Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE CHANGES THAT HAVE HAPPENED IN OUR GLOBE. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
THE CHANGES THAT HAVE HAPPENED IN OUR GLOBE. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
THE CHANGES THAT HAVE HAPPENED IN OUR GLOBE.
and the petrifications which are alleged as proof thereof; written originally in italian, and sent by the author to the academy of bologna, and since translated by him into french.
There are certain errors which belong alone to the common people; there are others which are confined to philosophers. In this latter class we may perhaps rank the notion which prevails among the generality of natural philosophers, that the earth almost everywhere affords proofs of a once total submersion. In the mountains of Hesse, there has been found a stone which had the impression of a turbot, and a petrified pike was found in one of the Alps. From this it has been taken for granted, that the mountains we now see have been formerly covered with seas and rivers; whereas it is much more natural to suppose that these fish had been brought thither by some traveller, who, finding them spoiled, threw them away, and, in process of time they became petrified; but this notion would have been too simple, and not have left sufficient room for hypothesis. Ay! but a ship’s anchor has been found upon one of the mountains of Switzerland! Indeed! and might it not have been brought there like many other heavy burdens, and even as cannon have been, by hand, and afterward used to stop some very weighty load from sliding down the declivity of the rock; or might not this very anchor have been brought from the little seaport in the lake of Geneva; or, after all, may not the story itself of the anchor be false? Undoubtedly; but then it has been thought more proper to affirm that this was the anchor of some vessel that had been moored in Switzerland before the deluge.
There is some resemblance between the tongue of a sea–dog and a stone called glossopetra. This is enough to persuade a naturalist that these stones have been all tongues of sea–dogs left in the Apennines in Noah’s time. Why do they not, at the same time, affirm that the shells called conchæ veneris are the very things whose names they bear?
Almost all reptiles are of a spiral form when not in motion; and it is nothing wonderful, that, when they are petrified, they should retain the same uncouth figure; and it is altogether natural for stones themselves to be formed in this shape; the Alps and the Vosges are full of such. Now, it has pleased naturalists to give the name of cornu Ammonis, or Ammon’s horn, to these stones; and they pretend to discover therein the fish called the nautilus, which they never saw, and which is said to be bred in the Indian seas; and, without the trouble of examining whether this petrified body is a nautilus or an eel, they conclude that the Indian Sea has formerly overflowed the mountains of Europe.
There have been also found, in some of the provinces of France and Italy, certain small shells that are positively said to be natives of the Syrian Sea. I am in no disposition to contest their origin; but why may it not be remembered, that the innumerable crowds of pilgrims and Crusaders, who carried money into the Holy Land, brought back with them a number of shells? or is it more eligible to believe that the seas of Joppa and Sidon came and covered the whole country of Burgundy and the Milanese?
We might, indeed, choose whether we would credit either of these hypotheses; and rather think, with many naturalists, that these shells, that are supposed to have been transferred from such a distance, are fossils, which are produced by the earth in these climates. Again; we might, with an equal degree of probability, conjecture, that the places where these shells are found were formerly covered with lakes or collections of water: but whichever opinion or error we may adopt, these shells are by no means a proof that the whole universe has been turned upside down.
The hills about Calais and Dover are rocks of chalk: therefore these hills have been formerly undivided by water. The soil about Gibraltar and Tangiers is nearly of the same nature; therefore Africa and Europe were formerly joined, and there was no Mediterranean Sea. The Pyrenees, the Alps, and the Apennines, have been thought by several philosophers to be the ruins of a world that has undergone a number of changes. This opinion was strongly maintained by the whole Pythagorean school, as well as by many others. They likewise affirmed that the earth we at present inhabit was formerly a sea, and that the sea was for a long time dry land.
Ovid is known to have spoken the opinions of the naturalists of the East, in the lines he puts into the mouth of Pythagoras:
This was in fact the opinion of Pythagoras and the Indians, and it is doing him no injustice to relate it in verse. This opinion has gained particular credit by those heaps or beds of shells that are found under the ground in Calabria, Touraine, and other places at a considerable distance from the sea; and there is some reason to believe that they have been deposited there for a long succession of years.
