Sidor som bilder
PDF
ePub

When some fanciful speculations of this kind had amused their imaginations for a time, some vast repository of mummies would be discovered, and would immediately undeceive those antiquaries who enjoyed an opportunity of personally examining them; but the prejudices of others at a distance who were not eye-witnesses of the whole phenomena, would not be so easily overcome. The concurrent report of many travellers would, indeed, render it necessary for them to accommodate ancient theories to some of the new facts, and much wit and ingenuity would be required to modify and defend their old positions. Each new invention would violate a greater number of known analogies; for is a theory be required to embrace some false principle, it becomes more visionary in proportion as facts are multiplied, as would be the case if geometers were now required to form an astronomical system on the assumption of the immobility of the earth.

Amongst other sanciful conjectures concerning the history of Egypt, we may suppose some of the following to be started:—“As the banks of the Nile have been so recently colonized for the first time, the curious substances called mummies could never in reality have belonged to men. They may have been generated by some plastic virtue residing in the interior of the earth, or they may be abortions of nature produced by her incipient efforts in the work of creation. For if deformed beings are sometimes born even now, when the scheme of the universe is fully developed, many more may have been “sent before their time, scarce half made up,” when the planet itself was in the embryo state. But if these notions appear to derogate from the perfection of the divine attributes, and if these mummies be in all their parts true representations of the human form, may we not refer them to the suture rather than the past? May we not be looking into the womb of Nature, and not her grave 2 May not these images be like the shades of the unborn in Virgil's Elysium—the archetypes of men not yet called into existence?”

These speculations, if advocated by eloquent writers, would not fail to attract many zealous votaries, for they would relieve men from the painful necessity of renouncing preconceived opinions. Incredible as such scepticism may appear, it has been rivalled by many systems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and among others by that of the learned Falloppio, who regarded the tusks of fossil elephants as earthy concretions, and the pottery or fragments of vases in the Monte Testaceo, near Rome, as works of nature, and not of art. But when one generation had passed away, and another, not compromised to the support of antiquated dogmas, had succeeded, they would review the evidence afforded by mummies more impartially, and would no longer controvert the preliminary question, that human beings had lived in Egypt before the nineteenth century: so that when a hundred years perhaps had been lost, the industry and talents of the philosopher would be at last directed to the elucidation of points of real historical importance. But the above arguments are aimed against one only of many prejudices with which the earlier geologists had to contend. Even when they conceded that the earth had been peopled with animate beings at an earlier period than was at first supposed, they had no conception that the quantity of time bore so great a proportion to the historical era as is now generally conceded. How fatal every error as to the quantity of time must prove to the introduction of rational views concerning the state of things in former ages, may be conceived by supposing the annals of the civil and military transactions of a great nation to be perused under the impression that they occurred in a period of 100 instead of 2000 years. Such a portion of history would immediately assume the air of a romance; the events would seem devoid of credibility, and inconsistent with the present course of human affairs. A crowd of incidents would follow each other in thick succession. Armies and fleets would appear to be assembled only to be destroyed, and cities built merely to fall in ruins. There would be the most violent transitions from foreign or intestine war to periods of profound peace, and the works essected during the years of disorder or tranquillity would appear alike superhuman in magnitude. He who should study the monuments of the natural world under the influence of a similar infatuation, must draw a no less exaggerated picture of the energy and violence of causes, and must experience the same insurmountable difficulty in reconciling the former and present state of nature. If we could behold in one view all the volcanic cones thrown up in Iceland, Italy, Sicily, and other parts of Europe, during the last 5000 years, and could see the lavas which have flowed during the same period; the dislocations, subsidences, and elevations caused by earthquakes; the lands added to various deltas, or devoured by the sea, together with the effects of devastation by floods, and imagine that all these events had happened in one year, we must form most exalted ideas of the activity of the agents, and the suddenness of the revolutions. Were an equal amount of change to pass before our eyes in the next year, could we avoid the conclusion that some great crisis of nature was at hand? If geologists, therefore, have misinterpreted the signs of a succession of events, so as to conclude that centuries were implied where the characters imported thousands of years, and thousands of years where the language of nature signified millions, they could not, if they reasoned logically from such false premises, come to any other conclusion than that the system of the natural world had undergone a complete revolution. We should be warranted in ascribing the erection of the great pyramid to superhuman power, if we were convinced that it was raised in one day;

and if we imagine, in the same manner, a mountain-chain to have been elevated, during an equally small fraction of the time which was really occupied in upheaving it, we might then be justified in inserring, that thc subterranean movements were once far more energetic than in our own times. We know that one earthquake may raise the coast of Chili sor a hundred miles to the average height of about three seet. A repetition of two thousand shocks, of equal violence, might produce a mountain-chain one hundred miles long, and six thousand seet high. Now, should one or two only of these convulsions happen in a century, it would be consistent with the order of events experienced by the Chilians from the earliest times; but if the whole of them were to occur in the next hundred years, the entire district must be depopulated, scarcely any animals or plants could survive, and the surface would be one confused heap of ruin and desolation. One consequence of undervaluing greatly the quantity of past time, is the apparent coincidence which it occasions of events necessarily disconnected, or which are so unusual, that it would be inconsistent with all calculation of chances to suppose them to happen at one and the same time. When the unlooked-for association of such rare phenomena is witnessed in the present course of nature, it scarcely ever sails to excite a suspicion of the preternatural in those minds which are not firmly convinced of the uniform agency of secondary causes ;-as if the death of some individual in whose sate they are interested happens to be accompanied by the appearance of a luminous meteor, or a comet, or the shock of an earthquakc. It would be only necessary to multiply such coincidences indefinitely, and the mind of every philosopher would be disturbed. Now it would be difficult to exaggerate the number of physical events, many of them most rare and unconnected in their nature, which were imagined by the Woodwardian hypothesis to have happened in the course of a few months; and numerous other examples might be sound of popular geological theories, which require us to imagine that a long succession of events happened in a brief and almost momentary period. Another liability to error, very nearly allied to the former, arises from the frequent contact of geological monuments referring to very distant periods of time. We often behold, at one glance, the effects of causes which have acted at times incalculably remote, and yet there may be no striking circumstances to mark the occurrence of a great chasm in the chronological series of Nature's archives. In the vast interval of time which may really have elapsed between the results of operations thus compared, the physical condition of the earth may, by slow and insensible modifications, have become entirely altered ; one or more races of organic beings may have passed away, and yet have left behind, in the particular region under contemplation, no trace of their existence. To a mind unconscious of these intermediate events, the passage from

