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

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
Charles Lyell combats catastrophism
And now a new question pressed for solution. If the earth has been inhabited by successive populations of beings now extinct, how have all these creatures been destroyed? That question, however, seemed to present no difficulties. It was answered out of hand by the application of an old idea. All down the centuries, whatever their varying phases of cosmogonic thought, there had been ever present the idea that past times were not as recent times; that in remote epochs the earth had been the scene of awful catastrophes that have no parallel in "these degenerate days." Naturally enough, this thought, embalmed in every cosmogonic speculation of whatever origin, was appealed to in explanation of the destruction of these hitherto unimagined hosts, which now, thanks to science, rose from their abysmal slumber as incontestable, but also as silent and as thought-provocative, as Sphinx or pyramid. These ancient hosts, it was said, have been exterminated at intervals of odd millions of years by the recurrence of catastrophes of which the Mosaic deluge is the latest, but perhaps not the last.

This explanation had fullest warrant of scientific authority. Cuvier had prefaced his classical work with a speculative disquisition whose very title (Discours sur les Revolutions du Globe) is ominous of catastrophism, and whose text fully sustains the augury. And Buckland, Cuvier's foremost follower across the Channel, had gone even beyond the master, naming the work in which he described the Kirkdale fossils, Reliquiae Diluvianae, or Proofs of a Universal Deluge.

Both these authorities supposed the creatures whose remains they studied to have perished suddenly in the mighty flood whose awful current, as they supposed, gouged out the modern valleys and hurled great blocks of granite broadcast over the land. And they invoked similar floods for the extermination of previous populations.

It is true these scientific citations had met with only qualified approval at the time of their utterance, because then the conservative majority of mankind did not concede that there had been a plurality of populations or revolutions; but now that the belief in past geologic ages had ceased to be a heresy, the recurring catastrophes of the great paleontologists were accepted with acclaim. For the moment science and tradition were at one, and there was a truce to controversy, except indeed in those outlying skirmish-lines of thought whither news from headquarters does not permeate till it has become ancient history at its source.

The truce, however, was not for long. Hardly had contemporary thought begun to adjust itself to the conception of past ages of incomprehensible extent, each terminated by a catastrophe of the Noachian type, when a man appeared who made the utterly bewildering assertion that the geological record, instead of proving numerous catastrophic revolutions in the earth's past history, gives no warrant to the pretensions of any universal catastrophe whatever, near or remote.

This iconoclast was Charles Lyell, the Scotchman, who was soon to be famous as the greatest geologist of his time. As a young man he had become imbued with the force of the Huttonian proposition, that present causes are one with those that produced the past changes of the globe, and he carried that idea to what he conceived to be its logical conclusion. To his mind this excluded the thought of catastrophic changes in either inorganic or organic worlds.

But to deny catastrophism was to suggest a revolution in current thought. Needless to say, such revolution could not be effected without a long contest. For a score of years the matter was argued pro and con., often with most unscientific ardor. A mere outline of the controversy would fill a volume; yet the essential facts with which Lyell at last established his proposition, in its bearings on the organic world, may be epitomized in a few words. The evidence which seems to tell of past revolutions is the apparently sudden change of fossils from one stratum to another of the rocks. But Lyell showed that this change is not always complete. Some species live on from one alleged epoch into the next. By no means all the contemporaries of the mammoth are extinct, and numerous marine forms vastly more ancient still have living representatives.

Moreover, the blanks between strata in any particular vertical series are amply filled in with records in the form of thick strata in some geographically distant series. For example, in some regions Silurian rocks are directly overlaid by the coal measures; but elsewhere this sudden break is filled in with the Devonian rocks that tell of a great "age of fishes." So commonly are breaks in the strata in one region filled up in another that we are forced to conclude that the record shown by any single vertical series is of but local significance - telling, perhaps, of a time when that particular sea-bed oscillated above the water-line, and so ceased to receive sediment until some future age when it had oscillated back again. But if this be the real significance of the seemingly sudden change from stratum to stratum, then the whole case for catastrophism is hopelessly lost; for such breaks in the strata furnish the only suggestion geology can offer of sudden and catastrophic changes of wide extent.

Let us see how Lyell elaborates these ideas, particularly with reference to the rotation of species.[2]

"I have deduced as a corollary," he says, "that the species existing at any particular period must, in the course of ages, become extinct, one after the other. 'They must die out,' to borrow an emphatic expression from Buffon, 'because Time fights against them.' If the views which I have taken are just, there will be no difficulty in explaining why the habitations of so many species are now restrained within exceeding narrow limits. Every local revolution tends to circumscribe the range of some species, while it enlarges that of others; and if we are led to infer that new species originate in one spot only, each must require time to diffuse itself over a wide area. It will follow, therefore, from the adoption of our hypothesis that the recent origin of some species and the high antiquity of others are equally consistent with the general fact of their limited distribution, some being local because they have not existed long enough to admit of their wide dissemination; others, because circumstances in the animate or inanimate world have occurred to restrict the range within which they may once have obtained. . . .