The sea, which has retired several leagues from its ancient shores in some places, has in others made considerable encroachments upon the land. But from this almost imperceptible loss, many thought they had a right to conclude that the sea did for a long time cover the rest of the globe. Frejus, Narbonne, Ferrara, and some others, are no longer sea–ports; one half of the country of East Friesland was overflowed by the ocean; therefore it follows, that for several ages whales have sported upon Mount Taurus and the Alps, and man inhabited the bed of the ocean.
These hypotheses of the natural revolutions that have happened in this world has been strengthened in the minds of some philosophers by the discovery made by the chevalier de Louville, a famous astronomer, who, as is well known, in 1714, set out from Marseilles on purpose to discover by observations whether an angle of the ecliptic with the equator was the same as it had been fixed by Pitheas about two thousand years before. He found it less by twenty minutes; that is to say, the ecliptic had, according to his observations, in the space of two thousand years, approached nearer to the equator by one–third of a degree: which proves, that in six thousand years it will be nearer by a whole degree.
This supposed, it is evident that the earth, besides its known motions, must have another, by which it is made to revolve round itself from one pole to another. It will be found, that in the space of twenty–three thousand years, the sun will continue for a great length of time on the equator; and, in a period of two millions of years, all the climates in the world will have been in their turns under the torrid and the frigid zones. But what occasion, you will say, to alarm oneself about what is to happen two millions of years hence? There is probably a much longer period between the positions of the planets, with regard to each other. We already know the earth has a motion which is completed in twenty–five thousand years, called the precession of the equinoxes. Revolutions of thousands of millions of years are infinitely less in the sight of the great architect of nature, than to us that of a wheel which completes its round in the twinkling of an eye. This new period, invented by the chevalier de Louville, which has been corrected and supported by several astronomers, has occasioned search to be made after the ancient Babylonian observations, transmitted to the Greeks by Alexander, and preserved to posterity by Ptolemy in his “Almagest.”
The Babylonians in Alexander’s time pretended to have astronomical observations for upwards of four hundred thousand three hundred years. It was endeavored to reconcile these Babylonian calculations with the hypothesis of the revolution of two millions of years. At length, some philosophers concluded that, all the climates having been each in their turn under the pole and the equinoctial line, all the seas must likewise have changed places.
Extraordinary and great changes in nature are objects which will always please the imaginations of the wisest men. Philosophers are as fond of a change of scene in the universe, as the common people are of those on the stage. Our imagination, taking its flight from the point of existence and duration, launches into millions of ages, to contemplate with a secret pleasure Canada under the equator, and the seas of Nova Zembla covering the top of Mount Atlas.
A certain author, in his theory of the earth, a work more famous than instructive, pretends that the deluge submerged our whole globe, and from its ruins made the rocks and mountains we now see, and threw everything into a state of irreparable confusion; in short, he looks upon the universe as one great heap of ruins. The author of another theory, no less famous, sees nothing therein but the utmost order, and affirms, that, without the deluge, such noble harmony could never have subsisted; both writers allow the mountains to be the consequences of a universal inundation.
Burnet, the first of these authors, tells us for certain in his fifth chapter, that before the deluge the earth was compact, regular, uniform, and without hills, valleys, or seas. According to him, the deluge caused all these; and this is a reason why we find the cornua Ammonis in the Apennine mountains.
Woodward, the other theorist, condescends to allow that there were mountains before the deluge; but it is very certain that it dissolved all the different metals, and formed others, and that this is the reason, why in this earth of ours, we so frequently find flints, that were softened by the water and appear full of petrified animals. Woodward might have been convinced, if he pleased, that water will not dissolve marble, flint, or like substances; and that the rocks which are constantly washed by the sea still retain their hardness; but no matter. His hypothesis required that the water should have a power of dissolving, in the space of one hundred and fifty days, all the stones and minerals in the world, to lodge a few oysters and periwinkles in them.
