Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/December 1879/History and Methods of Paleontological Discovery I

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 16 December 1879  (1879) 
History and Methods of Paleontological Discovery I
By Othniel Charles Marsh

By Professor O. C. MARSH.

IN the rapid progress of knowledge, we are constantly brought face to face with the question. What is life? The answer is not yet, but a thousand earnest seekers after truth seem to be slowly approaching a solution. This question gives a new interest to every department of science that relates to life in any form, and the history of life offers a most suggestive field for research. One line of investigation lies through embryology, and here the advance is most encouraging. Another promising path leads back through the life-history of the globe, and in this direction we may hope for increasing light, as a reward for patient work.

The plants and animals now living on the earth interest alike the savage and the savant, and hence have been carefully observed in every age of human history. The life of the remote past, however, is preserved only in scanty records, buried in the earth, and therefore readily escapes attention. For these reasons, the study of ancient life is one of the latest of modern sciences, and among the most difficult. In view of the great advances which this department of knowledge has made within the last decade, especially in this country, I have thought it fitting to the present occasion to review briefly its development, and have chosen for my subject this evening "The History and Methods of Paleontological Discovery."

In the short time now at my command, I can only attempt to present a rapid sketch of the principal steps in the progress of this science. The literature of the subject, especially in connection with the discussions it provoked, is voluminous, and an outline of the history itself must suffice for my present purpose.


In looking over the records of paleontology, its history may conveniently be divided into four periods, well marked by prominent features, but, like all stages of intellectual growth, without definite boundaries.

The first period, dating back to the time when men first noticed fossil remains in the rocks, and queried as to their nature, is of special historic interest. The most prominent characteristic of this period was, a long and bitter contest as to the nature of fossil remains. Were they mere "sports of Nature," or had they once been endowed with life? Simple as this problem now seems, centuries passed before the wise men of that time were agreed upon its solution.


Sea-shells in the solid rock on the tops of mountains early attracted the attention of the ancients, and the learned men among them seem to have appreciated in some instances their true character, and given rational explanations of their presence.

The philosopher Zenophanes, of Colophon, who lived about 500 b. c., mentions the remains of fishes and other animals in the stone quarries near Syracuse, the impression of an anchovy in the rock of Paros, and various marine fossils at other places. His conclusion from these facts was, that the surface of the earth had once been in a soft condition at the bottom of the sea; and thus the objects mentioned were entombed. Herodotus, half a century later, speaks of marine shells on the hills of Egypt and over the Libyan Desert, and he inferred therefrom that the sea had once covered that whole region. Empedocles, of Agrigentum (450 b. c.), believed that the many hippopotamus-bones found in Sicily were remains of human giants, in comparison with which the present race were as children. Here, he thought, was a battle-field between the gods and the Titans, and the bones belonged to the slain. Pythagoras (582 b, c.) had already anticipated one conclusion of modern geology, if the following statement, attributed to him by Ovid, was his own:[2]

"Vidi ego quod fuerat solidissima tellus,

Esse fretum: vidi factas ex æquore terras;
Et procul a pelago conchæ Jacuere marinæ."

Aristotle (384-322 b. c.) was not only aware of the existence of fossils in the rocks, but has also placed on record sagacious views as to the changes in the earth's surface necessary to account for them. In the second book of his "Meteorics," he says: "The changes of the earth are so slow in comparison to the duration of our lives, that they are overlooked; and the migrations of people after great catastrophes and their removal to other regions, cause the event to be forgotten." Again, in the same work, he says: "As time never fails, and the universe is eternal, neither the Tanais nor the Nile can have flowed for ever. The places where they rise were once dry, and there is a limit to their operations: but there is none to time. So of all other rivers; they spring up, and they perish; and the sea also continually deserts some lands and invades others. The same tracts, therefore, of the earth are not, some always sea, and others always continents, but everything changes in the course of time."

Aristotle's views on the subject of spontaneous generation were less sound, and his doctrines on this subject exerted a powerful influence for the succeeding twenty centuries. In the long discussion that followed concerning the nature of fossil remains, Aristotle's views were paramount. He believed that animals could originate from moist earth or the slime of rivers, and this seemed to the people of that period a much simpler way of accounting for the remains of animals in the rocks than the marvelous changes of sea and land otherwise required to explain their presence. Aristotle's opinion was in accordance with the Biblical account of the creation of man out of the dust of the earth, and hence more readily obtained credence.

Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, alludes to fossil fishes found near Heraclea, in Pontus, and in Paphlagonia, and says, "They were either developed from fish-spawn left behind in the earth, or gone astray from rivers or the sea into cavities of the earth, where they had become petrified." In treating of fossil ivory and bones, the same writer supposed them to be produced by a certain plastic virtue latent in the earth. To this same cause, as we shall see, many later authors attributed the origin of all fossil remains.

