Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/August 1877/Editor's Table


MOST of our readers have probably read the brilliant address of Mr. Clarence King on Catastrophism in Geology, recently delivered at the Yale Scientific School, and published in the newspapers. The speaker was fortunate in his topic, which is not only of wide scientific and popular interest, but one to which he has given special study from the American point of view.

When men first began to observe geological phenomena, they were profoundly impressed with the grandeur of their display of power. Rocky masses, miles in thickness, showed that stupendous forces had been at work upon them, upheaving, folding, distorting, and dislocating the mass of strata as if they had been sported with by preternatural powers. Firmly believing that Nature is only about 6,000 years old, all this conjuring with the earth's crust was supposed to have taken place within that time. It was a necessary inference that the forces which had been at work, and the effects produced, were on a scale of magnitude of which people know nothing nowadays. That the world had been drowned in a deluge was deemed certain; and that the whole march of geological transformation had been cataclysmal and convulsive was a natural conclusion. Early geology, therefore, explained things by catastrophes.

But, with the progress of observation and the sobering of the imagination, geologists began to suspect that the notion of catastrophes had been drawn upon a little too freely, and the question arose as to how far causes such as are now in operation can be invoked to explain geological effects. It was recognized as safest to reason from the known to the unknown, and, as the Mosaic barrier gave way, there seemed endless time for the play of geological changes. It was soon recognized that transformations, such as are now taking place, with indefinite time, might do all that has been hitherto ascribed to catastrophes. A careful study of the varieties and rates of contemporaneous change seemed to establish the conclusion that such action is sufficient to account for all geological results. Those sudden and tremendous demonstrations of which we have no experience were discredited; catastrophes went out of fashion, and uniformitarianism became the dominant idea in geology.

Mr. King holds that this doctrine has been carried too far. Prof. Thompson and his school have tried to corner the geologists on the question of time, maintaining on physical grounds that they must check their periods and duration, which would necessitate the quickening of the activities, and thus induce a return-movement toward catastrophism. Mr. King does not argue the case from this point, but puts it on the ground of direct geological evidence that rates of action and change, of which the world at present knows nothing, have been in play at former times on the American Continent. The following passages are illustrative of his views:

"I have thus hastily mentioned a few of the most important geological crust-changes in America whose rates are demonstrably catastrophic. Besides surface-changes involving subsidence, upheaval, faulting, and corrugation, all of which may be executed on a scale or at a rate productive of destruction of life, catastrophes may be brought about by sudden, great changes of climate, or by intense Volcanic energy. In the latter field there are obviously no catastrophes of the first order. Geological maps of the globe have progressed far enough to demonstrate that considerable areas are, and always have been, free from actual ejection of volcanic materials. On the contrary, numerous great regions, notably the western third of our own continent, and the shores of the Pacific, were once literally deluged with volcanic fires. An examination of the ejected rock shows that modern eruptions, by which the volcanic cones of the present period are slowly built up from slight overflows piling one upon another, is not the method of the great Miocene and Pliocene volcanic periods. There were then outbursts hundreds of miles in extent, in which the crust yawned, and enormous volumes of lava rolled out, overwhelming neighboring lands. Volcanoes proper are only isolated chimneys, imposing indeed, but insignificant when compared with the gulfs of molten matter which were thrown up in the great massive eruptions. Between the past and present volcanic phenomena there is not only a difference of degree, but of kind. It is easy to read the mild exhibition of existing volcanoes as a uniformitarian operation, namely, the growth of cones by slight accretions; but such reasoning is positively forbidden in the past.

"If poor, puny little Vesuvius could immortalize itself by burying the towns at its feet, if the feeble energy of a Lisbon earthquake could record itself on the gravestones of thousands of men, then the volcanic period in Western America was truly catastrophic.

"Modern vulcanism is but the faint, flickering survival of what was once a worldwide and immense exhibition of telluric energy—one whose distortions and dislocations of the crust, whose deluges of molten stone, emissions of mineral dust, heated waters, and noxious gases, could not have failed to exert destructive effect on the life of considerable portions of the globe. It cannot be explained away upon any theory of slow, gradual action. The simple field facts are ample proof of the intensity and suddenness of tertiary vulcanism.

"Of climatic catastrophes we have the record of at least one. When the theory of a glacial period came to be generally accepted, and the destructive effects of the invasion of even middle latitudes by polar ice were realized, especially when the devastating effects of the floods which were characteristic of the recession of the ice came to be studied, uniformitarianism, pure and simple, received a fatal blow. I am aware that British students believe themselves justified in taking uniformitarian views of the bowlder till, but they have yet to encounter phenomena of the scale of our quaternary exhibitions.

