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Chapter 4:


The term "contemporaneous" is usually applied by geologists to groups of strata in different regions which contain the same fossils, or an assemblage of fossils in which many identical forms are present. That is to say, beds which contain identical, or nearly identical, fossils, however widely separated they may be from one another in point of actual distance, are ordinarily believed to have been deposited during the same period of the earth's history. This belief, indeed, constitutes the keystone of the entire system of determining the age of strata by their fossil contents; and if we take the word "contemporaneous" in a general and strictly geological sense, this belief can be accepted as proved beyond denial. We must, however, guard ourselves against too literal an interpretation of the word "contemporaneous," and we must bear in mind the enormously-prolonged periods of time with which the geologist has to deal. When we say that two groups of strata in different regions are "contemporaneous," we simply mean that they were formed during the same geological period, and perhaps at different stages of that period, and we do not mean to imply that they were formed at precisely the same instant of time.

A moment's consideration will show us that it is only in the former sense that we can properly speak of strata being "contemporaneous;" and that, in point of fact, beds containing the same fossils, if occurring in widely distant areas, can hardly be "contemporaneous" in any literal sense; but that the very identity of their fossils is proof that they were deposited one after the other. If we find strata containing identical fossils within the limits of a single geographical region—say in Europe—then there is a reasonable probability that these beds are strictly contemporaneous, in the sense that they were deposited at the same time. There is a reasonable probability of this, because there is no improbability involved in the idea of an ocean occupying the whole area of Europe, and peopled throughout by many of the same species of marine animals. At the present day, for example, many identical species of animals are found living on the western coasts of Britain and the eastern coasts of North America, and beds now in course of deposition off the shores of Ireland and the seaboard of the state of New York would necessarily contain many of the same fossils. Such beds would be both literally and geologically contemporaneous; but the case is different if the distance between the areas where the strata occur be greatly increased. We find, for example, beds containing identical fossils (the Quebec or Skiddaw beds) in Sweden, in the north of England, in Canada, and in Australia. Now, if all these beds were contemporaneous, in the literal sense of the term, we should have to suppose that the ocean at one time extended uninterruptedly between all these points, and was peopled throughout the vast area thus indicated by many of the same animals. Nothing, however, that we see at the present day would justify us in imagining an ocean of such enormous extent, and at the same time so uniform in its depth, temperature, and other conditions of marine life, as to allow the same animals to flourish in it from end to end; and the example chosen is only one of a long and ever-recurring series. It is therefore much more reasonable to explain this, and all similar cases, as owing to the migration of the fauna, in whole or in part, from one marine area to another. Thus, we may suppose an ocean to cover what is now the European area, and to be peopled by certain species of animals. Beds of sediment—clay, sands, and limestones—will be deposited over the sea-bottom, and will entomb the remains of the animals as fossils. After this has lasted for a certain length of time, the European area may undergo elevation, or may become otherwise unsuitable for the perpetuation of its fauna; the result of which would be that some or all of the marine animals of the area would migrate to some more suitable region. Sediments would then be accumulated in the new area to which they had betaken themselves, and they would then appear, for the second time, as fossils in a set of beds widely separated from Europe. The second set of beds would, however, obviously not be strictly or literally contemporaneous with the first, but would be separated from them by the period of time required for the migration of the animals from the one area into the other. It is only in a wide and comprehensive sense that such strata can be said to be contemporaneous.

It is impossible to enter further into this subject here; but it may be taken as certain that beds in widely remote geographical areas can only come to contain the same fossils by reason of a migration having taken place of the animals of the one area to the other. That such migrations can and do take place is quite certain, and this is a much more reasonable explanation of the observed facts than the hypothesis that in former periods the conditions of life were much more uniform than they are at present, and that, consequently, the same organisms were able to range over the entire globe at the same time. It need only be added, that taking the evidence of the present as explaining the phenomena of the past—the only safe method of reasoning in geological matters—we have abundant proof that deposits which are actually contemporaneous, in the strict sense of the term, do not contain the same fossils, if far removed from one another in point of distance. Thus, deposits of various kinds are now in process of formation in our existing seas, as, for example, in the Arctic Ocean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific, and many of these deposits are known to us by actual examination and observation with the sounding-lead and dredge. But it is hardly necessary to add that the animal remains contained in these deposits—the fossils of some future period—instead of being identical, are widely different from one another in their characters.

