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The Nebular Hypothesis
by [?]

[First published in The Westminster Review for July, 1858. In explanation of sundry passages, it seems needful to state that this essay was written in defence of the Nebular Hypothesis at a time when it had fallen into disrepute. Hence there are some opinions spoken of as current which are no longer current.]

Inquiring into the pedigree of an idea is not a bad means of roughly estimating its value. To have come of respectable ancestry, is prima facie evidence of worth in a belief as in a person; while to be descended from a discreditable stock is, in the one case as in the other, an unfavourable index. The analogy is not a mere fancy. Beliefs, together with those who hold them, are modified little by little in successive generations; and as the modifications which successive generations of the holders undergo do not destroy the original type, but only disguise and refine it, so the accompanying alterations of belief, however much they purify, leave behind the essence of the original belief.

Considered genealogically, the received theory respecting the creation of the Solar System is unmistakably of low origin. You may clearly trace it back to primitive mythologies. Its remotest ancestor is the doctrine that the celestial bodies are personages who originally lived on the Earth–a doctrine still held by some of the negroes Livingstone visited. Science having divested the sun and planets of their divine personalities, this old idea was succeeded by the idea which even Kepler entertained, that the planets are guided in their courses by presiding spirits: no longer themselves gods, they are still severally kept in their orbits by gods. And when gravitation came to dispense with these celestial steersmen, there was begotten a belief, less gross than its parent, but partaking of the same essential nature, that the planets were originally launched into their orbits by the Creator’s hand. Evidently, though much refined, the anthropomorphism of the current hypothesis is inherited from the aboriginal anthropomorphism, which described gods as a stronger order of men.

There is an antagonist hypothesis which does not propose to honour the Unknown Power manifested in the Universe, by such titles as “The Master-Builder,” or “The Great Artificer;” but which regards this Unknown Power as probably working after a method quite different from that of human mechanics. And the genealogy of this hypothesis is as high as that of the other is low. It is begotten by that ever-enlarging and ever-strengthening belief in the presence of Law, which accumulated experiences have gradually produced in the human mind. From generation to generation Science has been proving uniformities of relation among phenomena which were before thought either fortuitous or supernatural in their origin–has been showing an established order and a constant causation where ignorance had assumed irregularity and arbitrariness. Each further discovery of Law has increased the presumption that Law is everywhere conformed to. And hence, among other beliefs, has arisen the belief that the Solar System originated, not by manufacture but by evolution. Besides its abstract parentage in those grand general conceptions which Science has generated, this hypothesis has a concrete parentage of the highest character. Based as it is on the law of universal gravitation, it may claim for its remote progenitor the great thinker who established that law. It was first suggested by one who ranks high among philosophers. The man who collected evidence indicating that stars result from the aggregation of diffused matter, was the most diligent, careful, and original astronomical observer of modern times. And the world has not seen a more learned mathematician than the man who, setting out with this conception of diffused matter concentrating towards its centre of gravity, pointed out the way in which there would arise, in the course of its concentration, a balanced group of sun, planets, and satellites, like that of which the Earth is a member.