III. THE NEW SCIENCE OF PALEONTOLOGY. WILLIAM SMITH AND FOSSIL SHELLS
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."
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: