Department of History
University of California, Irvine
 Instructor:    Dr. Barbara J. Becker


Week 5.  Mechanism

excerpts from
An Account of the Origin and Formation of Fossil-Shells.... (1705)
attributed to Charles King (fl. 1705)



Amongst the unusual Workings of Nature, the Original and Formation of these pretty and sometimes surprizing Appearances, have of late busied the Heads and exercised the Thoughts of some of our greatest Theorists, to conceive, and to give the World a satisfactory Solution of it.

This if ever it be done, is to be expected from such who have had the Opportunities to make the best Collection of those Figured Substances, and to observe their Matrices and places of existence; and who have most carefully traced the Impressions of Nature, and have examin'd the Force, Extent and Determination of her plastick Powers, in other Processes of her Operations:  From such we may one day expect, when a long train of new Discoveries and Trials has ripen'd things for it, what upon due Proofs and evident Demonstratons the World may call a general Satisfaction:  And what has hitherto been perform'd of this nature, hath, in the opinion of some, rather served to enlarge our Doubts, and to quicken our Inquisitiveness than to fix or determine our Judgment, as in a solid acquiescible Solution of that Particular:  Yet this must in no wise discourage us from offering towards it in the mean time; for perhaps when the wish'd Conclusions sees the Light, its Birth may be facilitated by every Conjecture that hath gone abroad about it.

The several late Opinions on this Subject, vastly disagreeing between themselves as they are brought to serve several Hypotheses, we may generally sort and distinguish under these two Heads:  viz.

First, Of those who strenuously contend, that these form'd Substances, Shells, Bones and other peculiar Fossils, are the exuvious [cast-off coverings; shells] Remains and the true and real Parts of Marine Animals, by some extraordinary Fate scattered and left embodyed in the several Consistencies of the upper Crust of the Earth; where mixt with various sorts of Bodies, they came, by means of certain lapidific [stone-producing] Juices, to be  congealed with them; leaving there either their Marks and Signatures on their Containing or Contained Concrets; or else Preserving their Bulk, Figure, and in some places their Frame and Contexture, firm, entire and unaltered to this day.

Secondly, There are other Persons who maintain and warmly avouch, that these form'd Bodies, taken out of the Earth, are indeed the direct and regular Workings of Nature, wherein she sometimes seems to sport and play and make little Flourishes and Imitations of things, to set off and embellish her more useful Structures; and that those Formations had no other Original, than what her plastick Power exerted in the forming of them, in those very places where they are found and taken up.  These are the two main Heads of the disagreeing Opinions in this Affair; which, for your satisfaction, I shall first compare and examine severally; and then, as you desire, shall attempt to propose a middle way to solve the Difficulty, which at least shall be very agreeable with the Order of Nature and the Mechanical Powers of Matter; which is all I can promise towards the advancing of that general Satisfaction....

The first Hypothesis is (I confess) asserted and maintain'd by very Learned and Ingenious Persons; but as to the manner of that supposed Conveyance of those Fossil Shells from Sea to Land, it involves in it, particularly in some of their Explications of it, such strange Inconsistencies and Abhorrences to the establishment of Nature, that the very naming of them is enough to subvert it....

