Click here to return to the:  Table of Contents

THE ANCIENT
LIFE-HISTORY
OF THE EARTH

INTRODUCTION.

THE LAWS OF GEOLOGICAL ACTION.


Under the general title of "Geology" are usually included at least two distinct branches of inquiry, allied to one another in the closest manner, and yet so distinct as to be largely capable of separate study. Geology, in its strict sense, is the science which is concerned with the investigation of the materials which compose the earth, the methods in which those materials have been arranged, and the causes and modes of origin of these arrangements. In this limited aspect, Geology is nothing more than the Physical Geography of the past, just as Physical Geography is the Geology of to-day; and though it has to call in the aid of Physics, Astronomy, Mineralogy, Chemistry, and other allies more remote, it is in itself a perfectly distinct and individual study. One has, however, only to cross the threshold of Geology to discover that the field and scope of the science cannot be thus rigidly limited to purely physical problems.

The study of the physical development of the earth throughout past ages brings us at once in contact with the forms of animal and vegetable life which peopled its surface in bygone epochs, and it is found impossible adequately to comprehend the former, unless we possess some knowledge of the latter. However great its physical advances may be, Geology remains imperfect till it is wedded with Palæontology,[2] a study which essentially belongs to the vast complex of the Biological Sciences, but at the same time has its strictly geological side. Dealing, as it does, wholly with the consideration of such living beings as do not belong exclusively to the present order of things, Palæontology is, in reality, a branch of Natural History, and may be regarded as substantially the Zoology and Botany of the past. It is the ancient life-history of the earth, as revealed to us by the labours of palæontologists, with which we have mainly to do here; but before entering upon this, there are some general questions, affecting Geology and Palæontology alike, which may be very briefly discussed.

[Footnote 1: Gr. ge, the earth; logos, a discourse.]
[Footnote 2: Gr. palaios, ancient; onta, beings; logos, discourse.]

The working geologist, dealing in the main with purely physical problems, has for his object to determine the material structure of the earth, and to investigate, as far as may be, the long chain of causes of which that structure is the ultimate result. No wider or more extended field of inquiry could be found; but philosophical geology is not content with this. At all the confines of his science, the transcendental geologist finds himself confronted with some of the most stupendous problems which have ever engaged the restless intellect of humanity. The origin and primæval constitution of the terrestrial globe, the laws of geologic action through long ages of vicissitude and development, the origin of life, the nature and source of the myriad complexities of living beings, the advent of man, possibly even the future history of the earth, are amongst the questions with which the geologist has to grapple in his higher capacity.

These are problems which have occupied the attention of philosophers in every age of the world, and in periods long antecedent to the existence of a science of geology. The mere existence of cosmogonies in the religion of almost every nation, both ancient and modern, is a sufficient proof of the eager desire of the human mind to know something of the origin of the earth on which we tread. Every human being who has gazed on the vast panorama of the universe, though it may have been but with the eyes of a child, has felt the longing to solve, however imperfectly, "the riddle of the painful earth," and has, consciously or unconsciously, elaborated some sort of a theory as to the why and wherefore of what he sees. Apart from the profound and perhaps inscrutable problems which lie at the bottom of human existence, men have in all ages invented theories to explain the common phenomena of the material universe; and most of these theories, however varied in their details, turn out on examination to have a common root, and to be based on the same elements. Modern geology has its own theories on the same subject, and it will be well to glance for a moment at the principles underlying the old and the new views.

It has been maintained, as a metaphysical hypothesis, that there exists in the mind of man an inherent principle, in virtue of which he believes and expects that what has been, will be; and that the course of nature will be a continuous and uninterrupted one. So far, however, from any such belief existing as a necessary consequence of the constitution of the human mind, the real fact seems to be that the contrary belief has been almost universally prevalent. In all old religions, and in the philosophical systems of almost all ancient nations, the order of the universe has been regarded as distinctly unstable, mutable, and temporary. A beginning and an end have always been assumed, and the course of terrestrial events between these two indefinite points has been regarded as liable to constant interruption by revolutions and catastrophes of different kinds, in many cases emanating from supernatural sources. Few of the more ancient theological creeds, and still fewer of the ancient philosophies, attained body and shape without containing, in some form or another, the belief in the existence of periodical convulsions, and of alternating cycles of destruction and repair.