Previous to this, Anaximander, the Miletian philosopher, who was born about 610 years before Christ, had expressed essentially the same view. According to both Plutarch and Censorinus, Anaximander taught that fishes, or animals very like fishes, sprang from heated water and earth, and from these animals came the human race; a statement which can hardly be considered as anticipating the modern idea of evolution, as some authors have imagined.


The Romans added but little to the knowledge possessed by the Greeks in regard to fossil remains. Pliny (23-79 a. d.), however, seems to have examined such objects with interest, and in his renowned work on natural history gave names to several forms. He doubtless borrowed largely from Theophrastus, who wrote about three hundred years before. Among the objects named by Pliny were: "Bucardia, like to an ox's heart"; Brontia, resembling the head of a tortoise, supposed to fall in thunderstorms"; "Glossoptra, similar to a human tongue, which does not grow in the earth, but falls from heaven while the moon is eclipsed"; "the Horn of Ammon, possessing, with a golden color, the figure of a ram's horn"; Ceraunia and Ombria, supposed to be thunderbolts"; "Ostracites, resembling the oyster shell"; "Spongites, having the form of sponge"; Phycites, similar to sea-weed or rushes." He also mentions stones resembling the teeth of hippopotamus; and says that Theophrastus speaks of fossil ivory, both black and white, of bones born in the earth, and of stones bearing the figure of bones.

Tertullian (160 a. d.) mentions instances of the remains of sea animals on the mountains, far from the sea, but uses them as a proof of the general deluge recorded in Scripture.


During the next thirteen or fourteen centuries, fossil remains of animals and plants seem to have attracted so little attention, that few references are made to them by the writers of this period. During these ages of darkness, all departments of knowledge suffered alike, and feeble repetitions of ideas derived from the ancients seem to have been about the only contributions of that period to natural science.

Albert the Great (1205-'80 a. d.),the most learned man of his time, mentions that a branch of a tree was found, on which was a bird's nest containing birds, the whole being solid stone. He accounted for this strange phenomenon by the vis formativa of Aristotle, an occult force, which, according to the prevalent notions of the time, was capable of forming most of the extraordinary objects discovered in the earth.

Alexander ab Alexandro, of Naples, states that he saw, in the mountains of Calabria, a considerable distance from the sea, a variegated hard marble, in which many sea-shells but little changed were heaped, forming one mass with the marble.


With the beginning of the sixteenth century, a great impetus was given to the investigation of organic fossils, especially in Italy, where this study really began. The discovery of fossil shells, which abound in this region, now attracted great attention, and a fierce discussion soon arose as to the true nature of these and other remains. The ideas of Aristotle in regard to spontaneous generation, and especially his view of the hidden forces of the earth, which he claimed had power to produce such remains, now for the first time were seriously questioned, although it was not till nearly two centuries later that these doctrines lost their dominant influence.

Leonardo da Vinci, the renowned painter and philosopher, who was born in 1452, strongly opposed the commonly accepted opinions as to the origin of organized fossils. He claimed that the fossil shells under discussion were what they seemed, and had once lived at the bottom of the sea. "You tell me," he says, "that Nature and the influence of the stars have formed these shells in the mountains; then show me a place in the mountains where the stars at the present day make shelly forms of different ages, and of different species in the same place." Again, he says, "In what manner can such a cause account for the petrifactions in the same place of various leaves, sea-weeds, and marine crabs?"

In 1517, excavations in the vicinity of Verona brought to light many curious petrifactions, which led to much speculation as to their nature and origin. Among the various authors who wrote on this subject was Fracastoro, who declared that the fossils once belonged to living animals, which had lived and multiplied where found. He ridiculed the prevailing ideas that the plastic force of the ancients could fashion stones into organic forms. Some writers claimed that these shells had been left by Noah's flood, but against this idea Fracastoro offered a mass of evidence, which would now seem conclusive, but which then only aroused bitter hostility. That inundation, he said, was too transient; it consisted mainly of fresh water; and, if it had transported shells to great distances, must have scattered them over the surface, not buried them in the interior of mountains.

Conrad Gesner (1516-'65), whose history of animals has been considered the basis of modern zoölogy, published at Zurich, in 1565, a small but important work entitled "De omni rerum fossiliura genere." It contained a catalogue of the collection of fossils made by John Kentmann. This is the oldest catalogue of fossils with which I am acquainted.