[D]id the Patrons of that Opinion but once demonstratively assign a Possible way upon natural and intelligible grounds of the Conveyance of these Exuviæ to the places wherein they are now found, without receding too much from the truth of Nature, as well as of Scripture; most Men, I think, would be sway'd by the force of that Argument to take them to be true, real, and Natural Shells, Teeth, Bones, &c, of Fishes, once bred and nourished in the Bosom, Creeks and Angles of the great Surrounding Ocean.  But we too well know that Similary Appearances too often sham and banter our Reason, and impose upon our Faculties; Nature not seldom proceeding by the same means, to very different ends and Intentions; and for us to determin, from the Identity of her ways and measures, the Identity of her Intentions, in different Subjects, would be very false and groundless reasoning.  And tho' it be inconsistent with the Wisdom of Nature, or indeed of God the Author and Guider of her, to work any thing to no end or purpose; which makes that saying universally true, Natura nihil facit frustra [Nature does nothing in vain]; yet to conclude this or that, to be to no end or purpose, because we cannot assign one; for instance, to say, that Teeth without a Jaw, Bones without Flesh or Fish, or Shells without an Animal Inhabitant ... is contrary to the designs and intentions of Nature, when her bounds and limits that way (many of them) are unto us unknown and uncertain; is to deal too boldly and unfaithfully with her; And Arguments drawn from that Head, how Specious soever they may be, smell of too much arrogance in us, to be well relished and entertain'd.  Nay indeed, the force of that Reason (if duly weigh'd and attended to) will appear to incline wholly on the other side; It doth not so much conclude, that these Fossil Shells, Bones, &c, had been once really and actually Parts of Animals, because it may appear to be against the intention of Nature, that Teeth should be found without a Jaw, or Shells without living Inhabitants; as it doth prove, that if there do appear really and de facto, Shells and Bones without such Concomitants, or without any possibility of ever actually having them, that therefore there are such things in Nature, that are really and actually Shells and Bones, though it may possibly be as much removed from the reach of our Knowledge, to determin, by what means, as to what ends and purposes they were so produced and specificated.

And truly in this regard I can see no reason why those people that daily observe the many and some very exact resemblances in the parts of Vegetables, to the parts and members of Animal Bodies ... can yet by no means prevail with their Faculties to believe that there might be the like Analogies and Similitudes in the parts of Stones and Minerals, with the said parts of Animal Bodies, without making them to be the true and genuine parts of some of those Bodies they resemble.

Why may not Nature in her first Strokes of Congelation pursue the same Paths and draw the same Lines, both in the Formation of some parts of Clay, Stones and Marchasytes [marcasite; a pale colored pyrite], and in the framing of Oyster-shells, Cockles, and Perwinckles, &c. as well as she is observed to delineate very like Strokes in the head of Poppies, with those in the Skull of Man; in the Jews-ear, the Leaves of Colt-foot, with the Ear; in the Seed of Aconitum, the Flower of Eye-bright, with the Eye; in the Husks of the Seed of Henbane, and Pine-kernels, with the Jaws and Teeth; in the Fruit of the Citron tree, with the Heart; in the tree Scolopendrum, Asplenum, and Cetrach, with the Spleen of Man.  Some of these do with great accuracy resemble some parts of our Body, and perhaps with greater than some Shell-stones do their respective Prototypes.

There are some Figures which are the pure effects of Mechanism, and not at all the ultimate designs of Nature; and these general Forms and Models of Nature, being as it were her common road, she may be observed to trace them to several Ends, to pursue the same Tracts to various Purposes and Intentions:  Thus we find in the growth of Fearn, in the Ramusculi [little branches] of Snow[flakes] and Hore-frost, and in the freezing of Urine, Nature affects one and the same way to protract her Motions:  Not that there doth lie any particular design upon the Figure, but because it is the most Concise and Expeditious way of dilating:  And if it seems consonant with the usual Processes of Nature, on account of Brevity and Conciseness, to choose one and the same way to exert her first strokes of Motion in several Subjects, tho' tending to different ends and purposes; 'tis no way fair to conclude ultimate and particular Intentions, from the meer position of any one of her general rules and ways of proceeding....

Illustrations by Edward Lhwyd (1660-1709) of rocks he found in a local "cole-pit."  Each surface is covered with detailed impressions resembling ferns.  Plate 4, from his catalogue of minerals and fossils, Lithophylacii Britannici ichnographia (1699).

