The Origin of Species – Day 73 of 119

I have made these few remarks because it is highly important for us to gain some notion, however imperfect, of the lapse of years. During each of these years, over the whole world, the land and the water has been peopled by hosts of living forms. What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years! Now turn to our richest geological museums, and what a paltry display we behold!

On the Poorness of Our Palaeontological Collections.

That our palaeontological collections are very imperfect, is admitted by every one. The remark of that admirable palaeontologist, the late Edward Forbes, should not be forgotten, namely, that numbers of our fossil species are known and named from single and often broken specimens, or from a few specimens collected on some one spot. Only a small portion of the surface of the earth has been geologically explored, and no part with sufficient care, as the important discoveries made every year in Europe prove. No organism wholly soft can be preserved. Shells and bones will decay and disappear when left on the bottom of the sea, where sediment is not accumulating. I believe we are continually taking a most erroneous view, when we tacitly admit to ourselves that sediment is being deposited over nearly the whole bed of the sea, at a rate sufficiently quick to embed and preserve fossil remains. Throughout an enormously large proportion of the ocean, the bright blue tint of the water bespeaks its purity. The many cases on record of a formation conformably covered, after an enormous interval of time, by another and later formation, without the underlying bed having suffered in the interval any wear and tear, seem explicable only on the view of the bottom of the sea not rarely lying for ages in an unaltered condition. The remains which do become embedded, if in sand or gravel, will when the beds are upraised generally be dissolved by the percolation of rain-water. I suspect that but few of the very many animals which live on the beach between high and low watermark are preserved. For instance, the several species of the Chthamalinae (a sub-family of sessile cirripedes) coat the rocks all over the world in infinite numbers: they are all strictly littoral, with the exception of a single Mediterranean species, which inhabits deep water and has been found fossil in Sicily, whereas not one other species has hitherto been found in any tertiary formation: yet it is now known that the genus Chthamalus existed during the chalk period. The molluscan genus Chiton offers a partially analogous case.

With respect to the terrestrial productions which lived during the Secondary and Palaeozoic periods, it is superfluous to state that our evidence from fossil remains is fragmentary in an extreme degree. For instance, not a land shell is known belonging to either of these vast periods, with one exception discovered by Sir C. Lyell in the carboniferous strata of North America. In regard to mammiferous remains, a single glance at the historical table published in the Supplement to Lyell’s Manual, will bring home the truth, how accidental and rare is their preservation, far better than pages of detail. Nor is their rarity surprising, when we remember how large a proportion of the bones of tertiary mammals have been discovered either in caves or in lacustrine deposits; and that not a cave or true lacustrine bed is known belonging to the age of our secondary or palaeozoic formations.

But the imperfection in the geological record mainly results from another and more important cause than any of the foregoing; namely, from the several formations being separated from each other by wide intervals of time. When we see the formations tabulated in written works, or when we follow them in nature, it is difficult to avoid believing that they are closely consecutive. But we know, for instance, from Sir R. Murchison’s great work on Russia, what wide gaps there are in that country between the superimposed formations; so it is in North America, and in many other parts of the world. The most skilful geologist, if his attention had been exclusively confined to these large territories, would never have suspected that during the periods which were blank and barren in his own country, great piles of sediment, charged with new and peculiar forms of life, had elsewhere been accumulated. And if in each separate territory, hardly any idea can be formed of the length of time which has elapsed between the consecutive formations, we may infer that this could nowhere be ascertained. The frequent and great changes in the mineralogical composition of consecutive formations, generally implying great changes in the geography of the surrounding lands, whence the sediment has been derived, accords with the belief of vast intervals of time having elapsed between each formation.

But we can, I think, see why the geological formations of each region are almost invariably intermittent; that is, have not followed each other in close sequence. Scarcely any fact struck me more when examining many hundred miles of the South American coasts, which have been upraised several hundred feet within the recent period, than the absence of any recent deposits sufficiently extensive to last for even a short geological period. Along the whole west coast, which is inhabited by a peculiar marine fauna, tertiary beds are so scantily developed, that no record of several successive and peculiar marine faunas will probably be preserved to a distant age. A little reflection will explain why along the rising coast of the western side of South America, no extensive formations with recent or tertiary remains can anywhere be found, though the supply of sediment must for ages have been great, from the enormous degradation of the coast-rocks and from muddy streams entering the sea. The explanation, no doubt, is, that the littoral and sub-littoral deposits are continually worn away, as soon as they are brought up by the slow and gradual rising of the land within the grinding action of the coast-waves.

We may, I think, safely conclude that sediment must be accumulated in extremely thick, solid, or extensive masses, in order to withstand the incessant action of the waves, when first upraised and during subsequent oscillations of level. Such thick and extensive accumulations of sediment may be formed in two ways; either, in profound depths of the sea, in which case, judging from the researches of E. Forbes, we may conclude that the bottom will be inhabited by extremely few animals, and the mass when upraised will give a most imperfect record of the forms of life which then existed; or, sediment may be accumulated to any thickness and extent over a shallow bottom, if it continue slowly to subside. In this latter case, as long as the rate of subsidence and supply of sediment nearly balance each other, the sea will remain shallow and favourable for life, and thus a fossiliferous formation thick enough, when upraised, to resist any amount of degradation, may be formed.

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