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Chapter X.-ON THE GEOLOGICAL SUCCESSION OF ORGANIC BEINGS (Page 2)


On the Affinities of extinct Species to each other, and to living forms. -- Let us now look to the mutual affinities of extinct and living species. They all fall into one grand natural system; and this fact is at once explained on the principle of descent. The more ancient any form is, the more, as a general rule, it differs from living forms. But, as Buckland long ago remarked, all fossils can be classed either in still existing groups, or between them. That the extinct forms of life help to fill up the wide intervals between existing genera, families, and orders, cannot be disputed. For if we confine our attention either to the living or to the extinct alone, the series is far less perfect than if we combine both into one general system. With respect to the Vertebrata, whole pages could be filled with striking illustrations from our great palaeontologist, Owen, showing how extinct animals fall in between existing groups. Cuvier ranked the Ruminants and Pachyderms, as the two most distinct orders of mammals; but Owen has discovered so many fossil links, that he has had to alter the whole classification of these two orders; and has placed certain pachyderms in the same sub-order with ruminants: for example, he dissolves by fine gradations the apparently wide difference between the pig and the camel. In regard to the Invertebrata, Barrande, and a higher authority could not be named, asserts that he is every day taught that palaeozoic animals, though belonging to the same orders, families, or genera with those living at the present day, were not at this early epoch limited in such distinct groups as they now are.

Some writers have objected to any extinct species or group of species being considered as intermediate between living species or groups. If by this term it is meant that an extinct form is directly intermediate in all its characters between two living forms, the objection is probably valid. But I apprehend that in a perfectly natural classification many fossil species would have to stand between living species, and some extinct genera between living genera, even between genera belonging to distinct families. The most common case, especially with respect to very distinct groups, such as fish and reptiles, seems to be, that supposing them to be distinguished at the present day from each other by a dozen characters, the ancient members of the same two groups would be distinguished by a somewhat lesser number of characters, so that the two groups, though formerly quite distinct, at that period made some small approach to each other.

It is a common belief that the more ancient a form is, by so much the more it tends to connect by some of its characters groups now widely separated from each other. This remark no doubt must be restricted to those groups which have undergone much change in the course of geological ages; and it would be difficult to prove the truth of the proposition, for every now and then even a living animal, as the Lepidosiren, is discovered having affinities directed towards very distinct groups. Yet if we compare the older Reptiles and Batrachians, the older Fish, the older Cephalopods, and the eocene Mammals, with the more recent members of the same classes, we must admit that there is some truth in the remark.

Let us see how far these several facts and inferences accord with the theory of descent with modification. As the subject is somewhat complex, I must request the reader to turn to the diagram in the fourth chapter. We may suppose that the numbered letters represent genera, and the dotted lines diverging from them the species in each genus. The diagram is much too simple, too few genera and too few species being given, but this is unimportant for us. The horizontal lines may represent successive geological formations, and all the forms beneath the uppermost line may be considered as extinct. The three existing genera, a14, q14, p14, will form a small family; b14 and f14 a closely allied family or sub-family; and o14, e14, m14, a third family. These three families, together with the many extinct genera on the several lines of descent diverging from the parent-form A, will form an order; for all will have inherited something in common from their ancient and common progenitor. On the principle of the continued tendency to divergence of character, which was formerly illustrated by this diagram, the more recent any form is, the more it will generally differ from its ancient progenitor. Hence we can understand the rule that the most ancient fossils differ most from existing forms. We must not, however, assume that divergence of character is a necessary contingency; it depends solely on the descendants from a species being thus enabled to seize on many and different places in the economy of nature. Therefore it is quite possible, as we have seen in the case of some Silurian forms, that a species might go on being slightly modified in relation to its slightly altered conditions of life, and yet retain throughout a vast period the same general characteristics. This is represented in the diagram by the letter F14.

All the many forms, extinct and recent, descended from A, make, as before remarked, one order; and this order, from the continued effects of extinction and divergence of character, has become divided into several sub-families and families, some of which are supposed to have perished at different periods, and some to have endured to the present day.

