Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 17.djvu/493

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477
ON THE METHOD OF ZADIG.

It might just as well have been like that of some other marsupial; or even like that of the totally different group of Monotremes, of which the only living representatives are the Echidna and the Ornithorhynchus.

For all practical purposes, however, the empirical laws of coördination of structures which are embodied in the generalizations of morphology may be confidently trusted, if employed with due caution, to lead to a just interpretation of fossil remains; or, in other words, we may look for the verification of the retrospective prophecies which are based upon them.

And, if this be the case, the late advances which have been made in paleontological discovery open out a new field for such prophecies. For it has been ascertained with respect to many groups of animals, that, as we trace them back in time, their ancestors gradually cease to exhibit those special modifications which at present characterize the type, and more nearly embody the general plan of the group to which they belong.

Thus, in the well-known case of the horse, the toes which are suppressed in the living horse are found to be more and more complete in the older members of the group, until, at the bottom of the Tertiary series of America, we find an equine animal which has four toes in front and three behind. No remains of the horse-tribe are at present known from any Mesozoic deposit. Yet who can doubt that, whenever a sufficiently extensive series of lacustrine and fluviatile beds of that age becomes known, the lineage which has been traced thus far will be continued by equine quadrupeds with an increasing number of digits, until the horse type merges in the five-toed form toward which these gradations point?

But the argument which holds good for the horse holds good, not only for all mammals, but for the whole animal world. And as the study of the pedigrees or lines of evolution to which at present we have access brings to light, as it assuredly will do, the laws of that process, we shall be able to reason from the facts with which the geological record furnishes us to those which have hitherto remained, and many of which, perhaps, may for ever remain hidden. The same method of reasoning which enables us, when furnished with a fragment of an extinct animal, to prophesy the character which the whole organism exhibited, will, sooner or later, enable us, when we know a few of the later terms of a genealogical series, to predict the nature of the earlier terms.

In no very distant future, the method of Zadig, applied to a greater body of facts than the present generation is fortunate enough to handle, will enable the biologist to reconstruct the scheme of life from its beginning, and to speak as confidently of the character of long extinct living beings, no trace of which has been preserved, as Zadig did of the queen's spaniel and the king's horse. Let us hope that they