Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/March 1889/The Foundation-Stones of the Earth

By Prof. T. G. BONNEY.

DO we know anything about the earth in the beginning of its history—anything of those rock-masses on which, as on foundation-stones, the great superstructure of the fossiliferous strata must rest? Palæontologists, by their patient industry, have deciphered many of the inscriptions, blurred and battered though they be, in which the story of life is engraved on the great stone book of Nature. Of its beginnings, indeed, we can not yet speak. The first lines of the record are at present wanting—perhaps never will be recovered. But, apart from this: before the grass and herb and tree, before the "moving creature in the water," before the "beast of the earth after his kind," there was a land and there was a sea. Do we know anything of that globe, as yet void of life? Will the rocks themselves give us any aid in interpreting the cryptogram which, shrouds its history, or must we reply that there is neither voice nor language, and thus accept with blind submission, or spurn with no less blind incredulity, the conclusions of the physicist and the chemist? The secret of the earth's hot youth has doubtless been well kept; so well that we have often been tempted to guess idly rather than to labor patiently. Nevertheless, we are beginning, as I believe, to feel firm ground after long walking through a region of quicksands; we are laying hold of principles of interpretation, the relative value of which we can not in all cases as yet fully apprehend—principles which sometimes even appear to be in conflict, but which will some day lead us to the truth. The name Cambrian has been given to the oldest rocks in which fossils have been found. This group forms the first chapter in the first volume, called Palæozoic, of the history of living creatures. Any older rocks are provisionally termed Archæan. These—I speak at present of those indubitably underlying the Cambrian—exhibit marked differences one from another. Some are indubitably the detritus of other, and often of older, materials—slates and grits, volcanic dust and ashes, even lava-flows. Such rocks differ but little from the basement beds of the Cambrian; probably they are not much older, comparatively speaking. But in some places we find in a like position rocks as to the origin of which it is more difficult to decide. Often in their general aspect they resemble sedimentary deposits, but they seldom retain any distinct indications of their original fragmental constituents. They have been metamorphosed, the old structures have been obliterated, new minerals have been developed, and these exhibit that peculiar orientation, that rudely parallel arrangement which is called foliation. That these rocks are older than the Cambrian can often be demonstrated. Sometimes it can even be proved that their present distinctive character had been assumed before the overlying Cambrian rocks were deposited. Such rocks, then, we may confidently bring forward as types of the earth's foundation-stones. I must assume what I believe few, if any, competent workers will deny, that certain structures are distinctive of rocks which have solidified from a state of fusion under this or that environment; others are distinctive of sedimentary rocks; others, again, whatever may be their significance, belong to rocks of the so-called metamorphic group. Our initial difficulty is to find examples of the oldest rocks in which the original structures are still unmodified. Commonly they are like palimpsests, where the primitive character can only be discerned, at best faintly, under the more recent inscription. Here, then, is one of the best which I possess—a Laurentian gneiss from Canada. Its structure is characteristic of the whole group; the crystals of mica or hornblende are well defined, and commonly have a more or less parallel arrangement; here and there are bands in which these minerals are more abundant than elsewhere. The quartz and the feldspar are granular in form; the boundaries of these minerals are not rectilinear, but curved, wavy, or lobate; small grains of the one sometimes appear to be inclosed in larger grains of the other. Though the structure of this rock has a superficial resemblance to that of a granite of similar coarseness, it differs from it in this respect, as we can see from the next instance, a true granite, where the rectilinear outline of the feldspar is conspicuous. Here, then, is one of our problems. This difference of structure is too general to be without significance. What, then, does it mean? Among the agents of change known to geologists, three are admittedly of great importance: these are water, heat, and pressure. The first effect of pressure due to great earth-movements is to flatten somewhat the larger fragments in rocks, and to produce in those of finer grain the structure called cleavage. This, however, is a modification mainly mechanical. It consists in a rearrangement of the constituent particles; mineral changes, so far as they occur, being quite subordinate. But in certain extreme instances the latter are also conspicuous. From the fine mud, generally the result of the disintegration of feldspar, a mica, usually colorless, has been produced, which occurs in tiny flakes, often less than one hundredth of an inch long. In this process a certain amount of silica has been liberated, which sometimes augments pre-existing granules of quartz, sometimes consolidates independently as micro-crystalline quartz. Simultaneously carbonaceous and ferruginous constituents are converted into particles of graphite or of iron oxide. As to the effects of pressure when it acts upon a rock already crystalline, there are, as it seems to me, differences in the resultant structures which are dependent upon the mode in which pressure has acted. They are divisible into