Tuesday, 10 March 2015



 (From the Examiner, March 28.)

The Testimony of the Rocks : or, Geology in its Bearings on the Two Theologies Natural and Revealed. By HUGH MILLER. Author of " The Old Red Sandstone," &c. Edinburgh : Shepherd and Elliot.

To this volume there is attached an adventitious interest, arising from the manner of its author's death within but a few hours after the last proofs were corrected. Its several chapters, except two which are entirely new, have been read as papers or lectures at sundry times and in sundry places, but they are so arranged as to pursue in a coherent way one subject of discussion, namely, the bearings of geology ; on our interpretation of the Scriptures. Mr. Miller, as it is well known, had raised himself from a very humble position in society to a high place in the esteem of educated people throughout Europe, not only by his love of science, but at the same time by the genius very often displayed in his writing. He could put life into his old fossils when he brought them to the light of day and made us friends with them. He was a religious man, whose tendency, it would have been, had not his mind been very diligently cultivated, to animate for himself extinct forms of theology. His closing years were indeed much occupied with the editing of a Scotch newspaper with strict religious views. In his early writing Mr. Miller was content with the six days of twenty-four hours each for the work of creation which satisfied the minds of Chalmers and of Buckland. Upon this he says, in a preface to the present volume— 

My labours at the time as a practical geologist had been very much restricted to the Paleozoic and secondary rocks, more especially to the old red and carboniferous systems of the one division, and the Oolitic system of the other; and the long extinct organisms which I found in them certainly did not conflict with the view of Chalmers. All I found necessary at the time to the work of reconciliation was some scheme that would permit me to assign to the earth a high antiquity; and to regard it as the scene of many succeeding creations. During the last nine years, however, I have spent a few weeks every autumn in exploring the later formations, and acquainting myself with their peculiar organisms. I have traced them upwards from the raised benches and old coast lines of the human period, to the brick clays, Clyde beds, and drift and boulder deposits of the Pleistocene era, and again from these, with the help of museums and collections, up through the mammaliferous crag of England, to its red and its coral crags. And the conclusion at which I have been compelled to arrive is,—

—in exact accordance with that of our most philosophical geologists. That is, indeed, the interesting fact connected with this final work of Mr. Miller's. A writer whom the most strait-laced theologian cannot accuse of irreverence, who has been pious even as Glasgow would interpret piety, and who never has for an instant thought of setting reason above revelation, sums up his experience by rebuke of the bigotry that finds antagonism between science and religion, declares that we must accept the Mosaic days as periods, must expect no scientific revelations in the Bible, must receive without fear the proved facts of geology, must admit, for instance, the belief that the whole earth has not at any time since man was made been covered by an universal deluge. The purpose of the book is to show that geology tends no more than astronomy has tended to the overthrow of a just faith in natural and revealed religion.

The volume contains twelve lectures. Of these the first explains in a popular way the Palæontology of Plants. The vegetation of the earliest period was composed of plants which contribute little, if at all, to the support of animal life. The ferns which now represent them are untouched by grazing animals, seldom eaten even by the insects that infest herbaria; our club-mosses are deleterious, and the horse-tails, though harmless, contain so much stone that they are rarely cropped by cattle.

The singularly profuse vegetation of the Coal Measures was, with all its wild luxuriance, of a resembling cast. So far as appears, neither flock nor herd could have lived on its greenest and richest plains; nor does even the flora of the Oolite seem to have been in the least suited for the purposes of the shepherd or herdsman. Not until we enter on the Tertiary periods do we find floras amid which man might have profitably laboured as a dresser of gardens a tiller of fields, or a keeper of flocks and herds. Nay, there are whole orders and families of plants of the very first importance to man which do not appear until late in even the Tertiary ages. Some degree of doubt must always attach to merely negative evidence, but Agassiz, a geologist whose statements must be received with respect by every student of the science, finds reason to conclude that the order of the Rosace√¶,—an order more important to the gardener than almost any other, and to which the apple, the pear, the quince, the cherry, the plum the peach,the apricot,the victorine, the almond, the raspberry, the strawberry, and the various bramble berries belong, together with all the roses and the potentillas,—was introduced only a short time previous to the appearance of man. And the true grasses—a still more important order, which, as the corn-bearing plants of the agriculturist, feed at the present time at least two thirds of the human species, and in their humbler varieties form the staple food of the grazing animals—scarce appear in the fossil state at all. They are peculiarly plants of the human period.

