The Antiquity of Man/Chapter 20

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The Antiquity of Man by Charles Lyell
Chapter 20

CHAPTER 20.

THEORIES OF PROGRESSION AND TRANSMUTATION.

Antiquity and Persistence in Character of the existing Races of Mankind.
Theory of their Unity of Origin considered.
Bearing of the Diversity of Races on the Doctrine of Transmutation.
Difficulty of defining the Terms "Species" and "Race."
Lamarck's Introduction of the Element of Time into the Definition of a Species.
His Theory of Variation and Progression.
Objections to his Theory, how far answered.
Arguments of modern Writers in favour of Progression in the Animal and Vegetable World.
The old Landmarks supposed to indicate the first Appearance of Man, and of different Classes of Animals, found to be erroneous.
Yet the Theory of an advancing Series of Organic Beings not inconsistent with Facts.
Earliest known Fossil Mammalia of low Grade.
No Vertebrata as yet discovered in the oldest Fossiliferous Rocks.
Objections to the Theory of Progression considered.
Causes of the Popularity of the Doctrine of Progression as compared to that of Transmutation.

When speaking in a former work of the distinct races of mankind,[1] I remarked that, "if all the leading varieties of the human family sprang originally from a single pair" (a doctrine, to which then, as now, I could see no valid objection), "a much greater lapse of time was required for the slow and gradual formation of such races as the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro, than was embraced in any of the popular systems of chronology."

In confirmation of the high antiquity of two of these, I referred to pictures on the walls of ancient temples in Egypt, in which, a thousand years or more before the Christian era, "the Negro and Caucasian physiognomies were portrayed as faithfully, and in as strong contrast, as if the likenesses of these races had been taken yesterday." In relation to the same subject, I dwelt on the slight modification which the Negro has undergone, after having been transported from the tropics and settled for more than two centuries in the temperate climate of Virginia. I therefore concluded that, "if the various races were all descended from a single pair, we must allow for a vast series of antecedent ages, in the course of which the long-continued influence of external circumstances gave rise to peculiarities increased in many successive generations and at length fixed by hereditary transmission."

So long as physiologists continued to believe that Man had not existed on the earth above six thousand years, they might with good reason withhold their assent from the doctrine of a unity of origin of so many distinct races but the difficulty becomes less and less, exactly in proportion as we enlarge our ideas of the lapse of time during which different communities may have spread slowly, and become isolated, each exposed for ages to a peculiar set of conditions, whether of temperature, or food, or danger, or ways of living. The law of the geometrical rate of the increase of population which causes it always to press hard on the means of subsistence, would ensure the migration in various directions of offshoots from the society first formed abandoning the area where they had multiplied. But when they had gradually penetrated to remote regions by land or water—drifted sometimes by storms and currents in canoes to an unknown shore—barriers of mountains, deserts, or seas, which oppose no obstacle to mutual intercourse between civilised nations, would ensure the complete isolation for tens or thousands of centuries of tribes in a primitive state of barbarism.

Some modern ethnologists, in accordance with the philosophers of antiquity, have assumed that men at first fed on the fruits of the earth, before even a stone implement or the simplest form of canoe had been invented. They may, it is said, have begun their career in some fertile island in the tropics, where the warmth of the air was such that no clothing was needed and where there were no wild beasts to endanger their safety. But as soon as their numbers increased they would be forced to migrate into regions less secure and blest with a less genial climate. Contests would soon arise for the possession of the most fertile lands, where game or pasture abounded and their energies and inventive powers would be called forth, so that at length they would make progress in the arts.

But as ethnologists have failed, as yet, to trace back the history of any one race to the area where it originated, some zoologists of eminence have declared their belief that the different races, whether they be three, five, twenty, or a much greater number (for on this point there is an endless diversity of opinion),[2] have all been primordial creations, having from the first been stamped with the characteristic features, mental and bodily, by which they are now distinguished, except where intermarriage has given rise to mixed or hybrid races. Were we to admit, say they, a unity of origin of such strongly marked varieties as the Negro and European, differing as they do in colour and bodily constitution, each fitted for distinct climates and exhibiting some marked peculiarities in their osteological, and even in some details of cranial and cerebral conformation, as well as in their average intellectual endowments—if, in spite of the fact that all these attributes have been faithfully handed down unaltered for hundreds of generations, we are to believe that, in the course of time, they have all diverged from one common stock, how shall we resist the arguments of the transmutationist, who contends that all closely allied species of animals and plants have in like manner sprung from a common parentage, albeit that for the last three or four thousand years they may have been persistent in character? Where are we to stop, unless we make our stand at once on the independent creation of those distinct human races, the history of which is better known to us than that of any of the inferior animals?

