of a porpoise, the teeth of a crocodile, the head
of a lizard, the vertebræ of a fish, the sternum of an ornithorhynchus,
and the paddles of a whale. Those paddles, corresponding to the fins of a
fish, or the web feet of water birds, were composed, each of them, of more
than one hundred bones. In short, we find in this animal a combination of
mechanical contrivances, which are now found among three distinct classes
of the animal kingdom. Its eye, also, having an orbital cavity, in one
species, of fourteen inches in its longest diameter, was proportionally
larger than that of any living animal.

The plesiosaurus had the general structure of the ichthyosaurus; but its
neck was nearly as long as its whole body - longer, in proportion to its
size, than even that of the swan.

The iguanodon was an herbivorous terrestrial reptile that formerly
inhabited England. It approaches nearest in structure to the iguana, a
reptile four or five feet long, inhabiting the marine parts of this
continent. Yet the iguanodon was thirty feet long, with a thigh six feet,
and a body fourteen feet in circumference. What an alarm would it now
produce, to have such a monster start into life in the forests of England,
where no analogous animal could be found more than half a foot in length!
Surely this must have been one of the fabulous monsters of antiquity.

Still more heteroclitic and unlike existing nature was the pterodactyle, a
small lizard, contemporary with the ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus. At one
time anatomists regarded it as a bird, at another as a bat, and finally as
a reptile, having the head and neck of a bird, the body and tail of a
quadruped, the wings of a bat, and the teeth of a saurian reptile. With
its wings it could fly or swim; it could walk on two feet or four; with
its claws it could climb or creep. "Thus," says Dr. Buckland, "like
Milton's fiend, all qualified for all services, and all elements, the
pterodactyle was a fit companion for the kindred reptiles that swarmed in
the seas, or crawled on the shores of a turbulent planet."

"The fiend,
O'er bog, or steep, through straight, rough, dense, or rare,
With head, hands, wings, or feet pursues his way,
And swims, or sinks, or wades, or creeps, or flies."

Now, when the details of such facts are brought before us, it is very
natural to feel that it is the history of monsters, and that the
Centaurs, the Gorgons, and Chimeras of the ancients, are no more unlike
existing animals than these resurrections from the rocks. But further
examination rectifies our mistake, and we recognize them as parts of one
great system. All the peculiarities of size, and structure, and form,
which we meet, we find to be only wise and benevolent adaptations to the
different circumstances in which animals have been placed. The gigantic
size of many of them, compared with existing races, may be explained by
the tropical, or even ultra tropical character of the climate; and not a
single anomaly of structure and form can be pointed out, which did not
contribute to the convenience and happiness of the species, in the
circumstances in which they were placed. It is our ignorance and narrow
views alone that give any of them the aspect of monsters. Listen to the
opinion of Sir Charles Bell, one of the ablest of modern anatomists. "The
animals of the antediluvian world," says he, "were not monsters; there is
no _lusus_, or extravagance. Hideous as they appear to us, and like the
phantoms of a dream, they were adapted to the condition of the earth when
they existed." "Judging by these indications of the habits of the animals,
we acquire a knowledge of the condition of the earth during their period
of existence; that it was suited at one time to the scaly tribe of the
lacertæ, with languid motion; at another, to animals of higher
organization, with more varied and lively habits; and, finally, we learn
that, at any period previous to man's creation, the surface of the earth
would have been unsuitable to him." - _Bridgewater Treatise_, pp. 35 and

A similar view is given of this subject by England's geological poet,
(Rev. Mr. Wilks,) in whose playful verses we find more of true science and
just inference than in many a ponderous tome of grave prose. In one of
his poems he says, -

"Seamy coal,
Limestone, or oölite, and other sections,
Give us strange tidings of our old connections;
Our arborescent ferns, of climate torrid,
With unknown shapes of names and natures horrid;
Strange ichthyosaurus, or iguanodon,
With many more I cannot verse upon, -
Lost species and lost genera; some whose bias
Is chalk, marl, sandstone, gravel, or blue lias;
Birds, beasts, fish, insects, reptiles; fresh, marine,
Perfect as yesterday among us seen
In rock or cave; 'tis passing strange to me
How such incongruous mixture e'er could be.
And yet no medley was it: each its station
Once occupied in wise and meet location.
God is a God of order, though to scan
His works may pose the feeble powers of man."