There is some pleasant comment in this lecture on the first appearance, with the flowers by which man's eye was to be refreshed, of bees, in the amber of the Eocene.

The second lecture describes briefly the Paleontology of Animals. Here we pass over a not very philosophical discovery of a god of punishment in the creation of animals of prey; —it is hard to imagine in what way means of life and happiness could have been economised so perfectly and so mercifully as in making the death of one creature, sudden and free from torment of disease, the means of life and strength to others ;—we pass, over this tribute to the rigorous old school of theology, and over a kindred homily on the degraded state of serpents, to quote a suggestive passage.

"It is a circumstance quite extraordinary and unexpected," says Agassiz, in his profoundly interesting work on Lake Superior, "that the fossil plants of the Tertiary beds of Oeningen resemble more closely the trees and shrubs which grow at present in the eastern parts of North America, than those of any other parts of the world ; thus allowing us to express correctly the difference between the opposite coasts of Europe and America, by saying that the present eastern American flora, and, I may add, the fauna also, have a more ancient character than those of Europe. The plants, especially the trees and shrubs, growing in our days in the United States,are, as it were, old-fashioned ; and the characteristic genera Lagomys, Cholydru, and the large Salamanders with permanent gills, that remind us of the fossils of Oeningen, are at least equally so ;—they bear the marks of former ages." How strange a fact ! Not only are we accustomed to speak of the eastern continents as the Old World, in contradistinction to the great continent of the west, but to speak also of the world before the Flood as the Old World, in contradistinction to that post-diluvian world which succeeded it. And yet equally, if we receive the term in either of its acceptations, is America an older world still,—an older world than that of the eastern continents,—an older world, in the fashion and type of its productions, than the world before the Flood. And when the immigrant settler takes axe amid the deep back woods, to lay open for the first time what he deems a new country, the great trees that fall before him—the brushwood which he lops away with a sweep of his tool,—the unfamiliar herbs which he tramples under foot,—the lazy fish-like reptile that scarce stirs out of his path as he descends to the neighbouring creek to drink.—the fierce aligator-like tortoise, with the large limbs and small carpace, that he sees watching among the reeds far fish and frogs, just as he reaches the water —and the little hare-like rodent, without a tail, that he startles by the way,—all attest by the antiqueness of the mould in which they are cast, how old a country the seemingly new one really is,—a country vastly older, in type at least, than that of the antediluvians and the patriarchs, and only to be compared with that which flourished on the eastern side of the Atlantic long ere the appearance of man, and the remains of whose perished productions we find looked up in the loess of the Rhine or amid the lignites of Nassau. America is emphatically the Old World.

The third lecture sets out with the assertion made fifty years since by Dr. Chalmers that "the writings of Moses do not fix the antiquity of the globe." Reason is shown for the belief that the days of the Mosaic account of the creation were great periods, and in the next lecture—the fourth—the opinion is adopted and very ably advocated, that the cosmogony of Moses was described from visions, each showing a typical part of a great period; and the seer being, with regard to each, an observer having his place on the earth itself for point of view. There is a picturesque and characteristic passage in which Mr. Miller has reconstructed visions as they might have been true both to science and to the letter of the text of Scripture. By the adoption of this theory since Moses described only what he saw, and was told nothing, every difficulty on the score of scientific error is got rid of. In a subsequent lecture Mr Miller wisely says that God revealed nothing to man which he was able to discover for himself, and points out the great difference between false systems of theology, like the Hindoo, which commit believers in them to distinct theories of nature, and the true system which, as in the Bible, never puts forward any cosmical theory at all, but speaks of natural things as they are seen naturally, and reveals to us only spiritual truth.     

