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|09 - On the Imperfection of the Geological Record||09-04 - On the poorness of our palaeontological collections||10||
On the poorness of our Palaeontological collections.
That our Palaeontological collections are very imperfect, is admitted by every one.
The remark of that admirable Palaeontologist, the late Edward Forbes, should not be forgotten, namely, that numbers of our fossil species are known and named from single and often broken specimens, or from a few specimens collected on some one spot.
Only a small portion of the surface of the earth has been geologically explored, and no part with sufficient care, as the important discoveries made every year in Europe prove.
No organism wholly soft can be preserved.
Shells and bones will decay and disappear when left on the bottom of the sea, where sediment is not accumulating.
I believe we are continually taking a most erroneous view, when we tacitly admit to ourselves that sediment is being deposited over nearly the whole bed of the sea, at a rate sufficiently quick to embed and preserve fossil remains.
Throughout an enormously large proportion of the ocean, the bright blue tint of the water bespeaks its purity.
The many cases on record of a formation conformably covered, after an enormous interval of time, by another and later formation, without the underlying bed having suffered in the interval any wear and tear, seem explicable only on the view of the bottom of the sea not rarely lying for ages in an unaltered condition.
The remains which do become embedded, if in sand or gravel, will when the beds are upraised generally be dissolved by the percolation of rain-water.
I suspect that but few of the very many animals which live on the beach between high and low watermark are preserved.
For instance, the several species of the Chthamalinae (a sub-family of sessile cirripedes) coat the rocks all over the world in infinite numbers: they are all strictly littoral, with the exception of a single Mediterranean species, which inhabits deep water and has been found fossil in Sicily, whereas not one other species has hitherto been found in any tertiary formation: yet it is now known that the genus Chthamalus existed during the chalk period.
The molluscan genus Chiton offers a partially analogous case.
With respect to the terrestrial productions which lived during the Secondary and Palaeozoic periods, it is superfluous to state that our evidence from fossil remains is fragmentary in an extreme degree.
For instance, not a land shell is known belonging to either of these vast periods, with one exception discovered by Sir C. Lyell in the carboniferous strata of North America.
In regard to mammiferous remains, a single glance at the historical table published in the Supplement to Lyell's Manual, will bring home the truth, how accidental and rare is their preservation, far better than pages of detail.
Nor is their rarity surprising, when we remember how large a proportion of the bones of tertiary mammals have been discovered either in caves or in lacustrine deposits; and that not a cave or true lacustrine bed is known belonging to the age of our secondary or palaeozoic formations.
|06 - Difficutiles in Theory||06-04 - Transitions in Habits of Life||10||
On the Origin and Transitions of Organic Beings with peculiar Habits and Structure.
It has been asked by the opponents of such views as I hold, how, for instance, could a land carnivorous animal have been converted into one with aquatic habits; for how could the animal in its transitional state have subsisted?
It would be easy to show that there now exist carnivorous animals presenting close intermediate grades from strictly terrestrial to aquatic habits; and as each exists by a struggle for life, it is clear that each must be well adapted to its place in nature.
Look at the Mustela vision of North America, which has webbed feet, and which resembles an otter in its fur, short legs, and form of tail. During the summer this animal dives for and preys on fish, but during the long winter it leaves the frozen waters, and preys, like other pole-cats, on mice and land animals.
If a different case had been taken, and it had been asked how an insectivorous quadruped could possibly have been converted into a flying bat, the question would have been far more difficult to answer.
Yet I think such difficulties have little weight.
|14 - Recapitulation and Conclusion||14-03 - Causes of the general belief in the immutability of species||10||
On the ordinary view of each species having been independently created, why should the specific characters, or those by which the species of the same genus differ from each other, be more variable than the generic characters in which they all agree?
Why, for instance, should the colour of a flower be more likely to vary in any one species of a genus, if the other species, supposed to have been created independently, have differently coloured flowers, than if all the species of the genus have the same coloured flowers?
If species are only well-marked varieties, of which the characters have become in a high degree permanent, we can understand this fact; for they have already varied since they branched off from a common progenitor in certain characters, by which they have come to be specifically distinct from each other; and therefore these same characters would be more likely still to be variable than the generic characters which have been inherited without change for an enormous period.