But although this way of proceeding may very well account for many Phænomena in the Theory of Shells and other Fossil Rareties, in a general view of similary Forms and Appearances; yet I must confess it does not reach to solve the most considerable Difficulties, that Theory is encumber'd with.  viz. Particularly, though general Figures may be the effects of Mechanism; yet it may, and ought to be, reasonably demanded, how the specifical Determinations of those Figures, how the Contraction and Curvitudes and Angles of the direct and transverse Lines and Striæ, and other Specifications of Fossil-shells, the Insertions of their Valves, their Diaphragms, and the Symmetry and Order, and the gradual Disposition of all the parts of them, came exactly to be of the same Make, Contexture and Dimensions, with those Marine ones, of their respective Kinds, which manifestly proceed from a Seed or Sperm:  How also those Plantal Delineations, in Coal and Slate-stones, should circumscribe their Foliations, and terminate their Lines, to the exact Figures of several sorts of Fearn, and especially into the Proprieties of Harts-tongue, Cinque-foil, Clover-grass, Strawberry Leaves, which are uncontestedly Seminal Products, as I hear they are observed to do; to perform all this, is plainly above the Mathematicks of Nature; and since it is done, it becomes an Objection that will supercede and raise our inquiries from these mean and lusory Effects of Mechanism, to the Contemplation of a higher and more powerful organizing Principle, capable of guiding and specificating the Motions of Augmentation unto all those determined Figures, in order to give it a compleat and satisfactory Solution.  And this Principle, however it be conceived to be in a way to produce these Effects, can be no other than a power-Seed or Sperm:  And if there be not a possibility in Nature, of finding out a way by which this efficient might be the cause of these Effects; I think we may cease our Inquiries about it, and let it rest for ever in the most recondite Cabinet of Natures un-revealed Secrets.  But if it appears possible, or any way probable, that these surprizing Effects may be the Products of Seminal Parents, as their like are in other Circumstances, I hope the Patrons of the first Opinion will appease their Scruples, and the Solution of the greatest difficulty in that Theory (the said possibility being once demonstrated) will become very natural, intelligible and easie.

...I think it not unacceptable, to lay out some poor Endeavours, to elucidate a point of that concernment to the Curious; in which yet I shall no farther attempt, than to offer a few problematical Conclusions, which if they be solidly evinced and demonstrated, as much as the Nature of the thing will bear, will, I presume, infer a possibility at least, if not some degree of probability, that these Osseous [bony] and Testaceous [shelled] remains taken out of the Earth, are the Products of, and owe their Formation and Existence to what we call Seeds or Spermatical Energies:  To which Conclusions I shall a little strew the way with these Præliminary Postulata or Propositions; which beng well grounded and established, the Consequences I shall draw from them will be the more firm and immoveable.  And therefore,

My first Proposition is, that the Sphere of Matter consists of Space and Body, and consequently of parts really divisible, to a vast degree of Minuteness.

Secondly, That the just Magnitude of any of the Aggregates or united Portions of these Parts (as to us) is utterly unassignable; and what we may determine of their quantum, is only Mathematical and Comparative, with relation of one Aggregate to another.

Thirdly, That there are certain Portions of this Matter, of extraordinary Fineness and Activity, called Seed or Sperm, indued with a Power of unfolding and augmenting themselves unto determined Shapes and Measures of Extension.

Fourthly, That Generation, Growth and Corruption, are but the Rise, Progress and Rest, the Explication, Motion and Pause, of these Seminal Powers and Activities.

Fifthly, That these Seeds or Spermatical Portions of Matter, contain within them, entirely and individually, the Body or Bodies they produce, and all the parts of those Bodies, as Sinews, Muscles, Bones, Shells, and the like, and as it were the Seeds too and component Particles of those Parts, in immeasurably small and unperceivable Proportions.

Sixthly, That these Seminal Collections of prolifick Matter, were at first prepared, modified and produc'd into Being, in the Primi-genial Chaotick Fluid, Venus orta mari [reference to the mythological "birth" of Venus, who arose fully formed from seafoam generated when the testicles of the castrated god, Uranus, fell into the sea], and still require a watry Vehicle to unfold and propagate.