It would require more time than the waters continued upon the face of the earth to read all the authors who have formed hypotheses on this subject. Everyone of them destroys and remoulds the earth, in the same manner as Descartes has created his after his own fancy; for the greatest part of your philosophers put themselves without any ceremony in the place of the Deity, and imagine they can create a world at command.
Far be it from me to think of copying their example; I have not the vanity to conceive I shall ever be able to discover the means made use of by the Creator to form the world, to drown, or to preserve it. I confine myself to the Scripture, without attempting to explain it, or admitting of what it does not say. I only desire to be permitted to examine, according to the rules of probability, whether this globe either has been, or will one day be, entirely different from what it now is. And here we have nothing more to do than make use of our eyesight.
In the first place, I shall examine those mountains, which Doctor Burnet, and many others, look upon as the ruins of the old world scattered up and down, without order or design, like those ruins of a city bombarded by an enemy. And here I, on the contrary, perceive them to be disposed with infinite regularity, from one end of the world to the other. They are, in fact, a chain of high, inexhaustible aqueducts, which, by dividing in several places, make room for the entrance of rivers, and arms of the sea to moisten the earth.
From the Cape of Good Hope there runs a continuous chain of rocks, which stoop to give passage to the Niger and the Zaire, and then rise again under the name of Mount Atlas, while the Nile falls down from another branch of those mountains. A narrow arm of the sea separates Mount Atlas from the promontory of Gibraltar, and it is afterward joined to the Sierra Morena; this latter joins to the Pyrenees, these to the Cévennes, the Cévennes to the Alps, and the Alps to the Apennines, which run as far as the kingdom of Naples; over against them are the mountains of Epirus and Thessaly. As soon as you have passed the Straits of Gallipoli, you meet with Mount Taurus, whose branches, under the names of Caucasus, Imaus, etc., stretch to the extremities of the globe. Thus the earth is crowned in every sense of the word, with these reservoirs of water, which furnish, without exception, all the rivers that bedew and fertilize it; nor does the sea furnish a single brook of its salt fluid to any one of its shores.
Burnet caused a map of the earth to be engraved, divided into mountains, instead of provinces. By this, and his representations, he endeavors all he can to give us an idea of the most terrible confusion; but, both his own map and his own words, do, in spite of himself, give us to understand the utmost harmony and utility. “The Andes,” says he, “in America are a thousand leagues in length; the Taurus divides Asia into two parts, etc. Could any man take in these at one view, he would be perfectly convinced that the globe of the earth is more deformed than can be imagined.” On the contrary, it is certain, that could any reasonable man at one view behold both hemispheres crossed by a regular chain of mountains, serving as reservoirs for the rains, and sources to the rivers; he must acknowledge, in all this pretended confusion, the wisdom and paternal care of a divine Being.
There is not one climate on the earth, without a mountain and a river springing from it. This chain of hills is an essential part in the great machine of the world. Without them no terrestrial animal could live, for want of the water they furnish, which is drawn up out of the sea, and purified by a perpetual exhalation; this vapor is carried by the wind to the tops of the hills, whence it falls down again in rivers, and it is demonstrable that this exhalation is so great as to suffice both for forming rivers and furnishing rain.
Another hypothesis, which supposes that in the before–mentioned period of two millions of years, the axis of the earth, by continually rising upward, and revolving round itself, has forced the ocean out of its bed; this hypothesis, I say, is equally contrary to natural philosophy with the others. A motion by which the axis of the earth is elevated only ten minutes in a thousand years does not appear sufficiently violent to destroy the globe. This motion, supposing it really to exist, would certainly leave the mountains in their places; and, to say the truth, I do not see any appearance of the Alps, or Mount Caucasus having been brought to the places where they now are, either by degrees, or instantly from the coasts of Kaffraria.
But if, leaving the examination of the mountains, we consider the ocean alone, it will equally overturn this system. The bed of the ocean is hollow, and this vast basin grows deeper, in proportion to its distance from the shores. There is not a single rock in the main sea, if we except a few islands; now, if there was a time, when the ocean covered our mountains, and man and beast inhabited the bed of the sea, how was it possible for them to have subsisted? What mountains had they then to furnish them with rivers? This requires a globe of quite a different nature from ours. And again, how could this globe have, at that time, revolved round itself, seeing that it was one–half hollow, and the other prominent; and this prominence loaded over and above with the whole weight of the ocean? How could the laws of gravity and hydrostatics be accomplished? or how could the ocean keep itself upon the mountains without sliding into that immense bed, which nature had formed for it? A world of a philosophical creation is generally a very ridiculous one.
