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Chapter 3:


The physical geologist, who deals with rocks simply as rocks, and who does not necessarily trouble himself about what fossils they may contain, finds that the stratified deposits which form so large a portion of the visible part of the earth's crust are not promiscuously heaped together, but that they have a certain definite arrangement. In each country that he examines, he finds that certain groups of strata lie above certain other groups; and in comparing different countries with one another, he finds that, in the main, the same groups of rocks are always found in the same relative position to each other. It is possible, therefore, for the physical geologist to arrange the known stratified rocks into a successive series of groups, or "formations," having a certain definite order. The establishment of this physical order amongst the rocks introduces, however, at once the element of time, and the physical succession of the strata can be converted directly into a historical or chronological succession. This is obvious, when we reflect that any bed or set of beds of sedimentary origin is clearly and necessarily younger than all the strata upon which it rests, and older than all those by which it is surmounted.

It is possible, then, by an appeal to the rocks alone, to determine in each country the general physical succession of the strata, and this "stratigraphical" arrangement, when once determined, gives us the relative ages of the successive groups. The task, however, of the physical geologist in this matter is immensely lightened when he calls in palæontology to his aid, and studies the evidence of the fossils embedded in the rocks. Not only is it thus much easier to determine the order of succession of the strata in any given region, but it becomes now for the first time possible to compare, with certainty and precision, the order of succession in one region with that which exists in other regions far distant. The value of fossils as tests of the relative ages of the sedimentary rocks depends on the fact that they are not indefinitely or promiscuously scattered through the crust of the earth,—as it is conceivable that they might be. On the contrary, the first and most firmly established law of Palæontology is, that particular kinds of fossils are confined to particular rocks, and particular groups of fossils are confined to particular groups of rocks. Fossils, then, are distinctive of the rocks in which they are found—much more distinctive, in fact, than the mere mineral character of the rock can be, for that commonly changes as a formation is traced from one region to another, whilst the fossils remain unaltered. It would therefore be quite possible for the palæontologist, by an appeal to the fossils alone, to arrange the series of sedimentary deposits into a pile of strata having a certain definite order. Not only would this be possible, but it would be found—if sufficient knowledge had been brought to bear on both sides—that the palæontological arrangement of the strata would coincide in its details with the stratigraphical or physical arrangement.

Happily for science, there is no such division between the palæontologist and the physical geologist as here supposed; but by the combined researches of the two, it has been found possible to divide the entire series of stratified deposits into a number of definite rock-groups or formations, which have a recognised order of succession, and each of which is characterised by possessing an assemblage of organic remains which do not occur in association in any other formation. Such an assemblage of fossils, characteristic of any given formation, represents the life of the particular period in which the formation was deposited. In this way the past history of the earth becomes divided into a series of successive life-periods, each of which corresponds with the deposition of a particular formation or group of strata.

Whilst particular assemblages of organic forms characterise particular groups of rocks, it may be further said that, in a general way, each subdivision of each formation has its own peculiar fossils, by which it may be recognised by a skilled worker in Palæontology. Whenever, for instance, we meet with examples of the fossils which are known as Graptolites, we may be sure that we are dealing with Silurian rocks (leaving out of sight one or two forms doubtfully referred to this family). We may, however, go much farther than this with perfect safety. If the Graptolites belong to certain genera, we may be quite certain that we are dealing with Lower Silurian rocks. Furthermore, if certain special forms are present, we may be even able to say to what exact subdivision of the Lower Silurian series they belong.

As regards particular fossils, however, or even particular classes of fossils, conclusions of this nature require to be accompanied by a tacit but well-understood reservation. So far as our present observation goes, none of the undoubted Graptolites have ever been discovered in rocks later than those known upon other grounds to be Silurian; but it is possible that they might at any time be detected in younger deposits. Similarly, the species and genera which we now regard as characteristic of the Lower Silurian, may at some future time be found to have survived into the Upper Silurian period. We should not forget, therefore, in determining the age of strata by palæontological evidence, that we are always reasoning upon generalisations which are the result of experience alone, and which are liable to be vitiated by further and additional discoveries.

When the palæontological evidence as to the age of any given set of strata is corroborated by the physical evidence, our conclusions may be regarded as almost certain; but there are certain limitations and fallacies in the palæontological method of inquiry which deserve a passing mention. In the first place, fossils are not always present in the stratified rocks; many aqueous rocks are unfossiliferous, through a thickness of hundreds or even thousands of feet of little-altered sediments; and even amongst beds which do contain fossils, we often meet with strata of many feet or yards in thickness which are wholly destitute of any traces of fossils. There are, therefore, to begin with, many cases in which there is no palæontological evidence extant or available as to the age of a given group of strata. In the second place, palæontological observers in different parts of the world are liable to give different names to the same fossil, and in all parts of the world they are occasionally liable to group together different fossils under the same title. Both these sources of fallacy require to be guarded against in reasoning as to the age of strata from their fossil remains. Thirdly, the mere fact of fossils being found in beds which are known by physical evidence to be of different ages, has commonly led palæontologists to describe them as different species. Thus, the same fossil, occurring in successive groups of strata, and with the merely trivial and varietal differences due to the gradual change in its environment, has been repeatedly described as a distinct species, with a distinct name, in every bed in which it was found. We know, however, that many fossils range vertically through many groups of strata, and there are some which even pass through several formations. The mere fact of a difference of physical position ought never to be taken into account at all in considering and determining the true affinities of a fossil. Fourthly, the results of experience, instead of being an assistance, are sometimes liable to operate as a source of error. When once, namely, a generalisation has been established that certain fossils occur in strata of a certain age, palæontologists are apt to infer that all beds containing similar fossils must be of the same age. There is a presumption, of course, that this inference would be correct; but it is not a conclusion resting upon absolute necessity, and there might be physical evidence to disprove it. Fifthly, the physical geologist may lead the palæontologist astray by asserting that the physical evidence as to the age and position of a given group of beds is clear and unequivocal, when such evidence may be, in reality, very slight and doubtful. In this way, the observer may be readily led into wrong conclusions as to the nature of the organic remains—often obscure and fragmentary—which it is his business to examine, or he may be led erroneously to think that previous generalisations as to the age of certain kinds of fossils are premature and incorrect. Lastly, there are cases in which, owing to the limited exposure of the beds, to their being merely of local development, or to other causes, the physical evidence as to the age of a given group of strata may be entirely uncertain and unreliable, and in which, therefore, the observer has to rely wholly upon the fossils which he may meet with.

