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

Book 3, chapter IV
The origin and development of modern geology
The geological ages
But, for that matter, the entire subject of historical geology is one that had but the barest beginning before our century. Until the paleontologist found out the key to the earth's chronology, no one - not even Hutton - could have any definite idea as to the true story of the earth's past. The only conspicuous attempt to classify the strata was that made by Werner, who divided the rocks into three systems, based on their supposed order of deposition, and called primary, transition, and secondary.

Though Werner's observations were confined to the small province of Saxony, he did not hesitate to affirm that all over the world the succession of strata would be found the same as there, the concentric layers, according to this conception, being arranged about the earth with the regularity of layers on an onion. But in this Werner was as mistaken as in his theoretical explanation of the origin of the "primary" rocks. It required but little observation to show that the exact succession of strata is never precisely the same in any widely separated regions. Nevertheless, there was a germ of truth in Werner's system. It contained the idea, however faultily interpreted, of a chronological succession of strata; and it furnished a working outline for the observers who were to make out the true story of geological development. But the correct interpretation of the observed facts could only be made after the Huttonian view as to the origin of strata had gained complete acceptance.

When William Smith, having found the true key to this story, attempted to apply it, the territory with which he had to deal chanced to be one where the surface rocks are of that later series which Werner termed secondary. He made numerous subdivisions within this system, based mainly on the fossils. Meantime it was found that, judged by the fossils, the strata that Brongniart and Cuvier studied near Paris were of a still more recent period (presumed at first to be due to the latest deluge), which came to be spoken of as tertiary. It was in these beds, some of which seemed to have been formed in fresh-water lakes, that many of the strange mammals which Cuvier first described were found.

But the "transition" rocks, underlying the "secondary" system that Smith studied, were still practically unexplored when, along in the thirties, they were taken in hand by Roderick Impey Murchison, the reformed fox-hunter and ex-captain, who had turned geologist to such notable advantage, and Adam Sedgwick, the brilliant Woodwardian professor at Cambridge.

Working together, these two friends classified the transition rocks into chronological groups, since familiar to every one in the larger outlines as the Silurian system (age of invertebrates) and the Devonian system (age of fishes) - names derived respectively from the country of the ancient Silures, in Wales and Devonshire, England. It was subsequently discovered that these systems of strata, which crop out from beneath newer rocks in restricted areas in Britain, are spread out into broad, undisturbed sheets over thousands of miles in continental Europe and in America. Later on Murchison studied them in Russia, and described them, conjointly with Verneuil and Von Kerserling, in a ponderous and classical work. In America they were studied by Hall, Newberry, Whitney, Dana, Whitfield, and other pioneer geologists, who all but anticipated their English contemporaries.

The rocks that are of still older formation than those studied by Murchison and Sedgwick (corresponding in location to the "primary" rocks of Werner's conception) are the surface feature of vast areas in Canada, and were first prominently studied there by William I. Logan, of the Canadian Government Survey, as early as 1846, and later on by Sir William Dawson. These rocks - comprising the Laurentian system - were formerly supposed to represent parts of the original crust of the earth, formed on first cooling from a molten state; but they are now more generally regarded as once-stratified deposits metamorphosed by the action of heat.

Whether "primitive" or metamorphic, however, these Canadian rocks, and analogous ones beneath the fossiliferous strata of other countries, are the oldest portions of the earth's crust of which geology has any present knowledge. Mountains of this formation, as the Adirondacks and the Storm King range, overlooking the Hudson near West Point, are the patriarchs of their kind, beside which Alleghanies and Sierra Nevadas are recent upstarts, and Rockies, Alps, and Andes are mere parvenus of yesterday.