The facts and reasonings which have now been presented will sustain the
following important inferences: -

_In the first place, we learn that the notions which have so widely
prevailed, in ancient and modern times, respecting a chaos, are without

Among all heathen nations of antiquity, the belief in a primeval chaos was
almost universal; and from the heathen philosophers it was transmitted to
the Christian world, and incorporated with the Mosaic cosmogony. It is
not, indeed, easy to ascertain what is the precise idea which has been
attached to a chaos. It is generally described, however, as "a confused
assemblage of elements," "an unformed and undigested mass of heterogeneous
matter;" not, of course, subject to those laws which now govern it, and
which have arranged it all in beautiful order, even if we leave out of
the account vegetable and animal organization. Now, I have attempted to
show that there never was a period on the globe when these laws, with the
exception of the organic, did not operate as they now do. Nay, the
geologist, when he examines the oldest rocks, finds the results of these
laws at the supposed period when chaos reigned; that is, in the earliest
times of our planet. And what are these results? The most splendid
crystallizations which nature furnishes. The emerald, the topaz, the
sapphire, and other kindred gems, were elaborated during the supposed
chaotic state of the globe; for no earlier products have yet been
discovered than these most perfect illustrations of crystallographical,
chemical, and electrical laws. If, indeed, any should say, that by a chaos
they mean only that state of the world when no animals or plants
existed, - in other words, when no organic laws had been established, - to
such a chaos I have no objection. And this is the chaos described in the
Bible, where it is said that, before the creation of animals and plants,
the earth was _without form and void_. The _tohu vau bohu_ of Moses, which
is thus translated in our English Bible, means, simply and literally,
_invisible and unfurnished_ - _invisible_, both because the ocean covered
the present land, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and
_unfurnished_, because as yet no organic natures had been called into
existence. This is the meaning which the old Jewish writers, as Philo and
Josephus, attached to these words; and they have been followed by some of
the ablest modern commentators. "It is wonderful," says Rosenmuller the
elder, "that so many interpreters could have persuaded themselves that it
was possible to detect a chaos in the words [Hebrew]. That notion
unquestionably derived its origin from the fictions of the Greek and Latin
poets, which were transferred by those interpreters to Moses. If we
follow the practice of the language, the Hebrew phrase has this
signification: _The earth was waste and desert_, or, as others prefer,
_empty and vacuous_; that is, _uncultured and unfurnished_ with those
things with which the Creator afterwards adorned it." - _Antiquiss. Tell.
Hist._ p. 19-23.

Upon the whole, there is no evidence whatever, either in nature or
revelation, that the earth has ever been in a state corresponding to the
common notions of a chaos; while, on the other hand, there is strong proof
that the present laws of nature have been in operation from the beginning.
These laws have varied in the intensity of their action, and we have
strong reason to believe that organic laws did not always exist; but none
of these laws have ever been suspended, to leave the elements to mix in
wild disorder in a formless mass. It is high time that religion was freed
from the indescribable incubus of a chaos.

_Finally, the most important conclusion to which the mind is conducted by
this subject is, that the present and past conditions of this world are
only parts of one and the same great system of infinite wisdom and

We have seen that the same wise and benevolent laws, organic and
inorganic, have always controlled, as they now control, this lower world.
It is true we find modified conditions of the globe in its past history;
but they were always the foreseen result of the same laws, and in harmony
with the same great plan. And the modifications of organic structure,
which were great in the successive economies, were always in perfect
correspondence with the earth's physical changes. Nowhere do we meet with
conflicting plans; but throughout all nature, from the earliest zoöphyte
and sea-weed of the silurian rocks to the young animals and plants that
came into existence to-day, and from the choice gems that were produced
when the earth was without form and void, to the crystals which are now
forming in the chemist's laboratory, one golden chain of harmony links all
together, and identifies all as the work of the same infinite mind.