George Agricola (1494-1555) was, according to Cuvier, the first mineralogist who appeared after the revival of learning in Europe. In his great work, "De Re Metallica," published in 1546, he mentions various fossil remains, and says they were produced by a certain "materia pinguis," or fatty matter, set in fermentation by heat. Some years later, Bauhin published a descriptive catalogue of the fossils he had collected in the neighborhood of Boll, in Wurtemberg.[3]

Andrew Mattioli, a distinguished botanist, adopted Agricola's notion as to the origin of organized fossils, but admitted that shells and bones might be turned into stone by being permeated by a "lapidifying juice." Falloppio, the eminent professor of anatomy at Padua, believed that fossil shells were generated by fermentation where they were found; and that the tusks of elephants, dug up near Apulia, were merely earthy concretions. Mercati, in 1574, published figures of the fossil shells preserved in the Museum of the Vatican, but expressed the opinion that they were only stones, and owed their peculiar shapes to the heavenly bodies. Olivi, of Cremona, described the fossils in the Museum at Verona, and considered them all "sports of nature."

Palissy, a French author, in 1580, opposed these views, and is said to have been the first to assert in Paris that fossil shells and fishes had once belonged to marine animals. Fabio Colonna appears to have first pointed out that some of the fossil shells found in Italy were marine and some terrestrial.

Another peculiar theory discussed in the sixteenth century deserves mention. This was the vegetation theory, especially advocated by Tournefort and Camerarius, both eminent as botanists. These writers believed that the seeds of minerals and fossils were diffused throughout the sea and the earth, and were developed into their peculiar forms by the regular increment of their particles, similar to the formation of crystals. "How could the Cornu Ammonis," Tournefort asked, which is constantly in the figure of a volute, be formed without a seed containing the same structure in the small as in the larger forms? "Who molded it so artfully, and where are the molds?" The stalactites which formed in caverns in various parts of the world were also supposed to be proofs of this vegetative growth.

Still another theory has been held at various times, and is not yet entirely forgotten, namely: that the Creator made fossil animals and plants just as they are found in the rocks, in pursuance of a plan beyond our comprehension. This theory has never prevailed among those familiar with scientific facts, and hence needs here no further consideration.

An interest in fossil remains arose in England later than on the Continent; but when attention was directed to them, the first opinions as to their origin were not less fanciful and erroneous than those to which we have already referred. Dr. Plot, in his "Natural History of Oxfordshire," published in 1677, considered the origin of fossil shells and fishes to be due to a "plastic virtue, latent in the earth," as Theophrastus had suggested long before. Lhwyd, in his "Lithophylacii Britannici Ichnographia," published in Oxford in 1699, gives a catalogue of English fossils contained in the Ashmolean Museum. He opposed the vis plastica theory, and expressed the opinion that the spawn of fishes and other marine animals had been raised with the vapors from the sea, conveyed inland by clouds, and deposited by rain, had permeated into the interior of the earth, and thus produced the fossil remains we find in the rocks. About this time several important works were published in England by Dr. Martin Lister, which did much to diffuse a true knowledge of fossil remains. He gave figures of recent shells side by side with some of the fossil forms, so that the resemblance became at once apparent. The fossil species of shells he called "turbinated and bivalve stones," and adds, "either these were terriginous, or, if otherwise, the animals which they so exactly represent have become extinct."


During the seventeenth century there was a considerable advance in the study of fossil remains. The discussions in regard to the nature and origin of these objects had called attention to them, and many collections were now made, especially in Italy, and also in Germany, where a strong interest in this subject had been aroused. Catalogues of these collections were not unfrequently published, and some of them were illustrated with such accurate figures, that many of the species can now be readily recognized. In this century, too, an important step in advance was made by the collection and description of fossils from particular localities and regions, in distinction from general collections of curiosities.

Casper Schwenkfeld, in 1600, published a catalogue of the fossils discovered in Silesia; in 1622 a detailed description of the renowned Museum of Calceolarius, of Verona, appeared; and in 1642 a catalogue of Besler's collection. Wormius's catalogue was published in 1652, Spener's in 1663, and Septala's in 1666. A description of the Museum of the King of Denmark was issued in 1669, Cottorp's catalogue in 1674, and that of the renowned Kirscher in 1678, Dr. Grew gave an account in 1687 of the specimens in the Museum of Gresham's College in England; and in 1695 Petiver, of London, published a catalogue of his very extensive collection. A catalogue by Fred. Lauchmund, on the fossils of Hildesheim, appeared in 1669, and the fossils of Switzerland were described by John Jacob Wagner in 1689. Among similar works were the dissertations of Gyer, at Frankfort, and Albertus, at Leipsic.

Steno, a Dane, who had been Professor of Anatomy at Padua, published in 1669 one of the most important works of this period.[4] He entered earnestly into the controversy as to the origin of fossil remains, and by dissecting a shark from the Mediterranean, proved that its teeth were identical with some found fossil in Tuscany, He also compared the fossil shells found in Italy with existing species, and pointed out their resemblance. In the same work, Steno expressed some very important views in regard to the different kinds of strata, and their origin, and first placed on record the important fact that the oldest rocks contain no fossils.