So long as Geology had not lifted up a part of the veil which formerly concealed from the naturalist the history of the changes which the animate creation had undergone in times immediately antecedent to the Recent period, it was easy to treat these questions as too transcendental, or as lying too far beyond the domain of positive science to require serious discussion. But it is no longer possible to restrain curiosity from attempting to pry into the relations which connect the present state of the animal and vegetable worlds, as well as of the various races of mankind, with the state of the fauna and flora which immediately preceded.

In the very outset of the inquiry, we are met with the difficulty of defining what we mean by the terms "species" and "race;" and the surprise of the unlearned is usually great, when they discover how wide is the difference of opinion now prevailing as to the significance of words in such familiar use. But, in truth, we can come to no agreement as to such definitions, unless we have previously made up our minds on some of the most momentous of all the enigmas with which the human intellect ever attempted to grapple.

It is now thirty years since I gave an analysis in the first edition of my "Principles of Geology" (volume 2 1832) of the views which had been put forth by Lamarck, in the beginning of the century, on this subject. In that interval the progress made in zoology and botany, both in augmenting the number of known animals and plants, and in studying their physiology and geographical distribution and above all in examining and describing fossil species, is so vast that the additions made to our knowledge probably exceed all that was previously known; and what Lamarck then foretold has come to pass; the more new forms have been multiplied, the less are we able to decide what we mean by a variety, and what by a species. In fact, zoologists and botanists are not only more at a loss than ever how to define a species, but even to determine whether it has any real existence in nature, or is a mere abstraction of the human intellect, some contending that it is constant within certain narrow and impassable limits of variability, others that it is capable of indefinite and endless modification.

Before I attempt to explain a great step, which has recently been made by Mr. Darwin and his fellow-labourers in this field of inquiry, I think it useful to recapitulate in this place some of the leading features of Lamarck's system, without attempting to adjust the claims of some of his contemporaries (Geoffroy St. Hilaire in particular) to share in the credit of some of his original speculations.

From the time of Linnaeus to the commencement of the present century, it seemed a sufficient definition of the term species to say that "a species consisted of individuals all resembling each other, and reproducing their like by generation." But Lamarck after having first studied botany with success, had then turned his attention to conchology, and soon became aware that in the newer (or Tertiary) strata of the earth's crust there were a multitude of fossil species of shells, some of them identical with living ones, others simply varieties of the living, and which as such were entitled to be designated, according to the ordinary rules of classification, by the same names. He also observed that other shells were so nearly allied to living forms that it was difficult not to suspect that they had been connected by a common bond of descent. He therefore proposed that the element of time should enter into the definition of a species, and that it should run thus: "A species consists of individuals all resembling each other, and reproducing their like by generation, SO LONG AS THE SURROUNDING CONDITIONS DO NOT UNDERGO CHANGES SUFFICIENT TO CAUSE THEIR HABITS, CHARACTERS, AND FORMS TO VARY." He came at last to the conclusion that none of the animals and plants now existing were primordial creations, but were all derived from pre-existing forms, which, after they may have gone on for indefinite ages reproducing their like, had at length, by the influence of alterations in climate and in the animate world been made to vary gradually, and adapt themselves to new circumstances, some of them deviating in the course of ages so far from their original type as to have claims to be regarded as new species.

In support of these views, he referred to wild and cultivated plants and to wild and domesticated animals, pointing out how their colour, form, structure, physiological attributes and even instincts were gradually modified by exposure to new soils and climates, new enemies, modes of subsistence, and kinds of food.

Nor did he omit to notice that the newly acquired peculiarities may be inherited by the offspring for an indefinite series of generations, whether they be brought about naturally—as when a species, on the extreme verge of its geographical range, comes into competition with new antagonists and is subjected to new physical conditions; or artificially—as when by the act of the breeder or horticulturist peculiar varieties of form or disposition are selected.

But Lamarck taught not only that species had been constantly undergoing changes from one geological period to another, but that there also had been a progressive advance of the organic world from the earliest to the latest times, from beings of the simplest to those of more and more complex structure, and from the lowest instincts up to the highest, and finally from brute intelligence to the reasoning powers of Man. The improvement in the grade of being had been slow and continuous, and the human race itself was at length evolved out of the most highly organised and endowed of the inferior mammalia.

In order to explain how, after an indefinite lapse of ages, so many of the lowest grades of animal or plant still abounded, he imagined that the germs or rudiments of living things, which he called monads, were continually coming into the world and that there were different kinds of these monads for each primary division of the animal and vegetable kingdoms. This last hypothesis does not seem essentially different from the old doctrine of equivocal or spontaneous generation; it is wholly unsupported by any modern experiments or observation, and therefore affords us no aid whatever in speculating on the commencement of vital phenomena on the earth.

Some of the laws which govern the appearance of new varieties were clearly pointed out by Lamarck. He remarked, for example, that as the muscles of the arm become strengthened by exercise or enfeebled by disuse, some organs may in this way, in the course of time, become entirely obsolete, and others previously weak become strong and play a new or more leading part in the organisation of a species. And so with instincts, where animals experience new dangers they become more cautious and cunning, and transmit these acquired faculties to their posterity. But not satisfied with such legitimate speculations, the French philosopher conceived that by repeated acts of volition animals might acquire new organs and attributes, and that in plants, which could not exert a will of their own, certain subtle fluids or organising forces might operate so as to work out analogous effects.

After commenting on these purely imaginary causes, I pointed out in 1832, as the two great flaws in Lamarck's attempt to explain the origin of species, first, that he had failed to adduce a single instance of the initiation of a new organ in any species of animal or plant; and secondly, that variation, whether taking place in the course of nature or assisted artificially by the breeder and horticulturist, had never yet gone so far as to produce two races sufficiently remote from each other in physiological constitution as to be sterile when intermarried, or, if fertile, only capable of producing sterile hybrids, etc.[3]

To this objection Lamarck would, no doubt, have answered that there had not been time for bringing about so great an amount of variation; for when Cuvier and some other of his contemporaries appealed to the embalmed animals and plants taken from Egyptian tombs, some of them 3000 years old, which had not experienced in that long period the slightest modification in their specific characters, he replied that the climate and soil of the valley of the Nile had not varied in the interval, and that there was therefore no reason for expecting that we should be able to detect any change in the fauna and flora. "But if," he went on to say, "the physical geography, temperature, and other conditions of life had been altered in Egypt as much as we know from geology has happened in other regions, some of the same animals and plants would have deviated so far from their pristine types as to be thought entitled to take rank as new and distinct species."

Although I cited this answer of Lamarck in my account of his theory,[4] I did not at the time fully appreciate the deep conviction which it displays of the slow manner in which geological changes have taken place and the insignificance of thirty or forty centuries in the history of a species, and that, too, at a period when very narrow views were entertained of the extent of past time by most of the ablest geologists, and when great revolutions of the earth's crust, and its inhabitants, were generally attributed to sudden and violent catastrophes.

While in 1832 I argued against Lamarck's doctrine of the gradual transmutation of one species into another, I agreed with him in believing that the system of changes now in progress in the organic world would afford, when fully understood, a complete key to the interpretation of all the vicissitudes of the living creation in past ages. I contended against the doctrine, then very popular, of the sudden destruction of vast multitudes of species and the abrupt ushering into the world of new batches of plants and animals.

I endeavoured to sketch out (and it was, I believe, the first systematic attempt to accomplish such a task) the laws which govern the extinction of species, with a view of showing that the slow but ceaseless variations now in progress in physical geography, together with the migration of plants and animals into new regions, must in the course of ages give rise to the occasional loss of some of them and eventually cause an entire fauna and flora to die out; also that we must infer from geological data that the places thus left vacant from time to time are filled up without delay by new forms adapted to new conditions, sometimes by immigration from adjoining provinces, sometimes by new creations. Among the many causes of extinction enumerated by me were the power of hostile species, diminution of food, mutations in climate, the conversion of land into sea and of sea into land, etc. I firmly opposed Brocchi's hypothesis of a decline in the vital energy of each species;[5] maintaining that there was every reason to believe that the reproductive powers of the last surviving representatives of a species were as vigorous as those of their predecessors, and that they were as capable, under favourable circumstances, of repeopling the earth with their kind. The manner in which some species are now becoming scarce and dying out, one after the other, appeared to me to favour the doctrine of the fixity of the specific character, showing a want of pliancy and capability of varying, which ensured their annihilation whenever changes adverse to their well-being occurred; time not being allowed for such a transformation as might be conceived capable of adapting them to the new circumstances, and of converting them into what naturalists would call new species.[6]