In the fifth and sixth lectures Mr. Miller specially discusses Geology in its bearings on the two Theologies, the natural and the revealed. All the contents of these chapters are ingenious, and some are truly wise. The vindication of the dignity of man as declared equally by geology and theology, against Pope's theory of a God who sees with equal eye a hero perish or a sparrow fall, is ably written. " Ye are of more value than many sparrows," says Religion. Science says, in the words of Professor Owen, "Man is the end towards which all the animal creation has tended, from the first appearance of the first Palaeozoic fishes." This is Mr. Miller's doctrine. We need hardly say that, ably and truly as this whole subject is reasoned, the author becomes inevitably less philosophical when the doctrines of original sin and redemption come to be read dimly in the stones, and in the condition of existing tribes of men. In the second of these chapters there is a passage much too long for citation, in which the author elaborates the substance of what, if sung by a great bard, might be one of the poems of the world. The subject of it is Satan watching the geological formation of the world—the course of the Divine worker.

The next two chapters are uncompromising ones on the Noachian Deluge. It is not denied that all the race of men may have been swallowed up, except those in the ark, but it it argued that they must have been assembled on a very limited part of the earth's surface, probably the depressed country round the Caspian. It is denied that all the animals of earth were destroyed except those in the ark, or that the language of Scripture makes it necessary to believe in this instance what science has disproved.

The point is one respecting which, as certainly as respecting the creation of the world itself, or of the world's inhabitants, there could have existed no human witness-bearing: contemporary man, left to the unassisted evidence of his senses, must of necessity have been ignorant of the extent of the Deluge. True, what man could never have known of himself, God could have told him, and in many cases has told him ; but then, God's revelations have in most instances been made to effect exclusively moral purposes ; and we know that those who have perilously held that, along with the moral facts, definite physical facts, geographic, geologic, or astronomical, had also been imparted, have almost invariably found themselves involved in monstrous error.

As to the passage of animals to and from the ark, Mr. Miller says—

A continuous tract of land would have stretched,— when all the oceans were continents, and all the continents oceans,—between the South American and the Asiatic coasts. And it is just possible that, during the hundred and twenty years in which the ark was in building, a pair of sloths might have crept by inches across this continuous tract, from where the skeletons of the great megatheria are buried, to where the great vessel stood. But after the flood had subsided, and the change in sea and land had taken place, there would remain for them no longer a roadway ; and so, though their journey outwards might, in all save the impulse which led to it, have been altogether a natural one, their voyage homewards could not be other than miraculous. Nor would the exertion of miracle have had to be restricted to the transport of the remoter travellers. How, we may well ask, had the flood been universal, could even such islands as Great Britain and Ireland have ever been replenished with many of their original inhabitants? Even supposing it possible that animals such as the red deer and the native ox might have swam across the Straits of Dover or the Irish Channel, to graze anew over deposits in which the bones and horns of their remote ancestors had been entombed long ages before, the feat would have been surely far beyond the power of such feeble natives of the soil as the mole, the hedge-hog, the shrew, the dormouse, and field-vole.

The next lecture is that upon the Discoverable and the Revealed, to which we have already referred, and the next to that is an exposure of the ignorance and folly displayed in scientific discussion by the "anti-geologists." The work closes with an enlarged version—in two lectures—of a paper read by the author before the British Association, when it met at Glasgow, and communicates the result of some of Mr. Hugh Miller's own valuable researches on the subject of "The Less Known Fossil Floras of Scotland."

From our brief sketch of the contents of this book it may be seen that it has interest of its own, which would have claimed for it a large share of public attention, even had there been only its contents to demand curiosity concerning it.

 Empire 4 July 1857

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