two groups; one indicating the result of simple direct crushing, the other of crushing accompanied by shearing. In the former case, the rock mass has been so situated that any appreciable lateral movement has been impossible; it has yielded like a block in a crushing-machine. In the latter, a differential lateral movement of the particles has been possible, and it has prevailed when (as in the case of an overthrust fault) the whole mass has not only suffered compression, but also has traveled slowly forward. Obviously, the two cases can not be sharply divided, for the crushing up of a non-homogeneous rock may render some local shearing possible. Still, it is important to separate them in our minds, and we shall find that in many cases the structure, as a whole, like the cleavage of a slate, results from a direct crush; while in others the effects of shearing predominate. The latter, accordingly, exhibit phenomena resembling the effects of a tensile stress. Materials of a like character assume a more or less linear arrangement; the rock becomes slightly banded, and exhibits, as has been said, a kind of flexion structure. The mass gradually assumes a fragmental condition under the pressure, and its particles, as they shear and slide under the effects of thrust, behave to some extent like those of a non-uniform mass of rock in a plastic condition, as, for example, a slaggy glass. Illustrations of the effects of direct crushing in a granitoid rock are common in the Alps. Those of a shearing crush are magnificently developed near the great overthrust faults in the northwest Highlands of Scotland. It seems, then, to be demonstrated that by mechanical deformation, accompanied or followed by molecular rearrangement, foliated rocks, such as certain gneisses and certain schists, can be produced from rocks originally crystalline. But obviously there are limits to the amount of change. To get certain results you must have begun with rocks of a certain character. Hitherto we have been dealing with rocks which were approximately uniform in character, though composed of diverse materials—that is, with rocks more or less granular in character. Suppose, now, the original rock to have already acquired a definite structure—suppose it had assumed, never mind how, a distinct mineral banding, the layers varying in thickness from a small fraction of an inch upward. Would this structure survive the mechanical deformation? I can give an answer which will at any rate carry us a certain way. I can prove that subsequent pressure has frequently failed to obliterate an earlier banded structure. In such a district as the Alps we commonly find banded gneisses and banded schists which have been exposed to great pressure. Exactly as in the former case, the new divisional planes are indicated by a coating of films of mica, by which the fissility of the rock in this direction is increased. The mass has assumed a cleavage-foliation. I give it this name because it is due to the same cause as ordinary cleavage, but is accompanied by mineral change along the planes of division, while I term the older structure stratification-foliation, because so frequently, if it has not been determined by a stratification of the original constituents, it is at any rate a most extraordinary imitation of such an arrangement. In many cases the new structure is parallel with the old; but in others, as in the "strain-slip" cleavage of a phyllite, the newer can be seen distinctly cutting across the older mineral banding. To put it briefly, I assert, as the result of examining numbers of specimens, that, though in certain cases the new structure is dominant, a practiced eye seldom fails to detect traces of the older foliation, while in a large number of instances it is still as definite as the stripe in a slate. We have got, then, thus far—that pressure acting on rocks previously crystallized can produce a foliation; but when it has acted in Palæozoic or later times, the resulting structures can be identified, and these, as a rule, are distinguishable from those of the most ancient foliated rocks, while at present we have found no proof that pressure alone can produce any conspicuous mineral banding, I am aware that this statement will be disputed, but I venture to state, as one excuse for my temerity, that probably few persons in Great Britain have seen more of crystalline rocks, both in the field and with the microscope, than myself. So, while I do not deny the possibility of a well-banded rock being due to pressure alone, I unhesitatingly affirm that this at present is a mere hypothesis—a hypothesis, moreover, which is attended by some serious difficulties. For, if we concede that, in the case of many rocks originally granular, dynamic metamorphism has produced a mineral banding, this is only on a very small scale; the layers are but a small fraction of an inch thick. No one could for a moment confuse a sheared granite from the Highlands with a Laurentian gneiss from Canada or with an uninjured Hebridean gneiss. For the former to attain to the condition of the latter, the mass must have been brought to a condition which admitted of great freedom of motion among the particles—almost as much, in short, as among those of a molten rock. Clearly the dynamic metamorphism of Palæozoic or later ages appears to require some supplementary agency. Can we obtain any clew to it? I have already mentioned the effect produced by the intrusion of large masses of igneous rocks upon other rocks. These may be either igneous rocks already solidified or sedimentary rocks. The former may be passed over, as they will not materially help us. In regard to the latter, the results of contact-metamorphism, as it is called, as we might expect, are very various. Speaking only of the more extreme, we find that sandstones are converted into quartzites; limestones become coarsely crystalline, all traces