Scilla, the Sicilian painter, published in 1670 a work on the fossils of Calabria, well illustrated. He is very severe against those who doubted the organic origin of fossils, but is inclined to consider them relics of the Mosaic deluge.

Another instance of the power of the lusus naturæ theory, even at the close of the seventeenth century, deserves mention. In the year 1696 the skeleton of a fossil elephant was dug up at Tonna, near Gotha, in Germany, and was described by William Ernest Tentzel, a teacher in the Gotha Gymnasium. He declared the bones to be the remains of an animal that had lived long before. The medical faculty in Gotha, however, considered the subject, and decided officially that this specimen was only a freak of Nature.

Besides the authors I have mentioned, there were many others who wrote about fossil remains before the close of the seventeenth century, and took part in the general discussion as to their nature and origin. During the progress of this controversy the most fantastic theories were broached and stoutly defended, and, although refuted from time to time by a few clear-headed men, continually sprang up anew, in the same or modified forms. The influence of Aristotle's views of equivocal generation, and especially the scholastic tendency to disputation, so prevalent during the middle ages, had contributed largely to the retardation of progress, and yet a real advance in knowledge had been made. The long contest in regard to the nature of fossil remains was essentially over, for the more intelligent opinion at the time now acknowledged that these objects were not mere "sports of Nature," but had once been endowed with life. At this point, therefore, the first period in the history of paleontology, as I have indicated it, may appropriately end.

It is true that, later still, the old exploded errors about the plastic force and fermentation were from time to time revived, as they have been almost to the present day; but learned men, with few exceptions, no longer seriously questioned that fossils were real organisms, as the ancients had once believed. The many collections of fossils that had been brought together, and the illustrated works that had been published about them, were a foundation for greater progress, and, with the eighteenth century, the second period in the history of paleontology began.


The main characteristic of this period was the general belief that fossil remains were deposited by the Mosaic deluge. We have seen that this view had already been advanced, but it was not till the beginning of the eighteenth century that it became the prevailing view. This doctrine was strongly opposed by some courageous men, and the discussion on the subject soon became even more bitter than the previous one, as to the nature of fossils.

In this diluvial discussion theologians and laymen alike took part. For nearly a century the former had it all their own way, for the general public, then as now, believed what they were taught. Noah's flood was thought to have been universal, and was the only general catastrophe of which the people of that day had any knowledge or conception.

The scholars among them were of course familiar with the accounts of Deucalion and his ark, in a previous deluge, as we are to-day with similar traditions held by various races of men. The firm belief that the earth and all it contains was created in six days; that all life on the globe was destroyed by the deluge, except alone what Noah saved; and that the earth and its inhabitants were to be destroyed by fire, was the foundation on which all knowledge of the earth was based. With such fixed opinions, the fossil remains of animals and plants were naturally regarded as relics left by the flood described in Holy Writ. The dominant nature of this belief is seen in nearly all the literature in regard to fossils published at this time, and some of the works which then appeared have become famous on this account.

In 1710 David Büttner published a volume entitled "Rudera Diluvii Testes." He strongly opposed Lhwyd's explanation of the origin of fossils, and referred these objects directly to the flood. The most renowned work, however, of this time, was published at Zurich in 1726, by Scheuchzer, a physician and naturalist, and professor in the University of Altorf. It bore the title "Homo Diluvii Testis." The specimen upon which this work was based was found at Oeningen, and was regarded as the skeleton of a child destroyed by the deluge. The author recognized in this remarkable fossil, not merely the skeleton, but also portions of the muscles, the liver, and the brain. The same author was fortunate enough to discover, subsequently, near Altorf, two fossil vertebræ, which he at once referred to that "accursed race destroyed by the flood!" These, also, he carefully described and figured in his "Physica Sacra," published at Ulm in 1731. Engravings of both were subsequently given in the "Copper-Bible." Cuvier afterward examined these interesting relics, and pronounced the skeleton of the supposed child to be the remains of a gigantic salamander, and the two vertebræ to be those of an ichthyosaurus!