"If the reader should infer, from the facts laid before him, that the successive extinction of animals and plants may be part of the constant and regular course of nature, he will naturally inquire whether there are any means provided for the repair of these losses? Is it possible as a part of the economy of our system that the habitable globe should to a certain extent become depopulated, both in the ocean and on the land, or that the variety of species should diminish until some new era arrives when a new and extraordinary effort of creative energy is to be displayed? Or is it possible that new species can be called into being from time to time, and yet that so astonishing a phenomenon can escape the naturalist?

"In the first place, it is obviously more easy to prove that a species once numerously represented in a given district has ceased to be than that some other which did not pre-exist had made its appearance - assuming always, for reasons before stated, that single stocks only of each animal and plant are originally created, and that individuals of new species did not suddenly start up in many different places at once.

"So imperfect has the science of natural history remained down to our own times that, within the memory of persons now living, the numbers of known animals and plants have doubled, or even quadrupled, in many classes. New and often conspicuous species are annually discovered in parts of the old continent long inhabited by the most civilized nations. Conscious, therefore, of the limited extent of our information, we always infer, when such discoveries are made, that the beings in question bad previously eluded our research, or had at least existed elsewhere, and only migrated at a recent period into the territories where we now find them.

"What kind of proofs, therefore, could we reasonably expect to find of the origin at a particular period of a new species?

"Perhaps, it may be said in reply, that within the last two or three centuries some forest tree or new quadruped might have been observed to appear suddenly in those parts of England or France which had been most thoroughly investigated - that naturalists might have been able to show that no such being inhabited any other region of the globe, and that there was no tradition of anything similar having been observed in the district where it had made its appearance.

"Now, although this objection may seem plausible, yet its force will be found to depend entirely on the rate of fluctuation which we suppose to prevail in the animal world, and on the proportions which such conspicuous subjects of the animal and vegetable kingdoms bear to those which are less known and escape our observation. There are perhaps more than a million species of plants and animals, exclusive of the microscopic and infusory animalcules, now inhabiting the terraqueous globe, so that if only one of these were to become extinct annually, and one new one were to be every year called into being, much more than a million of years might be required to bring about a complete revolution of organic life.

"I am not hazarding at present any hypothesis as to the probable rate of change, but none will deny that when the annual birth and the annual death of one species on the globe is proposed as a mere speculation, this, at least, is to imagine no slight degree of instability in the animate creation. If we divide the surface of the earth into twenty regions of equal area, one of these might comprehend a space of land and water about equal in dimensions to Europe, and might contain a twentieth part of the million of species which may be assumed to exist in the animal kingdom. In this region one species only could, according to the rate of mortality before assumed, perish in twenty years, or only five out of fifty thousand in the course of a century. But as a considerable portion of the whole world belongs to the aquatic classes, with which we have a very imperfect acquaintance, we must exclude them from our consideration, and, if they constitute half of the entire number, then one species only might be lost in forty years among the terrestrial tribes. Now the mammalia, whether terrestrial or aquatic, bear so small a proportion to other classes of animals, forming less, perhaps, than a thousandth part of a whole, that, if the longevity of species in the different orders were equal, a vast period must elapse before it would come to the turn of this conspicuous class to lose one of their number. If one species only of the whole animal kingdom died out in forty years, no more than one mammifer might disappear in forty thousand years, in a region of the dimensions of Europe.

"It is easy, therefore, to see that in a small portion of such an area, in countries, for example, of the size of England and France, periods of much greater duration must elapse before it would be possible to authenticate the first appearance of one of the larger plants or animals, assuming the annual birth and death of one species to be the rate of vicissitude in the animal creation throughout the world."[3]

 In a word, then, said Lyell, it becomes clear that the numberless species that have been exterminated in the past have died out one by one, just as individuals of a species die, not in vast shoals; if whole populations have passed away, it has been not by instantaneous extermination, but by the elimination of a species now here, now there, much as one generation succeeds another in the life history of any single species. The causes which have brought about such gradual exterminations, and in the long lapse of ages have resulted in rotations of population, are the same natural causes that are still in operation. Species have died out in the past as they are dying out in the present, under influence of changed surroundings, such as altered climate, or the migration into their territory of more masterful species. Past and present causes are one - natural law is changeless and eternal.

Such was the essence of the Huttonian doctrine, which Lyell adopted and extended, and with which his name will always be associated. Largely through his efforts, though of course not without the aid of many other workers after a time, this idea - the doctrine of uniformitarianism, it came to be called - became the accepted dogma of the geologic world not long after the middle of the nineteenth century. The catastrophists, after clinging madly to their phantom for a generation, at last capitulated without terms: the old heresy became the new orthodoxy, and the way was paved for a fresh controversy.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.