Seventhly, That all the now solid Parts of concreted Matter, or at least, a great and vast deal of them have been originally a fluid Mass, or substance highly agitated; and from that State, by several degrees of Lentors and Arrestments of Motion, they thickned and coagulated into various sorts and qualities of Fluors [minerals used in smelting]; and thence after some Separations, congealed and hardned into this present Terrestrial Crust, consisting of Clays, Stones, Marchasits, Minerals, Metals and common Earth.

These short and previous Hints, which I lay down as the Grounds and Evidence of my Conclusion, are in themselves very Natural and Intelligible; and as such, have been all of them propounded, asserted, and vigorously maintain'd by very many learned Men, both Ancient and Modern....

Now on the whole matter, having briefly premised, or rather hinted, what I conceive just necessary to conclude this Point ... which yet I am very far from pretending to obtrude [push forward] with any degree of certaint, but only to propound, as a probable Conclusion:  viz. That all Fossil Shells, Bones, &c, digg'd up and found entomb'd in Slate, Stone, Chalk, Marble, &c; all the Parts and Contents of them, however wreathed, marked, and striated, are on the one side so much the Productions of Nature, athat they were originally formed and figured in those very places from whence they are taken up; and yet are also on the other side so much the Remains of the parts of those Fishes they do imitate, that they are the Productions of the same univocal Sperms, which those parts of Animals they resemble, are derived from:  In which Point methinks the two contesting Parties so nearly come together, that it is not to be despaired, but that if any undertakes to make a full prosecution of this Theory, by many Discoveries and Experiments that are requisite to it, set things in their due Light; there may be such a solid scientifical Account handed out, as will sufficiently answer all the Phænomena that occur in this Speculation, and give therein a determining satisfaction to all rational Inquirers: which is much desired by,


Your humble Servant, &c.


Although the Propositions laid down in this Letter, may justly and naturally import at least a Possibility of a Spermatick Origin of those Fossil Shells, Bones, and other Shell-like Impressions, often appearing in Stones, Rocks and Clay, in the manner I have accounted for; yet if this Theory, and what I have attempted in it, takes in any thing contrary, or indeed dissonant to the Mosaick Accounts, in the just and natural, and now generally received sense and acceptation of them; ibit in ignes [burn it], let it be dash'd out and expunged for ever.

But that it may appear to be far otherwise:  that it may demonstrate the Grounds on which those Conclusions were built, which urg'd that Origin, to be in themselves very agreeable with the Sense and Letter of Moses; and that the Discourse and Inferences made on that Subject may also appear innocent and able to stand on a warrantable Bottom, I shall here sum up those Propositions, and place them in that Light and Evidence from the Texts of Moses, as they stand related one to another, that I hope upon an impartial View of the Parallels, there will be little or no scruple to be made, of the warrantableness of the Theory, in relation to Sacred Scriptures:  Let the natural Grounds and Philosophy of it be their own Advocates....

[Here, the author lays out his propositions in comparison with the Biblical account of the origin of the earth and its living inhabitants.]

Though this Light and Evidence from the Words of Moses, taken in the Sense now explained, led me to assert the Primary Origination of both the Vegetable and Animal Furniture of our Earthly Globe to be in their Seeds; yet the Theory I offer to account for the Origin of Figured Fossils, requires no more than that of Animals, and but of the Marine ones too, together, upon what has been said, with these Concessions following, viz.

First, That the common Matter of our Earth was once in a Fluid State and Consistence....

Secondly, That at least all Marine Animals were originally created in their Sperm or Seed in that Fluid; which is very easie to conceive, that Element being the proper Seat and Habitation of those Creatures.

Thirdly, That on the original Separation of the thicker and thinner parts of that Fluid, the thinner became Air and Water; and the more dense and thicker parts, gradually fixed into dry Earth; that is, Earth, Clay, Stones, &c....

Fourthly, That in the gradual fixing and coagulating of the dense and gravitating parts of that Fluid, vast Proportions and innumerable Multitudes of the Seeds of Fish, especially of the shelly Species, were hurried down, detain'd and incorporated in the strict embraces of the detruding thickning Sediments, which afterward became Earth, Clay, Stones, Minerals, &c, and were there laid up and preserved for ever throughout the substance of those depressed congealing Masses.