But while rejecting transmutation, I was equally opposed to the popular theory that the creative power had diminished in energy, or that it had been in abeyance ever since Man had entered upon the scene. That a renovating force which had been in full operation for millions of years should cease to act while the causes of extinction were still in full activity, or even intensified by the accession of Man's destroying power, seemed to me in the highest degree improbable. The only point on which I doubted was whether the force might not be intermittent instead of being, as Lamarck supposed, in ceaseless operation. Might not the births of new species, like the deaths of old ones, be sudden? Might they not still escape our observation? If the coming in of one new species, and the loss of one other which had endured for ages, should take place annually, still, assuming that there are a million of animals and plants living on the globe, it would require, I observed, a million of years to bring about a complete revolution in the fauna and flora. In that case, I imagined that, although the first appearance of a new form might be as abrupt as the disappearance of an old one, yet naturalists might never yet have witnessed the first entrance on the stage of a large and conspicuous animal or plant, and as to the smaller kinds, many of them may be conceived to have stolen in unseen, and to have spread gradually over a wide area, like species migrating into new provinces.[7]

It may now be useful to offer some remarks on the very different reception which the twin branches of Lamarck's development theory, namely, progression and transmutation, have met with, and to inquire into the causes of the popularity of the one and the great unpopularity of the other. We usually test the value of a scientific hypothesis by the number and variety of the phenomena of which it offers a fair or plausible explanation. If transmutation, when thus tested, has decidedly the advantage over progression and yet is comparatively in disfavour, we may reasonably suspect that its reception is retarded, not so much by its own inherent demerits, as by some apprehended consequences which it is supposed to involve and which run counter to our preconceived opinions.

THEORY OF PROGRESSION.[edit]

In treating of this question, I shall begin with the doctrine of progression, a concise statement of which, so far as it relates to the animal kingdom, was thus given twelve years ago by Professor Sedgwick, in the preface to his "Discourse on the Studies of the University of Cambridge."

"There are traces," he says, "among the old deposits of the earth of an organic progression among the successive forms of life. They are to be seen in the absence of mammalia in the older, and their very rare appearance in the newer Secondary groups; in the diffusion of warm-blooded quadrupeds (frequently of unknown genera) in the older Tertiary system, and in their great abundance (and frequently of known genera) in the upper portions of the same series; and lastly, in the recent appearance of Man on the surface of the earth."

"This historical development," continues the same author, of the forms and functions of organic life during successive epochs, "seems to mark a gradual evolution of creative power, manifested by a gradual ascent towards a higher type of being." "But the elevation of the fauna of successive periods was not made by transmutation, but by creative additions; and it is by watching these additions that we get some insight into Nature's true historical progress, and learn that there was a time when Cephalopoda were the highest types of animal life, the primates of this world; that Fishes next took the lead, then Reptiles; and that during the secondary period they were anatomically raised far above any forms of the reptile class now living in the world. Mammals were added next, until Nature became what she now is, by the addition of Man."[8]

Although in the half century which has elapsed between the time of Lamarck and the publication of the above summary, new discoveries have caused geologists to assign a higher antiquity both to Man and the oldest fossil mammalia, fish, and reptiles than formerly, yet the generalisation, as laid down by the Woodwardian Professor, as to progression, still holds good in all essential particulars.

The progressive theory was propounded in the following terms by the late Hugh Miller in his "Footprints of the Creator."

