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09 - On the Imperfection of the Geological Record 09-06 - On the absence of intermediate varieties in any one formation 10 It is all-important to remember that naturalists have no golden rule by which to distinguish species and varieties; they grant some little variability to each species, but when they meet with a somewhat greater amount of difference between any two forms, they rank both as species, unless they are enabled to connect them together by close intermediate gradations.

And this from the reasons just assigned we can seldom hope to effect in any one geological section.

Supposing B and C to be two species, and a third, A, to be found in an underlying bed; even if A were strictly intermediate between B and C, it would simply be ranked as a third and distinct species, unless at the same time it could be most closely connected with either one or both forms by intermediate varieties.

Nor should it be forgotten, as before explained, that A might be the actual progenitor of B and C, and yet might not at all necessarily be strictly intermediate between them in all points of structure.

So that we might obtain the parent-species and its several modified descendants from the lower and upper beds of a formation, and unless we obtained numerous transitional gradations, we should not recognise their relationship, and should consequently be compelled to rank them all as distinct species.

It is notorious on what excessively slight differences many palaeontologists have founded their species; and they do this the more readily if the specimens come from different sub-stages of the same formation.

Some experienced conchologists are now sinking many of the very fine species of D'Orbigny and others into the rank of varieties; and on this view we do find the kind of evidence of change which on my theory we ought to find.

Moreover, if we look to rather wider intervals, namely, to distinct but consecutive stages of the same great formation, we find that the embedded fossils, though almost universally ranked as specifically different, yet are far more closely allied to each other than are the species found in more widely separated formations; but to this subject I shall have to return in the following chapter.

One other consideration is worth notice: with animals and plants that can propagate rapidly and are not highly locomotive, there is reason to suspect, as we have formerly seen, that their varieties are generally at first local; and that such local varieties do not spread widely and supplant their parent-forms until they have been modified and perfected in some considerable degree.

According to this view, the chance of discovering in a formation in any one country all the early stages of transition between any two forms, is small, for the successive changes are supposed to have been local or confined to some one spot.

Most marine animals have a wide range; and we have seen that with plants it is those which have the widest range, that oftenest present varieties; so that with shells and other marine animals, it is probably those which have had the widest range, far exceeding the limits of the known geological formations of Europe, which have oftenest given rise, first to local varieties and ultimately to new species; and this again would greatly lessen the chance of our being able to trace the stages of transition in any one geological formation.

Sea Shell
Sea Shell

Europe
Europe


It should not be forgotten, that at the present day, with perfect specimens for examination, two forms can seldom be connected by intermediate varieties and thus proved to be the same species, until many specimens have been collected from many places; and in the case of fossil species this could rarely be effected by palaeontologists.

We shall, perhaps, best perceive the improbability of our being enabled to connect species by numerous, fine, intermediate, fossil links, by asking ourselves whether, for instance, geologists at some future period will be able to prove, that our different breeds of cattle, sheep, horses, and dogs have descended from a single stock or from several aboriginal stocks; or, again, whether certain sea-shells inhabiting the shores of North America, which are ranked by some conchologists as distinct species from their European representatives, and by other conchologists as only varieties, are really varieties or are, as it is called, specifically distinct.

cattle
cattle

sheep
sheep

horses
horses

dog
dog

Sea Shell
Sea Shell

North America
North America

europe
europe


This could be effected only by the future geologist discovering in a fossil state numerous intermediate gradations; and such success seems to me improbable in the highest degree.

fossil
fossil


Geological research, though it has added numerous species to existing and extinct genera, and has made the intervals between some few groups less wide than they otherwise would have been, yet has done scarcely anything in breaking down the distinction between species, by connecting them together by numerous, fine, intermediate varieties; and this not having been effected, is probably the gravest and most obvious of all the many objections which may be urged against my views.

Hence it will be worth while to sum up the foregoing remarks, under an imaginary illustration.

The Malay Archipelago is of about the size of Europe from the North Cape to the Mediterranean, and from Britain to Russia; and therefore equals all the geological formations which have been examined with any accuracy, excepting those of the United States of America.

Malay Archipelago
Malay Archipelago

europe
europe

North Cape
North Cape

cattle
cattle

Britain
Britain

Russia
Russia

United States of America
United States of America


I fully agree with Mr Godwin-Austen, that the present condition of the Malay Archipelago, with its numerous large islands separated by wide and shallow seas, probably represents the former state of Europe, when most of our formations were accumulating.

Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen
Henry Haversham Godwin-Austen


The Malay Archipelago is one of the richest regions of the whole world in organic beings; yet if all the species were to be collected which have ever lived there, how imperfectly would they represent the natural history of the world!

Malay Archipelago
Malay Archipelago


But we have every reason to believe that the terrestrial productions of the archipelago would be preserved in an excessively imperfect manner in the formations which we suppose to be there accumulating.

I suspect that not many of the strictly littoral animals, or of those which lived on naked submarine rocks, would be embedded; and those embedded in gravel or sand, would not endure to a distant epoch.

Wherever sediment did not accumulate on the bed of the sea, or where it did not accumulate at a sufficient rate to protect organic bodies from decay, no remains could be preserved.

In our archipelago, I believe that fossiliferous formations could be formed of sufficient thickness to last to an age, as distant in futurity as the secondary formations lie in the past, only during periods of subsidence.

These periods of subsidence would be separated from each other by enormous intervals, during which the area would be either stationary or rising; whilst rising, each fossiliferous formation would be destroyed, almost as soon as accumulated, by the incessant coast-action, as we now see on the shores of South America.

South America
South America


During the periods of subsidence there would probably be much extinction of life; during the periods of elevation, there would be much variation, but the geological record would then be least perfect.

It may be doubted whether the duration of any one great period of subsidence over the whole or part of the archipelago, together with a contemporaneous accumulation of sediment, would exceed the average duration of the same specific forms; and these contingencies are indispensable for the preservation of all the transitional gradations between any two or more species.

If such gradations were not fully preserved, transitional varieties would merely appear as so many distinct species.

It is, also, probable that each great period of subsidence would be interrupted by oscillations of level, and that slight climatal changes would intervene during such lengthy periods; and in these cases the inhabitants of the archipelago would have to migrate, and no closely consecutive record of their modifications could be preserved in any one formation.

Very many of the marine inhabitants of the archipelago now range thousands of miles beyond its confines; and analogy leads me to believe that it would be chiefly these far-ranging species which would oftenest produce new varieties; and the varieties would at first generally be local or confined to one place, but if possessed of any decided advantage, or when further modified and improved, they would slowly spread and supplant their parent-forms.

When such varieties returned to their ancient homes, as they would differ from their former state, in a nearly uniform, though perhaps extremely slight degree, they would, according to the principles followed by many palaeontologists, be ranked as new and distinct species.

If then, there be some degree of truth in these remarks, we have no right to expect to find in our geological formations, an infinite number of those fine transitional forms, which on my theory assuredly have connected all the past and present species of the same group into one long and branching chain of life.

We ought only to look for a few links, some more closely, some more distantly related to each other; and these links, let them be ever so close, if found in different stages of the same formation, would, by most palaeontologists, be ranked as distinct species.

But I do not pretend that I should ever have suspected how poor a record of the mutations of life, the best preserved geological section presented, had not the difficulty of our not discovering innumerable transitional links between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of each formation, pressed so hardly on my theory.