"In all the numerous examples of design which we have selected from the
various animal and vegetable remains that occur in a fossil state," says
Dr. Buckland, "there is such a never-failing identity in the fundamental
principles of their construction, and such uniform adoption of analogous
means to produce various ends, with so much only of departure from one
common type of mechanism as was requisite to adapt each instrument to its
own especial function, and to fit each species to its peculiar place and
office in the scale of created beings, that we can scarcely fail to
acknowledge in all these facts a demonstration of the unity of the
intelligence in which such transcendent harmony originated; and we may
almost dare to assert that neither atheism nor polytheism would ever have
found acceptance in the world, had the evidences of high intelligence and
unity of design which have been disclosed by modern discoveries in
physical science been fully known to the authors or the abetters of
systems to which they are so diametrically opposed. It is the same
handwriting that we read, the same system and contrivance that we trace,
the same unity of object and relation to final causes which we see
maintained throughout, and constantly proclaiming the unity of the great
divine original." - _Bridgewater Treatise_, p. 584.

"The earth, from her deep foundations, unites with the celestial orbs,
that roll throughout boundless space, to declare the glory and show forth
the praise of their common Author and Preserver; and the voice of natural
religion accords harmoniously with the testimonies of revelation, in
ascribing the origin of the universe to the will of one eternal and
dominant intelligence, the almighty Lord and supreme First Cause of all
things that subsist; _the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, before the
mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made,
God from everlasting and without end_." - _Bridgewater Treatise_, p. 596.



In all ages of the world, where men have been enlightened enough to reason
upon the causes of phenomena, a mysterious and a mighty power has been
imputed to the laws of nature. A large portion of the most enlightened men
have felt as if those laws not only explain, but possess an inherent
potency to continue, the ordinary operations of nature. Most men of this
description, however, have thought that to originate nature must have
demanded the special exercise of an infinite and all-wise Being. But a
few, in every age, have endeavored to exalt law into a Creator, as well as
Controller, of the world. The hypothesis has assumed a great variety of
forms, and until recently few have attempted to draw it out in all its
details, and apply it to all nature. Among the ancient philosophers it was
based on the eternity of matter, and made the foundation of a system of
rank atheism. Starting with the position, as an axiom, that nothing
produces nothing, - in other words, that creation out of nothing is
impossible, - Democritus maintained that all existence was the result of
two necessary and self-existent principles, viz., space, infinite in
extent, and atoms, infinite in number. The latter have been eternally in
motion, in directions varying from right lines; and their necessary
collisions have produced the various forms of organic and inorganic
nature. To produce animals and plants, it was only necessary that the
atoms should be suitably arranged. The only animating principle was the
rapid agitation of atoms.

In modern times, very few philosophers have ventured to solve the whole
problem of the universe by any self-acting, self-producing power in
nature. La Place limited himself to the mode in which the great bodies of
the universe were produced by the vertical movements of nebulous matter;
although his object, equally with that of Democritus and Epicurus, was to
dispense with an intelligent, personal Deity. Lamarck, Geoffrey St.
Hilaire, and Bory St. Vincent, assuming the existence of matter and its
laws, have endeavored to show, by the inherent vitality of some parts of
matter, how the first or lowest classes of animals and plants may have
been produced; and how, from these, by the theory of development and the
force of circumstances, all the higher families, with their instincts and
intellects, may have been evolved. A still more recent, but anonymous,
writer has had the boldness to unite these nebular hypotheses, with those
of spontaneous generation and transmutation, into a single system, and to
attempt to clothe it with the garb of philosophy; nay, to do this in
consistency, not only with Theism, but with a belief in revelation. This
theory is what I denominate the _hypothesis of creation by law_. And
judging from its wide reception, we should be led to infer that it had
strong probabilities in its favor. It should, therefore, at least receive
a careful and candid examination. For though many of its statements and
conclusions are absurd, and some of them are highly ridiculous, the
hypothesis, at least in some of its parts, falls in with certain loose
notions that have got possession of the public mind, and which nothing but
cogent reasoning can eradicate.