"A most interesting comparison of the character and rate of stream erosion may be obtained by studying, in the Western Cordilleras, the river-work of three distinct periods. The geologist there finds preserved, and wonderfully well exposed: 1. Pliocene Tertiary river-valleys, with their bowlders,
gravels, and sands, still lying undisturbed ill the ancient beds; 2. The system of profound canons from 2,000 to 5,000 feet deep, which score the flanks of the great mountain-chains, and form such a fascinating object of study, and not less of wonder, because the gorges were altogether carved out since the beginning of the glacial period; 3. The modern rivers, mere echoes of their parent streams of the early quaternary age. As between these three the early quaternary rivers stand out as vastly the most powerful and extensive. The present rivers are utterly incapable, with infinite time, to perform the work of glacial torrents. So, too, the Pliocene streams, although of very great volume, were powerless to wear their way down into solid rocks thousands of feet at the rapid rate of the early quaternary floods. Between these three systems of rivers is all the difference which separates a modern (uniformitarian) stream and a terrible catastrophic engine, the expression of a climate in which struggle for existence must have been something absolutely inconceivable when considered from the water precipitations, floods, torrents, and erosions, of to-day. "Uniformitarians are fond of saying that give our present rivers time, plenty of time, and they can perform the feats of the past. It is mere nonsense in the case of the cañons of the Cordilleras. They could never have been carved by the pygmy rivers of this climate to the end of infinite time. And, as if the sections and profiles of the canons were not enough to convince the most skeptical student, there are left hundreds of dry river-beds, within whose broad valleys, flanked by old steep banks, and eloquent with proofs of once-powerful streams, there is not water enough to quench the thirst even of a uniformitarian. Those extinct rivers, dead of drought, in connection with the great canon system, present perfectly overwhelming evidence that the general deposition of aërial water, the consequent floods and torrents, forming, as they all do, the distinct expression of a sharply-defined cycle of climate, as compared either with the water phenomena of the immediately preceding Pliocene age, or with our own succeeding condition, constitute an age of water-catastrophe whose destructive power we only now begin distantly to suspect."

Having given his reasons for rejecting the idea of uniformity in the course of Nature, especially in Western America, Mr. King proceeds to connect his view with the question of Evolution. It is imputed to him by the newspapers that he arrays Catastrophe against Evolution, to the destruction of the latter doctrine; but this is an error. He labors to show the inadequacy of Mr. Darwin's theory of natural selection to explain organic development; but, as we have said, again and again, Darwinism is not Evolution, and the most eminent evolutionists recognize the tendency to load the law of natural selection with a good deal more than it can carry. Mr. King recognizes that the principle of the "survival of the fittest" is a true principle that has played an important part in organic progress, but which is supplemented by other agencies in the general scheme of Evolution. That Catastrophism is not regarded as fatal to Evolution is at least true of one of its most illustrious representatives, for Mr. King remarks, "Huxley, permeated in every fibre by belief in Evolution, feels that even to-day Catastrophism is not yet wholly out of the possibilities." And speaking of the two theories of unqualified Uniformitarianism and universal Catastrophism (as held by Cuvier), Mr. King declares that he rejects them, and says: "Huxley alone among prominent evolutionists opens the door for a union of the residua of truth in the two schools, fusing them in his proposed 'Evolutional Geology.' Looking back over a trail of 30,000 miles of geological travel, and after as close a research as I am capable, I am impelled to say that his far-sighted view precisely satisfies my interpretation of the broad facts of the American Continent."

In this conception of evolutional geology, Mr. King is led to assign a higher place than has hitherto been allowed to what he terms "evolution of environment," which he regards as a distinct branch of geology that must soon take a recognized form. He assumes a property of plasticity in organisms, by which they are capable of accelerated changes in response to catastrophic disturbances in the environment. Upon this point he remarks:

"It is only through rapid movements of the crusts and sudden climatic changes, due either to terrestrial or cosmical causes, that environment can have seriously interfered with the evolution of life. These effects would, I conceive, be—1. Extermination; 2. Destruction of the biological equilibrium, thus violating natural selection; and, 3. Rapid morphological change on the part of plastic species. When catastrophic change burst in upon the ages of uniformity, and sounded in the ear of every living thing the words 'Change, or die,' plasticity became the sole principle of salvation. Plasticity, then, is that quality which, in suddenly enforced physical change, is the key to survival and prosperity. And the survival of the plastic, that is, of the rapidly and healthily modifiable during periods when terrestrial revolution offers to species the rigorous dilemma of prodigious change or certain death, is a widely different principle from the survival of the fittest in a general biological battle during terrestrial uniformity."


