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

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
Cuvier and fossil vertebrates
But once discovered, William Smith's unique facts as to the succession of forms in the rocks would not down. There was one most vital point, however, regarding which the inferences that seem to follow from these facts needed verification - the question, namely, whether the disappearance of a fauna from the register in the rocks really implies the extinction of that fauna. Everything really depended upon the answer to that question, and none but an accomplished naturalist could answer it with authority. Fortunately, the most authoritative naturalist of the time, George Cuvier, took the question in hand - not, indeed, with the idea of verifying any suggestion of Smith's, but in the course of his own original studies - at the very beginning of the century, when Smith's views were attracting general attention.

Cuvier and Smith were exact contemporaries, both men having been born in 1769, that "fertile year" which gave the world also Chateaubriand, Von Humboldt, Wellington, and Napoleon. But the French naturalist was of very different antecedents from the English surveyor. He was brilliantly educated, had early gained recognition as a scientist, and while yet a young man had come to be known as the foremost comparative anatomist of his time. It was the anatomical studies that led him into the realm of fossils. Some bones dug out of the rocks by workmen in a quarry were brought to his notice, and at once his trained eye told him that they were different from anything he had seen before. Hitherto such bones, when not entirely ignored, had been for the most part ascribed to giants of former days, or even to fallen angels. Cuvier soon showed that neither giants nor angels were in question, but elephants of an unrecognized species. Continuing his studies, particularly with material gathered from gypsum beds near Paris, he had accumulated, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, bones of about twenty-five species of animals that he believed to be different from any now living on the globe.

The fame of these studies went abroad, and presently fossil bones poured in from all sides, and Cuvier's conviction that extinct forms of animals are represented among the fossils was sustained by the evidence of many strange and anomalous forms, some of them of gigantic size. In 1816 the famous Ossements Fossiles, describing these novel objects, was published, and vertebrate paleontology became a science. Among other things of great popular interest the book contained the first authoritative description of the hairy elephant, named by Cuvier the mammoth, the remains of which bad been found embedded in a mass of ice in Siberia in 1802, so wonderfully preserved that the dogs of the Tungusian fishermen actually ate its flesh. Bones of the same species had been found in Siberia several years before by the naturalist Pallas, who had also found the carcass of a rhinoceros there, frozen in a mud-bank; but no one then suspected that these were members of an extinct population - they were supposed to be merely transported relics of the flood.

Cuvier, on the other hand, asserted that these and the other creatures he described had lived and died in the region where their remains were found, and that most of them have no living representatives upon the globe. This, to be sure, was nothing more than William Smith had tried all along to establish regarding lower forms of life; but flesh and blood monsters appeal to the imagination in a way quite beyond the power of mere shells; so the announcement of Cuvier's discoveries aroused the interest of the entire world, and the Ossements Fossiles was accorded a popular reception seldom given a work of technical science - a reception in which the enthusiastic approval of progressive geologists was mingled with the bitter protests of the conservatives.

 "Naturalists certainly have neither explored all the continents," said Cuvier, "nor do they as yet even know all the quadrupeds of those parts which have been explored. New species of this class are discovered from time to time; and those who have not examined with attention all the circumstances belonging to these discoveries may allege also that the unknown quadrupeds, whose fossil bones have been found in the strata of the earth, have hitherto remained concealed in some islands not yet discovered by navigators, or in some of the vast deserts which occupy the middle of Africa, Asia, the two Americas, and New Holland.

"But if we carefully attend to the kind of quadrupeds that have been recently discovered, and to the circumstances of their discovery, we shall easily perceive that there is very little chance indeed of our ever finding alive those which have only been seen in a fossil state.

"Islands of moderate size, and at a considerable distance from the large continents, have very few quadrupeds. These must have been carried to them from other countries. Cook and Bougainville found no other quadrupeds besides hogs and dogs in the South Sea Islands; and the largest quadruped of the West India Islands, when first discovered, was the agouti, a species of the cavy, an animal apparently between the rat and the rabbit.

"It is true that the great continents, as Asia, Africa, the two Americas, and New Holland, have large quadrupeds, and, generally speaking, contain species common to each; insomuch, that upon discovering countries which are isolated from the rest of the world, the animals they contain of the class of quadruped were found entirely different from those which existed in other countries. Thus, when the Spaniards first penetrated into South America, they did not find it to contain a single quadruped exactly the same with those of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The puma, the jaguar, the tapir, the capybara, the llama, or glama, and vicuna, and the whole tribe of sapajous, were to them entirely new animals, of which they had not the smallest idea....