one state of things to another must appear so violent, that the idea of revolutions in the system inevitably suggests itself. The imagination is as much perplexed by the deception, as it might be if two distant points in space were suddenly brought into immediate proximity. Let us suppose, for a moment, that a philosopher should lie down to sleep in some arctic wilderness, and then be transferred by a power, such as we read of in tales of enchantment, to a valley in a tropical country, where, on awaking, he might find himself surrounded by birds of brilliant plumage, and all the luxuriance of animal and vegetable forms of which Nature is so prodigal in those regions. The most reasonable supposition, perhaps, which he could make, if by the necromancer's art he was placed in such a situation, would be, that he was dreaming; and if a geologist form theories under a similar delusion, we cannot expect him to preserve more consistency in his speculations, than in the train of ideas in an ordinary dream. It may afford, perhaps, a more lively illustration of the principle here insisted upon, if I recal to the reader's recollection the legend of the Seven Sleepers. The scene of that popular fable was placed in the two centuries which elapsed between the reign of the emperor Decius and the death of Theodosius the younger. In that interval of time (between the years 249 and 450 of our era) the union of the Roman empire had been dissolved, and some of its fairest provinces overrun by the barbarians of the north. The seat of government had passed from Rome to Constantinople, and the throne from a Pagan persecutor to a succession of Christian and orthodox princes. The genius of the empire had been humbled in the dust, and the altars of Diana and Hercules were on the point of being transferred to Catholic saints and martyrs. The legend relates “that when Decius was still persecuting the Christians, seven noble youths of Ephesus concealed themselves in a spacious cavern in the side of an adjacent mountain, where they were doomed to perish by the tyrant, who gave orders that the entrance should be firmly secured with a pile of huge stones. They immediately fell into a deep slumber, which was miraculously prolonged, without injuring the powers of life, during a period of 187 years. At the end of that time the slaves of Adolius, to whom the inheritance of the mountain had descended, removed the stones to supply materials for some rustic edifice: the light of the sun darted into the cavern, and the seven sleepers were permitted to awake. After a slumber, as they thought, of a few hours, they were pressed by the calls of hunger, and resolved that Jamblichus, one of their number, should secretly return to the city to purchase bread for the use of his companions. The youth could no longer recognise the once familiar aspect of his native country, and his surprise was increased by the appearance of a large cross triumphantly erected over the principal gate of Ephesus. His singular dress and obsolete language confounded the baker, to whom he offered an ancient medal of Decius as the current coin of the empire : and Jamblichus, on the suspicion of a secret treasure, was dragged before the judge. Their mutual inquiries produced the amazing discovery, that two centu. ries were almost elapsed since Jamblichus and his friends had escaped from the rage of a Pagan tyrant.” This legend was received as authentic throughout the Christian world before the end of the sixth century, and was afterwards introduced by Mahomet as a divine revelation into the Koran, and from hence was adopted and adorned by all the nations from Bengal to Africa who prosessed the Mahometan faith. Some vestiges even of a similar tradition have been discovered in Scandinavia. “This easy and universal belief,” observes the philosophical historian of the Decline and Fall, “so expressive of the sense of mankind, may be ascribed to the genuine merit of the fable itself. We imperceptibly advance from youth to age, without observing the gradual, but incessant, change of human affairs; and even in our larger experience of history, the imagination is accustomed, by a perpetual series of causes and effects, to unite the most distant revolutions, But if the interval between two memorable eras could be instantly annihilated; if it were possible, after a momentary slumber of two hundred years, to display the new world to the eyes of a spectator who still retained a lively and recent impression of the old, his surprise and his reflections would surnish the pleasing subject of a philosophical romance.”t Prejudices arising from our peculiar position as inhabitants of the land.—The sources of prejudice hitherto considered may be deemed peculiar for the most part to the infancy of the science, but others are common to the first cultivators of geology and to ourselves, and are all singularly calculated to produce the same deception, and to strengthen our belief that the course of nature in the earlier ages differed widely from that now established. Although these circumstances cannot be fully explained without assuming some things as proved, which it will be the object of another part of this work to demonstrate, it may be well to allude to them briefly in this place. The first and greatest difficulty, then, consists in an habitual unconsciousness that our position as observers is essentially unfavourable, when we endeavour to estimate the magnitude of the changes now in progress. In consequence of our inattention to this subject, we are liable to serious mistakes in contrasting the present with the former states of the globe. As dwellers on the land, we inhabit about a sourth part of the surface; and that portion is almost exclusively a theatre of decay, and not of reproduction. We know, indeed, that new deposits are annually formed in seas and lakes, and that every year some new igneous rocks are produced in the bowels of the earth, but we cannot watch the progress of their formation; and as they are only present to our minds by the aid of

* Gibbon, Decline and Fall, chap. xxiii. # Ibid.

« FöregåendeFortsätt »