The turning out of the Rev. Augustus Blauvelt, of the Dutch Reformed Church, by the Kingston tribunal, for alleged heresy, is one of the things so common nowadays as hardly to excite notice, and we should probably have heard little of this case had it not been that the theological body saw fit to put the trimmings on to the transaction in a way that was not agreeable to the reverend excommunicate. Not content to depose Mr. Blauvelt from his charge for non-conformity to the creed which he had agreed to uphold, they thought it desirable to give the proceeding an extra touch, and so accused him of betraying his Master. Mr. Blauvelt says that, when he found it impossible any longer to accept the creed to which he had subscribed, he would gladly have resigned, but the polity of the society did not allow it; and when they found it necessary to cut him off, he should have recognized the propriety of it, and acquiesced without protest. But when they proposed to "spot" him, and fasten on him the label of Judas, to save other denominations the trouble of looking into his character and belief, if they were so inclined, he did not assent, but appealed to a higher organization. He thought that, if such an outrage as that was to be perpetrated, it had better not be done in a corner, but by the whole responsible body in a conspicuous place, and where dissenters, if any there should be, might have the credit of favoring fair play. In the final issue, twenty-six men voted that the society had nothing further to do than to exscind the teacher who no longer taught approvingly. But ninety men thought differently, and seemed deeply to feel that every fagot, thumb-screw, and dungeon, of the last eighteen hundred years, and all the instruments and agencies of religious conformity, would be dishonored if this writer of independent articles in Scribner's Magazine did not get an extra kick at parting—all that the law allows in 1877.

But with these tactics of the Dutch Reformed Church we are not much concerned: what interests us far more is the initial aspect of the case, or that working of the theological polity which at the outset binds the conscience and fetters the thought of all who assume the function of public teachers, in its jurisdiction. The deeper question is one of religious liberty, of the rights of conscience, and the prerogative of independent expression. From this point of view, other recent cases are of interest.

The Rev. Mr. Miller, of Princeton, got into a dangerous way of thinking for himself, about the creed of his church, and, not being pious and politic enough to crush his rising queries as instigations of the devil, had the honesty to announce some conclusions about the mystery of the Trinity which were unpalatable to the Sanhedrim to which he was accountable; whereupon they suspended him from the authorized ministerial function.

And now there comes report of another case of specially remarkable features, in Scotland. A distinguished divine has been condemned by his church for heresy in contributing a valuable and important article to an influential publication. The great issue comes out here in a conspicuous and somewhat startling way. It is useless to deny that the most remarkable thing about this age is the activity of inquiry, and the progress of knowledge. More and more, people will scan their traditions, overhaul their opinions, and investigate their truth; and every subject upon which they can hold opinions is undergoing this inexorable revision. The consequence is, that errors are sifted out, beliefs that fail to stand the test are gradually corrected, and knowledge is steadily extended. These processes are so real and so rapid that great works, which represent the general state of thought at one time, in a few years require extensive readjustment. The eighth edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," which was published in 1857, was a comprehensive and faithful representation of the state of general thought at that time. But the numerous and important advances of knowledge made since have left it so far behind that it became necessary to reconstruct it. This is now being done, and several volumes have appeared. Among other subjects to be dealt with was the Bible; and, strange to say, there has been a great deal of progress and modification of opinion in regard to the origin, interpretation, and history, of this important work, within the last twenty years. The editors were responsible before the world for the honest and faithful treatment of the subject. There could be no flinching from the duty of a thorough statement upon the subject here, any more than in the departments of physical science. Very naturally the ablest and best-equipped student was sought to deal with so delicate and critical a subject. Prof. Robertson Smith, of the Theological Seminary at Aberdeen, was selected for the duty. It cannot for a moment be supposed that a gentleman of position and ability, such as would be chosen for this work, and writing for the thinkers of the world in so distinguished a publication as the "Encyclopædia Britannica," would fail to treat the subject with the severest care, in the genuine spirit of truth-seeking, and with all the honor of the most elevated scholarship. And such is the character of the essay. It is written with masterly ability, and is so full of interesting and important information with which everybody should be familiar, that we shall print it in full in the next number of The Popular Science Supplement. Yet the Free Church of Scotland has been thrown into consternation by the article, and Prof. Smith has been summoned before the General Assembly and suspended, and it is reported that he is to be formally "tried." Meantime, the world will be interested, and will assiduously read the essay.

Now, we call attention to the contrasted policy of Science in the same circumstances. If we turn to the article "Chemistry," in the "Encyclopædia Britannica," we shall see that here also great advance is indicated. There has, in fact, been a revolution so radical and complete, that those familiar with the old statement may find themselves bewildered by the novelty and strangeness of the presentation. Yet nobody hears about any perturbation or alarm in the chemical world, or about Prof. Armstrong being arraigned before the Chemical Society and suspended for heretical teaching.

