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Illogical Geology
by [?]

[First published in The Universal Review for July, 1859.]

That proclivity to generalization which is possessed in greater or less degree by all minds, and without which, indeed, intelligence cannot exist, has unavoidable inconveniences. Through it alone can truth be reached; and yet it almost inevitably betrays into error. But for the tendency to predicate of every other case, that which has been found in the observed cases, there could be no rational thinking; and yet by this indispensable tendency, men are perpetually led to found, on limited experience, propositions which they wrongly assume to be universal or absolute. In one sense, however, this can scarcely be regarded as an evil; for without premature generalizations the true generalization would never be arrived at. If we waited till all the facts were accumulated before trying to formulate them, the vast unorganized mass would be unmanageable. Only by provisional grouping can they be brought into such order as to be dealt with; and this provisional grouping is but another name for premature generalization. How uniformly men follow this course, and how needful the errors are as steps to truth, is well illustrated in the history of Astronomy. The heavenly bodies move round the Earth in circles, said the earliest observers: led partly by the appearances, and partly by their experiences of central motions in terrestrial objects, with which, as all circular, they classed the celestial motions from lack of any alternative conception. Without this provisional belief, wrong as it was, there could not have been that comparison of positions which showed that the motions are not representable by circles; and which led to the hypothesis of epicycles and eccentrics. Only by the aid of this hypothesis, equally untrue, but capable of accounting more nearly for the appearances, and so of inducing more accurate observations–only thus did it become possible for Copernicus to show that the heliocentric theory is more feasible than the geocentric theory; or for Kepler to show that the planets move round the sun in ellipses. Yet again, without the aid of Kepler’s more advanced theory of the Solar system, Newton could not have established that general law from which it follows, that the motion of a heavenly body is not necessarily in an ellipse, but may be in any conic section. And lastly, it was only after the law of gravitation had been verified, that it became possible to determine the actual courses of planets, satellites, and comets; and to prove that, in consequence of perturbations, their orbits always deviate, more or less, from regular curves. In these successive theories we may trace both the tendency men have to leap from scanty data to wide generalizations, that are either untrue or but partially true; and the necessity there is for such transitional generalizations as steps to the final one.

In the progress of geological speculation, the same laws of thought are displayed. We have dogmas that were more than half false, passing current for a time as universal truths. We have evidence collected in proof of these dogmas; by and by a colligation of facts in antagonism with them; and eventually a consequent modification. In conformity with this improved hypothesis, we have a better classification of facts; a greater power of arranging and interpreting the new facts now rapidly gathered together; and further resulting corrections of hypothesis. Being, as we are at present, in the midst of this process, it is not possible to give an adequate account of the development of geological science as thus regarded: the earlier stages are alone known to us. Not only, however, is it interesting to observe how the more advanced views now received respecting the Earth’s history, have been evolved out of the crude views which preceded them; but we shall find it extremely instructive to observe this. We shall see how greatly the old ideas still sway both the general mind and the minds of geologists themselves. We shall see how the kind of evidence that has in part abolished these old ideas, is still daily accumulating, and threatens to make other like revolutions. In brief, we shall see whereabouts we are in the elaboration of a true theory of the Earth; and, seeing our whereabouts, shall be the better able to judge, among various conflicting opinions, which best conform to the ascertained direction of geological discovery.