We have seen, then, that the entire stratified series is capable of subdivision into a number of definite rock-groups or "formations," each possessing a peculiar and characteristic assemblage of fossils, representing the "life" of the "period" in which the formation was deposited. We have still to inquire shortly how it came to pass that two successive formations should thus be broadly distinguished by their life-forms, and why they should not rather possess at any rate a majority of identical fossils. It was originally supposed that this could be explained by the hypothesis that the close of each formation was accompanied by a general destruction of all the living beings of the period, and that the commencement of each new formation was signalised by the creation of a number of brand-new organisms, destined to figure as the characteristic fossils of the same. This theory, however, ignores the fact that each formation—as to which we have any sufficient evidence—contains a few, at least, of the life-forms which existed in the preceding period; and it invokes forces and processes of which we know nothing, and for the supposed action of which we cannot account. The problem is an undeniably difficult one, and it will not be possible here to give more than a mere outline of the modern views upon the subject. Without entering into the at present inscrutable question as to the manner in which new life-forms are introduced upon the earth, it may be stated that almost all modern geologists hold that the living beings of any given formation are in the main modified forms of others which have preceded them. It is not believed that any general or universal destruction of life took place at the termination of each geological period, or that a general introduction of new forms took place at the commencement of a new period. It is, on the contrary, believed that the animals and plants of any given period are for the most part (or exclusively) the lineal but modified descendants of the animals and plants of the immediately preceding period, and that some of them, at any rate, are continued into the next succeeding period, either unchanged, or so far altered as to appear as new species. To discuss these views in detail would lead us altogether too far, but there is one very obvious consideration which may advantageously receive some attention. It is obvious, namely, that the great discordance which is found to subsist between the animal life of any given formation and that of the next succeeding formation, and which no one denies, would be a fatal blow to the views just alluded to, unless admitting of some satisfactory explanation. Nor is this discordance one purely of life-forms, for there is often a physical break in the successions of strata as well. Let us therefore briefly consider how far these interruptions and breaks in the geological and palæontological record can be accounted for, and still allow us to believe in some theory of continuity as opposed to the doctrine of intermittent and occasional action.

In the first place, it is perfectly clear that if we admit the conception above mentioned of a continuity of life from the Laurentian period to the present day, we could never prove our view to be correct, unless we could produce in evidence fossil examples of all the kinds of animals and plants that have lived and died during that period. In order to do this, we should require, to begin with, to have access to an absolutely unbroken and perfect succession of all the deposits which have ever been laid down since the beginning. If, however, we ask the physical geologist if he is in possession of any such uninterrupted series, he will at once answer in the negative. So far from the geological series being a perfect one, it is interrupted by numerous gaps of unknown length, many of which we can never expect to fill up. Nor are the proofs of this far to seek. Apart from the facts that we have hitherto examined only a limited portion of the dry land, that nearly two-thirds of the entire area of the globe is inaccessible to geological investigation in consequence of its being covered by the sea, that many deposits can be shown to have been more or less completely destroyed subsequent to their deposition, and that there may be many areas in which living beings exist where no rock is in process of formation, we have the broad fact that rock-deposition only goes on to any extent in water, and that the earth must have always consisted partly of dry land and partly of water—at any rate, so far as any period of which we have geological knowledge is concerned. There must, therefore, always have existed, at some part or another of the earth's surface, areas where no deposition of rock was going on, and the proof of this is to be found in the well-known phenomenon of "unconformability." Whenever, namely, deposition of sediment is continuously going on within the limits of a single ocean, the beds which are laid down succeed one another in uninterrupted and regular sequence. Such beds are said to be "conformable," and there are many rock-groups known where one may pass through fifteen or twenty thousand feet of strata without a break—indicating that the beds had been deposited in an area which remained continuously covered by the sea. On the other hand, we commonly find that there is no such regular succession when we pass from one great formation to another, but that, on the contrary, the younger formation rests "unconformably," as it is called, either upon the formation immediately preceding it in point of time, or upon some still older one. The essential physical feature of this unconformability is that the beds of the younger formation rest upon a worn and eroded surface formed by the beds of the older series (fig. 18); and a moment's consideration will show us what this indicates. It indicates, Fig. 18
Fig. 18.—Section showing strata of Tertiary age (a) resting upon a worn and eroded surface of White Chalk (b), the stratification of which is marked by lines of flint.
beyond the possibility of misconception, that there was an interval between the deposition of the older series and that of the newer series of strata; and that during this interval the older beds were raised above the sea-level, so as to form dry land, and were subsequently depressed again beneath the waters, to receive upon their worn and wasted upper surface the sediments of the later group. During the interval thus indicated, the deposition of rock must of necessity have been proceeding more or less actively in other areas. Every unconformity, therefore, indicates that at the spot where it occurs, a more or less extensive series of beds must be actually missing; and though we may sometimes be able to point to these missing strata in other areas, there yet remains a number of unconformities for which we cannot at present supply the deficiency even in a partial manner.

