Ever since Leonardo da Vinci first recognized the true character of fossils, there had been here and there a man who realized that the earth's rocky crust is one gigantic mausoleum. Here and there a dilettante had filled his cabinets with relics from this monster crypt; here and there a philosopher had pondered over them—questioning whether perchance they had once been alive, or whether they were not mere abortive souvenirs of that time when the fertile matrix of the earth was supposed to have

          "teemed at a birth 
 Innumerous living creatures, perfect forms, 
 Limbed and full grown."

Some few of these philosophers—as Robert Hooke and Steno in the seventeenth century, and Moro, Leibnitz, Buffon, Whitehurst, Werner, Hutton, and others in the eighteenth—had vaguely conceived the importance of fossils as records of the earth's ancient history, but the wisest of them no more suspected the full import of the story written in the rocks than the average stroller in a modern museum suspects the meaning of the hieroglyphs on the case of a mummy.

It was not that the rudiments of this story are so very hard to decipher—though in truth they are hard enough—but rather that the men who made the attempt had all along viewed the subject through an atmosphere of preconception, which gave a distorted image. Before this image could be corrected it was necessary that a man should appear who could see without prejudice, and apply sound common-sense to what he saw. And such a man did appear towards the close of the century, in the person of William Smith, the English surveyor. He was a self-taught man, and perhaps the more independent for that, and he had the gift, besides his sharp eyes and receptive mind, of a most tenacious memory. By exercising these faculties, rare as they are homely, he led the way to a science which was destined, in its later developments, to shake the structure of established thought to its foundations.

Little enough did William Smith suspect, however, that any such dire consequences were to come of his act when he first began noticing the fossil shells that here and there are to be found in the stratified rocks and soils of the regions over which his surveyor's duties led him. Nor, indeed, was there anything of such apparent revolutionary character in the facts which he unearthed; yet in their implications these facts were the most disconcerting of any that had been revealed since the days of Copernicus and Galileo. In its bald essence, Smith's discovery was simply this: that the fossils in the rocks, instead of being scattered haphazard, are arranged in regular systems, so that any given stratum of rock is labelled by its fossil population; and that the order of succession of such groups of fossils is always the same in any vertical series of strata in which they occur. That is to say, if fossil A underlies fossil B in any given region, it never overlies it in any other series; though a kind of fossils found in one set of strata may be quite omitted in another. Moreover, a fossil once having disappeared never reappears in any later stratum.

From these novel facts Smith drew the commonsense inference that the earth had had successive populations of creatures, each of which in its turn had become extinct. He partially verified this inference by comparing the fossil shells with existing species of similar orders, and found that such as occur in older strata of the rocks had no counterparts among living species. But, on the whole, being eminently a practical man, Smith troubled himself but little about the inferences that might be drawn from his facts. He was chiefly concerned in using the key he had discovered as an aid to the construction of the first geological map of England ever attempted, and he left to others the untangling of any snarls of thought that might seem to arise from his discovery of the succession of varying forms of life on the globe.

He disseminated his views far and wide, however, in the course of his journeyings—quite disregarding the fact that peripatetics went out of fashion when the printing-press came in—and by the beginning of the nineteenth century he had begun to have a following among the geologists of England. It must not for a moment be supposed, however, that his contention regarding the succession of strata met with immediate or general acceptance. On the contrary, it was most bitterly antagonized. For a long generation after the discovery was made, the generality of men, prone as always to strain at gnats and swallow camels, preferred to believe that the fossils, instead of being deposited in successive ages, had been swept all at once into their present positions by the current of a mighty flood—and that flood, needless to say, the Noachian deluge. Just how the numberless successive strata could have been laid down in orderly sequence to the depth of several miles in one such fell cataclysm was indeed puzzling, especially after it came to be admitted that the heaviest fossils were not found always at the bottom; but to doubt that this had been done in some way was rank heresy in the early days of the nineteenth century.


But once discovered, William Smith's unique facts as to the succession of forms in the rocks would not down. There was one most vital point, however, regarding which the inferences that seem to follow from these facts needed verification—the question, namely, whether the disappearance of a fauna from the register in the rocks really implies the extinction of that fauna. Everything really depended upon the answer to that question, and none but an accomplished naturalist could answer it with authority. Fortunately, the most authoritative naturalist of the time, George Cuvier, took the question in hand—not, indeed, with the idea of verifying any suggestion of Smith's, but in the course of his own original studies—at the very beginning of the century, when Smith's views were attracting general attention.

Cuvier and Smith were exact contemporaries, both men having been born in 1769, that "fertile year" which gave the world also Chateaubriand, Von Humboldt, Wellington, and Napoleon. But the French naturalist was of very different antecedents from the English surveyor. He was brilliantly educated, had early gained recognition as a scientist, and while yet a young man had come to be known as the foremost comparative anatomist of his time. It was the anatomical studies that led him into the realm of fossils. Some bones dug out of the rocks by workmen in a quarry were brought to his notice, and at once his trained eye told him that they were different from anything he had seen before. Hitherto such bones, when not entirely ignored, had been for the most part ascribed to giants of former days, or even to fallen angels. Cuvier soon showed that neither giants nor angels were in question, but elephants of an unrecognized species. Continuing his studies, particularly with material gathered from gypsum beds near Paris, he had accumulated, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, bones of about twenty-five species of animals that he believed to be different from any now living on the globe.

The fame of these studies went abroad, and presently fossil bones poured in from all sides, and Cuvier's conviction that extinct forms of animals are represented among the fossils was sustained by the evidence of many strange and anomalous forms, some of them of gigantic size. In 1816 the famous Ossements Fossiles, describing these novel objects, was published, and vertebrate paleontology became a science. Among other things of great popular interest the book contained the first authoritative description of the hairy elephant, named by Cuvier the mammoth, the remains of which bad been found embedded in a mass of ice in Siberia in 1802, so wonderfully preserved that the dogs of the Tungusian fishermen actually ate its flesh. Bones of the same species had been found in Siberia several years before by the naturalist Pallas, who had also found the carcass of a rhinoceros there, frozen in a mud-bank; but no one then suspected that these were members of an extinct population—they were supposed to be merely transported relics of the flood.

