"We have," he said, "been now supposing that the beginning of our present earth had been laid in the bottom of the ocean, at the completion of the former land, but this was only for the sake of distinctness. The just view is this, that when the former land of the globe had been complete, so as to begin to waste and be impaired by the encroachment of the sea, the present land began to appear above the surface of the ocean. In this manner we suppose a due proportion to be always preserved of land and water upon the surface of the globe, for the purpose of a habitable world such as this which we possess. We thus also allow time and opportunity for the translation of animals and plants to occupy the earth.
"But if the earth on which we live began to appear in the ocean at the time when the LAST began to be resolved, it could not be from the materials of the continent immediately preceding this which we examine that the present earth has been constructed; for the bottom of the ocean must have been filled with materials before land could be made to appear above its surface.
"Let us suppose that the continent which is to succeed our land is at present beginning to appear above the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean; it must be evident that the materials of this great body, which is formed and ready to be brought forth, must have been collected from the destruction of an earth which does not now appear. Consequently, in this true statement of the case there is necessarily required the destruction of an animal and vegetable earth prior to the former land; and the materials of that earth which is first in our account must have been collected at the bottom of the ocean, and begun to be concocted for the production of the present earth, when the land immediately preceding the present had arrived at its full extent.
"We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is; but we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find that in nature there are wisdom, system, and consistency. For having in the natural history of the earth seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning--no prospect of an end."
Altogether remarkable as this paper seems in the light of later knowledge, neither friend nor foe deigned to notice it at the moment. It was not published in book form until the last decade of the century, when Hutton had lived with and worked over his theory for almost fifty years. Then it caught the eye of the world. A school of followers expounded the Huttonian doctrines; a rival school under Werner in Germany opposed some details of the hypothesis, and the educated world as a whole viewed the disputants askance. The very novelty of the new views forbade their immediate acceptance. Bitter attacks were made upon the "heresies," and that was meant to be a soberly tempered judgment which in 1800 pronounced Hutton's theories "not only hostile to sacred history, but equally hostile to the principles of probability, to the results of the ablest observations on the mineral kingdom, and to the dictates of rational philosophy." And all this because Hutton's theory presupposed the earth to have been in existence more than six thousand years.
Thus it appears that though the thoughts of men had widened, in those closing days of the eighteenth century, to include the stars, they had not as yet expanded to receive the most patent records that are written everywhere on the surface of the earth. Before Hutton's views could be accepted, his pivotal conception that time is long must be established by convincing proofs. The evidence was being gathered by William Smith, Cuvier, and other devotees of the budding science of paleontology in the last days of the century, but their labors were not brought to completion till a subsequent epoch.
In the mean time, James Hutton's theory that continents wear away and are replaced by volcanic upheaval gained comparatively few adherents. Even the lucid Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory, which Playfair, the pupil and friend of the great Scotchman, published in 1802, did not at once prove convincing. The world had become enamoured of the rival theory of Hutton's famous contemporary, Werner of Saxony --the theory which taught that "in the beginning" all the solids of the earth's present crust were dissolved in the heated waters of a universal sea. Werner affirmed that all rocks, of whatever character, had been formed by precipitation from this sea as the waters cooled; that even veins have originated in this way; and that mountains are gigantic crystals, not upheaved masses. In a word, he practically ignored volcanic action, and denied in toto the theory of metamorphosis of rocks through the agency of heat.
The followers of Werner came to be known as Neptunists; the Huttonians as Plutonists. The history of geology during the first quarter of the nineteenth century is mainly a recital of the intemperate controversy between these opposing schools; though it should not be forgotten that, meantime, the members of the Geological Society of London were making an effort to hunt for facts and avoid compromising theories. Fact and theory, however, were too closely linked to be thus divorced.