By looking at the diagram we can see that if many of the extinct forms, supposed to be embedded in the successive formations, were discovered at several points low down in the series, the three existing families on the uppermost line would be rendered less distinct from each other. If, for instance, the genera a1, a5, a10, f8, m3, m6, m9 were disinterred, these three families would be so closely linked together that they probably would have to be united into one great family, in nearly the same manner as has occurred with ruminants and pachyderms. Yet he who objected to call the extinct genera, which thus linked the living genera of three families together, intermediate in character, would be justified, as they are intermediate, not directly, but only by a long and circuitous course through many widely different forms. If many extinct forms were to be discovered above one of the middle horizontal lines or geological formations--for instance, above No. VI.--but none from beneath this line, then only the two families on the left hand (namely, a14, &c., and b14,&c.) would have to be united into one family; and the two other families(namely, a14 to f14 now including five genera, and o14 to m14) would yet remain distinct. These two families, however, would be less distinct from each other than they were before the discovery of the fossils. If, for instance, we suppose the existing genera of the two families to differ from each other by a dozen characters, in this case the genera, at the early period marked VI., would differ by a lesser number of characters; for at this early stage of descent they have not diverged in character from the common progenitor of the order, nearly so much as they subsequently diverged. Thus it comes that ancient and extinct genera are often in some slight degree intermediate in character between their modified descendants, or between their collateral relations.

In nature the case will be far more complicated than is represented in the diagram; for the groups will have been more numerous, they will have endured for extremely unequal lengths of time, and will have been modified in various degrees. As we possess only the last volume of the geological record, and that in a very broken condition, we have no right to expect, except in very rare cases, to fill up wide intervals in the natural system, and thus unite distinct families or orders. All that we have a right to expect, is that those groups, which have within known geological periods undergone much modification, should in the older formations make some slight approach to each other; so that the older members should differ less from each other in some of their characters than do the existing members of the same groups; and this by the concurrent evidence of our best palaeontologists seems frequently to be the case.

Thus, on the theory of descent with modification, the main facts with respect to the mutual affinities of the extinct forms of life to each other and to living forms, seem to me explained in a satisfactory manner. And they are wholly inexplicable on any other view.

On this same theory, it is evident that the fauna of any great period in the earth's history will be intermediate in general character between that which preceded and that which succeeded it. Thus, the species which lived at the sixth great stage of descent in the diagram are the modified offspring of those which lived at the fifth stage, and are the parents of those which became still more modified at the seventh stage; hence they could hardly fail to be nearly intermediate in character between the forms of life above and below. We must, however, allow for the entire extinction of some preceding forms, and for the coming in of quite new forms by immigration, and for a large amount of modification, during the long and blank intervals between the successive formations. Subject to these allowances, the fauna of each geological period undoubtedly is intermediate in character, between the preceding and succeeding faunas. I need give only one instance, namely, the manner in which the fossils of the Devonian system, when this system was first discovered, were at once recognised by palaeontologists as intermediate in character between those of the overlying carboniferous, and underlying Silurian system. But each fauna is not necessarily exactly intermediate, as unequal intervals of time have elapsed between consecutive formations.

It is no real objection to the truth of the statement, that the fauna of each period as a whole is nearly intermediate in character between the preceding and succeeding faunas, that certain genera offer exceptions to the rule. For instance, mastodons and elephants, when arranged by Dr. Falconer in two series, first according to their mutual affinities and then according to their periods of existence, do not accord in arrangement. The species extreme in character are not the oldest, or the most recent; nor are those which are intermediate in character, intermediate in age. But supposing for an instant, in this and other such cases, that the record of the first appearance and disappearance of the species was perfect, we have no reason to believe that forms successively produced necessarily endure for corresponding lengths of time: a very ancient form might occasionally last much longer than a form elsewhere subsequently produced, especially in the case of terrestrial productions inhabiting separated districts. To compare small things with great: if the principal living and extinct races of the domestic pigeon were arranged as well as they could be in serial affinity, this arrangement would not closely accord with the order in time of their production, and still less with the order of their disappearance; for the parent rock-pigeon now lives; and many varieties between the rock-pigeon and the carrier have become extinct; and carriers which are extreme in the important character of length of beak originated earlier than short-beaked tumblers, which are at the opposite end of the series in this same respect.