It is inexplicable on the theory of creation why a part developed in a very unusual manner in any one species of a genus, and therefore, as we may naturally infer, of great importance to the species, should be eminently liable to variation; but, on my view, this part has undergone, since the several species branched off from a common progenitor, an unusual amount of variability and modification, and therefore we might expect this part generally to be still variable.
But a part may be developed in the most unusual manner, like the wing of a bat, and yet not be more variable than any other structure, if the part be common to many subordinate forms, that is, if it has been inherited for a very long period; for in this case it will have been rendered constant by long-continued natural selection.
|09 - On the Imperfection of the Geological Record||09-03 - On the vast lapse of time, as inferred from the rate of deposition and of denudation||10||
On the lapse of Time.
Independently of our not finding fossil remains of such infinitely numerous connecting links, it may be objected, that time will not have sufficed for so great an amount of organic change, all changes having been effected very slowly through natural selection.
It is hardly possible for me even to recall to the reader, who may not be a practical geologist, the facts leading the mind feebly to comprehend the lapse of time.
He who can read Sir Charles Lyell's grand work on the Principles of Geology, which the future historian will recognise as having produced a revolution in natural science, yet does not admit how incomprehensibly vast have been the past periods of time, may at once close this volume.
Not that it suffices to study the Principles of Geology, or to read special treatises by different observers on separate formations, and to mark how each author attempts to give an inadequate idea of the duration of each formation or even each stratum.
A man must for years examine for himself great piles of superimposed strata, and watch the sea at work grinding down old rocks and making fresh sediment, before he can hope to comprehend anything of the lapse of time, the monuments of which we see around us.
It is good to wander along lines of sea-coast, when formed of moderately hard rocks, and mark the process of degradation.
The tides in most cases reach the cliffs only for a short time twice a day, and the waves eat into them only when they are charged with sand or pebbles; for there is reason to believe that pure water can effect little or nothing in wearing away rock.
At last the base of the cliff is undermined, huge fragments fall down, and these remaining fixed, have to be worn away, atom by atom, until reduced in size they can be rolled about by the waves, and then are more quickly ground into pebbles, sand, or mud.
But how often do we see along the bases of retreating cliffs rounded boulders, all thickly clothed by marine productions, showing how little they are abraded and how seldom they are rolled about!
Moreover, if we follow for a few miles any line of rocky cliff, which is undergoing degradation, we find that it is only here and there, along a short length or round a promontory, that the cliffs are at the present time suffering.
The appearance of the surface and the vegetation show that elsewhere years have elapsed since the waters washed their base.
He who most closely studies the action of the sea on our shores, will, I believe, be most deeply impressed with the slowness with which rocky coasts are worn away.
The observations on this head by Hugh Miller, and by that excellent observer Mr. Smith of Jordan Hill, are most impressive.
With the mind thus impressed, let any one examine beds of conglomerate many thousand feet in thickness, which, though probably formed at a quicker rate than many other deposits, yet, from being formed of worn and rounded pebbles, each of which bears the stamp of time, are good to show how slowly the mass has been accumulated.
Let him remember Lyell's profound remark, that the thickness and extent of sedimentary formations are the result and measure of the degradation which the earth's crust has elsewhere suffered.
And what an amount of degradation is implied by the sedimentary deposits of many countries!
Professor Ramsay has given me the maximum thickness, in most cases from actual measurement, in a few cases from estimate, of each formation in different parts of Great Britain;
and this is the result:-
Palaeozoic strata (not including igneous beds) 57,154
Secondary strata 13,190
Tertiary strata 2,240
making altogether 72,584 feet; that is, very nearly thirteen and three-quarters British miles.
Some of these formations, which are represented in England by thin beds, are thousands of feet in thickness on the Continent.
Moreover, between each successive formation, we have, in the opinion of most geologists, enormously long blank periods.
So that the lofty pile of sedimentary rocks in Britain, gives but an inadequate idea of the time which has elapsed during their accumulation; yet what time this must have consumed! Good observers have estimated that sediment is deposited by the great Mississippi river at the rate of only 600 feet in a hundred thousand years.