Cuvier, on the other hand, asserted that these and the other creatures he described had lived and died in the region where their remains were found, and that most of them have no living representatives upon the globe. This, to be sure, was nothing more than William Smith had tried all along to establish regarding lower forms of life; but flesh and blood monsters appeal to the imagination in a way quite beyond the power of mere shells; so the announcement of Cuvier's discoveries aroused the interest of the entire world, and the Ossements Fossiles was accorded a popular reception seldom given a work of technical science—a reception in which the enthusiastic approval of progressive geologists was mingled with the bitter protests of the conservatives.

"Naturalists certainly have neither explored all the continents," said Cuvier, "nor do they as yet even know all the quadrupeds of those parts which have been explored. New species of this class are discovered from time to time; and those who have not examined with attention all the circumstances belonging to these discoveries may allege also that the unknown quadrupeds, whose fossil bones have been found in the strata of the earth, have hitherto remained concealed in some islands not yet discovered by navigators, or in some of the vast deserts which occupy the middle of Africa, Asia, the two Americas, and New Holland.

"But if we carefully attend to the kind of quadrupeds that have been recently discovered, and to the circumstances of their discovery, we shall easily perceive that there is very little chance indeed of our ever finding alive those which have only been seen in a fossil state.

"Islands of moderate size, and at a considerable distance from the large continents, have very few quadrupeds. These must have been carried to them from other countries. Cook and Bougainville found no other quadrupeds besides hogs and dogs in the South Sea Islands; and the largest quadruped of the West India Islands, when first discovered, was the agouti, a species of the cavy, an animal apparently between the rat and the rabbit.

"It is true that the great continents, as Asia, Africa, the two Americas, and New Holland, have large quadrupeds, and, generally speaking, contain species common to each; insomuch, that upon discovering countries which are isolated from the rest of the world, the animals they contain of the class of quadruped were found entirely different from those which existed in other countries. Thus, when the Spaniards first penetrated into South America, they did not find it to contain a single quadruped exactly the same with those of Europe, Asia, and Africa. The puma, the jaguar, the tapir, the capybara, the llama, or glama, and vicuna, and the whole tribe of sapajous, were to them entirely new animals, of which they had not the smallest idea....

"If there still remained any great continent to be discovered, we might perhaps expect to be made acquainted with new species of large quadrupeds, among which some might be found more or less similar to those of which we find the exuviae in the bowels of the earth. But it is merely sufficient to glance the eye over the maps of the world and observe the innumerable directions in which navigators have traversed the ocean, in order to be satisfied that there does not remain any large land to be discovered, unless it may be situated towards the Antarctic Pole, where eternal ice necessarily forbids the existence of animal life."[1]

Cuvier then points out that the ancients were well acquainted with practically all the animals on the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa now known to scientists. He finds little grounds, therefore, for belief in the theory that at one time there were monstrous animals on the earth which it was necessary to destroy in order that the present fauna and men might flourish. After reviewing these theories and beliefs in detail, he takes up his Inquiry Respecting the Fabulous Animals of the Ancients. "It is easy," he says, "to reply to the foregoing objections, by examining the descriptions that are left us by the ancients of those unknown animals, and by inquiring into their origins. Now that the greater number of these animals have an origin, the descriptions given of them bear the most unequivocal marks; as in almost all of them we see merely the different parts of known animals united by an unbridled imagination, and in contradiction to every established law of nature."[2]

Having shown how the fabulous monsters of ancient times and of foreign nations, such as the Chinese, were simply products of the imagination, having no prototypes in nature, Cuvier takes up the consideration of the difficulty of distinguishing the fossil bones of quadrupeds.

We shall have occasion to revert to this part of Cuvier's paper in another connection. Here it suffices to pass at once to the final conclusion that the fossil bones in question are the remains of an extinct fauna, the like of which has no present-day representation on the earth. Whatever its implications, this conclusion now seemed to Cuvier to be fully established.

In England the interest thus aroused was sent to fever-heat in 1821 by the discovery of abundant beds of fossil bones in the stalagmite-covered floor of a cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire which went to show that England, too, had once had her share of gigantic beasts. Dr. Buckland, the incumbent of the chair of geology at Oxford, and the most authoritative English geologist of his day, took these finds in hand and showed that the bones belonged to a number of species, including such alien forms as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, and hyenas. He maintained that all of these creatures had actually lived in Britain, and that the caves in which their bones were found had been the dens of hyenas.

The claim was hotly disputed, as a matter of course. As late as 1827 books were published denouncing Buckland, doctor of divinity though he was, as one who had joined in an "unhallowed cause," and reiterating the old cry that the fossils were only remains of tropical species washed thither by the deluge. That they were found in solid rocks or in caves offered no difficulty, at least not to the fertile imagination of Granville Penn, the leader of the conservatives, who clung to the old idea of Woodward and Cattcut that the deluge had dissolved the entire crust of the earth to a paste, into which the relics now called fossils had settled. The caves, said Mr. Penn, are merely the result of gases given off by the carcasses during decomposition— great air-bubbles, so to speak, in the pasty mass, becoming caverns when the waters receded and the paste hardened to rocky consistency.

But these and such-like fanciful views were doomed even in the day of their utterance. Already in 1823 other gigantic creatures, christened ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus by Conybeare, had been found in deeper strata of British rocks; and these, as well as other monsters whose remains were unearthed in various parts of the world, bore such strange forms that even the most sceptical could scarcely hope to find their counterparts among living creatures. Cuvier's contention that all the larger vertebrates of the existing age are known to naturalists was borne out by recent explorations, and there seemed no refuge from the conclusion that the fossil records tell of populations actually extinct. But if this were admitted, then Smith's view that there have been successive rotations of population could no longer be denied. Nor could it be in doubt that the successive faunas, whose individual remains have been preserved in myriads, representing extinct species by thousands and tens of thousands, must have required vast periods of time for the production and growth of their countless generations.

As these facts came to be generally known, and as it came to be understood in addition that the very matrix of the rock in which fossils are imbedded is in many cases one gigantic fossil, composed of the remains of microscopic forms of life, common-sense, which, after all, is the final tribunal, came to the aid of belabored science. It was conceded that the only tenable interpretation of the record in the rocks is that numerous populations of creatures, distinct from one another and from present forms, have risen and passed away; and that the geologic ages in which these creatures lived were of inconceivable length. The rank and file came thus, with the aid of fossil records, to realize the import of an idea which James Hutton, and here and there another thinker, had conceived with the swift intuition of genius long before the science of paleontology came into existence. The Huttonian proposition that time is long had been abundantly established, and by about the close of the first third of the last century geologists had begun to speak of "ages" and "untold aeons of time" with a familiarity which their predecessors had reserved for days and decades.