Closely connected with the statement, that the organic remains from an intermediate formation are in some degree intermediate in character, is the fact, insisted on by all palaeontologists, that fossils from two consecutive formations are far more closely related to each other, than are the fossils from two remote formations. Pictet gives as a well-known instance, the general resemblance of the organic remains from the several stages of the chalk formation, though the species are distinct in each stage. This fact alone, from its generality, seems to have shaken Professor Pictet in his firm belief in the immutability of species. He who is acquainted with the distribution of existing species over the globe, will not attempt to account for the close resemblance of the distinct species in closely consecutive formations, by the physical conditions of the ancient areas having remained nearly the same. Let it be remembered that the forms of life, at least those inhabiting the sea, have changed almost simultaneously throughout the world, and therefore under the most different climates and conditions. Consider the prodigious vicissitudes of climate during the pleistocene period, which includes the whole glacial period, and note how little the specific forms of the inhabitants of the sea have been affected.

On the theory of descent, the full meaning of the fact of fossil remains from closely consecutive formations, though ranked as distinct species, being closely related, is obvious. As the accumulation of each formation has often been interrupted, and as long blank intervals have intervened between successive formations, we ought not to expect to find, as I attempted to show in the last chapter, in any one or two formations all the intermediate varieties between the species which appeared at the commencement and close of these periods; but we ought to find after intervals, very long as measured by years, but only moderately long as measured geologically, closely allied forms, or, as they have been called by some authors, representative species; and these we assuredly do find. We find, in short, such evidence of the slow and scarcely sensible mutation of specific forms, as we have a just right to expect to find.

On the state of Development of Ancient Forms. -- There has been much discussion whether recent forms are more highly developed than ancient. I will not here enter on this subject, for naturalists have not as yet defined to each other's satisfaction what is meant by high and low forms. But in one particular sense the more recent forms must, on my theory, be higher than the more ancient; for each new species is formed by having had some advantage in the struggle for life over other and preceding forms. If under a nearly similar climate, the eocene inhabitants of one quarter of the world were put into competition with the existing inhabitants of the same or some other quarter, the eocene fauna or flora would certainly be beaten and exterminated; as would a secondary fauna by an eocene, and a palaeozoic fauna by a secondary fauna. I do not doubt that this process of improvement has affected in a marked and sensible manner the organisation of the more recent and victorious forms of life, in comparison with the ancient and beaten forms; but I can see no way of testing this sort of progress. Crustaceans, for instance, not the highest in their own class, may have beaten the highest molluscs. From the extraordinary manner in which European productions have recently spread over New Zealand, and have seized on places which must have been previously occupied, we may believe, if all the animals and plants of Great Britain were set free in New Zealand, that in the course of time a multitude of British forms would become thoroughly naturalized there, and would exterminate many of the natives. On the other hand, from what we see now occurring in New Zealand, and from hardly a single inhabitant of the southern hemisphere having become wild in any part of Europe, we may doubt, if all the productions of New Zealand were set free in Great Britain, whether any considerable number would be enabled to seize on places now occupied by our native plants and animals. Under this point of view, the productions of Great Britain may be said to be higher than those of New Zealand. Yet the most skilful naturalist from an examination of the species of the two countries could not have foreseen this result.

Agassiz insists that ancient animals resemble to a certain extent the embryos of recent animals of the same classes; or that the geological succession of extinct forms is in some degree parallel to the embryological development of recent forms. I must follow Pictet and Huxley in thinking that the truth of this doctrine is very far from proved. Yet I fully expect to see it hereafter confirmed, at least in regard to subordinate groups, which have branched off from each other within comparatively recent times. For this doctrine of Agassiz accords well with the theory of natural selection. In a future chapter I shall attempt to show that the adult differs from its embryo, owing to variations supervening at a not early age, and being inherited at a corresponding age. This process, whilst it leaves the embryo almost unaltered, continually adds, in the course of successive generations, more and more difference to the adult.

Thus the embryo comes to be left as a sort of picture, preserved by nature, of the ancient and less modified condition of each animal. This view may be true, and yet it may never be capable of full proof. Seeing, for instance, that the oldest known mammals, reptiles, and fish strictly belong to their own proper classes, though some of these old forms are in a slight degree less distinct from each other than are the typical members of the same groups at the present day, it would be vain to look for animals having the common embryological character of the Vertebrata, until beds far beneath the lowest Silurian strata are discovered--a discovery of which the chance is very small.

