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

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
The origin of species
The fresh controversy followed quite as a matter of course. For the idea of catastrophism had not concerned the destruction of species merely, but their introduction as well. If whole faunas had been extirpated suddenly, new faunas had presumably been introduced with equal suddenness by special creation; but if species die out gradually, the introduction of new species may be presumed to be correspondingly gradual. Then may not the new species of a later geological epoch be the modified lineal descendants of the extinct population of an earlier epoch?

The idea that such might be the case was not new. It had been suggested when fossils first began to attract conspicuous attention; and such sagacious thinkers as Buffon and Kant and Goethe and Erasmus Darwin had been disposed to accept it in the closing days of the eighteenth century. Then, in 1809, it had been contended for by one of the early workers in systematic paleontology - Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who had studied the fossil shells about Paris while Cuvier studied the vertebrates, and who had been led by these studies to conclude that there had been not merely a rotation but a progression of life on the globe. He found the fossil shells - the fossils of invertebrates, as he himself had christened them - in deeper strata than Cuvier's vertebrates; and he believed that there had been long ages when no higher forms than these were in existence, and that in successive ages fishes, and then reptiles, had been the highest of animate creatures, before mammals, including man, appeared. Looking beyond the pale of his bare facts, as genius sometimes will, he had insisted that these progressive populations had developed one from another, under influence of changed surroundings, in unbroken series.

Of course such a thought as this was hopelessly misplaced in a generation that doubted the existence of extinct species, and hardly less so in the generation that accepted catastrophism; but it had been kept alive by here and there an advocate like Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and now the banishment of catastrophism opened the way for its more respectful consideration. Respectful consideration was given it by Lyell in each recurring edition of his Principles, but such consideration led to its unqualified rejection. In its place Lyell put forward a modified hypothesis of special creation. He assumed that from time to time, as the extirpation of a species had left room, so to speak, for a new species, such new species had been created de novo; and he supposed that such intermittent, spasmodic impulses of creation manifest themselves nowadays quite as frequently as at any time in the past. He did not say in so many words that no one need be surprised to-day were he to see a new species of deer, for example, come up out of the ground before him, "pawing to get free," like Milton's lion, but his theory implied as much. And that theory, let it be noted, was not the theory of Lyell alone, but of nearly all his associates in the geologic world. There is perhaps no other fact that will bring home to one so vividly the advance in thought of our own generation as the recollection that so crude, so almost unthinkable a conception could have been the current doctrine of science less than half a century ago.

This theory of special creation, moreover, excluded the current doctrine of uniformitarianism as night excludes day, though most thinkers of the time did not seem to be aware of the incompatibility of the two ideas. It may be doubted whether even Lyell himself fully realized it. If he did, he saw no escape from the dilemma, for it seemed to him that the record in the rocks clearly disproved the alternative Lamarckian hypothesis. And almost with one accord the paleontologists of the time sustained the verdict. Owen, Agassiz, Falconer, Barrande, Pictet, Forbes, repudiated the idea as unqualifiedly as their great predecessor Cuvier had done in the earlier generation. Some of them did, indeed, come to believe that there is evidence of a progressive development of life in the successive ages, but no such graded series of fossils had been discovered as would give countenance to the idea that one species had ever been transformed into another. And to nearly every one this objection seemed insuperable.

But in 1859 appeared a book which, though not dealing primarily with paleontology, yet contained a chapter that revealed the geological record in an altogether new light. The book was Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the chapter that wonderful citation of the "Imperfections of the Geological Record." In this epoch-making chapter Darwin shows what conditions must prevail in any given place in order that fossils shall be formed, how unusual such conditions are, and how probable it is that fossils once imbedded in sediment of a sea-bed will be destroyed by metamorphosis of the rocks, or by denudation when the strata are raised above the water-level. Add to this the fact that only small territories of the earth have been explored geologically, he says, and it becomes clear that the paleontological record as we now possess it shows but a mere fragment of the past history of organisms on the earth. It is a history "imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page only here and there a few lines." For a paleontologist to dogmatize from such a record would be as rash, he thinks, as "for a naturalist to land for five minutes on a barren point of Australia and then discuss the number and range of its productions."

This citation of observations, which when once pointed out seemed almost self-evident, came as a revelation to the geological world. In the clarified view now possible old facts took on a new meaning. It was recalled that Cuvier had been obliged to establish a new order for some of the first fossil creatures he examined, and that Buckland had noted that the nondescript forms were intermediate in structure between allied existing orders. More recently such intermediate forms had been discovered over and over; so that, to name but one example, Owen had been able, with the aid of extinct species, to "dissolve by gradations the apparently wide interval between the pig and the camel." Owen, moreover, had been led to speak repeatedly of the "generalized forms" of extinct animals, and Agassiz had called them "synthetic or prophetic types," these terms clearly implying "that such forms are in fact intermediate or connecting links." Darwin himself had shown some years before that the fossil animals of any continent are closely related to the existing animals of that continent - edentates predominating, for example, in South America, and marsupials in Australia. Many observers had noted that recent strata everywhere show a fossil fauna more nearly like the existing one than do more ancient strata; and that fossils from any two consecutive strata are far more closely related to each other than are the fossils of two remote formations, the fauna of each geological formation being, indeed, in a wide view, intermediate between preceding and succeeding faunas.

So suggestive were all these observations that Lyell, the admitted leader of the geological world, after reading Darwin's citations, felt able to drop his own crass explanation of the introduction of species and adopt the transmutation hypothesis, thus rounding out the doctrine of uniformitarianism to the full proportions in which Lamarck had conceived it half a century before. Not all paleontologists could follow him at once, of course; the proof was not yet sufficiently demonstrative for that; but all were shaken in the seeming security of their former position, which is always a necessary stage in the progress of thought. And popular interest in the matter was raised to white heat in a twinkling.

So, for the third time in this first century of its existence, paleontology was called upon to play a leading role in a controversy whose interest extended far beyond the bounds of staid truth-seeking science. And the controversy waged over the age of the earth had not been more bitter, that over catastrophism not more acrimonious, than that which now raged over the question of the transmutation of species. The question had implications far beyond the bounds of paleontology, of course. The main evidence yet presented had been drawn from quite other fields, but by common consent the record in the rocks might furnish a crucial test of the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. "He who rejects this view of the imperfections of the geological record," said Darwin, "will rightly reject the whole theory."

With something more than mere scientific zeal, therefore, paleontologists turned anew to the records in the rocks, to inquire what evidence in proof or refutation might be found in unread pages of the "great stone book." And, as might have been expected, many minds being thus prepared to receive new evidence, such evidence was not long withheld.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.