Obviously there are here two intellectual procedures, which are not only different, but antagonistic. On the one hand, there is recognition that truth is the supreme end to be sought; that it is yet but partially known; that doubt respecting its received forms, and the subjection of them to the most inexorable tests, is an imperative duty; and that the noblest mental occupation of man is the free exercise of his powers in questioning received beliefs, on any and all subjects, and attaining to clearer, more elevated, consistent, and valid opinions. It is the office of Science to push destructive criticism to the uttermost limit, in every direction of thought, in the steadfast faith that truth will thereby be the gainer, and views more and more clearly established, against which destructive criticism will be powerless.

Accordingly, in every thoroughly managed scientific school in the world, the students are taught, first of all, to be dissatisfied with things as they find them—are trained to skeptical habits in regard to all that of which the proof is not perfect; and are, moreover, especially required to enforce this discipline upon themselves by questioning the evidence of their own results, and by welcoming from any quarter the hostile criticism that shall overthrow the conclusions they suppose themselves to have established. This is, perhaps, an ideal to which but few scientific students fully attain, both because of its essential difficulty, and because scientific education is as yet but a very partial influence in moulding the mind; while the whole force of current and traditional culture is thrown in favor of a very different system of ideals, ethics, and objects, in the work of mental cultivation.

It is very different in the religious sphere. Theology is older than science, and, by the mass of the people, is regarded as a thousand times more important. Theological teachers have been the great pioneers of education in the past, and are still overwhelmingly in the control of it. Among the presidents of our colleges, where there is one man of science there are ten doctors of divinity. A system of education dominated by theology is one which embodies the theological spirit in its methods of culture. What that spirit is, as respects freedom of thought, and the duty of its teachers in the formation of their opinions, we have seen in the recent treatment, by large and authoritative bodies, of Blauvelt, Miller, and Smith. Truth was not permitted to be their object. The right of private judgment, and the consequent right of the free expression of its results, were made crimes to be punished. The liberty to doubt, and from that starting point to go on to something more true, is not only not encouraged, but is prohibited.

The newspapers, indeed, say, in commenting upon Mr. Blauvelt's case, that the ecclesiastical decision was right, inasmuch as he had violated his engagements with the Church: he agreed to teach certain things, and was bound by his contract. Possibly; but we protest against this degradation of the function of the teacher, especially on the most important subjects, to that of merely carrying out the literal stipulations of a bargain. Commerce may require this, but it is not favorable to the attainment of religious truth. Where would the Protestant Reformation have been, if this theory of religious contracts had been strictly adhered to? And what is the meaning of religious liberty, if those who teach religion are not to be allowed to think? Moreover, as men can no more help thinking than breathing, what is to become of the religious conscience, if they are not allowed to utter what they think?

But granting that men must fulfill their obligations, the deeper question then arises as to their right to assume such obligations. The theological policy being fixed, what right had either Blauvelt, Miller, or Smith, to subject himself to it, so that by the legitimate and independent exercise of his own mental faculties he should be liable to be cast out of his communion as an heretical culprit? What right had they, or what right has any man, to assume that a statement of doctrine at any time is final, and to enslave themselves to its life-long acceptance? This question is one for theological students, and if the decisions at Kingston, Princeton, and Aberdeen, are to be taken as indicating the authorized policy of the orthodox world, the young man who contemplates entering that field of labor should make up his mind whether he is prepared to cut himself off from the spirit of the age, to abjure the pursuit of truth, and sink into the office of a mere passive repeater of cut-and-dried formulas, prescribed to him by the powers to which he contracts allegiance. He must understand that the less he can have to do with science the safer it will be for him. Its spirit will rebuke him at every step. He will have, more-over, to learn that theological science, so called, is a misnomer and a mockery. Where the scientific element enters, movement begins, and progress ensues. It implies intellectual activity, free questioning, escape from error, and advance to new conclusions, and upon all this, from present indications, there remains the interdict of theological authority, paralyzing free thought, just as it did centuries ago.

We print an essay of Dr. Cones, the naturalist, which will sufficiently vindicate scientific men from the imputation of not doing honor to the regal faculty of imagination. No brain-cracked poet could go further in rhapsodical glorification of the image-making power of the mind than this devotee of observation and induction. What more can be asked to disprove the alleged arrogance of scientists, and to establish their character for humility, than for one of their eminent representatives to go over into the midst of the guardians of all that is most exalted and ennobling in intellectual effort, and say to them, "One excellent and most useful purpose which the imagination subserves at the hands of the gifted few whom the higher development of this faculty makes leaders of thought, and watchful guardians of human progress, is, to put men of science on their proper level, and to teach them to know their place?" Various queries might arise at this point, but as the doctor evidently went over to the literary society to unbend, and have a frolic of fantasy in their direction, he probably thought it not worth while to take his logic along, and spoil the fun. And so nothing remains but to improve his wholesome lesson.