On the Succession of the same Types within the same areas, during the later tertiary periods. -- Mr. Clift many years ago showed that the fossil mammals from the Australian caves were closely allied to the living marsupials of that continent. In South America, a similar relationship is manifest, even to an uneducated eye, in the gigantic pieces of armour like those of the armadillo, found in several parts of La Plata; and Professor Owen has shown in the most striking manner that most of the fossil mammals, buried there in such numbers, are related to South American types. This relationship is even more clearly seen in the wonderful collection of fossil bones made by MM. Lund and Clausen in the caves of Brazil. I was so much impressed with these facts that I strongly insisted, in 1839 and 1845, on this 'law of the succession of types,'--on 'this wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living.' Professor Owen has subsequently extended the same generalisation to the mammals of the Old World. We see the same law in this author's restorations of the extinct and gigantic birds of New Zealand. We see it also in the birds of the caves of Brazil. Mr. Woodward has shown that the same law holds good with sea-shells, but from the wide distribution of most genera of molluscs, it is not well displayed by them. Other cases could be added, as the relation between the extinct and living land-shells of Madeira; and between the extinct and living brackish-water shells of the Aralo-Caspian Sea.

Now what does this remarkable law of the succession of the same types within the same areas mean? He would be a bold man, who after comparing the present climate of Australia and of parts of South America under the same latitude, would attempt to account, on the one hand, by dissimilar physical conditions for the dissimilarity of the inhabitants of these two continents, and, on the other hand, by similarity of conditions, for the uniformity of the same types in each during the later tertiary periods. Nor can it be pretended that it is an immutable law that marsupials should have been chiefly or solely produced in Australia; or that Edentata and other American types should have been solely produced in South America. For we know that Europe in ancient times was peopled by numerous marsupials; and I have shown in the publications above alluded to, that in America the law of distribution of terrestrial mammals was formerly different from what it now is. North America formerly partook strongly of the present character of the southern half of the continent; and the southern half was formerly more closely allied, than it is at present, to the northern half. In a similar manner we know from Falconer and Cautley's discoveries, that northern India was formerly more closely related in its mammals to Africa than it is at the present time. Analogous facts could be given in relation to the distribution of marine animals.

On the theory of descent with modification, the great law of the long enduring, but not immutable, succession of the same types within the same areas, is at once explained; for the inhabitants of each quarter of the world will obviously tend to leave in that quarter, during the next succeeding period of time, closely allied though in some degree modified descendants. If the inhabitants of one continent formerly differed greatly from those of another continent, so will their modified descendants still differ in nearly the same manner and degree. But after very long intervals of time and after great geographical changes, permitting much inter-migration, the feebler will yield to the more dominant forms, and there will be nothing immutable in the laws of past and present distribution.

It may be asked in ridicule, whether I suppose that the megatherium and other allied huge monsters have left behind them in South America the sloth, armadillo, and anteater, as their degenerate descendants. This cannot for an instant be admitted. These huge animals have become wholly extinct, and have left no progeny. But in the caves of Brazil, there are many extinct species which are closely allied in size and in other characters to the species still living in South America; and some of these fossils may be the actual progenitors of living species. It must not be forgotten that, on my theory, all the species of the same genus have descended from some one species; so that if six genera, each having eight species, be found in one geological formation, and in the next succeeding formation there be six other allied or representative genera with the same number of species, then we may conclude that only one species of each of the six older genera has left modified descendants, constituting the six new genera. The other seven species of the old genera have all died out and have left no progeny. Or, which would probably be a far commoner case, two or three species of two or three alone of the six older genera will have been the parents of the six new genera; the other old species and the other whole genera having become utterly extinct. In failing orders, with the genera and species decreasing in numbers, as apparently is the case of the Edentata of South America, still fewer genera and species will have left modified blood-descendants.

Summary of the preceding and present Chapters -- I have attempted to show that the geological record is extremely imperfect; that only a small portion of the globe has been geologically explored with care; that only certain classes of organic beings have been largely preserved in a fossil state; that the number both of specimens and of species, preserved in our museums, is absolutely as nothing compared with the incalculable number of generations which must have passed away even during a single formation; that, owing to subsidence being necessary for the accumulation of fossiliferous deposits thick enough to resist future degradation, enormous intervals of time have elapsed between the successive formations; that there has probably been more extinction during the periods of subsidence, and more variation during the periods of elevation, and during the latter the record will have been least perfectly kept; that each single formation has not been continuously deposited; that the duration of each formation is, perhaps, short compared with the average duration of specific forms; that migration has played an important part in the first appearance of new forms in any one area and formation; that widely ranging species are those which have varied most, and have oftenest given rise to new species; and that varieties have at first often been local. All these causes taken conjointly, must have tended to make the geological record extremely imperfect, and will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps.