Before entering upon such an examination, however, it seems necessary to
go somewhat more into detail in illustration of the nature of this
hypothesis. It may conveniently be described under the heads of
_cosmogony_, which attempts to account for the origin of the world;
_zoögony_, which explains the origin of animals; and _zoönomy_, which
describes the laws of animal life.[17]

The cosmogony of this theory is embraced in what is denominated the
nebular hypothesis, propounded by the eminent mathematician La Place. He
supposes that, originally, the whole solar system constituted only one
vast mass of nebulous matter, being expanded into the thinnest vapor and
gas by heat, and more than filling the space at present occupied by the
planets. This vapor, he still further supposes, had a revolution from west
to east on an axis. As the heat diminished by radiation, the nebulous
matter must condense, and consequently the velocity of rotation must
increase, and an exterior zone of vapor might be detached; since the
central attraction might not be able to overcome the increased centrifugal
force. This ring of vapor might sometimes retain its original form, as in
the case of Saturn's ring; but the tendency would be, in general, to
divide into several masses, which, by coalescing again, would form a
single mass, having a revolution about the sun, and on its axis. This
would constitute a planet in a state of vapor; and by the detachment of
successive rings might all the planets be produced. As they went on
contracting, by the same law, satellites might be formed to each; and the
ultimate result would be solid planets and satellites, revolving around
the sun in nearly the same plane, and in the same direction, and also on
their axes.

Although this hypothesis has been regarded with favor by many
philosophers, who were Theists, and even Christians, yet the object of La
Place in proposing it was to sustain atheism. Sir Isaac Newton had
expressed the conviction that "the admirable arrangement of the solar
system cannot but be the work of an intelligent and most powerful Being."
La Place declared that, in this statement, Newton "had deviated from the
method of true philosophy," and brought forward these views to sustain his
declaration. Whether they do sustain it, will be considered in another
place. But since it is one of those modes in which men have attempted to
account for the universe without a Deity, it is a proper subject of
examination in this lecture, in which we are inquiring whether law alone
will account for the creation and sustentation of the universe.

The zoögony of this hypothesis undertakes to show how animals and plants
may be produced without any special exercise of creating power on the part
of the Deity. It supposes matter to be endowed with certain laws, whose
operation alone will determine life in brute matter, or, rather, whose
operation constitutes life. Some would have it that a part of matter is
essentially vital; that is, endowed with inherent life; and that this
matter, like leaven, communicates life to dead matter arranged in a
certain order. But the more modern view is, that life is produced by
electrical agency. It is found that the fundamental form of organic beings
is a globule, having another globule forming within it. It is also found
that globules may be produced in albumen by electricity; and if we could
discover how nature produces albumen, it is thought that the whole process
by which living organisms are produced would be distinctly before us. It
seems to be simply the operation of electricity, and requires no
intervention of special creating energy. If the question arises, Whence
came such marvellous laws to exist in nature? the atheist replies that
matter and its laws are eternal, having neither beginning nor end; while
the Theist, who maintains this hypothesis, asserts that, when God created
matter, he endowed it with such laws, having an inherent, self-executing

Having thus ascertained, as it supposes, how life and organization in the
simplest forms may be produced, the next inquiry is, how the more perfect
and complicated forms of organic beings may be developed by laws, without
divine power. This constitutes the zoönomy of the subject. The French
zoölogist, Lamarck, first drew out and formally defended this hypothesis,
aided by others, as Geoffroy St. Hilaire and Bory St. Vincent. Their
supposition was, that there is a power in nature, which they sometimes
denominated the Deity, yet did not allow it to be intelligent and
independent, but a mere blind, instrumental force. This power, they
supposed, was able to produce what they called _monads_, or rough draughts
of animals and plants. These monads were the simplest of all organic
beings, mere aggregations of matter, some of them supposed to be
inherently vital. And such monads are the only things ever produced
directly by this blind deity. But in these monads there was supposed to
reside an inherent tendency to progressive improvement. The wants of this
living mass of jelly were supposed to produce such effects as would
gradually form new organs, as the hands, the feet, and the mouth. These
changes would be aided by another principle, which they called the _force
of external circumstances_, by which they meant the influence upon its
development of its peculiar condition; as, for instance, a conatus for
flying, produced by the internal principle, would form wings in birds; a
conatus for swimming in water would form the fins and tails of fishes; and
a conatus for walking would form the feet and legs of quadrupeds. Thus the
organs were not formed to meet the wants, but by the wants, of the animal

Online LibraryEdward HitchcockThe religion of geology and its connected sciences → online text (page 22 of 39)