Another famous book appeared in Germany in the same year in which Scheuchzer's first volume was published. The author was John Bartholomew Adam Beringer, professor at the University of burg, and his great work[5] indirectly had an important influence upon the investigation of fossil remains. The history of the work is instructive, if only as an indication of the state of knowledge at that date. Professor Beringer, in accordance with views of his time, had taught his pupils that fossil remains, or "figured stones," as they were called, were mere "sports of Nature." Some of his fun-loving students reasoned among themselves, "If Nature can make figured stones in sport, why can not we?" Accordingly, from the soft limestone in the neighboring hills, they carved out figures of marvelous and fantastic forms, and buried them at the localities where the learned Professor was accustomed to dig for his fossil treasures. His delight at the discovery of these strange forms encouraged further production, and taxed the ingenuity of these youthful imitators of Nature's secret processes. At last Beringer had a large and unique collection of forms, new to him and to science, which he determined to publish to the world. After long and patient study his work appeared, in Latin, dedicated to the reigning prince of the country, and illustrated with twenty-one folio plates. Soon after the book was published the deception practiced upon the credulous Professor became known; and, in place of the glory he expected from his great undertaking, he received only ridicule and disgrace. He at once endeavored to repurchase and destroy the volumes already issued, and succeeded so far that few copies of the first edition remain. His small fortune, which had been seriously impaired in bringing out his grand work, was exhausted in the effort to regain what was already issued, as the price rapidly advanced in proportion as fewer copies remained; and, mortified at the failure of his life's work, he died in poverty. It is said that some of his family, dissatisfied with the misfortune brought upon them by this disgrace and the loss of their patrimony, used a remaining copy for the production of a second edition, which met with a large sale, sufficient to repair the previous loss and restore the family fortune. This work of Beringer, in the end, exerted an excellent influence upon the dawning science of fossil remains. Observers became more cautious in announcing supposed discoveries, and careful study of natural objects gradually replaced vague hypotheses.

The above works, however, are hardly fair examples of the literature on fossils during this part of the eighteenth century. Scheuchzer had previously published his well-known "Complaint and Vindication of the Fishes," illustrated with good plates. Moro, in his work on "Marine Bodies which are found in the Mountains," 1740, showed the effects of volcanic action in elevating strata, and causing faults. Vallisneri had studied with care the marine deposits of Italy. Donati, in 1750, had investigated the Adriatic, and ascertained by soundings that shells and corals were being imbedded in the deposits there, just as they were found in the rocks.

John Gesner's dissertation, "De Petrificatis," published at Leyden in 1758, was a valuable contribution to the science. lie enumerated the various kinds of fossils, and the different conditions in which they are found petrified, and stated that some of them, like those at Oeningen, resembled the shells, fishes, and plants of the neighboring region, while others, such as Ammonites and Belemnites, were either unknown species, or those found only in distant seas. He discusses the structure of the earth at length, and speculates as to the causes of changes in sea and land. He estimates that, at the observed rate of recession of the ocean, to allow the Apennines, whose summits are filled with marine shells, to reach their present height, would have taken about eighty thousand years, a period more than "ten times greater than the age of the universe." He accordingly refers the change to the direct command of the Deity, as related by Moses, that "the waters should be gathered together in one place, and the dry land appear."

Voltaire (1694-1778) discussed geological questions and the nature of fossils in several of his works, but his published opinions are far from consistent. He ridiculed effectively and justly the cosmogonists of his day, and showed also that he knew the true nature of organic remains. Finding, however, that theologians used these objects to confirm the Scriptural account of the deluge, he changed his views, and accounted for fossil shells found in the Alps by suggesting that they were Eastern species, dropped by the pilgrims on their return from the Holy Land!

Buff on, in 1749, published his important work on natural history, and included in it his "Theory of the Earth," in which he discussed, with much ability, many points in geology. Soon after the book was published, he received an official letter from the Faculty of Theology in Paris, stating that fourteen propositions in his works were reprehensible, and contrary to the creed of the Church. The first objectionable proposition was as follows: "The waters of the sea have produced the mountains and valleys of the land; the waters of the heavens, reducing all to a level, will at last deliver the whole land over to the sea; and the sea, successively prevailing over the land, will leave dry new continents like those we inhabit."

Buffon was politely requested by the college to recant, and, having no particular desire to be a martyr to science, submitted the following declaration, which he was required to publish in his next work: "I declare that I had no intention to contradict the text of Scripture; that I believe most firmly all therein related about the creation, both as to order of time and matter of fact; and I abandon everything in my book respecting the formation of the earth, and, generally, all which may be contrary to the narration of Moses."

This single instance will suffice to indicate one great obstacle to the advancement of science, even up to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Another important work appeared in France about this time, Bourguet's "Traité des Pétrifactions," published in 1758,-which is well illustrated with faithful plates. In England, a discourse on earthquakes, by Dr. Robert Hooke, was published in 1705. This author held some views in advance of his time, and maintained that figured stones were "really the several bodies they represent or the moldings of them petrified, and not, as some have imagined, a lusus naturæ, sporting herself in the needless formation of useless things." He anticipates one important conclusion from fossils, when he states that "though it must be very difficult to read them and to raise a chronology out of them, and to state the intervals of time wherein such or such catastrophes and mutations have happened, yet it is not impossible." He also states that fossil turtles, and such large Ammonites as are found in Portland, seem to have been the productions of hotter countries, and hence it is necessary to suppose that England once lay under the sea within the torrid zone. He seems to have suspected that some of the fossils of England belonged to extinct species, but thought they might possibly be found living in the bottom of distant oceans.