"If there still remained any great continent to be discovered, we might perhaps expect to be made acquainted with new species of large quadrupeds, among which some might be found more or less similar to those of which we find the exuviae in the bowels of the earth. But it is merely sufficient to glance the eye over the maps of the world and observe the innumerable directions in which navigators have traversed the ocean, in order to be satisfied that there does not remain any large land to be discovered, unless it may be situated towards the Antarctic Pole, where eternal ice necessarily forbids the existence of animal life."[1]

Cuvier then points out that the ancients were well acquainted with practically all the animals on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa now known to scientists. He finds little grounds, therefore, for belief in the theory that at one time there were monstrous animals on the earth which it was necessary to destroy in order that the present fauna and men might flourish. After reviewing these theories and beliefs in detail, he takes up his Inquiry Respecting the Fabulous Animals of the Ancients. "It is easy," he says, "to reply to the foregoing objections, by examining the descriptions that are left us by the ancients of those unknown animals, and by inquiring into their origins. Now that the greater number of these animals have an origin, the descriptions given of them bear the most unequivocal marks; as in almost all of them we see merely the different parts of known animals united by an unbridled imagination, and in contradiction to every established law of nature."[2]

Having shown how the fabulous monsters of ancient times and of foreign nations, such as the Chinese, were simply products of the imagination, having no prototypes in nature, Cuvier takes up the consideration of the difficulty of distinguishing the fossil bones of quadrupeds.

We shall have occasion to revert to this part of Cuvier's paper in another connection. Here it suffices to pass at once to the final conclusion that the fossil bones in question are the remains of an extinct fauna, the like of which has no present-day representation on the earth. Whatever its implications, this conclusion now seemed to Cuvier to be fully established.

In England the interest thus aroused was sent to fever-heat in 1821 by the discovery of abundant beds of fossil bones in the stalagmite-covered floor of a cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire which went to show that England, too, had once had her share of gigantic beasts. Dr. Buckland, the incumbent of the chair of geology at Oxford, and the most authoritative English geologist of his day, took these finds in hand and showed that the bones belonged to a number of species, including such alien forms as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, and hyenas. He maintained that all of these creatures had actually lived in Britain, and that the caves in which their bones were found had been the dens of hyenas.

The claim was hotly disputed, as a matter of course. As late as 1827 books were published denouncing Buckland, doctor of divinity though he was, as one who had joined in an "unhallowed cause," and reiterating the old cry that the fossils were only remains of tropical species washed thither by the deluge. That they were found in solid rocks or in caves offered no difficulty, at least not to the fertile imagination of Granville Penn, the leader of the conservatives, who clung to the old idea of Woodward and Cattcut that the deluge had dissolved the entire crust of the earth to a paste, into which the relics now called fossils had settled. The caves, said Mr. Penn, are merely the result of gases given off by the carcasses during decomposition - great air-bubbles, so to speak, in the pasty mass, becoming caverns when the waters receded and the paste hardened to rocky consistency.

But these and such-like fanciful views were doomed even in the day of their utterance. Already in 1823 other gigantic creatures, christened ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus by Conybeare, had been found in deeper strata of British rocks; and these, as well as other monsters whose remains were unearthed in various parts of the world, bore such strange forms that even the most sceptical could scarcely hope to find their counterparts among living creatures. Cuvier's contention that all the larger vertebrates of the existing age are known to naturalists was borne out by recent explorations, and there seemed no refuge from the conclusion that the fossil records tell of populations actually extinct. But if this were admitted, then Smith's view that there have been successive rotations of population could no longer be denied. Nor could it be in doubt that the successive faunas, whose individual remains have been preserved in myriads, representing extinct species by thousands and tens of thousands, must have required vast periods of time for the production and growth of their countless generations.

As these facts came to be generally known, and as it came to be understood in addition that the very matrix of the rock in which fossils are imbedded is in many cases one gigantic fossil, composed of the remains of microscopic forms of life, common-sense, which, after all, is the final tribunal, came to the aid of belabored science. It was conceded that the only tenable interpretation of the record in the rocks is that numerous populations of creatures, distinct from one another and from present forms, have risen and passed away; and that the geologic ages in which these creatures lived were of inconceivable length. The rank and file came thus, with the aid of fossil records, to realize the import of an idea which James Hutton, and here and there another thinker, had conceived with the swift intuition of genius long before the science of paleontology came into existence. The Huttonian proposition that time is long had been abundantly established, and by about the close of the first third of the last century geologists had begun to speak of "ages" and "untold aeons of time" with a familiarity which their predecessors had reserved for days and decades.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.