"It is of itself an extraordinary fact without reference to other considerations, that the order adopted by Cuvier in his "Animal Kingdom," as that in which the four great classes of vertebrate animals, when marshalled according to their rank and standing, naturally range, should be also that in which they occur in order of time. The brain, which bears an average proportion to the spinal cord of not more than two to one, comes first—it is the brain of the fish; that which bears to the spinal cord an average proportion of two and a half to one succeeded it—it is the brain of the reptile; then came the brain averaging as three to one—it is that of the bird. Next in succession came the brain that averages as four to one—it is that of the mammal; and last of all there appeared a brain that averages as twenty-three to one—reasoning, calculating Man had come upon the scene."[9]

M. Agassiz, in his "Essay on Classification," has devoted a chapter to the "Parallelism between the Geological Succession of Animals and Plants and their present relative Standing;" in which he has expressed a decided opinion that within the limits of the orders of each great class there is a coincidence between their relative rank in organisation and the order of succession of their representatives in time.[10]

Professor Owen, in his Palaeontology, has advanced similar views, and has remarked, in regard to the vertebrata that there is much positive as well as negative evidence in support of the doctrine of an advance in the scale of being, from ancient to more modern geological periods. We observe, for example, in the Triassic, Oolitic, and Cretaceous strata, not only an absence of placental mammalia, but the presence of innumerable reptiles, some of large size, terrestrial and aquatic, herbivorous and predaceous, fitted to perform the functions now discharged by the mammalia.

The late Professor Bronn, of Heidelberg, after passing in review more than 24,000 fossil animals and plants, which he had classified and referred each to their geological position in his "Index Palaeontologicus," came to the conclusion that, in the course of time, there had been introduced into the earth more and more highly organised types of animal and vegetable life; the modern species being, on the whole, more specialised, i.e. having separate organs, or parts of the body, to perform different functions, which, in the earlier periods and in beings of simpler structure, were discharged in common by a single part or organ.

Professor Adolphe Brongniart, in an essay published in 1849 on the botanical classification and geological distribution of the genera of fossil plants,[11] arrives at similar results as to the progress of the vegetable world from the earliest periods to the present. He does not pretend to trace an exact historical series from the sea-weed to the fern, or from the fern again to the conifers and cycads, and lastly from those families to the palms and oaks, but he, nevertheless, points out that the cryptogamic forms, especially the acrogens, predominate among the fossils of the primary formations, the Carboniferous especially, while the gymnosperms or coniferous and cycadeous plants abound in all the strata, from the Trias to the Wealden inclusive; and lastly, the more highly developed angiosperms, both monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous, do not become abundant until the Tertiary period. It is a remarkable fact, as he justly observes, that the angiospermous exogens, which comprise four-fifths of living plants—a division to which all our native European trees, except the Coniferae, belong, and which embrace all the Compositae, Leguminosae, Umbelliferae, Cruciferae, Heaths, and so many other families—are wholly unrepresented by any fossils hitherto discovered in the Primary and Secondary formations from the Silurian to the Oolitic inclusive. It is not till we arrive at the Cretaceous period that they begin to appear, sparingly at first, and only playing a conspicuous part, together with the palms and other endogens, in the Tertiary epoch.

When commenting on the eagerness with which the doctrine of progression was embraced from the close of the last century to the time when I first attempted, in 1830, to give some account of the prevailing theories in geology, I observed that far too much reliance was commonly placed on the received dates of the first appearances of certain orders or classes of animals or plants, such dates being determined by the age of the stratum in which we then happened to have discovered the earliest memorials of such types. At that time (1830), it was taken for granted that Man had not co-existed with the mammoth and other extinct mammalia, yet now that we have traced back the signs of his existence to the Pleistocene era, and may anticipate the finding of his remains on some future day in the Pliocene period, the theory of progression is not shaken; for we cannot expect to meet with human bones in the Miocene formations, where all the species and nearly all the genera of mammalia belong to types widely differing from those now living; and had some other rational being, representing Man, then flourished, some signs of his existence could hardly have escaped unnoticed, in the shape of implements of stone or metal, more frequent and more durable than the osseous remains of any of the mammalia.

In the beginning of this century it was one of the canons of the popular geological creed that the first warm-blooded quadrupeds which had inhabited this planet were those derived from the Eocene gypsum of Montmartre in the suburbs of Paris, almost all of which Cuvier had shown to belong to extinct genera. This dogma continued in force for more than a quarter of a century, in spite of the discovery in 1818 of a marsupial quadruped in the Stonesfield strata, a member of the Lower Oolite, near Oxford. Some disputed the authority of Cuvier himself as to the mammalian character of the fossil; others, the accuracy of those who had assigned to it so ancient a place in the chronological series of rocks. In 1832 I pointed out that the occurrence of this single fossil in the Oolite was "fatal to the theory of successive development" as then propounded.[12] Since that period great additions have been made to our knowledge of the existence of land quadrupeds in the olden times. We have ascertained that, in Eocene strata older than the gypsum of Paris, no less than four distinct sets of placental mammalia have flourished; namely, first, those of the Headon series in the Isle of Wight, from which fourteen species have been procured; secondly, those of the antecedent Bagshot and Bracklesham beds, which have yielded, together with the contemporaneous "calcaire grossier" of Paris, twenty species; thirdly, the still older beds of Kyson, near Ipswich, and those of Herne Bay, at the mouth of the Thames, in which seven species have been found; and fourthly, the Woolwich and Reading beds, which have supplied ten species.[13]

We can scarcely doubt that we should already have traced back the evidence of this class of fossils much farther had not our inquiries been arrested, first by the vast gap between the Tertiary and Secondary formations, and then by the marine nature of the Cretaceous rocks.

The mammalia next in antiquity, of which we have any cognisance, are those of the Upper Oolite of Purbeck, discovered between the years 1854 and 1857, and comprising no less than fourteen species, referable to eight or nine genera; one of them, Plagiaulax, considered by Dr. Falconer to have been a herbivorous marsupial. The whole assemblage appear, from the joint observations of Professor Owen and Dr. Falconer, to indicate a low grade of quadruped, probably of the marsupial type. They were, for the most part, diminutive, the two largest not much exceeding our common hedgehog and polecat in size.

Next anterior in age are the mammalia of the Lower Oolite of Stonesfield, of which four species are known, also very small and probably marsupial, with one exception, the Stereognathus ooliticus, which, according to Professor Owen's conjecture, may have been a hoofed quadruped and placental, though, as we have only half of the lower jaw with teeth, and the molars are unlike any living type, such an opinion is of course hazarded with due caution.

Still older than the above are some fossil quadrupeds of small size, found in the Upper Trias of Stuttgart in Germany, and more lately by Mr. C. Moore in beds of corresponding age near Frome, which are also of a very low grade, like the living Myrmecobius of Australia. Beyond this limit our knowledge of the highest class of vertebrata does not as yet extend into the past, but the frequent shifting back of the old landmarks, nearly all of them once supposed in their turn to indicate the date of the first appearance of warm-blooded quadrupeds on this planet, should serve as a warning to us not to consider the goal at present reached by palaeontology as one beyond which they who come after us are never destined to pass.

On the other hand, it may be truly said in favour of progression that after all these discoveries the doctrine is not gainsaid, for the less advanced marsupials precede the more perfect placental mammalia in the order of their appearance on the earth.

If the three localities where the most ancient mammalia have been found—Purbeck, Stonesfield, and Stuttgart—had belonged all of them to formations of the same age, we might well have imagined so limited an area to have been peopled exclusively with pouched quadrupeds, just as Australia now is, while other parts of the globe were inhabited by placentals, for Australia now supports one hundred and sixty species of marsupials, while the rest of the continents and islands are tenanted by about seventeen hundred species of mammalia, of which only forty-six are marsupial, namely, the opossums of North and South America. But the great difference of age of the strata in each of these three localities seems to indicate the predominance throughout a vast lapse of time (from the era of the Upper Trias to that of the Purbeck beds) of a low grade of quadrupeds; and this persistency of similar generic and ordinal types in Europe while the species were changing, and while the fish, reptiles, and mollusca were undergoing vast modifications, raises a strong presumption that there was also a vast extension in space of the same marsupial forms during that portion of the Secondary epoch which has been termed "the age of reptiles."

