III. THE NEW SCIENCE OF PALEONTOLOGY. WILLIAM SMITH AND FOSSIL SHELLS
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.
CHARLES LYELL COMBATS CATASTROPHISM
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.