It follows from the above that the series of stratified deposits is to a greater or less extent irremediably imperfect; and in this imperfection we have one great cause why we can never obtain a perfect series of all the animals and plants that have lived upon the globe. Wherever one of these great physical gaps occurs, we find, as we might expect, a corresponding break in the series of life-forms. In other words, whenever we find two formations to be unconformable, we shall always find at the same time that there is a great difference in their fossils, and that many of the fossils of the older formation do not survive into the newer, whilst many of those in the newer are not known to occur in the older. The cause of this is, obviously, that the lapse of time, indicated by the unconformability, has been sufficiently great to allow of the dying out or modification of many of the older forms of life, and the introduction of new ones by immigration.

Apart, however, altogether, from these great physical breaks and their corresponding breaks in life, there are other reasons why we can never become more than partially acquainted with the former denizens of the globe. Foremost amongst these is the fact that an enormous number of animals possess no hard parts of the nature of a skeleton, and are therefore incapable, under any ordinary circumstances, of leaving behind them any traces of their existence. It is true that there are cases in which animals in themselves completely soft-bodied are nevertheless able to leave marks by which their former presence can be detected: Thus every geologist is familiar with the winding and twisting "trails" formed on the surface of the strata by sea-worms; and the impressions left by the stranded carcases of Jelly-fishes on the fine-grained lithographic slates of Solenhofen supply us with an example of how a creature which is little more than "organised sea-water" may still make an abiding mark upon the sands of time. As a general rule, however, animals which have no skeletons are incapable of being preserved as fossils, and hence there must always have been a vast number of different kinds of marine animals of which we have absolutely no record whatever. Again, almost all the fossiliferous rocks have been laid down in water; and it is a necessary result of this that the great majority of fossils are the remains of aquatic animals. The remains of air-breathing animals, whether of the inhabitants of the land or of the air itself, are comparatively rare as fossils, and the record of the past existence of these is much more imperfect than is the case with animals living in water. Moreover, the fossiliferous deposits are not only almost exclusively aqueous formations, but the great majority are marine, and only a comparatively small number have been formed by lakes and rivers. It follows from the foregoing that the palæontological record is fullest and most complete so far as sea-animals are concerned, though even here we find enormous gaps, owing to the absence of hard structures in many great groups; of animals inhabiting fresh waters our knowledge is rendered still further incomplete by the small proportion that fluviatile and lacustrine deposits bear to marine; whilst we have only a fragmentary acquaintance with the air-breathing animals which inhabited the earth during past ages.

Lastly, the imperfection of the palæontological record, due to the causes above enumerated, is greatly aggravated, especially as regards the earlier portion of the earth's history, by the fact that many rocks which contained fossils when deposited have since been rendered barren of organic remains. The principal cause of this common phenomenon is what is known as "metamorphism"—that is, the subjection of the rock to a sufficient amount of heat to cause a rearrangement of its particles. When at all of a pronounced character, the result of metamorphic action is invariably the obliteration of any fossils which might have been originally present in the rock. Metamorphism may affect rocks of any age, though naturally more prevalent in the older rocks, and to this cause must be set down an irreparable loss of much fossil evidence. The most striking example which is to be found of this is the great Laurentian series, which comprises some 30,000 feet of highly-metamorphosed sediments, but which, with one not wholly undisputed exception, has as yet yielded no remains of living beings, though there is strong evidence of the former existence in it of fossils.

Upon the whole, then, we cannot doubt that the earth's crust, so far as yet deciphered by us, presents us with but a very imperfect record of the past. Whether the known and admitted imperfections of the geological and palæontological records are sufficiently serious to account satisfactorily for the deficiency of direct evidence recognisable in some modern hypotheses, may be a matter of individual opinion. There can, however, be little doubt that they are sufficiently extensive to throw the balance of evidence decisively in favour of some theory of continuity, as opposed to any theory of intermittent and occasional action. The apparent breaks which divide the great series of the stratified rocks into a number of isolated formations, are not marks of mighty and general convulsions of nature, but are simply indications of the imperfection of our knowledge. Never, in all probability, shall we be able to point to a complete series of deposits, or a complete succession of life linking one great geological period to another. Nevertheless, we may well feel sure that such deposits and such an unbroken succession must have existed at one time. We are compelled to believe that nowhere in the long series of the fossiliferous rocks has there been a total break, but that there must have been a complete continuity of life, and a more or less complete continuity of sedimentation, from the Laurentian period to the present day. One generation hands on the lamp of life to the next, and each system of rocks is the direct offspring of those which preceded it in time. Though there has not been continuity in any given area, still the geological chain could never have been snapped at one point, and taken up again at a totally different one. Thus we arrive at the conviction that continuity is the fundamental law of geology, as it is of the other sciences, and that the lines of demarcation between the great formations are but gaps in our own knowledge.

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