He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory. For he may ask in vain where are the numberless transitional links which must formerly have connected the closely allied or representative species, found in the several stages of the same great formation. He may disbelieve in the enormous intervals of time which have elapsed between our consecutive formations; he may overlook how important a part migration must have played, when the formations of any one great region alone, as that of Europe, are considered; he may urge the apparent, but often falsely apparent, sudden coming in of whole groups of species. He may ask where are the remains of those infinitely numerous organisms which must have existed long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited: I can answer this latter question only hypothetically, by saying that as far as we can see, where our oceans now extend they have for an enormous period extended, and where our oscillating continents now stand they have stood ever since the Silurian epoch; but that long before that period, the world may have presented a wholly different aspect; and that the older continents, formed of formations older than any known to us, may now all be in a metamorphosed condition, or may lie buried under the ocean.

Passing from these difficulties, all the other great leading facts in palaeontology seem to me simply to follow on the theory of descent with modification through natural selection. We can thus understand how it is that new species come in slowly and successively; how species of different classes do not necessarily change together, or at the same rate, or in the same degree; yet in the long run that all undergo modification to some extent. The extinction of old forms is the almost inevitable consequence of the production of new forms. We can understand why when a species has once disappeared it never reappears. Groups of species increase in numbers slowly, and endure for unequal periods of time; for the process of modification is necessarily slow, and depends on many complex contingencies. The dominant species of the larger dominant groups tend to leave many modified descendants, and thus new sub-groups and groups are formed. As these are formed, the species of the less vigorous groups, from their inferiority inherited from a common progenitor, tend to become extinct together, and to leave no modified offspring on the face of the earth. But the utter extinction of a whole group of species may often be a very slow process, from the survival of a few descendants, lingering in protected and isolated situations. When a group has once wholly disappeared, it does not reappear; for the link of generation has been broken.

We can understand how the spreading of the dominant forms of life, which are those that oftenest vary, will in the long run tend to people the world with allied, but modified, descendants; and these will generally succeed in taking the places of those groups of species which are their inferiors in the struggle for existence. Hence, after long intervals of time, the productions of the world will appear to have changed simultaneously.

We can understand how it is that all the forms of life, ancient and recent, make together one grand system; for all are connected by generation. We can understand, from the continued tendency to divergence of character, why the more ancient a form is, the more it generally differs from those now living. Why ancient and extinct forms often tend to fill up gaps between existing forms, sometimes blending two groups previously classed as distinct into one; but more commonly only bringing them a little closer together. The more ancient a form is, the more often, apparently, it displays characters in some degree intermediate between groups now distinct; for the more ancient a form is, the more nearly it will be related to, and consequently resemble, the common progenitor of groups, since become widely divergent. Extinct forms are seldom directly intermediate between existing forms; but are intermediate only by a long and circuitous course through many extinct and very different forms. We can clearly see why the organic remains of closely consecutive formations are more closely allied to each other, than are those of remote formations; for the forms are more closely linked together by generation: we can clearly see why the remains of an intermediate formation are intermediate in character.

The inhabitants of each successive period in the world's history have beaten their predecessors in the race for life, and are, in so far, higher in the scale of nature; and this may account for that vague yet ill-defined sentiment, felt by many palaeontologists, that organisation on the whole has progressed. If it should hereafter be proved that ancient animals resemble to a certain extent the embryos of more recent animals of the same class, the fact will be intelligible. The succession of the same types of structure within the same areas during the later geological periods ceases to be mysterious, and is simply explained by inheritance.

If then the geological record be as imperfect as I believe it to be, and it may at least be asserted that the record cannot be proved to be much more perfect, the main objections to the theory of natural selection are greatly diminished or disappear. On the other hand, all the chief laws of palaeontology plainly proclaim, as it seems to me, that species have been produced by ordinary generation: old forms having been supplanted by new and improved forms of life, produced by the laws of variation still acting round us, and preserved by Natural Selection.

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