And now a new question pressed for solution. If the earth has been inhabited by successive populations of beings now extinct, how have all these creatures been destroyed? That question, however, seemed to present no difficulties. It was answered out of hand by the application of an old idea. All down the centuries, whatever their varying phases of cosmogonic thought, there had been ever present the idea that past times were not as recent times; that in remote epochs the earth had been the scene of awful catastrophes that have no parallel in "these degenerate days." Naturally enough, this thought, embalmed in every cosmogonic speculation of whatever origin, was appealed to in explanation of the destruction of these hitherto unimagined hosts, which now, thanks to science, rose from their abysmal slumber as incontestable, but also as silent and as thought-provocative, as Sphinx or pyramid. These ancient hosts, it was said, have been exterminated at intervals of odd millions of years by the recurrence of catastrophes of which the Mosaic deluge is the latest, but perhaps not the last.

This explanation had fullest warrant of scientific authority. Cuvier had prefaced his classical work with a speculative disquisition whose very title (Discours sur les Revolutions du Globe) is ominous of catastrophism, and whose text fully sustains the augury. And Buckland, Cuvier's foremost follower across the Channel, had gone even beyond the master, naming the work in which he described the Kirkdale fossils, Reliquiae Diluvianae, or Proofs of a Universal Deluge.

Both these authorities supposed the creatures whose remains they studied to have perished suddenly in the mighty flood whose awful current, as they supposed, gouged out the modern valleys and hurled great blocks of granite broadcast over the land. And they invoked similar floods for the extermination of previous populations.

It is true these scientific citations had met with only qualified approval at the time of their utterance, because then the conservative majority of mankind did not concede that there had been a plurality of populations or revolutions; but now that the belief in past geologic ages had ceased to be a heresy, the recurring catastrophes of the great paleontologists were accepted with acclaim. For the moment science and tradition were at one, and there was a truce to controversy, except indeed in those outlying skirmish-lines of thought whither news from headquarters does not permeate till it has become ancient history at its source.

The truce, however, was not for long. Hardly had contemporary thought begun to adjust itself to the conception of past ages of incomprehensible extent, each terminated by a catastrophe of the Noachian type, when a man appeared who made the utterly bewildering assertion that the geological record, instead of proving numerous catastrophic revolutions in the earth's past history, gives no warrant to the pretensions of any universal catastrophe whatever, near or remote.

This iconoclast was Charles Lyell, the Scotchman, who was soon to be famous as the greatest geologist of his time. As a young man he had become imbued with the force of the Huttonian proposition, that present causes are one with those that produced the past changes of the globe, and he carried that idea to what he conceived to be its logical conclusion. To his mind this excluded the thought of catastrophic changes in either inorganic or organic worlds.

But to deny catastrophism was to suggest a revolution in current thought. Needless to say, such revolution could not be effected without a long contest. For a score of years the matter was argued pro and con., often with most unscientific ardor. A mere outline of the controversy would fill a volume; yet the essential facts with which Lyell at last established his proposition, in its bearings on the organic world, may be epitomized in a few words. The evidence which seems to tell of past revolutions is the apparently sudden change of fossils from one stratum to another of the rocks. But Lyell showed that this change is not always complete. Some species live on from one alleged epoch into the next. By no means all the contemporaries of the mammoth are extinct, and numerous marine forms vastly more ancient still have living representatives.

Moreover, the blanks between strata in any particular vertical series are amply filled in with records in the form of thick strata in some geographically distant series. For example, in some regions Silurian rocks are directly overlaid by the coal measures; but elsewhere this sudden break is filled in with the Devonian rocks that tell of a great "age of fishes." So commonly are breaks in the strata in one region filled up in another that we are forced to conclude that the record shown by any single vertical series is of but local significance— telling, perhaps, of a time when that particular sea-bed oscillated above the water-line, and so ceased to receive sediment until some future age when it had oscillated back again. But if this be the real significance of the seemingly sudden change from stratum to stratum, then the whole case for catastrophism is hopelessly lost; for such breaks in the strata furnish the only suggestion geology can offer of sudden and catastrophic changes of wide extent.

Let us see how Lyell elaborates these ideas, particularly with reference to the rotation of species.[2]

"I have deduced as a corollary," he says, "that the species existing at any particular period must, in the course of ages, become extinct, one after the other. 'They must die out,' to borrow an emphatic expression from Buffon, 'because Time fights against them.' If the views which I have taken are just, there will be no difficulty in explaining why the habitations of so many species are now restrained within exceeding narrow limits. Every local revolution tends to circumscribe the range of some species, while it enlarges that of others; and if we are led to infer that new species originate in one spot only, each must require time to diffuse itself over a wide area. It will follow, therefore, from the adoption of our hypothesis that the recent origin of some species and the high antiquity of others are equally consistent with the general fact of their limited distribution, some being local because they have not existed long enough to admit of their wide dissemination; others, because circumstances in the animate or inanimate world have occurred to restrict the range within which they may once have obtained. . . .

"If the reader should infer, from the facts laid before him, that the successive extinction of animals and plants may be part of the constant and regular course of nature, he will naturally inquire whether there are any means provided for the repair of these losses? Is it possible as a part of the economy of our system that the habitable globe should to a certain extent become depopulated, both in the ocean and on the land, or that the variety of species should diminish until some new era arrives when a new and extraordinary effort of creative energy is to be displayed? Or is it possible that new species can be called into being from time to time, and yet that so astonishing a phenomenon can escape the naturalist?

"In the first place, it is obviously more easy to prove that a species once numerously represented in a given district has ceased to be than that some other which did not pre-exist had made its appearance—assuming always, for reasons before stated, that single stocks only of each animal and plant are originally created, and that individuals of new species did not suddenly start up in many different places at once.

"So imperfect has the science of natural history remained down to our own times that, within the memory of persons now living, the numbers of known animals and plants have doubled, or even quadrupled, in many classes. New and often conspicuous species are annually discovered in parts of the old continent long inhabited by the most civilized nations. Conscious, therefore, of the limited extent of our information, we always infer, when such discoveries are made, that the beings in question bad previously eluded our research, or had at least existed elsewhere, and only migrated at a recent period into the territories where we now find them.