of organisms disappearing and crystalline silicates being formed. In clayey rocks all signs of the original sediments disappear, crystalline silicates are formed, such as mica (especially brown) garnet, andalusite, and sometimes tourmaline; feldspar, however, is very rare. Fair-sized grains of quartz appear, either by enlargement of original granules or by independent crystallization of residual silica. It is, further, important to notice that, as we approach the surface of the intrusive mass—that is, as we enter upon the region where the highest temperature has been longest maintained—the secondary minerals attain a larger size and are more free from adventitious substances—that is, they have not been obliged, as they formed, to incorporate pre-existing constituents. The rock, indeed, has not been melted down, but it has attained a condition where a rather free molecular movement became possible, and a new mineral in crystallizing could, as it were, elbow out of the way the more refractory particles. Its effects are, in brief, to consolidate the rock, and, while causing some constituents to vanish, to increase greatly the size of all the others. It follows, then, that mineral segregation is promoted by the maintenance for some time of a high temperature, which is almost a truism. I may add to this that, though rocks modified by contact-metamorphism differ from the Archæan schists, we find in them the best imitations of stratification-foliation, and of other structures characteristic of the latter. One other group of facts requires notice before we proceed to draw our inferences from the preceding. Very commonly, when a stratified mass rests upon considerably older rocks, the lower part of the former is full of fragments of the latter. Let us restrict ourselves to basement beds of the Cambrian and Ordovician—the first two chapters in the stone-book of life. What can we learn from the material of its pages? They tell us that granitoid rocks, crystalline schists of various kinds, as well as quartzites and phyllites, then abounded in the world. The Torridon sandstone of Scotland proves that much of the subjacent Hebridean had even then acquired its present characteristics. The Cambrian rocks of North and South Wales repeat the story, notably near Llynfaelog in Anglesey, where the adjacent gneissoid rocks from where the pebbles were derived, even if once true granites, had assumed their present differences before the end of the Cambrian. By the same time similar changes had affected the crystalline rocks of the Malverns and parts of Shropshire. It would be easy to quote other instances, but these may suffice. I will only add that the frequent abundance of slightly altered rocks in these conglomerates and grits seems significant. Such rocks seem to have been more widely distributed—less local—than they have been in later periods. Another curious piece of evidence points the same way. In North America, as is well known, there is a great group of rocks to which Sir W. Logan gave the name of Huronian, because it was most typically developed in the vicinity of Lake Huron. Gradually great confusion arose as to what this term really designated. But now, thanks to our fellow-workers on the other side of the Atlantic, the fogs, generated in the laboratory, are being dispelled by the light of microscopic research and the fresh air of the field. We now know that the Huronian group in no case consists of very highly altered rocks, though some of its members are rather more changed than is usual with the British Cambrians, than which they are supposed to be slightly older. Conglomerates are not rare in the Huronian. Some of these consist of granitoid fragments in a quartzose matrix. We can not doubt that the rock was once a pebbly sandstone. Still, the matrix, when examined with the microscope, differs from any Palæozoic sandstone or quartzite that I have yet seen. Among grains of quartz and feldspar are scattered numerous flakes of mica, brown or white. The form of these is so regular that I conclude they have been developed, or at least completed, in situ. Moreover, the quartz and the feldspar no longer retain the distinctly fragmental character usual in a Palæozoic grit, but appear to have received secondary enlargement. A rock of fragmental origin to some extent has simulated or reverted to a truly crystalline structure. In regard to the larger fragments we can affirm that they were once granitoid rock, but in them also we note incipient changes, such as the development of quartz and mica from feldspar (without any indication of pressure), and there is reason to think that these changes were anterior to the formation of the pebbles. To sum up the evidence: In the oldest gneissoid rocks we find structures different from those of granite, but bearing some resemblance to, though on a larger scale than, the structures of vein-granites or the surfaces of larger masses when intrusive in sedimentary deposits. We find that pressure alone does not produce structures like these in crystalline rocks, and that when it gives rise to mineral banding this is only on a comparatively minute scale. We find that pressures acting upon ordinary sediments in Palæozoic or later times do not produce more than colorable imitations of crystalline schists. We find that when they act upon the latter the result differs, and is generally distinguishable from stratification-foliation. We see that elevation of temperature obviously facilitates changes and promotes coarseness of structure. We see also that the rocks in a crystalline series which appear to occupy the highest position seem to be the least metamorphosed, and present the strongest resemblance to stratified rocks. Lastly, we see that mineral change appears to have taken place more readily in the later Archæan times than it ever did afterward. It seems, then, a legitimate induction that in