A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
William Smith and fossil shells
Ever since Leonardo da Vinci first recognized the true character of fossils, there had been here and there a man who realized that the earth's rocky crust is one gigantic mausoleum. Here and there a dilettante had filled his cabinets with relics from this monster crypt; here and there a philosopher had pondered over them - questioning whether perchance they had once been alive, or whether they were not mere abortive souvenirs of that time when the fertile matrix of the earth was supposed to have

 "teemed at a birth Innumerous living creatures, perfect forms, Limbed and full grown."

Some few of these philosophers - as Robert Hooke and Steno in the seventeenth century, and Moro, Leibnitz, Buffon, Whitehurst, Werner, Hutton, and others in the eighteenth - had vaguely conceived the importance of fossils as records of the earth's ancient history, but the wisest of them no more suspected the full import of the story written in the rocks than the average stroller in a modern museum suspects the meaning of the hieroglyphs on the case of a mummy.

It was not that the rudiments of this story are so very hard to decipher - though in truth they are hard enough - but rather that the men who made the attempt had all along viewed the subject through an atmosphere of preconception, which gave a distorted image. Before this image could be corrected it was necessary that a man should appear who could see without prejudice, and apply sound common-sense to what he saw. And such a man did appear towards the close of the century, in the person of William Smith, the English surveyor. He was a self-taught man, and perhaps the more independent for that, and he had the gift, besides his sharp eyes and receptive mind, of a most tenacious memory. By exercising these faculties, rare as they are homely, he led the way to a science which was destined, in its later developments, to shake the structure of established thought to its foundations.

Little enough did William Smith suspect, however, that any such dire consequences were to come of his act when he first began noticing the fossil shells that here and there are to be found in the stratified rocks and soils of the regions over which his surveyor's duties led him. Nor, indeed, was there anything of such apparent revolutionary character in the facts which he unearthed; yet in their implications these facts were the most disconcerting of any that had been revealed since the days of Copernicus and Galileo. In its bald essence, Smith's discovery was simply this: that the fossils in the rocks, instead of being scattered haphazard, are arranged in regular systems, so that any given stratum of rock is labelled by its fossil population; and that the order of succession of such groups of fossils is always the same in any vertical series of strata in which they occur. That is to say, if fossil A underlies fossil B in any given region, it never overlies it in any other series; though a kind of fossils found in one set of strata may be quite omitted in another. Moreover, a fossil once having disappeared never reappears in any later stratum.

From these novel facts Smith drew the commonsense inference that the earth had had successive populations of creatures, each of which in its turn had become extinct. He partially verified this inference by comparing the fossil shells with existing species of similar orders, and found that such as occur in older strata of the rocks had no counterparts among living species. But, on the whole, being eminently a practical man, Smith troubled himself but little about the inferences that might be drawn from his facts. He was chiefly concerned in using the key he had discovered as an aid to the construction of the first geological map of England ever attempted, and he left to others the untangling of any snarls of thought that might seem to arise from his discovery of the succession of varying forms of life on the globe.

He disseminated his views far and wide, however, in the course of his journeyings - quite disregarding the fact that peripatetics went out of fashion when the printing-press came in - and by the beginning of the nineteenth century he had begun to have a following among the geologists of England. It must not for a moment be supposed, however, that his contention regarding the succession of strata met with immediate or general acceptance. On the contrary, it was most bitterly antagonized. For a long generation after the discovery was made, the generality of men, prone as always to strain at gnats and swallow camels, preferred to believe that the fossils, instead of being deposited in successive ages, had been swept all at once into their present positions by the current of a mighty flood - and that flood, needless to say, the Noachian deluge. Just how the numberless successive strata could have been laid down in orderly sequence to the depth of several miles in one such fell cataclysm was indeed puzzling, especially after it came to be admitted that the heaviest fossils were not found always at the bottom; but to doubt that this had been done in some way was rank heresy in the early days of the nineteenth century.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.