Dr. Woodward's "Natural History of the Fossils of England" appeared in 1729. This work was based on a systematic collection of fossils which he had brought together, and which he subsequently bequeathed to the University of Cambridge, where it is still preserved, with his arrangement carefully retained. The descriptive part of this work is interesting, but his conclusions are made to coincide strictly with the Scriptural account of the creation and deluge. He had previously stated, in another work, that he believed "the whole terrestrial globe to have been taken to pieces and dissolved at the flood, and the strata to have settled down from this promiscuous mass." In support of this view, he stated that "marine bodies are lodged in the strata according to the order of their gravity, the heavier shells in stones, the lighter in chalk, and so of the rest."[6]

The most important work on fossils published in Germany at this time was that of George Wolfgang Knorr, which was continued after his death by Walch. This work consisted of four folio volumes, with many plates, and was printed at Nuremberg, 1755-'73. A large number of fossils were accurately figured and described, and the work is one of permanent value.[7] A French translation of this work appeared in 1767-'78. Burton's "Oryctographie de Bruxelles," 1784, contains figures and descriptions of fossils found in Belgium.

Abraham Gottlieb "Werner (1750-1817), Professor of Mineralogy at Freyberg, did much to advance the science of geology, and indirectly that of fossils. He first indicated the relations of the main formations to each other, and, according to his pupil, Professor Jameson, first made the highly important observation that "different formations can be discriminated by the petrifactions they contain." Moreover, that "the petrifactions contained in the oldest rocks are very different from any of the species of the present time; that the newer the formation, the more do the remains approach in form to the organic beings of the present creation." Unfortunately, Werner published little, and his doctrines were mainly disseminated by his enthusiastic pupils.

The great contest between the Vulcanists and the Neptunists started at this time, mainly through Werner, whose doctrines led to the controversy. The comparative merits of fire and water, as agencies in the formation of certain rocks, were discussed with a heat and acrimony characteristic of the subject and the time. Werner believed in the aqueous theory, while the igneous theory was especially advocated by Hutton, of Edinburgh, and his illustrator, Playfair. This discussion resulted in the advancement of descriptive geology, but the study of fossils gained little thereby.

The "Protogæa" of Leibnitz, the great mathematician, published in 1749, about thirty years after his death, was a work of much merit. This author supposed that the earth had gradually cooled from a state of igneous fusion, and was subsequently covered with water. The subsidence of the lower part of the earth, the deposits of sedimentary strata from inundations, and their induration, as well as other changes, followed. All this he supposed to have been accomplished in a period of six natural days. In the same work Leibnitz shows that he had examined fossils with considerable care.

Linnæus (1707-1778), the famous Swedish botanist, and the founder of the modern system of nomenclature in natural history, confined his attention almost entirely to the living forms. Although he was familiar with the literature of fossil remains, and had collected them himself, he did not include them in his system of plants and animals, but kept them separate, with the minerals; hence he did little directly to advance this branch of science.


During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the belief that fossil remains were deposited by the deluge sensibly declined, and the dawn of a new era gradually appeared. Let us pause for a moment here, and see what real progress had been made—what foundation had been laid on which to establish a science of fossil remains.

The true nature of these objects had now been clearly determined. They were the remains of animals and plants. Most of them certainly were not the relics of the Mosaic deluge, but had been deposited long before, part in fresh water and part in the sea. Some indicated a mild climate, and some the tropics. That any of these were extinct species was as yet only suspected. Large collections of fossils had now been made, and valuable catalogues, well illustrated, had been published. Something was known, too, of the geological position of fossils. Steno, long before, had observed that the lowest rocks were without life. Lehmann had shown that above these primitive rocks, and derived from them, were the secondary strata, full of the records of life; and above these were alluvial deposits, which he referred to local floods, and the deluge of Noah. Rouelle, Fuchsel, and Odoardi had shed new light on this subject. Werner had distinguished the transition rocks containing fossil remains, between the primitive and the secondary, while everything above the chalk he grouped together, as the "overflowed land." Werner, as we have seen, had done more than this, if We give him the credit his pupils claim for him. He had found that the formations he examined contained each its own peculiar fossils, and that from the older to the newer there was a gradual approach to recent forms. William Smith had worked out the same thing in England, and should equally divide the honor of this important discovery.

The greatest advance, however, up to this time, was that men now preferred to observe rather than to believe, and facts were held in greater esteem than vague speculations. With this preparation for future progress, the second period in the history of paleontology, as I have divided it, may appropriately be considered at an end.