That geology, in its early infancy, should have become imbued with the spirit of this belief, is no more than might have been expected; and hence arose the at one time powerful and generally-accepted doctrine of "Catastrophism." That the succession of phenomena upon the globe, whereby the earth's crust had assumed the configuration and composition which we find it to possess, had been a discontinuous and broken succession, was the almost inevitable conclusion of the older geologists. Everywhere in their study of the rocks they met with apparently impassable gaps, and breaches of continuity that could not be bridged over. Everywhere they found themselves conducted abruptly from one system of deposits to others totally different in mineral character or in stratigraphical position. Everywhere they discovered that well-marked and easily recognisable groups of animals and plants were succeeded, without the intermediation of any obvious lapse of time, by other assemblages of organic beings of a different character. Everywhere they found evidence that the earth's crust had undergone changes of such magnitude as to render it seemingly irrational to suppose that they could have been produced by any process now in existence. If we add to the above the prevalent belief of the time as to the comparative brevity of the period which had elapsed since the birth of the globe, we can readily understand the general acceptance of some form of catastrophism amongst the earlier geologists.

As regards its general sense and substance, the doctrine of catastrophism held that the history of the earth, since first it emerged from the primitive chaos, had been one of periods of repose, alternating with catastrophes and cataclysms of a more or less violent character. The periods of tranquillity were supposed to have been long and protracted; and during each of them it was thought that one of the great geological "formations" was deposited. In each of these periods, therefore, the condition of the earth was supposed to be much the same as it is now—sediment was quietly accumulated at the bottom of the sea, and animals and plants flourished uninterruptedly in successive generations. Each period of tranquillity, however, was believed to have been, sooner or later, put an end to by a sudden and awful convulsion of nature, ushering in a brief and paroxysmal period, in which the great physical forces were unchained and permitted to spring into a portentous activity. The forces of subterranean fire, with their concomitant phenomena of earthquake and volcano, were chiefly relied upon as the efficient causes of these periods of spasm and revolution. Enormous elevations of portions of the earth's crust were thus believed to be produced, accompanied by corresponding and equally gigantic depressions of other portions. In this way new ranges of mountains were produced, and previously existing ranges levelled with the ground, seas were converted into dry land, and continents buried beneath the ocean—catastrophe following catastrophe, till the earth was rendered uninhabitable, and its races of animals and plants were extinguished, never to reappear in the same form. Finally, it was believed that this feverish activity ultimately died out, and that the ancient peace once more came to reign upon the earth. As the abnormal throes and convulsions began to be relieved, the dry land and sea once more resumed their relations of stability, the conditions of life were once more established, and new races of animals and plants sprang into existence, to last until the supervention of another fever-fit.

Such is the past history of the globe, as sketched for us, in alternating scenes of fruitful peace and revolutionary destruction, by the earlier geologists. As before said, we cannot wonder at the former general acceptance of Catastrophistic doctrines. Even in the light of our present widely-increased knowledge, the series of geological monuments remains a broken and imperfect one; nor can we ever hope to fill up completely the numerous gaps with which the geological record is defaced. Catastrophism was the natural method of accounting for these gaps, and, as we shall see, it possesses a basis of truth. At present, however, catastrophism may be said to be nearly extinct, and its place is taken by the modern doctrine of "Continuity" or "Uniformity"—a doctrine with which the name of Lyell must ever remain imperishably associated.

The fundamental thesis of the doctrine of Uniformity is, that, in spite of all apparent violations of continuity, the sequence of geological phenomena has in reality been a regular and uninterrupted one; and that the vast changes which can be shown to have passed over the earth in former periods have been the result of the slow and ceaseless working of the ordinary physical forces—acting with no greater intensity than they do now, but acting through enormously prolonged periods. The essential element in the theory of Continuity is to be found in the allotment of indefinite time for the accomplishment of the known series of geological changes. It is obviously the case, namely, that there are two possible explanations of all phenomena which lie so far concealed in "the dark backward and abysm of time," that we can have no direct knowledge of the manner in which they were produced. We may, on the one hand, suppose them to be the result of some very powerful cause, acting through a short period of time. That is Catastrophism. Or, we may suppose them to be caused by a much weaker force operating through a proportionately prolonged period. This is the view of the Uniformitarians. It is a question of energy versus time and it is time which is the true element of the case. An earthquake may remove a mountain in the course of a few seconds; but the dropping of the gentle rain will do the same, if we extend its operations over a millennium. And this is true of all agencies which are now at work, or ever have been at work, upon our planet. The Catastrophists, believing that the globe is but, as it were, the birth of yesterday, were driven of necessity to the conclusion that its history had been checkered by the intermittent action of paroxysmal and almost inconceivably potent forces. The Uniformitarians, on the other hand, maintaining the "adequacy of existing causes," and denying that the known physical forces ever acted in past time with greater intensity than they do at present, are, equally of necessity, driven to the conclusion that the world is truly in its "hoary eld," and that its present state is really the result of the tranquil and regulated action of known forces through unnumbered and innumerable centuries.