Archæan times conditions favorable to mineral change and molecular movement—in short, to metamorphism—were general, which in later ages have become rare and local, so that, as a rule, these gneisses and schists represent the foundation-stones of the earth's crust. On the other side, what evidence can be offered? In the first place, any number of vague or rash assertions. So many of these have already come to an untimely end, and I have spent so much time and money in attending their executions, that I do not mean to trouble about another till its advocates express themselves willing to let the question stand or fall on that issue. To a geologist (especially one belonging to the school of Lyell) it is equally difficult to conceive that there should be a broad distinction between the metamorphic rocks of Archæan and post-Archæan age respectively, as that the pre-Tertiary volcanic rocks should be altogether different in character from those of Tertiary and recent times. During the periods mentioned volcanic rocks appear, as we should expect, to have been ejected from beneath the earth's crust similar in composition and condition, and to have solidified with identical environment. Hence the results, allowing for secondary changes, should still be similar. But to assume that the environment of a rock in early Archæan times was identical with that of similar material at a much later period is to beg the whole question. My creed also is the uniformitarian, but this does not bind me to follow a formula into a position which is untenable. "The weakness and the logical defect of uniformitarianism" (these are Prof. Huxley's words) "is a refusal, or at least a reluctance, to look beyond the 'present order of things,' and the being content for all time to regard the oldest fossiliferous rocks as the ultima Thule of our science." Now, speaking for myself, I see no evidence since the time of these rocks, as at present known, of any very material difference in the condition of things on the earth's surface. The relations of sea and land, the climate of regions, have been altered; but because I decline to revel in extemporized catastrophes, and because I believe that in nature order has prevailed and law has ruled, am I therefore to stop my inquiries where life is no longer found, and we seem approaching the first-fruits of the creative power? Because palæontology is perforce silent; because the geologist can only say, "I know no more," must I close my ear to those who would turn the light of other sciences upon the dark places of our own, and meet their reasoning with the exclamation, "This is not written in the book of uniformity"? To do this would be to imitate the silversmiths of old, and silence the teacher by the cry, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians! "What, then, does the physicist tell us was the initial condition of this globe? I will not go into the vexed question of geological time, though, as a geologist, I must say that we have reason to complain of Sir W. Thomson. Years ago he reduced our credit at the bank of time to a hundred million years. We grumbled, but submitted, and endeavored to diminish our drafts. Now he has suddenly put up the shutters, and declared a dividend of less than four shillings in the pound. I trust some aggrieved shareholder will prosecute the manager. While personally I see little hope of arriving at a chronological scale for the age of this earth, I do not believe in its eternity. What, then, does the physicist tell us must have been in the beginning? I pass to the consistentior status of Leibnitz, when the molten globe had crusted over, and its present history began. Rigid uniformitarian though you may be, you can not deny that, when the very surface of the ground was at a temperature of at least 1,000° Fahr., there was no rain, save of glowing ashes—no river, save of molten fire. Now is ending a long history with which the uniformitarian must not reckon—of a time when many compounds now existing were not dissolved but dissociated, for combination under that environment was impossible. Yet there was still law and still order—nay, the present law and order may be said even then to have had a potential existence; nevertheless, to the uniformitarian gnome, had such there been, every new combination of elements would have been a new shock to his faith, a new miracle in the earth's history. But at the times mentioned above, though oxygen and hydrogen could combine, water could not yet rest upon the ruddy crust of the globe. What does that mean? This, that assuming the water of the ocean equivalent to a spherical shell of the earth's radius and two miles thick, the very lava-stream would consolidate under a pressure of about 310 atmospheres, equivalent to nearly 4,000 feet of average rock. Let us pass on to a time, which, according to Sir W. Thomson, would rather quickly arrive, when the surface of the crust had cooled by radiation to its present temperature. Let us merely, for illustration, take a surface temperature of 50° F. (nearly that of London), and assume that the present rise of crust temperature is 1° F. for every fifty feet of descent, which is rather too rapid. If so, 213° F. is reached at 8,100 feet, and 250° F. at 10,000 feet. Though the latter temperature is far from high, yet we should expect that, under such a pressure, chemical changes would occur with much more facility than at the surface. But many Palæozoic, or even later rock-masses, can now be examined which at a former period of their history have been buried beneath at least 10,000 feet of sediment, yet the alteration of their constituents has been small; only the more unstable minerals have been somewhat modified, the more refractory are unaffected. But for a limited period after the consistentior status, the increase of crust temperature in descending would be far more rapid; when one twenty-fifth