Thus far, I have said nothing in regard to one branch of my subject, the methods of paleontological research, for, up to this time, of method there was none. We have seen that those of the ancients who noticed marine shells in the solid rock called them such, and concluded that they had been left there by the sea. The discovery of fossils led directly to theories of how the earth was formed. Here the progress was slow. Subterranean spirits were supposed to guard faithfully the mysteries of the earth; while above the earth. Authority guarded with still greater power the secrets men in advance of their age sought to know. The dominant idea of the first sixteen centuries of the present era was, that the universe was made for man. This was the great obstacle to the correct determination of the position of the earth in the universe, and, later, of the age of the earth. The contest of astronomy against authority was long and severe, but the victory was at last with science. The contest of geology against the same power followed, and continued almost to our day. The result is still the same. In the early stages of this contest there was no strife, for science was benumbed by the embrace of superstition and creed, and little could be done till that was cast off. In a superstitious age, when every natural event is referred to a supernatural cause, science can not live; and often as the sacred fire may be kindled by courageous, far- seeing souls, will it be quenched by the dense mists of ignorance around it. Scarcely less fatal to the growth of science is the age of Authority, as the past proves too well. With freedom of thought came definite knowledge and certain progress; but two thousand years was long to wait.


With the opening of the present century began a new era in paleontology, which we may here distinguish as the third period in its history. This branch of knowledge became now a science. Method replaced disorder, and systematic study superseded casual observation. For the next half century the advance was continuous and rapid. One characteristic of this period was, the accurate determination of fossils by comparison with living forms. This will separate it from the two former epochs. Another distinctive feature of this period was the general belief that every species, recent and extinct, teas a separate creation.

At the very beginning of the epoch we are now to consider, three names stand out in bold relief—Cuvier, Lamarck, and William Smith. To these men the science of paleontology owes its origin. Cuvier and Lamarck, in France, had all the power which great talent, education, and station could give; William Smith, an English surveyor, was without culture or influence. The last years of the eighteenth century had been spent by each of these men in preparation for his chosen work, and the results were now given to the world. Cuvier laid the foundation of the paleontology of vertebrate animals; Lamarck, of the invertebrates; and Smith established the principles of stratigraphical paleontology. The investigator of fossils to-day seldom needs to consult earlier authors of the science.

George Cuvier (1769-1832), the most famous naturalist of his time, was led to the study of extinct animals by ascertaining that the remains of fossil elephants which he examined were extinct species. "This idea," he says later, "which I announced to the Institute in the month of January, 1796, opened to me views entirely new respecting the theory of the earth, and determined me to devote myself to the long researches and to the assiduous labors which have now occupied me for twenty-five years."[8]

It is interesting to note here that in this first investigation of fossil vertebrates, Cuvier employed the same method that gave him such important results in his later researches. Remains of elephants had been known to Europe for centuries, and many authors, from Pliny down to the contemporaries of Cuvier, had written about them. Some had regarded the bones as those of human giants, and those who recognized what they were considered them remains of the elephants imported by Hannibal or the Romans. Cuvier, however, compared the fossils directly with the bones of existing elephants, and proved them to be distinct. The fact that these remains belong to extinct species was of great importance. In the case of fossil shells, it was difficult to say that any particular form was not living in a distant ocean; but the two species of existing elephants, the Indian and the African, were well known, and there was hardly a possibility that another living one would be found.

It is important to bear in mind, too, that Cuvier's preparation for the study of the remains of animals was far in advance of any of his predecessors. He had devoted himself for years to careful dissections in the various classes of the animal kingdom, and was really the founder of comparative anatomy, as we now understand it. Cuvier investigated the different groups of the whole kingdom with care, and proposed a new classification, founded on the plan of structure, which in its main features is the one in use to-day. The first volume of his "Comparative Anatomy" appeared in 1800, and the work was completed in five volumes in 1805.

Previous to Cuvier, the only general catalogue of animals was contained in Linnæus's "Systema Naturæ." In this work, as we have seen, fossil remains were placed with the minerals, not in their appropriate places among the animals and plants. Cuvier enriched the animal kingdom by the introduction of fossil forms among the living, bringing all together into one comprehensive system. His great work, "Le Règne Animal," appeared in four volumes in 1817, and with its two subsequent editions remains the foundation of modern zoölogy. Cuvier's classic work on vertebrate fossils—"Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles," in four volumes, appeared in 1812-'13. Of this work it is but just to say that it could only have been written by a man of genius, profound knowledge, the greatest industry, and with the most favorable opportunities.

The introduction to this work was the famous "Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe," which has perhaps been as widely read as any other scientific essay. The discovery of fossil bones in the gypsum-quarries of Paris by the workmen, who considered them human remains; the careful study of these relics by Cuvier, and his restorations from them of strange beasts that had lived long before, is a story with which you are all familiar. Cuvier was the first to prove that the earth had been inhabited by a succession of different series of animals, and he believed that those of each period were peculiar to the age in which they lived.