"What kind of proofs, therefore, could we reasonably expect to find of the origin at a particular period of a new species?

"Perhaps, it may be said in reply, that within the last two or three centuries some forest tree or new quadruped might have been observed to appear suddenly in those parts of England or France which had been most thoroughly investigated—that naturalists might have been able to show that no such being inhabited any other region of the globe, and that there was no tradition of anything similar having been observed in the district where it had made its appearance.

"Now, although this objection may seem plausible, yet its force will be found to depend entirely on the rate of fluctuation which we suppose to prevail in the animal world, and on the proportions which such conspicuous subjects of the animal and vegetable kingdoms bear to those which are less known and escape our observation. There are perhaps more than a million species of plants and animals, exclusive of the microscopic and infusory animalcules, now inhabiting the terraqueous globe, so that if only one of these were to become extinct annually, and one new one were to be every year called into being, much more than a million of years might be required to bring about a complete revolution of organic life.

"I am not hazarding at present any hypothesis as to the probable rate of change, but none will deny that when the annual birth and the annual death of one species on the globe is proposed as a mere speculation, this, at least, is to imagine no slight degree of instability in the animate creation. If we divide the surface of the earth into twenty regions of equal area, one of these might comprehend a space of land and water about equal in dimensions to Europe, and might contain a twentieth part of the million of species which may be assumed to exist in the animal kingdom. In this region one species only could, according to the rate of mortality before assumed, perish in twenty years, or only five out of fifty thousand in the course of a century. But as a considerable portion of the whole world belongs to the aquatic classes, with which we have a very imperfect acquaintance, we must exclude them from our consideration, and, if they constitute half of the entire number, then one species only might be lost in forty years among the terrestrial tribes. Now the mammalia, whether terrestrial or aquatic, bear so small a proportion to other classes of animals, forming less, perhaps, than a thousandth part of a whole, that, if the longevity of species in the different orders were equal, a vast period must elapse before it would come to the turn of this conspicuous class to lose one of their number. If one species only of the whole animal kingdom died out in forty years, no more than one mammifer might disappear in forty thousand years, in a region of the dimensions of Europe.

"It is easy, therefore, to see that in a small portion of such an area, in countries, for example, of the size of England and France, periods of much greater duration must elapse before it would be possible to authenticate the first appearance of one of the larger plants or animals, assuming the annual birth and death of one species to be the rate of vicissitude in the animal creation throughout the world."[3]

In a word, then, said Lyell, it becomes clear that the numberless species that have been exterminated in the past have died out one by one, just as individuals of a species die, not in vast shoals; if whole populations have passed away, it has been not by instantaneous extermination, but by the elimination of a species now here, now there, much as one generation succeeds another in the life history of any single species. The causes which have brought about such gradual exterminations, and in the long lapse of ages have resulted in rotations of population, are the same natural causes that are still in operation. Species have died out in the past as they are dying out in the present, under influence of changed surroundings, such as altered climate, or the migration into their territory of more masterful species. Past and present causes are one—natural law is changeless and eternal.

Such was the essence of the Huttonian doctrine, which Lyell adopted and extended, and with which his name will always be associated. Largely through his efforts, though of course not without the aid of many other workers after a time, this idea—the doctrine of uniformitarianism, it came to be called—became the accepted dogma of the geologic world not long after the middle of the nineteenth century. The catastrophists, after clinging madly to their phantom for a generation, at last capitulated without terms: the old heresy became the new orthodoxy, and the way was paved for a fresh controversy.


The fresh controversy followed quite as a matter of course. For the idea of catastrophism had not concerned the destruction of species merely, but their introduction as well. If whole faunas had been extirpated suddenly, new faunas had presumably been introduced with equal suddenness by special creation; but if species die out gradually, the introduction of new species may be presumed to be correspondingly gradual. Then may not the new species of a later geological epoch be the modified lineal descendants of the extinct population of an earlier epoch?

The idea that such might be the case was not new. It had been suggested when fossils first began to attract conspicuous attention; and such sagacious thinkers as Buffon and Kant and Goethe and Erasmus Darwin had been disposed to accept it in the closing days of the eighteenth century. Then, in 1809, it had been contended for by one of the early workers in systematic paleontology—Jean Baptiste Lamarck, who had studied the fossil shells about Paris while Cuvier studied the vertebrates, and who had been led by these studies to conclude that there had been not merely a rotation but a progression of life on the globe. He found the fossil shells—the fossils of invertebrates, as he himself had christened them—in deeper strata than Cuvier's vertebrates; and he believed that there had been long ages when no higher forms than these were in existence, and that in successive ages fishes, and then reptiles, had been the highest of animate creatures, before mammals, including man, appeared. Looking beyond the pale of his bare facts, as genius sometimes will, he had insisted that these progressive populations had developed one from another, under influence of changed surroundings, in unbroken series.

Of course such a thought as this was hopelessly misplaced in a generation that doubted the existence of extinct species, and hardly less so in the generation that accepted catastrophism; but it had been kept alive by here and there an advocate like Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, and now the banishment of catastrophism opened the way for its more respectful consideration. Respectful consideration was given it by Lyell in each recurring edition of his Principles, but such consideration led to its unqualified rejection. In its place Lyell put forward a modified hypothesis of special creation. He assumed that from time to time, as the extirpation of a species had left room, so to speak, for a new species, such new species had been created de novo; and he supposed that such intermittent, spasmodic impulses of creation manifest themselves nowadays quite as frequently as at any time in the past. He did not say in so many words that no one need be surprised to-day were he to see a new species of deer, for example, come up out of the ground before him, "pawing to get free," like Milton's lion, but his theory implied as much. And that theory, let it be noted, was not the theory of Lyell alone, but of nearly all his associates in the geologic world. There is perhaps no other fact that will bring home to one so vividly the advance in thought of our own generation as the recollection that so crude, so almost unthinkable a conception could have been the current doctrine of science less than half a century ago.