As to the class Reptilia, some of the orders which prevailed when the Secondary rocks were formed are confessedly much higher in their organisation than any of the same class now living. If the less perfect ophidians, or snakes, which now abound on the earth had taken the lead in those ancient days among the land reptiles, and the Deinosaurians had been contemporary with Man, there can be no doubt that the progressionist would have seized upon this fact with unfeigned satisfaction as confirmatory of his views. Now that the order of succession is precisely reversed, and that the age of the Iguanodon was long anterior to that of the Eocene Palaeophis and living boa, while the crocodile is in our own times the highest representative of its class, a retrograde movement in this important division of the vertebrata must be admitted. It may perhaps be accounted for by the power acquired by the placental mammalia, when they became dominant, a power before which the class of vertebrata next below them, as coming most directly in competition with them, may more than any other have given way.

For no less than thirty-four years it had been a received axiom in palaeontology that reptiles had never existed before the Permian or Magnesian Limestone period, when at length in 1844 this supposed barrier was thrown down, and Carboniferous reptiles, terrestrial and aquatic, of several genera were brought to light; and discussions are now going on as to whether some remains of an Enaliosaur (perhaps a large Labyrinthodon) have not been detected in the coal of Nova Scotia, and whether certain sandstones near Elgin in Scotland, containing the bones of lacertian, crocodilian, and rhynchosaurian reptiles, may not be referable to the "Old Red" or Devonian group. Still, no traces of this class have yet been detected in rocks as ancient as those in which the oldest fish have been found.[14]

As to fossil representatives of the ichthyic type, the most ancient were not supposed before 1838 to be of a date anterior to the Coal, but they have since been traced back, first to the Devonian, and then to the Silurian rocks. No remains, however, of them or of any vertebrate animal have yet been discovered in the Ordovician strata, rich as these are in invertebrate fossils, nor in the still older Cambrian; so that we seem authorised to conclude, though not without considerable reserve, that the vertebrate type was extremely scarce, if not wholly wanting, in those epochs often spoken of as "primitive," but which, if the Development Theory be true, were probably the last of a long series of antecedent ages in which living beings flourished.

As to the Mollusca, which afford the most unbroken series of geological medals, the highest of that class, the Cephalopoda, abounded in older Silurian times, comprising several hundred species of chambered univalves. Had there been strong prepossessions against the progressive theory, it would probably have been argued that when these cephalopods abounded, and the siphonated gasteropods were absent, a higher order of zoophagous mollusca discharged the functions afterwards performed by an inferior order in the Secondary, Tertiary, and Post-Tertiary seas. But I have never seen this view suggested as adverse to the doctrine of progress, although much stress has been laid on the fact that the Silurian Brachiopoda, creatures of a lower grade, formerly discharged the functions of the existing lamellibranchiate bivalves, which are higher in the scale.

It is said truly that the Ammonite, Orthoceras, and Nautilus of these ancient rocks were of the tetrabranchiate division, and none of them so highly organised as the Belemnite and other dibranchiate cephalopods which afterwards appeared, and some of which now flourish in our seas. Therefore, we may infer that the simplest forms of the Cephalopoda took precedence of the more complex in time. But if we embrace this view, we must not forget that there are living Cephalopoda, such as the Octopods, which are devoid of any hard parts, whether external or internal, and which could leave behind them no fossil memorials of their existence, so that we must make a somewhat arbitrary assumption, namely, that at a remote era, no such Dibranchiata were in being, in order to avail ourselves of this argument in favour of progression. On the other hand, it is true that in the Lower Cambrian not even the shell-bearing tetrabranchiates have yet been discovered.

In regard to plants, although the generalisation above cited of M. Adolphe Brongniart is probably true, there has been a tendency in the advocates of progression to push the inferences deducible from known facts, in support of their favourite dogma, somewhat beyond the limits which the evidence justifies. Dr. Hooker observes, in his recent "Introductory Essay to the Flora of Australia," that it is impossible to establish a parallel between the successive appearances of vegetable forms in time, and their complexity of structure or specialisation of organs as represented by the successively higher groups in the natural method of classification. He also adds that the earliest recognisable Cryptogams are not only the highest now existing, but have more highly differentiated vegetative organs than any subsequently appearing, and that the dicotyledonous embryo and perfect exogenous wood, with the highest specialised tissue known (the coniferous with glandular tissue), preceded the monocotyledonous embryo and endogenous wood in date of appearance on the globe—facts wholly opposed to the doctrine of progression, and which can only be set aside on the supposition that they are fragmentary evidence of a time farther removed from the origin of vegetation than from the present day.[15][16]

It would be an easy task to multiply objections to the theory now under consideration; but from this I refrain, as I regard it not only as a useful, but rather in the present state of science as an indispensable hypothesis, and one which though destined hereafter to undergo many and great modifications will never be overthrown.

