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Chapter 23:


In conclusion, it may not be out of place if we attempt to summarise, in the briefest possible manner, some of the principal results which may be deduced as to the succession of life upon the earth from the facts which have in the preceding portion of this work been passed in review. That there was a time when the earth was void of life is universally admitted, though it may be that the geological record gives us no direct evidence of this. That the globe of to-day is peopled with innumerable forms of life whose term of existence has been, for the most part, but as it were of yesterday, is likewise an assertion beyond dispute. Can we in any way connect the present with the remote past, and can we indicate even imperfectly the conditions and laws under which the existing order was brought about? The long series of fossiliferous deposits, with their almost countless organic remains, is the link between what has been and what is; and if any answer to the above question can be arrived at, it will be by the careful and conscientious study of the facts of Palæontology. In the present state of our knowledge, it may be safely said that anything like a dogmatic or positive opinion as to the precise sequence of living forms upon the globe, and still more as to the manner in which this sequence may have been brought about, is incapable of scientific proof. There are, however, certain general deductions from the known facts which may be regarded as certainly established.

In the first place, it is certain that there has been a succession of life upon the earth, different specific and generic types succeeding one another in successive periods. It follows from this, that the animals and plants with which we are familiar as living, were not always upon the earth, but that they have been preceded by numerous races more or less differing from them. What is true of the species of animals and plants, is true also of the higher zoological divisions; and it is, in the second place, quite certain that there has been a similar succession in the order of appearance of the primary groups ("sub-kingdoms," "classes," &c.) of animals and vegetables. These great groups did not all come into existence at once, but they made their appearance successively. It is true that we cannot be said to be certainly acquainted with the first absolute Page 368 appearance of any great group of animals. No one dare assert positively that the apparent first appearance of Fishes in the Upper Silurian is really their first introduction upon the earth: indeed, there is a strong probability against any such supposition. To whatever extent, however, future discoveries may push back the first advent of any or of all of the great groups of life, there is no likelihood that anything will be found out which will materially alter the relative succession of these groups as at present known to us. It is not likely, for example, that the future has in store for us any discovery by which it would be shown that Fishes were in existence before Molluscs, or that Mammals made their appearance before Fishes. The sub-kingdoms of Invertebrate animals were all represented in Cambrian times—and it might therefore be inferred that these had all come simultaneously into existence; but it is clear that this inference, though incapable of actual disproof, is in the last degree improbable. Anterior to the Cambrian is the great series of the Laurentian, which, owing to the metamorphism to which it has been subjected, has so far yielded but the singular Eozoön. We may be certain, however, that others of the Invertebrate sub-kingdoms besides the Protozoa were in existence in the Laurentian period; and we may infer from known analogies that they appeared successively, and not simultaneously.

When we come to smaller divisions than the sub-kingdoms—such as classes, orders, and families—a similar succession of groups is observable. The different classes of any given sub-kingdom, or the different orders of any given class, do not make their appearance together and all at once, but they are introduced upon the earth in succession. More than this, the different classes of a sub-kingdom, or the different orders of a class, in the main succeed one another in the relative order of their zoological rank—the lower groups appearing first and the higher groups last. It is true that in the Cambrian formation—the earliest series of sediments in which fossils are abundant—we find numerous groups, some very low, others very high, in the zoological scale, which appear to have simultaneously flashed into existence. For reasons stated above, however, we cannot accept this appearance as real; and we must believe that many of the Cambrian groups of animals really came into being long before the commencement of the Cambrian period. At any rate, in the long series of fossiliferous deposits of later date than the Cambrian the above-stated rule holds good as a broad generalisation—that the lower groups, namely, precede the higher in point of time; Page 369 and though there are apparent exceptions to the rule, there are none of such a nature as not to admit of explanation. Some of the leading facts upon which this generalisarion is founded will be enumerated immediately; but it will be well, in the first place, to consider briefly what we precisely mean when we speak of "higher" and "lower" groups.