This theory of special creation, moreover, excluded the current doctrine of uniformitarianism as night excludes day, though most thinkers of the time did not seem to be aware of the incompatibility of the two ideas. It may be doubted whether even Lyell himself fully realized it. If he did, he saw no escape from the dilemma, for it seemed to him that the record in the rocks clearly disproved the alternative Lamarckian hypothesis. And almost with one accord the paleontologists of the time sustained the verdict. Owen, Agassiz, Falconer, Barrande, Pictet, Forbes, repudiated the idea as unqualifiedly as their great predecessor Cuvier had done in the earlier generation. Some of them did, indeed, come to believe that there is evidence of a progressive development of life in the successive ages, but no such graded series of fossils had been discovered as would give countenance to the idea that one species had ever been transformed into another. And to nearly every one this objection seemed insuperable.

But in 1859 appeared a book which, though not dealing primarily with paleontology, yet contained a chapter that revealed the geological record in an altogether new light. The book was Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, the chapter that wonderful citation of the "Imperfections of the Geological Record." In this epoch-making chapter Darwin shows what conditions must prevail in any given place in order that fossils shall be formed, how unusual such conditions are, and how probable it is that fossils once imbedded in sediment of a sea-bed will be destroyed by metamorphosis of the rocks, or by denudation when the strata are raised above the water-level. Add to this the fact that only small territories of the earth have been explored geologically, he says, and it becomes clear that the paleontological record as we now possess it shows but a mere fragment of the past history of organisms on the earth. It is a history "imperfectly kept and written in a changing dialect. Of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume only here and there a short chapter has been preserved, and of each page only here and there a few lines." For a paleontologist to dogmatize from such a record would be as rash, he thinks, as "for a naturalist to land for five minutes on a barren point of Australia and then discuss the number and range of its productions."

This citation of observations, which when once pointed out seemed almost self-evident, came as a revelation to the geological world. In the clarified view now possible old facts took on a new meaning. It was recalled that Cuvier had been obliged to establish a new order for some of the first fossil creatures he examined, and that Buckland had noted that the nondescript forms were intermediate in structure between allied existing orders. More recently such intermediate forms had been discovered over and over; so that, to name but one example, Owen had been able, with the aid of extinct species, to "dissolve by gradations the apparently wide interval between the pig and the camel." Owen, moreover, had been led to speak repeatedly of the "generalized forms" of extinct animals, and Agassiz had called them "synthetic or prophetic types," these terms clearly implying "that such forms are in fact intermediate or connecting links." Darwin himself had shown some years before that the fossil animals of any continent are closely related to the existing animals of that continent—edentates predominating, for example, in South America, and marsupials in Australia. Many observers had noted that recent strata everywhere show a fossil fauna more nearly like the existing one than do more ancient strata; and that fossils from any two consecutive strata are far more closely related to each other than are the fossils of two remote formations, the fauna of each geological formation being, indeed, in a wide view, intermediate between preceding and succeeding faunas.

So suggestive were all these observations that Lyell, the admitted leader of the geological world, after reading Darwin's citations, felt able to drop his own crass explanation of the introduction of species and adopt the transmutation hypothesis, thus rounding out the doctrine of uniformitarianism to the full proportions in which Lamarck had conceived it half a century before. Not all paleontologists could follow him at once, of course; the proof was not yet sufficiently demonstrative for that; but all were shaken in the seeming security of their former position, which is always a necessary stage in the progress of thought. And popular interest in the matter was raised to white heat in a twinkling.

So, for the third time in this first century of its existence, paleontology was called upon to play a leading role in a controversy whose interest extended far beyond the bounds of staid truth-seeking science. And the controversy waged over the age of the earth had not been more bitter, that over catastrophism not more acrimonious, than that which now raged over the question of the transmutation of species. The question had implications far beyond the bounds of paleontology, of course. The main evidence yet presented had been drawn from quite other fields, but by common consent the record in the rocks might furnish a crucial test of the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. "He who rejects this view of the imperfections of the geological record," said Darwin, "will rightly reject the whole theory."

With something more than mere scientific zeal, therefore, paleontologists turned anew to the records in the rocks, to inquire what evidence in proof or refutation might be found in unread pages of the "great stone book." And, as might have been expected, many minds being thus prepared to receive new evidence, such evidence was not long withheld.


Indeed, at the moment of Darwin's writing a new and very instructive chapter of the geologic record was being presented to the public—a chapter which for the first time brought man into the story. In 1859 Dr. Falconer, the distinguished British paleontologist, made a visit to Abbeville, in the valley of the Somme, incited by reports that for a decade before bad been sent out from there by M. Boucher de Perthes. These reports had to do with the alleged finding of flint implements, clearly the work of man, in undisturbed gravel- beds, in the midst of fossil remains of the mammoth and other extinct animals. What Falconer saw there and what came of his visit may best be told in his own words:

"In September of 1856 I made the acquaintance of my distinguished friend M. Boucher de Perthes," wrote Dr. Falconer, "on the introduction of M. Desnoyers at Paris, when he presented to me the earlier volume of his Antiquites celtiques, etc., with which I thus became acquainted for the first time. I was then fresh from the examination of the Indian fossil remains of the valley of the Jumna; and the antiquity of the human race being a subject of interest to both, we conversed freely about it, each from a different point of view. M. de Perthes invited me to visit Abbeville, in order to examine his antediluvian collection, fossil and geological, gleaned from the valley of the Somme. This I was unable to accomplish then, but I reserved it for a future occasion.

"In October, 1856, having determined to proceed to Sicily, I arranged by correspondence with M. Boucher de Perthes to visit Abbeville on my journey through France. I was at the time in constant communication with Mr. Prestwich about the proofs of the antiquity of the human race yielded by the Broxham Cave, in which he took a lively interest; and I engaged to communicate to him the opinions at which I should arrive, after my examination of the Abbeville collection. M. de Perthes gave me the freest access to his materials, with unreserved explanations of all the facts of the case that had come under his observation; and having considered his Menchecourt Section, taken with such scrupulous care, and identified the molars of elephas primigenius, which he had exhumed with his own hands deep in that section, along with flint weapons, presenting the same character as some of those found in the Broxham Cave, I arrived at the conviction that they were of contemporaneous age, although I was not prepared to go along with M. de Perthes in all his inferences regarding the hieroglyphics and in an industrial interpretation of the various other objects which he had met with."[4]

That Dr. Falconer was much impressed by the collection of M. de Perthes is shown in a communication which he sent at once to his friend Prestwich:

"I have been richly rewarded," he exclaims. "His collection of wrought flint implements, and of the objects of every description associated with them, far exceeds everything I expected to have seen, especially from a single locality. He has made great additions, since the publication of his first volume, in the second, which I now have by me. He showed me flint hatchets which HE HAD DUG UP with his own hands, mixed INDISCRIMINATELY with molars of elephas primigenius. I examined and identified plates of the molars and the flint objects which were got along with them. Abbeville is an out-of-the-way place, very little visited; and the French savants who meet him in Paris laugh at Monsieur de Perthes and his researches. But after devoting the greater part of a day to his vast collection, I am perfectly satisfied that there is a great deal of fair presumptive evidence in favor of many of his speculations regarding the remote antiquity of these industrial objects and their association with animals now extinct. M. Boucher's hotel is, from the ground floor to garret, a continued museum, filled with pictures, mediaeval art, and Gaulish antiquities, including antediluvian flint-knives, fossil-bones, etc. If, during next summer, you should happen to be paying a visit to France, let me strongly recommend you to come to Abbeville. I am sure you would be richly rewarded."[5]

This letter aroused the interest of the English geologists, and in the spring of 1859 Prestwich and Mr. (afterwards Sir John) Evans made a visit to Abbeville to see the specimens and examine at first hand the evidences as pointed out by Dr. Falconer. "The evidence yielded by the valley of the Somme," continues Falconer, in speaking of this visit, "was gone into with the scrupulous care and severe and exhaustive analysis which are characteristic of Mr. Prestwich's researches. The conclusions to which he was conducted were communicated to the Royal Society on May 12, 1859, in his celebrated memoir, read on May 26th and published in the Philosophical Transactions of 1860, which, in addition to researches made in the valley of the Somme, contained an account of similar phenomena presented by the valley of the Waveney, near Hoxne, in Suffolk. Mr. Evans communicated to the Society of Antiquaries a memoir on the character and geological position of the 'Flint Implements in the Drift,' which appeared in the Archaeologia for 1860. The results arrived at by Mr. Prestwich were expressed as follows:

"First. That the flint implements are the result of design and the work of man.

"Second. That they are found in beds of gravel, sand, and clay, which have never been artificially disturbed.

"Third. That they occur associated with the remains of land, fresh-water, and marine testacea, of species now living, and most of them still common in the same neighborhood, and also with the remains of various mammalia—a few species now living, but more of extinct forms.

"Fourth. That the period at which their entombment took place was subsequent to the bowlder-clay period, and to that extent post-glacial; and also that it was among the latest in geological time—one apparently anterior to the surface assuming its present form, so far as it regards some of the minor features."[6]

These reports brought the subject of the very significant human fossils at Abbeville prominently before the public; whereas the publications of the original discoverer, Boucher de Perthes, bearing date of 1847, had been altogether ignored. A new aspect was thus given to the current controversy.

As Dr. Falconer remarked, geology was now passing through the same ordeal that astronomy passed in the age of Galileo. But the times were changed since the day when the author of the Dialogues was humbled before the Congregation of the Index, and now no Index Librorum Prohibitorum could avail to hide from eager human eyes such pages of the geologic story as Nature herself had spared. Eager searchers were turning the leaves with renewed zeal everywhere, and with no small measure of success. In particular, interest attached just at this time to a human skull which Dr. Fuhlrott had discovered in a cave at Neanderthal two or three years before—a cranium which has ever since been famous as the Neanderthal skull, the type specimen of what modern zoologists are disposed to regard as a distinct species of man, Homo neanderthalensis. Like others of the same type since discovered at Spy, it is singularly simian in character—low-arched, with receding forehead and enormous, protuberant eyebrows. When it was first exhibited to the scientists at Berlin by Dr. Fuhlrott, in 1857, its human character was doubted by some of the witnesses; of that, however, there is no present question.

This interesting find served to recall with fresh significance some observations that had been made in France and Belgium a long generation earlier, but whose bearings had hitherto been ignored. In 1826 MM. Tournal and Christol had made independent discoveries of what they believed to be human fossils in the caves of the south of France; and in 1827 Dr. Schmerling had found in the cave of Engis, in Westphalia, fossil bones of even greater significance. Schmerling's explorations had been made with the utmost care, and patience. At Engis he had found human bones, including skulls, intermingled with those of extinct mammals of the mammoth period in a way that left no doubt in his mind that all dated from the same geological epoch. He bad published a full account of his discoveries in an elaborate monograph issued in 1833.

But at that time, as it chanced, human fossils were under a ban as effectual as any ever pronounced by canonical index, though of far different origin. The oracular voice of Cuvier had declared against the authenticity of all human fossils. Some of the bones brought him for examination the great anatomist had pettishly pitched out of the window, declaring them fit only for a cemetery, and that had settled the matter for a generation: the evidence gathered by lesser workers could avail nothing against the decision rendered at the Delphi of Science. But no ban, scientific or canonical, can longer resist the germinative power of a fact, and so now, after three decades of suppression, the truth which Cuvier had buried beneath the weight of his ridicule burst its bonds, and fossil man stood revealed, if not as a flesh-and-blood, at least as a skeletal entity.

The reception now accorded our prehistoric ancestor by the progressive portion of the scientific world amounted to an ovation; but the unscientific masses, on the other hand, notwithstanding their usual fondness for tracing remote genealogies, still gave the men of Engis and Neanderthal the cold shoulder. Nor were all of the geologists quite agreed that the contemporaneity of these human fossils with the animals whose remains had been mingled with them had been fully established. The bare possibility that the bones of man and of animals that long preceded him had been swept together into the eaves in successive ages, and in some mysterious way intermingled there, was clung to by the conservatives as a last refuge. But even this small measure of security was soon to be denied them, for in 1865 two associated workers, M. Edouard Lartet and Mr. Henry Christy, in exploring the caves of Dordogne, unearthed a bit of evidence against which no such objection could be urged. This momentous exhibit was a bit of ivory, a fragment of the tusk of a mammoth, on which was scratched a rude but unmistakable outline portrait of the mammoth itself. If all the evidence as to man's antiquity before presented was suggestive merely, here at last was demonstration; for the cave-dwelling man could not well have drawn the picture of the mammoth unless he had seen that animal, and to admit that man and the mammoth had been contemporaries was to concede the entire case. So soon, therefore, as the full import of this most instructive work of art came to be realized, scepticism as to man's antiquity was silenced for all time to come.

