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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/445

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A CENTURY OF GEOLOGY.

A CENTURY OF GEOLOGY.[1]
By Prof. JOSEPH LE CONTE.

GEOLOGY is one of the youngest of the sciences. It may almost be said to have been born of the present century. It is true that knowledge concerning the structure of the earth had been accumulating ever since the time of the Greeks and Romans; it is true that these materials became more abundant and were better organized in the eighteenth century; but this knowledge had not yet taken form as a distinct branch of science until about the end of that century. There are two distinctive marks of scientific as compared with popular knowledge: First, that its fundamental idea is clearly conceived; and, second, that its method is distinctly inductive.

1. Fundamental Idea.—The fundamental idea underlying geological thought is the history of the earth. Now, until the beginning of the present century the earth was not supposed to have any history. It was supposed to have been made at once, out of hand, about six thousand years ago, and to have remained substantially unchanged ever since as the necessary theater of human history. Changes were known to have taken place and in less degree to be still taking place, but these were not supposed to follow any law such as is necessary to constitute a history, and thus to constitute a science distinct from geography. Buffon, about the middle of the last century, did indeed bring out dimly the idea of an abyss of time, preceding the advent of man, in which the earth was inhabited by animals and plants wholly different from those of the present day, but he was compelled by the priests of the Sorbonne to retract these supposed irreligious views. So tardily was the fundamental idea of geology clearly conceived that Comte, the great originator of scientific philosophy, in his classification of the sciences in 1820, denied a place to geology because, according to him, it was not a distinct science at all, but only a field for the application of all the sciences. It is evident that he did not perceive the fundamental idea underlying geology and distinguishing it from geography—viz., a life history of the earth through all time. The claim of geology to a place in a scheme of classification is exactly the same as that of astronomy. As astronomy is a field for the application of mathematics, mechanics, physics, and, recently, chemistry, but is distinguished from them all by its characteristic fundamental idea of illimitable space, so geology is a field for the application of all other lower sciences, but is distinguished


  1. In this article I have attempted to give only the development of geological thought.