The Laurentian rocks were at first spoken of as representing "Azoic" time; but in 1846 Dawson found a formation deep in their midst which was believed to b e the fossil relic of a very low form of life, and after that it became customary to speak of the system as "Eozoic." Still more recently the title of Dawson's supposed fossil to rank as such has been questioned, and Dana's suggestion that the early rocks be termed merely Archman has met with general favor. Murchison and Sedgwick's Silurian, Devonian, and Carboniferous groups (the ages of invertebrates, of fishes, and of coal plants, respectively) are together spoken of as representing Paleozoic time. William Smith's system of strata, next above these, once called "secondary," represents Mesozoic time, or the age of reptiles. Still higher, or more recent, are Cuvier and Brongniart's tertiary rocks, representing the age of mammals. Lastly, the most recent formations, dating back, however, to a period far enough from recent in any but a geological sense, are classed as quaternary, representing the age of man.

It must not be supposed, however, that the successive "ages" of the geologist are shut off from one another in any such arbitrary way as this verbal classification might seem to suggest. In point of fact, these "ages" have no better warrant for existence than have the "centuries" and the "weeks" of every-day computation. They are convenient, and they may even stand for local divisions in the strata, but they are bounded by no actual gaps in the sweep of terrestrial events.

Moreover, it must be understood that the "ages" of different continents, though described under the same name, are not necessarily of exact contemporaneity. There is no sure test available by which it could be shown that the Devonian age, for instance, as outlined in the strata of Europe, did not begin millions of years earlier or later than the period whose records are said to represent the Devonian age in America. In attempting to decide such details as this, mineralogical data fail us utterly. Even in rocks of adjoining regions identity of structure is no proof of contemporaneous origin; for the veritable substance of the rock of one age is ground up to build the rocks of subsequent ages. Furthermore, in seas where conditions change but little the same form of rock may be made age after age. It is believed that chalk-beds still forming in some of our present seas may form one continuous mass dating back to earliest geologic ages. On the other hand, rocks different in character maybe formed at the same time in regions not far apart - say a sandstone along shore, a coral limestone farther seaward, and a chalk-bed beyond. This continuous stratum, broken in the process of upheaval, might seem the record of three different epochs.

Paleontology, of course, supplies far better chronological tests, but even these have their limitations. There has been no time since rocks now in existence were formed, if ever, when the earth had a uniform climate and a single undiversified fauna over its entire land surface, as the early paleontologists supposed. Speaking broadly, the same general stages have attended the evolution of organic forms everywhere, but there is nothing to show that equal periods of time witnessed corresponding changes in diverse regions, but quite the contrary. To cite but a single illustration, the marsupial order, which is the dominant mammalian type of the living fauna of Australia to-day, existed in Europe and died out there in the tertiary age. Hence a future geologist might think the Australia of to-day contemporaneous with a period in Europe which in reality antedated it by perhaps millions of years.

All these puzzling features unite to render the subject of historical geology anything but the simple matter the fathers of the science esteemed it. No one would now attempt to trace the exact sequence of formation of all the mountains of the globe, as Elie de Beaumont did a half-century ago. Even within the limits of a single continent, the geologist must proceed with much caution in attempting to chronicle the order in which its various parts rose from the matrix of the sea. The key to this story is found in the identification of the strata that are the surface feature in each territory. If Devonian rocks are at the surface in any given region, for example, it would appear that this region became a land surface in the Devonian age, or just afterwards. But a moment's consideration shows that there is an element of uncertainty about this, due to the steady denudation that all land surfaces undergo. The Devonian rocks may lie at the surface simply because the thousands of feet of carboniferous strata that once lay above them have been worn away. All that the cautious geologist dare assert, therefore, is that the region in question did not become permanent land surface earlier than the Devonian age.

But to know even this is much - sufficient, indeed, to establish the chronological order of elevation, if not its exact period, for all parts of any continent that have been geologically explored - understanding always that there must be no scrupling about a latitude of a few millions or perhaps tens of millions of years here and there.

Regarding our own continent, for example, we learn through the researches of a multitude of workers that in the early day it was a mere archipelago. Its chief island - the backbone of the future continent - was a great V-shaped area surrounding what is now Hudson Bay, an area built tip, perhaps, through denudation of a yet more ancient polar continent, whose existence is only conjectured. To the southeast an island that is now the Adirondack Mountains, and another that is now the Jersey Highlands rose above the waste of waters, and far to the south stretched probably a line of islands now represented by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Far off to the westward another line of islands foreshadowed our present Pacific border. A few minor islands in the interior completed the archipelago.