In the generation that has elapsed since the first drawing of the cave-dweller artist was discovered, evidences of the wide-spread existence of man in an early epoch have multiplied indefinitely, and to-day the paleontologist traces the history of our race back beyond the iron and bronze ages, through a neolithic or polished-stone age, to a paleolithic or rough-stone age, with confidence born of unequivocal knowledge. And he looks confidently to the future explorer of the earth's fossil records to extend the history back into vastly more remote epochs, for it is little doubted that paleolithic man, the most ancient of our recognized progenitors, is a modern compared to those generations that represented the real childhood of our race.


Coincidently with the discovery of these highly suggestive pages of the geologic story, other still more instructive chapters were being brought to light in America. It was found that in the Rocky Mountain region, in strata found in ancient lake beds, records of the tertiary period, or age of mammals, had been made and preserved with fulness not approached in any other region hitherto geologically explored. These records were made known mainly by Professors Joseph Leidy, O. C. Marsh, and E. D. Cope, working independently, and more recently by numerous younger paleontologists.

The profusion of vertebrate remains thus brought to light quite beggars all previous exhibits in point of mere numbers. Professor Marsh, for example, who was first in the field, found three hundred new tertiary species between the years 1870 and 1876. Meanwhile, in cretaceous strata, he unearthed remains of about two hundred birds with teeth, six hundred pterodactyls, or flying dragons, some with a spread of wings of twenty- five feet, and one thousand five hundred mosasaurs of the sea-serpent type, some of them sixty feet or more in length. In a single bed of Jurassic rock, not larger than a good-sized lecture-room, he found the remains of one hundred and sixty individuals of mammals, representing twenty species and nine genera; while beds of the same age have yielded three hundred reptiles, varying from the size of a rabbit to sixty or eighty feet in length.

But the chief interest of these fossils from the West is not their number but their nature; for among them are numerous illustrations of just such intermediate types of organisms as must have existed in the past if the succession of life on the globe has been an unbroken lineal succession. Here are reptiles with bat-like wings, and others with bird-like pelves and legs adapted for bipedal locomotion. Here are birds with teeth, and other reptilian characters. In short, what with reptilian birds and birdlike reptiles, the gap between modern reptiles and birds is quite bridged over. In a similar way, various diverse mammalian forms, as the tapir, the rhinoceros, and the horse, are linked together by fossil progenitors. And, most important of all, Professor Marsh has discovered a series of mammalian remains, occurring in successive geological epochs, which are held to represent beyond cavil the actual line of descent of the modern horse; tracing the lineage of our one-toed species back through two and three toed forms, to an ancestor in the eocene or early tertiary that had four functional toes and the rudiment of a fifth. This discovery is too interesting and too important not to be detailed at length in the words of the discoverer.

Marsh Describes the Fossil Horse

"It is a well-known fact," says Professor Marsh, "that the Spanish discoverers of America discovered no horses on this continent, and that the modern horse (Equus caballus, Linn.) was subsequently introduced from the Old World. It is, however, not so generally known that these animals had formerly been abundant here, and that long before, in tertiary time, near relatives of the horse, and probably his ancestors, existed in the far West in countless numbers and in a marvellous variety of forms. The remains of equine mammals, now known from the tertiary and quaternary deposits of this country, already represent more than double the number of genera and species hitherto found in the strata of the eastern hemisphere, and hence afford most important aid in tracing out the genealogy of the horses still existing.

"The animals of this group which lived in America during the three diversions of the tertiary period were especially numerous in the Rocky Mountain regions, and their remains are well preserved in the old lake basins which then covered so much of that country. The most ancient of these lakes—which extended over a considerable part of the present territories of Wyoming and Utah—remained so long in eocene times that the mud and sand, slowly deposited in it, accumulated to more than a mile in vertical thickness. In these deposits vast numbers of tropical animals were entombed, and here the oldest equine remains occur, four species of which have been described. These belong to the genus Orohippus (Marsh), and are all of a diminutive size, hardly bigger than a fox. The skeletons of these animals resemble that of the horse in many respects, much more indeed than any other existing species, but, instead of the single toe on each foot, so characteristic of all modern equines, the various species of Orohippus had four toes before and three behind, all of which reached the ground. The skull, too, was proportionately shorter, and the orbit was not enclosed behind by a bridge of bone. There were fifty four teeth in all, and the premolars were larger than the molars. The crowns of these teeth were very short. The canine teeth were developed in both sexes, and the incisors did not have the "mark" which indicates the age of the modern horse. The radius and ulna were separate, and the latter was entire through the whole length. The tibia and fibula were distinct. In the forefoot all the digits except the pollex, or first, were well developed. The third digit is the largest, and its close resemblance to that of the horse is clearly marked. The terminal phalanx, or coffin-bone, has a shallow median bone in front, as in many species of this group in the later tertiary. The fourth digit exceeds the second in size, and the second is much the shortest of all. Its metacarpal bone is considerably curved outward. In the hind-foot of this genus there are but three digits. The fourth metatarsal is much larger than the second.

"The larger number of equine mammals now known from the tertiary deposits of this country, and their regular distributions through the subdivisions of this formation, afford a good opportunity to ascertain the probable descent of the modern horse. The American representative of the latter is the extinct Equus fraternus (Leidy), a species almost, if not wholly, identical with the Old World Equus caballus (Linnaeus), to which our recent horse belongs. Huxley has traced successfully the later genealogy of the horse through European extinct forms, but the line in America was probably a more direct one, and the record is more complete. Taking, then, as the extreme of a series, Orohippus agilis (Marsh), from the eocene, and Equus fraternus (Leidy), from the quaternary, intermediate forms may be intercalated with considerable certainty from thirty or more well-marked species that lived in the intervening periods. The natural line of descent would seem to be through the following genera: Orohippus, of the eocene; Miohippus and Anchitherium, of the miocene; Anchippus, Hipparion, Protohippus, Phohippus, of the pliocene; and Equus, quaternary and recent.