In spite of the above limitations and fallacies, there can be no doubt as to the enormous value of palæontology in enabling us to work out the historical succession of the sedimentary rocks. It may even be said that in any case where there should appear to be a clear and decisive discordance between the physical and the palæontological evidence as to the age of a given series of beds, it is the former that is to be distrusted rather than the latter. The records of geological science contain not a few cases in which apparently clear physical evidence of superposition has been demonstrated to have been wrongly interpreted; but the evidence of palæontology, when in any way sufficient, has rarely been upset by subsequent investigations. Should we find strata containing plants of the Coal-measures apparently resting upon other strata with Ammonites and Belemnites, we may be sure that the physical evidence is delusive; and though the above is an extreme case, the presumption in all such instances is rather that the physical succession has been misunderstood or misconstrued, than that there has been a subversion of the recognised succession of life-forms.

We have seen, then, that as the collective result of observations made upon the superposition of rocks in different localities, from their mineral characters, and from their included fossils, geologists have been able to divide the entire stratified series into a number of different divisions or formations, each characterised by a general uniformity of mineral composition, and by a special and peculiar assemblage of organic forms. Each of these primary groups is in turn divided into a series of smaller divisions, characterised and distinguished in the same way. It is not pretended for a moment that all these primary rock-groups can anywhere be seen surmounting one another regularly.[8] There is no region upon the earth where all the stratified formations can be seen together; and, even when most of them occur in the same country, they can nowhere be seen all succeeding each other in their regular and uninterrupted succession. The reason of this is obvious. There are many places—to take a single example—where one may see the the Silurian rocks, the Devonian, and the Carboniferous rocks succeeding one another regularly, and in their proper order. This is because the particular region where this occurs was always submerged beneath the sea while these formations were being deposited. There are, however, many more localities in which one would find the Carboniferous rocks resting unconformably upon the Silurians without the intervention of any strata which could be referred to the Devonian period. This might arise from one of two causes: 1. The Silurians might have been elevated above the sea immediately after their deposition, so as to form dry land during the whole of the Devonian period, in which case, of course, no strata of the latter age could possibly be deposited in that area. 2. The Devonian might have been deposited upon the Silurian, and then the whole might have been elevated above the sea, and subjected to an amount of denudation sufficient to remove the Devonian strata entirely. In this case, when the land was again submerged, the Carboniferous rocks, or any younger formation, might be deposited directly upon Silurian strata. From one or other of these causes, then, or from subsequent disturbances and denudations, it happens that we can rarely find many of the primary formations following one another consecutively and in their regular order.

[Footnote 8: As we have every reason to believe that dry land and sea have existed, at any rate from the commencement of the Laurentian period to the present day, it is quite obvious that no one of the great formations can ever, under any circumstances, have extended over the entire globe. In other words, no one of the formations can ever have had a greater geographical extent than that of the seas of the period in which the formation was deposited. Nor is there any reason for thinking that the proportion of dry land to ocean has ever been materially different to what it is at present, however greatly the areas of sea and land may have changed as regards their place. It follows from the above, that there is no sufficient basis for the view that the crust of the earth is composed of a succession of concentric layers, like the coats of an onion, each layer representing one formation.]

In no case, however, do we ever find the Devonian resting upon the Carboniferous, or the Silurian rocks reposing on the Devonian. We have therefore, by a comparison of many different areas, an established order of succession of the stratified formations, as shown in the subjoined ideal section of the crust of the earth (fig. 17).

The main subdivisions of the stratified rocks are known by the following names:—

1. Laurentian.
2. Cambrian (with Huronian?).
3. Silurian.
4. Devonian or Old Red Sandstone.
5. Carboniferous.
6. Permian }  New Red Sandstone.
7. Triassic
8. Jurassic or Oolitic.
9. Cretaceous.
10. Eocene.
11. Miocene.
12. Pliocene.
13. Post-tertiary.


Fig. 17.
Fig. 17

Of these primary rock divisions, the Laurentian, Cambrian, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian are collectively grouped together under the name of the Primary or Palœozoic rocks (Gr. palaios, ancient; zoe, life). Not only do they constitute the oldest stratified accumulations, but from the extreme divergence between their animals and plants and those now in existence, they may appropriately be considered as belonging to an "Old-Life" period of the world's history. The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous systems are grouped together as the Secondary or Mesozoic formations (Gr. mesos, intermediate; zoe, life); the organic remains of this "Middle-Life" period being, on the whole, intermediate in their characters between those of the palæozoic epoch and those of more modern strata. Lastly, the Eocene, Miocene, and Pliocene formations are grouped together as the Tertiary or Kainozoic rocks (Gr. kainos, new; zoe, life); because they constitute a "New-Life" period, in which the organic remains approximate in character to those now existing upon the globe. The so-called Post-Tertiary deposits are placed with the Kainozoic, or may be considered as forming a separate Quaternary system.

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