The most important point for us, in the present connection, is the bearing of these opposing doctrines upon the question, as to the origin of the existing terrestrial order. On any doctrine of uniformity that order has been evolved slowly, and, according to law, from a pre-existing order. Any doctrine of catastrophism, on the other hand, carries with it, by implication, the belief that the present order of things was brought about suddenly and irrespective of any pre-existent order; and it is important to hold clear ideas as to which of these beliefs is the true one. In the first place, we may postulate that the world had a beginning, and, equally, that the existing terrestrial order had a beginning. However far back we may go, geology does not, and cannot, reach the actual beginning of the world; and we are, therefore, left simply to our own speculations on this point. With regard, however, to the existing terrestrial order, a great deal can be discovered, and to do so is one of the principal tasks of geological science. The first steps in the production of that order lie buried in the profound and unsearchable depths of a past so prolonged as to present itself to our finite minds as almost in eternity. The last steps are in the prophetic future, and can be but dimly guessed at. Between the remote past and the distant future, we have, however, a long period which is fairly open to inspection; and in saying a "long" period, it is to be borne in mind that this term is used in its geological sense. Within this period, enormously long as it is when measured by human standards, we can trace with reasonable certainty the progressive march of events, and can determine the laws of geological action, by which the present order of things has been brought about.

The natural belief on this subject doubtless is, that the world, such as we now see it, possessed its present form and configuration from the beginning. Nothing can be more natural than the belief that the present continents and oceans have always been where they are now; that we have always had the same mountains and plains; that our rivers have always had their present courses, and our lakes their present positions; that our climate has always been the same; and that our animals and plants have always been identical with those now familiar to us. Nothing could be more natural than such a belief, and nothing could be further removed from the actual truth. On the contrary, a very slight acquaintance with geology shows us, in the words of Sir John Herschel, that "the actual configuration of our continents and islands, the coast-lines of our maps, the direction and elevation of our mountain-chains, the courses of our rivers, and the soundings of our oceans, are not things primordially arranged in the construction of our globe, but results of successive and complex actions on a former state of things; that, again, of similar actions on another still more remote; and so on, till the original and really permanent state is pushed altogether out of sight and beyond the reach even of imagination; while on the other hand, a similar, and, as far as we can see, interminable vista is opened out for the future, by which the habitability of our planet is secured amid the total abolition on it of the present theatres of terrestrial life."

Geology, then, teaches us that the physical features which now distinguish the earth's surface have been produced as the ultimate result of an almost endless succession of precedent changes. Palæontology teaches us, though not yet in such assured accents, the same lesson. Our present animals and plants have not been produced, in their innumerable forms, each as we now know it, as the sudden, collective, and simultaneous birth of a renovated world. On the contrary, we have the clearest evidence that some of our existing animals and plants made their appearance upon the earth at a much earlier period than others. In the confederation of animated nature some races can boast of an immemorial antiquity, whilst others are comparative parvenus. We have also the clearest evidence that the animals and plants which now inhabit the globe have been preceded, over and over again, by other different assemblages of animals and plants, which have flourished in successive periods of the earth's history, have reached their culmination, and then have given way to a fresh series of living beings. We have, finally, the clearest evidence that these successive groups of animals and plants (faunæ and floræ) are to a greater or less extent directly connected with one another. Each group is, to a greater or less extent, the lineal descendant of the group which immediately preceded it in point of time, and is more or less fully concerned with giving origin to the group which immediately follows it. That this law of "evolution" has prevailed to a great extent is quite certain; but it does not meet all the exigencies of the case, and it is probable that its action has been supplemented by some still unknown law of a different character.