From this bare skeleton the continent grew, partly by the deposit of sediment from the denudation of the original islands (which once towered miles, perhaps, where now they rise thousands of feet), but largely also by the deposit of organic remains, especially in the interior sea, which teemed with life. In the Silurian ages, invertebrates - brachiopods and crinoids and cephalopods - were the dominant types. But very early - no one knows just when - there came fishes of many strange forms, some of the early ones enclosed in turtle-like shells. Later yet, large spaces within the interior sea having risen to the surface, great marshes or forests of strange types of vegetation grew and deposited their remains to form coal-beds. Many times over such forests were formed, only to be destroyed by the oscillations of the land surface. All told, the strata of this Paleozoic period aggregate several miles in thickness, and the time consumed in their formation stands to all later time up to the present, according to Professor Dana's estimate, as three to one.

Towards the close of this Paleozoic era the Appalachian Mountains were slowly upheaved in great convoluted folds, some of them probably reaching three or four miles above the sea-level, though the tooth of time has since gnawed them down to comparatively puny limits. The continental areas thus enlarged were peopled during the ensuing Mesozoic time with multitudes of strange reptiles, many of them gigantic in size. The waters, too, still teeming with invertebrates and fishes, had their quota of reptilian monsters; and in the air were flying reptiles, some of which measured twenty- five feet from tip to tip of their batlike wings. During this era the Sierra Nevada Mountains rose. Near the eastern border of the forming continent the strata were perhaps now too thick and stiff to bend into mountain folds, for they were rent into great fissures, letting out floods of molten lava, remnants of which are still in evidence after ages of denudation, as the Palisades along the Hudson, and such elevations as Mount Holyoke in western Massachusetts.

Still there remained a vast interior sea, which later on, in the tertiary age, was to be divided by the slow uprising of the land, which only yesterday - that is to say, a million, or three or five or ten million, years ago - became the Rocky Mountains. High and erect these young mountains stand to this day, their sharp angles and rocky contours vouching for their youth, in strange contrast with the shrunken forms of the old Adirondacks, Green Mountains, and Appalachians, whose lowered heads and rounded shoulders attest the weight of ages. In the vast lakes which still remained on either side of the Rocky range, tertiary strata were slowly formed to the ultimate depth of two or three miles, enclosing here and there those vertebrate remains which were to be exposed again to view by denudation when the land rose still higher, and then, in our own time, to tell so wonderful a story to the paleontologist.

Finally, the interior seas were filled, and the shore lines of the continent assumed nearly their present outline.

Then came the long winter of the glacial epoch - perhaps of a succession of glacial epochs. The ice sheet extended southward to about the fortieth parallel, driving some animals before it, and destroying those that were unable to migrate. At its fulness, the great ice mass lay almost a mile in depth over New England, as attested by the scratched and polished rock surfaces and deposited erratics in the White Mountains. Such a mass presses down with a weight of about one hundred and twenty-five tons to the square foot, according to Dr. Croll's estimate. It crushed and ground everything beneath it more or less, and in some regions planed off hilly surfaces into prairies. Creeping slowly forward, it carried all manner of debris with it. When it melted away its terminal moraine built up the nucleus of the land masses now known as Long Island and Staten Island; other of its deposits formed the "drumlins" about Boston famous as Bunker and Breed's hills; and it left a long, irregular line of ridges of "till" or bowlder clay and scattered erratics clear across the country at about the latitude of New York city.

As the ice sheet slowly receded it left minor moraines all along its course. Sometimes its deposits dammed up river courses or inequalities in the surface, to form the lakes which everywhere abound over Northern territories. Some glacialists even hold the view first suggested by Ramsey, of the British Geological Survey, that the great glacial sheets scooped out the basins of many lakes, including the system that feeds the St. Lawrence. At all events, it left traces of its presence all along the line of its retreat, and its remnants exist to this day as mountain glaciers and the polar ice cap. Indeed, we live on the border of the last glacial epoch, for with the closing of this period the long geologic past merges into the present.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.