of the whole period from that epoch to the present had elapsed—and this is no inconsiderable fraction—the rate of increase would be one degree for every ten feet of descent. Suppose, for the sake of comparison, the surface temperature as before, the boiling-point of water would be reached at 1,620 feet, and at 10,000 feet, instead of a temperature of 250° F., we should have one of 1,050° F. But, at the latter temperature, many rock-masses would not be perfectly solid. According to Sorby, the steam cavities in the Ponza trachyte must have formed, and thus the rock have been still plastic at so low a temperature as 680° F. At this period, then, the end of the fourth year of the geological century, structural changes in igneous and chemical changes in sedimentary rocks must have taken place with greater facility than in any much later period in the world's history. Then a temperature of 2,000° F., sufficient to melt silver—more than sufficient to melt many lavas—would have been reached at a depth of about four miles. It would now be necessary to descend for at least forty miles in order to arrive at this zone. During the ninety-six years of the century it has been changing its position in the earth's crust, more slowly as time went on, from the one level to the other. There is another consideration. In very early times, as shown by Prof. Darwin and Mr. Davison, the zone in the earth's crust at which lateral thrust ceases and tension begins must have been situated much nearer to the surface than at present. If now, at the end of the century, it is at the depth of five miles, it was at the end of the fourth year at a depth of only one mile. Then, a mass of rock, ten thousand feet below the surface, would be nearly a mile deep in the zone of tension. Possibly this may explain the mineral banding of much of our older granitoid rock, already mentioned, and the coincidence of foliation with what appears to be stratification in the later Archæan schists, as well as the certainly common coincidence of micro-foliation with bedding in the oldest indubitable sediments. Pressure, no doubt, has always been a most important factor in the metamorphism of rocks; but there is, I think, at present some danger in overestimating this, and representing a partial statement of truth as the whole truth. Geology, like many human beings, suffered from convulsions in its infancy; now, in its later years, I apprehend an attack of pressure on the brain. The first deposits on the solidified crust of the earth would obviously be igneous. As water condensed, denudation would begin, and stratified deposits, mechanical and chemical, become possible, in addition to detrital volcanic material. But at that time the crust itself, and even stratified deposits, would often be kept for a considerable period at a temperature similar to that afterward produced by the invasion of an intrusive mass. Thus, not only rocks of igneous origin (including volcanic ashes) would predominate in the lowest foundation-stones, but also secondary changes occur more readily, and even the sediments or precipitates should be greatly metamorphosed. Strains set up by a falling temperature would produce, in masses still plastic, banded structures, which, under the peculiar circumstances, might occur in rocks now coarsely crystalline. As time went on, true sediments would predominate over extravasated materials, and these would be less and less affected by chemical changes, and would more and more retain their original character. Thus, we should expect that as we retraced the earth's course through "the corridor of time," we should arrive at rocks which, though crystalline in structure, were evidently in great part sedimentary in origin, and should beyond them find rocks of more coarsely crystalline texture and more dubious character, which. however, probably were in part of a like origin; and should at last reach coarsely crystalline rocks, in which, while occasional sediments would be possible, the majority were originally igneous, though modified at a very early period of their history. This corresponds with what we find in nature, when we apply, cautiously and tentatively, the principles of interpretation which guide us in stratigraphical geology. I have stated as briefly as possible what I believe to be facts. I have endeavored to treat these in accordance with the principles of inductive reasoning. I have deliberately abstained from invoking the aid of "deluges of water, floods of fire, boiling oceans, caustic rains, or acid-laden atmospheres," not because I hold it impossible that these can have occurred, but because I think this epoch in the earth's history so remote and so unlike those which followed that it is wiser to pass it by for the present. But, unless we deny that any rocks formed anterior to or coeval with the first beginning of life on the globe can be preserved to the present time, or, at least, be capable of identification—an assumption which seems to me gratuitous and unphilosophical—then I do not see how we can avoid the conclusion to which we are led by a study of the foundation-stones of the earth's crust—namely, that these were formed under conditions and modified by environments which, during later geologial epochs, must have been of very exceptional occurrence. If, then, this conclusion accords with the results at which students of chemistry and students of physics have independently arrived, I do not think that we are justified in refusing to accept them because they lack the attractive brilliancy of this or that hypothesis, or do not accord with the words in which a principle, sound in its essence, has been formulated. It is true in science, as in a yet more sacred thing, that "the letter killeth, the spirit giveth life."


  1. An address delivered before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at the Bath meeting, September 10, 1888.