Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 56.djvu/562

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UNTIL almost the beginning of the present century the general belief in all Christian countries was that not only the earth and man, but the whole cosmos, began to exist about six thousand to seven thousand years ago; furthermore, that all was made at once without natural process, and have remained substantially unchanged ever since. This is the old doctrine of the supernatural origin and substantial permanency of the earth and its features. Among intelligent and especially scientific men this doctrine, even in the eighteenth century, began to be questioned, although not publicly; for in 1751 Buffon was compelled by the Sorbonne to retract certain views concerning the age of the earth, published in his Natural History in 1749.[1] Remnants of the old belief lingered even into the early part of the present century, and may even yet be found hiding away in some of the remote corners of civilized countries. But with the birth of geology, and especially through the work of Hutton in Scotland, Cuvier in France, and William Smith in England, the much greater—the inconceivably great—antiquity of the earth and the origin of its present forms, by gradual changes which are still going on, was generally acknowledged. Indeed, as already said, this is the fundamental idea of geology, without which it could not exist as a science.

Geology has its own measures of time—in eras, periods, epochs, ages, etc.—but it is natural and right that we should desire more accurate estimates by familiar standards. How old, then, is the earth, especially the inhabited earth, in years? Geologists have attempted to answer this question by estimates based on the rates of sedimentation and erosion, or else on the rate of changes of organic forms by struggle for life and survival of the fittest. Physicists have attempted to answer the same question by calculations based on known laws of dissipation of energy in a cooling body, such as the sun or the earth. The results of the two methods differ widely. The estimates of the geologists are enormous, and growing ever greater as the conditions of the problem are better understood. Nothing less than several hundred million years will serve his purpose. The estimates of the physicists are much more moderate, and apparently growing less with each revision. The

  1. Lyell's Principles of Geology, eighth edition, p. 41.