Fifthly, That at the first congealing of the more gross and heavy Masses and Sediments of that Original Fluid, these enclosed Seeds or animated little Bodies, being more full of Life, and replenished with greater Activity and Vigour than the other parts of Elementary Matter; with the first Onset of their vital and plastick Motion, disposed and figured the then soft and ductile parts of their inclosing Matter, into such Forms as their peculiar specifick Exertions shot them into, and wherein they remained ever after congealed and petrified:  And this we may conceive in the same or very like manner, as we observe the Salts of some Vegetables, when mixed and incorporated with Lye or Urine, to shape, direct, and figure, in a sharp Frost, the congealing parts of that Liquid into their own natural Forms and Delineations.  And also that some Proportions of these Seeds, the strongest and liveliest of them, actuated so far their peculiar Ferments in that soft and ouzie Matter, as to become perfect Fish; of which the tender Musculary parts soon failing, the more firm and durable, viz. Bones and Shells, kept up their Frame and Texture, and became, upon a through [sic; thorough] Congealation, parts of those very Concrets, in which they were produc'd and in which we find them....

Yet for a farther proof that Shells may be produc'd and perfectly form'd, in a much grosser Substance than we do or can suppose the Constitution of the hardest Rocks to have been before their acquiring Solidity and Hardness; that is, when their parts were yet loose, and in a sort of Fusion and Fluidity; I have oft observ'd, and sometime shew'd to my honour'd and worthy Friend Mr. Edward Lhwyd [1660-1709] Keeper of the Musæum in Oxford, multitudes of small very perfect Shells lying scatter'd in all Positions, and of all sizes, from the bigness of a small Pins Head to that of an ordinary Perwinkle, in the midst and throughout the Pulp and Substance of a very thick Clay or Marle [loose and crumbly mixture of sand, clay and limestone]:  nay in one place I have seen abundance of Cockle-shells, most of them whole, their Frame strong and durable, in the midst of very tough Marl; but the others were weak and brittle and perfectly white; which are to be seen in twenty places in my Neighbourhood; on whose Circumstances and Production, for more evidence in this Matter, I shall a little insist and thus argue.

These Shells must either be seminally produced in this Marle or Clay, or convey'd there by Deluges or Inundations:  the latter is very improbable, if not impossible, for their Make and Texture, I mean the first ones I mention'd, is so thin, light and friable, that the least Undulation, or hitting of them against other Bodies, would have bruised them to pieces; and they lie generally, if not all, in their adapted Cavities, whole and entire; neither is there any cause to suspect their having sunk, or in any manner made their way into these thick Beds of Clay; there appearing not the least Tokens of such a Passage.

So that we must conclude them to have been generated there; but then, whether originally produc'd there at the first Coagulum before mention'd, or afterwards sprouting out of their interspersed and latent Seeds from time to time, as certain Causes concurr'd to give them Birth and Production; is a Point [that] may deserve a little consideration.

First, That these Shells were not produc'd in their perfect Shapes, Magnitudes and Dimensions at or before the first hardning of the Marly Substance, we have reason to presume; because the Composition of them is so dilute, their Frame and Texture so weakly built and unstable, that the necessary Pressures of the closing and hardning Mass, would have utterly ruin'd their Frame and Structure, many of them being but a thin Film of a finely dilated Calx, form'd into Shells, but so brittle, that they can scarce endure the fingering of them; and therefore as this Diluteness and Feebleness of their Frame, is a good Argument to prove they were not thrown there by any Floods, which would have dashed them to pieces; so is it a proof likewise that they were not produced into the Form and Substance we see, before the hardening of the including Mass:  Therefore we may hence in the Second place conclude them to have grown and sprung out of their latent Seeds in those places, after the settling and congesting of the Marly Substance:  But how to account for their so doing, in so hard a Substance:  I mean hard in comparison to their tender Bodies; is another difficulty.