In looking over his work after a lapse of three quarters of a century, we can now see that Cuvier was wrong on some important points, and failed to realize the direction in which science was rapidly tending. With all his knowledge of the earth, he could not free himself from tradition, and believed in the universality and power of the Mosaic deluge. Again, he refused to admit the evidence brought forward by his distinguished colleagues against the permanence of species, and used all his great influence to crush out the doctrine of evolution, then first proposed. Cuvier's definition of a species, the dominant one for half a century, was as follows: "A species comprehends all the individuals which descend from each other, or from a common parentage, and those which resemble them as much as they do each other."

The law of "Correlation of Structures," as laid down by Cuvier, has been more widely accepted than almost anything else that bears his name; and yet, although founded in truth, and useful within certain limits, it would certainly lead to serious error if applied widely in the way he proposed.

In his discourse he sums up this law as follows: "A claw, a shoulder-blade, a condyle, a leg or arm bone, or any other bone separately considered, enables us to discover the description of teeth to which they have belonged; so also reciprocally we may determine the form of the other bones from the teeth. Thus, commencing our investigation by a careful survey of any one bone by itself, a person who is sufficiently master of the laws of organic structure may, as it were, reconstruct the whole animal to which that bone had belonged."

We know to-day that unknown extinct animals can not be restored from a single tooth or claw, unless they are very similar to forms already known. Had Cuvier himself applied his methods to many forms from the early Tertiary or older formations, he would have failed. If, for instance, he had had before him the disconnected fragments of an Eocene Tillodont, he would undoubtedly have referred a molar tooth to one of his pachyderms; an incisor tooth to a rodent; and a claw-bone to a carnivore. The tooth of a Hesperornis would have given him no possible hint of the rest of the skeleton, nor its swimming feet the slightest clew to the ostrich-like sternum or skull. And yet the earnest belief in his own methods led Cuvier to some of his most important discoveries.

Jean Lamarck (1744-1829), the philosopher and naturalist, a colleague of Cuvier, was a learned botanist before he became a zoologist. His researches on the invertebrate fossils of the Paris Basin, although less striking, were not less important than those of Cuvier on the vertebrates; while the conclusions he derived from them form the basis of modern biology. Lamarck's method of investigation was the same essentially as that used by Cuvier, namely, a direct comparison of fossils with living forms. In this way he soon ascertained that the fossil shells imbedded in the strata beneath Paris were many of them extinct species, and those of different strata differed from each other. His first memoir on this subject appeared in 1802,[9] and, with his later works, effected a revolution in conchology. His "System of Invertebrate Animals" appeared the year before, and his famous "Philosophie Zoölogique" in 1809. In these two works, Lamarck first announced the principles of evolution. In the first volume of his "Natural History of Invertebrate Animals" [10] he gave his theory in detail; and today one can only read with astonishment his far-reaching anticipations of modem science. These views were strongly supported by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, but bitterly opposed by Cuvier; and their great contest on this subject is well known.

In looking back from this point of view, the philosophical breadth of Lamarck's conclusions, in comparison with those of Cuvier, is clearly evident. The invertebrates on which Lamarck worked offered less striking evidence of change than the various animals investigated by Cuvier; yet they led Lamarck directly to evolution, while Cuvier ignored what was before him on this point, and rejected the proof offered by others. Both pursued the same methods, and had an abundance of material on which to work, yet the facts observed induced Cuvier to believe in catastrophes, and Lamarck in the uniform course of nature. Cuvier declared species to be permanent, Lamarck that they were descended from others. Both men stand in the first rank in science, but Lamarck was the prophetic genius half a century in advance of his time.

[To be continued.]

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  1. President's address delivered before the American Association for thc Advancement of Science, at Saratoga, New York, August 28, 1879.
  2. "Metamorphoses," liber xv., 262.
  3. "Historia novi et admirabilis Fontis Balneique Bollensis, in Ducatu Wirtembergico." Montbéliard, 1598.
  4. "De solido intra solidum naturaliter contento."
  5. "Lithographia Wireeburgensis, ducentis lapidum figuratorum, a potiori, insectiformium, prodigiosis imaginibus exornata." Wireeburgi, 1726. Edit. II. Francofurti et Lipsiæ, 1767.
  6. "Essay toward a Natural History of the Earth," 1695.
  7. "Lapides ex celeberr. viror. sententia diluvii universalis testes, quos in ordines ac species distribuit, suis coloribus expremit," etc. 272 Tab. 1755-'73.
  8. "Ossemens Fossiles," second edition, vol. i., p. 178.
  9. "Mémoires sur les Fossiles des Environs de Paris," 1802-'6.
  10. "Histoire naturelle des Animaux sans Vertèbres," 7 vols., Paris, 1815-1822. Second edition, 11 vols., 1835-1815.