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

Book 3, chapter III
The new science of paleontology
Paleontology of evolution
Williams
These and such-like revelations have come to light in our own time - are, indeed, still being disclosed. Needless to say, no index of any sort now attempts to conceal them; yet something has been accomplished towards the same end by the publication of the discoveries in Smithsonian bulletins and in technical memoirs of government surveys. Fortunately, however, the results have been rescued from that partial oblivion by such interpreters as Professors Huxley and Cope, so the unscientific public has been allowed to gain at least an inkling of the wonderful progress of paleontology in our generation.

The writings of Huxley in particular epitomize the record. In 1862 he admitted candidly that the paleontological record as then known, so far as it bears on the doctrine of progressive development, negatives that doctrine. In 1870 he was able to "soften somewhat the Brutus-like severity" of his former verdict, and to assert that the results of recent researches seem "to leave a clear balance in favor of the doctrine of the evolution of living forms one from another." Six years later, when reviewing the work of Marsh in America and of Gaudry in Pikermi, he declared that, "on the evidence of paleontology, the evolution of many existing forms of animal life from their predecessors is no longer an hypothesis, but an historical fact." In 1881 he asserted that the evidence gathered in the previous decade had been so unequivocal that, had the transmutation hypothesis not existed, "the paleontologist would have had to invent it."

Since then the delvers after fossils have piled proof on proof in bewildering profusion. The fossil-beds in the "bad lands" of western America seem inexhaustible. And in the Connecticut River Valley near relatives of the great reptiles which Professor Marsh and others have found in such profusion in the West left their tracks on the mud-flats - since turned to sandstone; and a few skeletons also have been found. The bodies of a race of great reptiles that were the lords of creation of their day have been dissipated to their elements, while the chance indentations of their feet as they raced along the shores, mere footprints on the sands, have been preserved among the most imperishable of the memory-tablets of the world.

Of the other vertebrate fossils that have been found in the eastern portions of America, among the most abundant and interesting are the skeletons of mastodons. Of these one of the largest and most complete is that which was unearthed in the bed of a drained lake near Newburg, New York, in 1845. This specimen was larger than the existing elephants, and had tusks eleven feet in length. It was mounted and described by Dr. John C. Warren, of Boston, and has been famous for half a century as the "Warren mastodon."

But to the student of racial development as recorded by the fossils all these sporadic finds have but incidental interest as compared with the rich Western fossil- beds to which we have already referred. From records here unearthed, the racial evolution of many mammals has in the past few years been made out in greater or less detail. Professor Cope has traced the ancestry of the camels (which, like the rhinoceroses, hippopotami, and sundry other forms now spoken of as "Old World," seem to have had their origin here) with much completeness.

A lemuroid form of mammal, believed to be of the type from which man has descended, has also been found in these beds. It is thought that the descendants of this creature, and of the other "Old-World" forms above referred to, found their way to Asia, probably, as suggested by Professor Marsh, across a bridge at Bering Strait, to continue their evolution on the other hemisphere, becoming extinct in the land of their nativity. The ape-man fossil found in the tertiary strata of the island of Java in 1891 by the Dutch surgeon Dr. Eugene Dubois, and named Pithecanthropus erectus, may have been a direct descendant of the American tribe of primitive lemurs, though this is only a conjecture.

Not all the strange beasts which have left their remains in our "bad lands" are represented by living descendants. The titanotheres, or brontotheridae, for example, a gigantic tribe, offshoots of the same stock which produced the horse and rhinoceros, represented the culmination of a line of descent. They developed rapidly in a geological sense, and flourished about the middle of the tertiary period; then, to use Agassiz's phrase," time fought against them." The story of their evolution has been worked out by Professors Leidy, Marsh, Cope, and H. F. Osborne.

A recent bit of paleontological evidence bearing on the question of the introduction of species is that presented by Dr. J. L. Wortman in connection with the fossil lineage of the edentates. It was suggested by Marsh, in 1877, that these creatures, whose modern representatives are all South American, originated in North America long before the two continents had any land connection. The stages of degeneration by which these animals gradually lost the enamel from their teeth, coming finally to the unique condition of their modern descendants of the sloth tribe, are illustrated by strikingly graded specimens now preserved in the American Museum of Natural History, as shown by Dr. Wortman.

All these and a multitude of other recent observations that cannot be even outlined here tell the same story. With one accord paleontologists of our time regard the question of the introduction of new species as solved. As Professor Marsh has said, "to doubt evolution today is to doubt science; and science is only another name for truth."

Thus the third great battle over the meaning of the fossil records has come to a conclusion. Again there is a truce to controversy, and it may seem to the casual observer that the present stand of the science of fossils is final and impregnable. But does this really mean that a full synopsis of the story of paleontology has been told? Or do we only await the coming of the twentieth-century Lamarck or Darwin, who shall attack the fortified knowledge of to-day with the batteries of a new generalization?.


 

 

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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.