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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 31

Hypothesis Respecting the Order of Nature

Hypothesis Respecting the Order of Nature.

Upon the first of these the assumption is that the order of Nature which now obtains has always obtained; in other words, that the present course of Nature, the present order of things, has existed from all eternity. The second hypothesis is that the present state of things, the present order of Nature, has had only a limited duration, and that at some period in the past the state of things which we now know—substantially, though not of course in all its details the state of things which we now know—arose and came into existence without any precedent similar condition from which it could have proceeded. The third hypothesis also assumes that the present order of Nature has had but a limited duration, but it supposes that the present order of things proceeded by a natural process from an antecedent order, and that from another antecedent order, and so on; and that on this hypothesis the attempt to fix any limit at which we could assign the commencement of this series of changes is given up. I am very anxious that you shall realize what these three hypotheses actually mean; that is to say, what they involve, if you can imagine a spectator to have been present during the period to which they refer. On the first hypothesis, however far back in time you place that spectator, he would have seen a world, essentially similar, though not perhaps in all its details, to that which now exists. The animals which existed would be the ancestors of those which now exist, and like them; the plants in like manner would be such as we have now, and like them; and the supposition is that at however distant a period of time you place your observer, he would still find mountains, lands, and waters, with animal and vegetable products flourishing upon them and sporting in them just as he finds now. That view has been held. It was a favourite fancy of antiquity, and has survived along down towards the present day, and it is worthy of remark that it is a hypothesis which is not inconsistent with what geologists are familiar with as the doctrine of Uniformitarianism. That doctrine was held by Hutton, and in his earlier days by Lyell. For Hutton was struck by the demonstration of astronomers that the perturbations of the planetary bodies, however great they may be, yet sooner or later righted themselves, and that the solar system contained within itself a self-adjusting power by which these aberrations were cured and it brought back to an equilibrium

Hutton imagined that something of the same kind may go on in the earth, although no one recognised more clearly than he the fact that the dry land is being constantly washed down by rain and rivers and deposited in the sea, and that thus in a certain length of time, greater or shorter, the inequalities of the earth's surface must be levelled and its high lands brought down to the sea. Then, taking in account the internal forces of Nature, by which upheavals become seated and give page 8 rise to new land, these operations may naturally compensate each other, and thus substantially for any assignable time the general features of the earth might remain what they are. And inasmuch as there is no limit under these circumstances to the successive development of the animals and plants, it is clear that the logical development of this idea might lead to the conception of the eternity of the world. Not that I mean to say that either Hutton or Lyell held this conception—assuredly not; they would have been the first to repudiate it. But by the arguments they used it might have been possible to justify this hypothesis.