To the unfolding of which, I conceive that that sort of Marle being of a porous spungy Texture, was perhaps at first after its settling, full of Bloats and little Holes, replenish'd with a saline Juice; at which the spermatick little Bodies, interspersed through the whole Mass, blooming and putting forth their Increase and Vegetation, soon filled the Uterus or Cavity with an Animal Shell; and the Vegetative Ferment depredating and converting the Ambient Matter into its own Substance, not only encreased the Shell, but also inlarged the Cavity, for the growth and augmentation of it.  Which Process may appear probable, for 'tis evident that these Shells must be form'd there sometime after the Marle's acquiring its hard and settled Consistency; and even in the thickest of it there are little fibrous Pipes or Conveyances, through which the animated Products of the Marl may be well conceived to receive Air and Moisture enough to sustain and accommodate them in their Growth and Maturity.

I insist the more on this Phænomænon, that the Proposition before us may appear more conceivable and easie; instancing in these Marly Shells, the visible Notes and Indications of just the same Process of Generation, as the said Proposition supposes; for it supposes no more than I have, I think, easily and mechanically accounted for in these Marly Shells; that on the like reason the same Effects might be well attributed to the same Cause and Circumstance.  Now from all this, it is just and natural to infer, and I presume few or none will gainsay, that

First, if the production of these true and undoubted Shells in thick Clay or Marle, sprouting out of some hidden Seeds incorporated with the Marle, as certain Causes concurr'd to give them birth, seems possible, nay probable, and almost evident, to any one who views them in their Marly Cells and Receptacles, and duly weighs their Circumstances; it will reasonably follow, that it is as possible, nay as probable, that those Shells now included in Chalk, Stone or Marble, or any [of] the hardest Substances, might be, and were produced just in the same way, or one not very different from it, at that time when these now-harden'd Masses were in their original Clays and Softnesses.

Secondly, It will from this instance follow also, that if the Marine Animals were created in their Seeds or Sperms, (of which the crustaceous and testaceous sort are a considerable Species) in the Chaotick Fluid; and if this Fluid in which these Seeds floated, had a great and considerable share of it, by the Divine Appointment condensing and subsiding into such spiss [?] and dreggy Consistencies, as afterward came to be Earth, Clay and Stones, which I take to be sufficiently authorised by the Mosaick Accounts; it will be from hence very plain and easie to conceive, and as reasonable to infer, that many of these Seeds nad Sperms so subsiding, were detached and carried down in those thick congealing Juices; where during the fused and yielding Consistency of them, they were in no incapacity of displaying and actuating their Animal Ferments; Now let us reflect and observe here, that if in the instances I have now made use of, these mention'd Shells found in Clay and Marle, may not be judged to pretend to any other Origin than a seminal Production in those very Clays where they're found enclos'd whether the very same Reason will not oblige us to make the same Account of the Origin of those other Shells, found in the same manner in Rocks and Stones; for since the Original of these two Subjects, viz. Clays and Stones, was the same, why may we not ascribe the production of these Fossil-Shells to one uniform Cause, in both these Subjects; that is, to those Original Seeds, dispersed in the engross'd Earthy Matter; part whereof by the concurrence of certain Causes came to be congealed and petrified unto a stony hardness; and the other part, for want of such Causes, still continuing in their claiey state and condition?  I shall yet go one step further, and only ask such as are averse to this Opinion; if they allow these Shells in Marle and Clay to be the undoubted Products of that including Mass, and yet will deny the other Shells found in Rocks and Stones to have been spermatically produced in those Masses; and if it should so happen, that part of that claiey Mass abounding with these Shells, be turn'd to Stone; which some petrifying Steams or Waters may easily effect:  I say, whether in that turn of Circumstance, these Persons, on the Principles they go, will not be thereby induced to deny what before they easily granted; when indeed the pretended Difficulty is founded on no essential difference, but on what is only a Mode or Accident, viz. the Laxity and Density of the same Subject.


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