This estimate may be quite erroneous; yet, considering over what wide spaces very fine sediment is transported by the currents of the sea, the process of accumulation in any one area must be extremely slow.
But the amount of denudation which the strata have in many places suffered, independently of the rate of accumulation of the degraded matter, probably offers the best evidence of the lapse of time.
I remember having been much struck with the evidence of denudation, when viewing volcanic islands, which have been worn by the waves and pared all round into perpendicular cliffs of one or two thousand feet in height; for the gentle slope of the lava-streams, due to their formerly liquid state, showed at a glance how far the hard, rocky beds had once extended into the open ocean.
The same story is still more plainly told by faults, those great cracks along which the strata have been upheaved on one side, or thrown down on the other, to the height or depth of thousands of feet; for since the crust cracked, the surface of the land has been so completely planed down by the action of the sea, that no trace of these vast dislocations is externally visible.
The Craven fault, for instance, extends for upwards of 30 miles, and along this line the vertical displacement of the strata has varied from 600 to 3000 feet.
Prof. Ramsay has published an account of a downthrow in Anglesea of 2300 feet; and he informs me that he fully believes there is one in Merionethshire of 12,000 feet; yet in these cases there is nothing on the surface to show such prodigious movements; the pile of rocks on the one or other side having been smoothly swept away.
The consideration of these facts impresses my mind almost in the same manner as does the vain endeavour to grapple with the idea of eternity.
I am tempted to give one other case, the well-known one of the denudation of the Weald.
Though it must be admitted that the denudation of the Weald has been a mere trifle, in comparison with that which has removed masses of our Palaeozoic strata, in parts ten thousand feet in thickness, as shown in Prof. Ramsay's masterly memoir on this subject.
Yet it is an admirable lesson to stand on the North Downs and to look at the distant South Downs; for, remembering that at no great distance to the west the northern and southern escarpments meet and close, one can safely picture to oneself the great dome of rocks which must have covered up the Weald within so limited a period as since the latter part of the Chalk formation.
The distance from the northern to the southern Downs is about 22 miles, and the thickness of the several formations is on an average about 1100 feet, as I am informed by Prof. Ramsay.
But if, as some geologists suppose, a range of older rocks underlies the Weald, on the flanks of which the overlying sedimentary deposits might have accumulated in thinner masses than elsewhere, the above estimate would be erroneous; but this source of doubt probably would not greatly affect the estimate as applied to the western extremity of the district.
If, then, we knew the rate at which the sea commonly wears away a line of cliff of any given height, we could measure the time requisite to have denuded the Weald.
This, of course, cannot be done; but we may, in order to form some crude notion on the subject, assume that the sea would eat into cliffs 500 feet in height at the rate of one inch in a century.
This will at first appear much too small an allowance; but it is the same as if we were to assume a cliff one yard in height to be eaten back along a whole line of coast at the rate of one yard in nearly every twenty-two years.
I doubt whether any rock, even as soft as chalk, would yield at this rate excepting on the most exposed coasts; though no doubt the degradation of a lofty cliff would be more rapid from the breakage of the fallen fragments.
On the other hand, I do not believe that any line of coast, ten or twenty miles in length, ever suffers degradation at the same time along its whole indented length; and we must remember that almost all strata contain harder layers or nodules, which from long resisting attrition form a breakwater at the base.
Hence, under ordinary circumstances, I conclude that for a cliff 500 feet in height, a denudation of one inch per century for the whole length would be an ample allowance.
At this rate, on the above data, the denudation of the Weald must have required 306,662,400 years; or say three hundred million years.
The action of fresh water on the gently inclined Wealden district, when upraised, could hardly have been great, but it would somewhat reduce the above estimate.
On the other hand, during oscillations of level, which we know this area has undergone, the surface may have existed for millions of years as land, and thus have escaped the action of the sea: when deeply submerged for perhaps equally long periods, it would, likewise, have escaped the action of the coast-waves.
So that in all probability a far longer period than 300 million years has elapsed since the latter part of the Secondary period.
I have made these few remarks because it is highly important for us to gain some notion, however imperfect, of the lapse of years.
During each of these years, over the whole world, the land and the water has been peopled by hosts of living forms.
What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years! Now turn to our richest geological museums, and what a paltry display we behold!