It may be thought almost paradoxical that writers who are most in favour of transmutation (Mr. C. Darwin and Dr. J. Hooker, for example) are nevertheless among those who are most cautious, and one would say timid, in their mode of espousing the doctrine of progression; while, on the other hand, the most zealous advocates of progression are oftener than not very vehement opponents of transmutation. We might have anticipated a contrary leaning on the part of both, for to what does the theory of progression point? It supposes a gradual elevation in grade of the vertebrate type in the course of ages from the most simple ichthyic form to that of the placental mammalia and the coming upon the stage last in the order of time of the most anthropomorphous mammalia, followed by the human race—this last thus appearing as an integral part of the same continuous series of acts of development, one link in the same chain, the crowning operation as it were of one and the same series of manifestations of creative power. If the dangers apprehended from transmutation arise from the too intimate connection which it tends to establish between the human and merely animal natures, it might have been expected that the progressive development of organisation, instinct, and intelligence might have been unpopular, as likely to pioneer the way for the reception of the less favoured doctrine. But the true explanation of the seeming anomaly is this, that no one can believe in transmutation who is not profoundly convinced that all we know in palaeontology is as nothing compared with what we have yet to learn, and they who regard the record as so fragmentary, and our acquaintance with the fragments which are extant as so rudimentary, are apt to be astounded at the confidence placed by the progressionists in data which must be defective in the extreme. But exactly in proportion as the completeness of the record and our knowledge of it are overrated, in that same degree are many progressionists unconscious of the goal towards which they are drifting. Their faith in the fullness of the annals leads them to regard all breaks in the series of organic existence, or in the sequence of the fossiliferous rocks, as proofs of original chasms and leaps in the course of nature—signs of the intermittent action of the creational force, or of catastrophes which devastated the habitable surface. They do not doubt that there is a continuity of plan, but they believe that it exists in the Divine mind alone, and they are therefore without apprehension that any facts will be discovered which would imply a material connection between the outgoing organisms and the incoming ones.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. "Principles of Geology" 7th edition page 637, 1847; see also 9th edition page 660.
  2. See "Transactions of the Ethnological Society" volume 1 1861.
  3. "Principles of Geology" 1st edition volume 2 chapter 2.
  4. Ibid. page 587.
  5. "Principles of Geology" 1st edition volume 2 chapter 8; and 9th edition page 668.
  6. Laws of Extinction, "Principles of Geology" 1st edition 1832 volume 2 chapters 5 to 11 inclusive; and 9th edition chapters 37 to 42 inclusive 1853.
  7. "Principles of Geology" 1st edition 1832 volume 2 chapter 11; and 9th edition page 706.
  8. Professor Sedgwick's "Discourse on the Studies of the University of Cambridge" Preface to 5th edition pages 44, 154, 216, 1850.
  9. "Footprints of the Creator" Edinburgh 1849 page 283.
  10. "Contributions to the Natural History of the United States" Part 1.—Essay on Classification page 108.
  11. Tableau des Genres de Vegetaux fossiles, etc. "Dictionnaire Universel d'Histoire Naturelle" Paris 1849.
  12. "Principles of Geology" 2nd edition 1 173.
  13. Lyell's supplement to 5th edition of "Elements" 1857.
  14. The reptile-bearing Elgin Sandstones are of Triassic Age, and they contain a most remarkable assemblage of strange and eccentric forms, especially Anomodont reptiles resembling those found in the Karroo formation of South Africa.
  15. "Introductory Essay to the Flora of Australia," page 31 London 1859. Published separately.
  16. The meaning of this statement is not very clear. The Conifers are not dicotyledons: their seeds contain numerous cotyledons, up to twenty in number, and the whole plant, and especially the reproductive system, belongs to a lower stage of development. The argument here employed is therefore fallacious, and in point of fact the different groups actually appeared in the order postulated by the theory of evolution, namely: (1) Gymnosperms, (2) Monocotyledons, (3) Dicotyledons. See Arber, "The Origin of Gymnosperms," "Science Progress," volume 1, 1906, pages 222 to 237.