We shall have to consider the question of geological "continuity" again. In the meanwhile, it is sufficient to state that this doctrine is now almost universally accepted as the basis of all inquiries, both in the domain of geology and that of palæontology. The advocates of continuity possess one immense advantage over those who believe in violent and revolutionary convulsions, that they call into play only agencies of which we have actual knowledge. We know that certain forces are now at work, producing certain modifications in the present condition of the globe; and we know that these forces are capable of producing the vastest of the changes which geology brings under our consideration, provided we assign a time proportionately vast for their operation. On the other hand, the advocates of catastrophism, to make good their views, are compelled to invoke forces and actions, both destructive and restorative, of which we have, and can have, no direct knowledge. They endow the whirlwind and the earthquake, the central fire and the rain from heaven, with powers as mighty as ever imagined in fable, and they build up the fragments of a repeatedly shattered world by the intervention of an intermittently active creative power.

It should not be forgotten, however, that from one point of view there is a truth in catastrophism which is sometimes overlooked by the advocates of continuity and uniformity. Catastrophism has, as its essential feature, the proposition that the known and existing forces of the earth at one time acted with much greater intensity and violence than they do at present, and they carry down the period of this excessive action to the commencement of the present terrestrial order. The Uniformitarians, in effect, deny this proposition, at any rate as regards any period of the earth's history of which we have actual cognisance. If, however, the "nebular hypothesis" of the origin of the universe be well founded—as is generally admitted—then, beyond question, the earth is a gradually cooling body, which has at one time been very much hotter than it is at present. There has been a time, therefore, in which the igneous forces of the earth, to which we owe the phenomena of earthquakes and volcanoes, must have been far more intensely active than we can conceive of from anything that we can see at the present day. By the same hypothesis, the sun is a cooling body, and must at one time have possessed a much higher temperature than it has at present. But increased heat of the sun would seriously alter the existing conditions affecting the evaporation and precipitation of moisture on our earth; and hence the aqueous forces may also have acted at one time more powerfully than they do now. The fundamental principle of catastrophism is, therefore, not wholly vicious; and we have reason to think that there must have been periods—very remote, it is true, and perhaps unrecorded in the history of the earth—in which the known physical forces may have acted with an intensity much greater than direct observation would lead us to imagine. And this may be believed, altogether irrespective of those great secular changes by which hot or cold epochs are produced, and which can hardly be called "catastrophistic," as they are produced gradually, and are liable to recur at definite intervals.

Admitting, then, that there is a truth at the bottom of the once current doctrines of catastrophism, still it remains certain that the history of the earth has been one of law in all past time, as it is now. Nor need we shrink back affrighted at the vastness of the conception—the vaster for its very vagueness—that we are thus compelled to form as to the duration of geological time. As we grope our way backward through the dark labyrinth of the ages, epoch succeeds to epoch, and period to period, each looming more gigantic in its outlines and more shadowy in its features, as it rises, dimly revealed, from the mist and vapour of an older and ever-older past. It is useless to add century to century or millennium to millennium. When we pass a certain boundary-line, which, after all, is reached very soon, figures cease to convey to our finite faculties any real notion of the periods with which we have to deal. The astronomer can employ material illustrations to give form and substance to our conceptions of celestial space; but such a resource is unavailable to the geologist. The few thousand years of which we have historical evidence sink into absolute insignificance beside the unnumbered æons which unroll themselves one by one as we penetrate the dim recesses of the past, and decipher with feeble vision the ponderous volumes in which the record of the earth is written. Vainly does the strained intellect seek to overtake an ever-receding commencement, and toil to gain some adequate grasp of an apparently endless succession. A beginning there must have been, though we can never hope to fix its point. Even speculation droops her wings in the attenuated atmosphere of a past so remote, and the light of imagination is quenched in the darkness of a history so ancient. In time, as in space, the confines of the universe must ever remain concealed from us, and of the end we know no more than of the beginning. Inconceivable as is to us the lapse of "geological time," it is no more than "a mere moment of the past, a mere infinitesimal portion of eternity." Well may "the human heart, that weeps and trembles," say, with Richter's pilgrim through celestial space, "I will go no farther; for the spirit of man acheth with this infinity. Insufferable is the glory of God. Let me lie down in the grave, and hide me from the persecution of the Infinite, for end, I see, there is none."



All contents of www.AgeOfDinosaurs.com are Copyrighted