The most marked changes undergone by the successive equine genera are as follows: First, increase in size; second, increase in speed, through concentration of limb bones; third, elongation of head and neck, and modifications of skull. The eocene Orohippus was the size of a fox. Miohippus and Anchitherium, from the miocene, were about as large as a sheep. Hipparion and Pliohippus, of the pliocene, equalled the ass in height; while the size of the quaternary Equus was fully up to that of a modern horse.

"The increase of speed was equally well marked, and was a direct result of the gradual formation of the limbs. The latter were slowly concentrated by the reduction of their lateral elements and enlargement of the axial bone, until the force exerted by each limb came to act directly through its axis in the line of motion. This concentration is well seen—e.g., in the fore-limb. There was, first, a change in the scapula and humerus, especially in the latter, which facilitated motion in one line only; second, an expansion of the radius and reduction of the ulna, until the former alone remained entire and effective; third, a shortening of all the carpal bones and enlargement of the median ones, insuring a firmer wrist; fourth, an increase of size of the third digit, at the expense of those of each side, until the former alone supported the limb.

"Such is, in brief, a general outline of the more marked changes that seemed to have produced in America the highly specialized modern Equus from his diminutive four-toed predecessor, the eocene Orohippus. The line of descent appears to have been direct, and the remains now known supply every important intermediate form. It is, of course, impossible to say with certainty through which of the three-toed genera of the pliocene that lived together the succession came. It is not impossible that the latter species, which appear generically identical, are the descendants of more distinct pliocene types, as the persistent tendency in all the earlier forms was in the same direction. Considering the remarkable development of the group through the tertiary period, and its existence even later, it seems very strange that none of the species should have survived, and that we are indebted for our present horse to the Old World."[7]


These and such-like revelations have come to light in our own time—are, indeed, still being disclosed. Needless to say, no index of any sort now attempts to conceal them; yet something has been accomplished towards the same end by the publication of the discoveries in Smithsonian bulletins and in technical memoirs of government surveys. Fortunately, however, the results have been rescued from that partial oblivion by such interpreters as Professors Huxley and Cope, so the unscientific public has been allowed to gain at least an inkling of the wonderful progress of paleontology in our generation.

The writings of Huxley in particular epitomize the record. In 1862 he admitted candidly that the paleontological record as then known, so far as it bears on the doctrine of progressive development, negatives that doctrine. In 1870 he was able to "soften somewhat the Brutus-like severity" of his former verdict, and to assert that the results of recent researches seem "to leave a clear balance in favor of the doctrine of the evolution of living forms one from another." Six years later, when reviewing the work of Marsh in America and of Gaudry in Pikermi, he declared that, "on the evidence of paleontology, the evolution of many existing forms of animal life from their predecessors is no longer an hypothesis, but an historical fact." In 1881 he asserted that the evidence gathered in the previous decade had been so unequivocal that, had the transmutation hypothesis not existed, "the paleontologist would have had to invent it."

Since then the delvers after fossils have piled proof on proof in bewildering profusion. The fossil-beds in the "bad lands" of western America seem inexhaustible. And in the Connecticut River Valley near relatives of the great reptiles which Professor Marsh and others have found in such profusion in the West left their tracks on the mud-flats—since turned to sandstone; and a few skeletons also have been found. The bodies of a race of great reptiles that were the lords of creation of their day have been dissipated to their elements, while the chance indentations of their feet as they raced along the shores, mere footprints on the sands, have been preserved among the most imperishable of the memory-tablets of the world.

Of the other vertebrate fossils that have been found in the eastern portions of America, among the most abundant and interesting are the skeletons of mastodons. Of these one of the largest and most complete is that which was unearthed in the bed of a drained lake near Newburg, New York, in 1845. This specimen was larger than the existing elephants, and had tusks eleven feet in length. It was mounted and described by Dr. John C. Warren, of Boston, and has been famous for half a century as the "Warren mastodon."

But to the student of racial development as recorded by the fossils all these sporadic finds have but incidental interest as compared with the rich Western fossil- beds to which we have already referred. From records here unearthed, the racial evolution of many mammals has in the past few years been made out in greater or less detail. Professor Cope has traced the ancestry of the camels (which, like the rhinoceroses, hippopotami, and sundry other forms now spoken of as "Old World," seem to have had their origin here) with much completeness.

A lemuroid form of mammal, believed to be of the type from which man has descended, has also been found in these beds. It is thought that the descendants of this creature, and of the other "Old-World" forms above referred to, found their way to Asia, probably, as suggested by Professor Marsh, across a bridge at Bering Strait, to continue their evolution on the other hemisphere, becoming extinct in the land of their nativity. The ape-man fossil found in the tertiary strata of the island of Java in 1891 by the Dutch surgeon Dr. Eugene Dubois, and named Pithecanthropus erectus, may have been a direct descendant of the American tribe of primitive lemurs, though this is only a conjecture.

Not all the strange beasts which have left their remains in our "bad lands" are represented by living descendants. The titanotheres, or brontotheridae, for example, a gigantic tribe, offshoots of the same stock which produced the horse and rhinoceros, represented the culmination of a line of descent. They developed rapidly in a geological sense, and flourished about the middle of the tertiary period; then, to use Agassiz's phrase," time fought against them." The story of their evolution has been worked out by Professors Leidy, Marsh, Cope, and H. F. Osborne.

A recent bit of paleontological evidence bearing on the question of the introduction of species is that presented by Dr. J. L. Wortman in connection with the fossil lineage of the edentates. It was suggested by Marsh, in 1877, that these creatures, whose modern representatives are all South American, originated in North America long before the two continents had any land connection. The stages of degeneration by which these animals gradually lost the enamel from their teeth, coming finally to the unique condition of their modern descendants of the sloth tribe, are illustrated by strikingly graded specimens now preserved in the American Museum of Natural History, as shown by Dr. Wortman.

All these and a multitude of other recent observations that cannot be even outlined here tell the same story. With one accord paleontologists of our time regard the question of the introduction of new species as solved. As Professor Marsh has said, "to doubt evolution today is to doubt science; and science is only another name for truth."

Thus the third great battle over the meaning of the fossil records has come to a conclusion. Again there is a truce to controversy, and it may seem to the casual observer that the present stand of the science of fossils is final and impregnable. But does this really mean that a full synopsis of the story of paleontology has been told? Or do we only await the coming of the twentieth-century Lamarck or Darwin, who shall attack the fortified knowledge of to-day with the batteries of a new generalization?