Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 6.djvu/33

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23
SPENCER AND EVOLUTION.

proved that the present forms and distributions of mountains, valleys, continents, and oceans, are but the final terms of a stupendous course of transformations to which the crust of the earth has been subjected. It was also established that life has stretched back for untold millions of years; that multitudes of its forms arose and perished in a determinate succession, while the last appearing are highest in grade, as if by some principle of order and progression.

It is obvious that one of the great epochs of thought had now been reached; for the point of view from which natural things are to be regarded was fundamentally and forever altered. But, as it is impossible to escape at once and completely from the dominion of old ideas, the full import of the position was far from being recognized, and different classes of the thinking world were naturally very differently affected by the new discoveries. To the mass of people who inherit their opinions and rarely inquire into the grounds upon which they rest, the changed view was of no moment; nor had the geological revelations much interest to the literary classes beyond that of bare curiosity about strange and remote speculations. To the theologians, however, the step that had been taken was of grave concern. They were the proprietors of the old view; they claimed for it super-natural authority, and strenuously maintained that its subversion would be the subversion of religion itself. They maintained, moreover, that the controversy involved the very existence of God. The most familiar conception of the Deity was that of a Creator, and creation was held to mean the grand six-day drama of calling the universe into existence; while this transcendent display of power had always been devoutly held as alike the exemplification and the proof of the Divine attributes. How deep and tenacious was the old error is shown by the fact that, although it has been completely exploded, although the immeasurable antiquity of the earth and the progressive order of its life have been demonstrated and admitted by all intelligent people, yet the pulpit still clings to the old conceptions, and the traditional view is that which generally prevails among the multitude.

To men of science the new position was, of course, in the highest degree, important. It was stated by Prof. Sedgwick, in an anniversary address to the Geological Society of London, in 1831, as follows: "We have a series of proofs the most emphatic and convincing that the approach to the present system of things has been gradual, and that there has been a progressive development of organic structure subservient to the purposes of life." The traditional explanation of the origin of the world, and all that belongs to it, being thus discredited, it only remained to seek another explanation: if it has not been done one way, how has it been done? was the inevitable question. One might suppose that the effect of the utter break-down of the old hypothesis would have been to relegate the whole question to the sphere of science, but this was far from being done. The preternatu-