I will suppose for an instant with those who admit that in the period of two millions of years we arrived at the point of time when the ecliptic falls in with the equator. I then suppose Italy, France, and Germany, to form the torrid zone; but we must not imagine that either then, or at any other time, the ocean can change its place: no motion of the earth can ever resist the laws of gravity, and in whatever manner our globe may turn, everything will press equally upon the centre. The universal system of mechanics is invariably the same.
No system, no hypothesis, then, can give the least degree of probability to the generally received notion that our globe has changed its appearance; that the ocean did for a long time cover the earth which we now inhabit; and that mankind formerly dwelt in those places that now serve as habitations for porpoises and whales. Nothing has been changed of the animal or vegetable world; the species have all remained unalterably the same, and it would be very strange that a grain of millet should retain its nature forever, and yet the whole globe be subject to such changes.
What I have here said of the ocean may be said likewise of the Mediterranean, and the great lake called the Caspian Sea. If these lakes have not been always the same as they now are, the nature of this globe must have been altogether different from what it is at present.
A great number of authors tell us that, an earthquake having one day swallowed up the mountains that joined the two continents of Europe and Africa, the ocean made itself a passage between Calpe and Abila, and formed the Mediterranean, which runs as far as the Palus Mæotis, which is five hundred leagues distant from there; so that a tract of fifteen hundred miles was hollowed in an instant to receive the ocean. It is to be observed, at the same time, that in that part of the sea opposite Gibraltar no bottom can be found, which makes the adventure of the mountains still more marvellous.
If it was only to be considered how many rivers of Europe and Asia fall into the Mediterranean, we should see that their waters must necessarily form a great lake there. The Don, the Boristhenes, the Danube, the Po, the Rhone, etc., could not empty themselves into the ocean, unless we choose to amuse ourselves with the imagination that there was a time when the Don and Boristhenes came over the Pyrenees to visit Biscay.
Philosophers, nevertheless, have insisted, that the Mediterranean was produced by some accident. They ask, what becomes of the waters that so many rivers are continually pouring into it, or where the Caspian Sea can empty itself. They have supposed a vast subterranean cavity to have been formed, in the general subversion of the system of the earth, that threw out these seas; and that they have a communication with each other, and with the ocean, by means of this imaginary gulf. It has likewise been affirmed, that fish have been thrown into the Caspian Sea with rings in their noses, and taken out afterward in the Mediterranean. In this manner have history and philosophy been treated for a long time; and since true history has taken away the fiction, and real natural philosophy that of airy hypotheses, we ought no longer to give credit to such idle tales. It is demonstrable, that exhalation alone will sufficiently account for these seas not overflowing their shores, and that there is no necessity for them to empty themselves into the ocean. And it is highly probable, that the Mediterranean Sea has always occupied its present place; and that the fundamental constitution of this universe has never suffered a change.
I am well aware that there will always be a set of people, upon whose minds a petrified pike, found upon Mount Cenis, or a turbot in the country of Hesse, will have greater weight than all the arguments of sound philosophy. They will still be fond of imagining that the summits of the mountains have heretofore served as a bed to the ocean, notwithstanding the impossibility of the thing from the laws of nature; while others again will think, from finding some few Syrian shells in Germany, that the Syrian Sea came to Frankfort. A taste for the wonderful is the parent of hypotheses; but nature appears to delight as much in uniformity and unchangeableness, as our imaginations do in surprising revolutions: and, to use the words of the great Newton, “Natura est sibi consona”; “Nature is consistent with herself.” We are told by the Scripture, that there has been a deluge; but there remains no other monument on the earth—at least that I can perceive—but the remembrance of so dreadful a prodigy, which in vain admonishes us to amend our lives.