It is well known that naturalists are in the habit of "classifying" the innumerable animals which now exist upon the globe; or, in other words, of systematically arranging them into groups. The precise arrangement adopted by one naturalist may differ in minor details from that adopted by another; but all are agreed as to the fundamental points of classification, and all, therefore, agree in placing certain groups in a certain sequence. What, then, is the principle upon which this sequence is based? Why, for example, are the Sponges placed below the Corals; these below the Sea-urchins; and these, again, below the Shell-fish? Without entering into a discussion of the principles of zoological classification, which would here be out of place, it must be sufficient to say that the sequence in question is based upon the relative type of organisation of the groups of animals classified. The Corals are placed above the Sponges upon the ground that, regarded as a whole, the plan or type of structure of a Coral is more complex than that of a Sponge. It is not in the slightest degree that the Sponge is in any respect less highly organised or less perfect, as a Sponge, than is the Coral as a Coral. Each is equally perfect in its own way; but the structural pattern of the Coral is the highest, and therefore it occupies a higher place in the zoological scale. It is upon this principle, then, that the primary subdivisions of the animal kingdom (the so-called "sub-kingdoms") are arranged in a certain order. Coming, again, to the minor subdivisions (classes, orders, &c.) of each sub-kingdom, we find a different but entirely analogous principle employed as a means of classification. The numerous animals belonging to any given sub-kingdom are formed upon the same fundamental plan of structure; but they nevertheless admit of being arranged in a regular series of groups. All the Shell-fish, for example, are built upon a common plan, this plan representing the ideal Mollusc; but there are at the same time various groups of the Mollusca, and these groups admit of an arrangement in a given sequence. The principle adopted in this case is simply of the relative elaboration of the common type. The Oyster is built upon the same ground-plan as the Cuttle-fish; but this plan is carried out with much greater elaboration, and with many more complexities, in the latter than in the former: and Page 370 in accordance with this, the Cephalopoda constitute a higher group than the Bivalve Shell-fish. As in the case of superiority of structural type, so in this case also, it is not in the least that the Oyster is an imperfect animal. On the contrary, it is just as perfectly adapted by its organisation to fill its own sphere and to meet the exigencies of its own existence as is the Cuttle-fish; but the latter lives a life which is, physiologically, higher than the former, and its organisation is correspondingly increased in complexity.

This being understood, it may be repeated that, in the main, the succession of life upon the globe in point of time has corresponded with the relative order of succession of the great groups of animals in zoological rank; and some of the more striking examples of this may be here alluded to. Amongst the Echinoderms, for instance, the two orders generally admitted to be the "lowest" in the zoological scale—namely, the Crinoids and the Cystoids—are likewise the oldest, both, appearing in the Cambrian, the former slowly dying out as we approach the Recent period, and the latter disappearing wholly before the close of the Palæozoic period. Amongst the Crustaceans, the ancient groups of the Trilobites, Ostracodes, Phyllopods, Eurypterids, and Limuloids, some of which exist at the present day, are all "low" types; whereas the highly-organised Decapods do not make their appearance till near the close of the Palæozoic epoch, and they do not become abundant till we reach Mesozoic times. Amongst the Mollusca, those Bivalves which possess breathing-tubes (the "siphonate" Bivalves) are generally admitted to be higher than those which are destitute of these organs (the "asiphonate" Bivalves); and the latter are especially characteristic of the Palæozoic period, whilst the former abound in Mesozoic and Kainozoic formations. Similarly, the Univalves with breathing-tubes and a corresponding notch in the mouth of the shell ("siphonostomatous" Univalves) are regarded as higher in the scale than the round-mouthed vegetable-eating Sea-snails, in which no respiratory siphons exist ("holostomatous" Univalves); but the latter abound in the Palæozoic rocks—whereas the former do not make their appearance till the Jurassic period, and their higher groups do not seem to have existed till the close of the Cretaceous. The Cephalopods, again—the highest of all the groups of Mollusca—are represented in the Palæozoic rocks exclusively by Tetrabranchiate forms, which constitute the lowest of the two orders of this class; whereas the more highly specialised Dibranchiates do not make their appearance till the commencement of the Mesozoic. The Palæozoic Page 371 Tetrabranchiates, also, are of a much simpler type than the highly complex Ammonitidœ of the Mesozoic.

Similar facts are observable amongst the Vertebrate animals. The Fishes are the lowest class of Vertebrates, and they are the first to appear, their first certain occurrence being in the Upper Silurian; whilst, even if the Lower Silurian and Upper Cambrian "Conodonts" were shown to be the teeth of Fishes, there would still remain the enormously long periods of the Laurentian and Lower Cambrian, during which there were Invertebrates, but no Vertebrates. The Amphibians, the next class in zoological order, appears later than the Fishes, and is not represented till the Carboniferous; whilst its highest group (that of the Frogs and Toads) does not make its entrance upon the scene till Tertiary times are reached. The class of the Reptiles, again, the next in order, does not appear till the Permian, and therefore not till after Amphibians of very varied forms had been in existence for a protracted period. The Birds seem to be undoubtedly later than the Reptiles; but, owing to the uncertainty as to the exact point of their first appearance, it cannot be positively asserted that they preceded Mammals, as they should have done. Finally, the Mesozoic types of Mammals are mainly, if not exclusively, referable to the Marsupials, one of the lowest orders of the class; whilst the higher orders of the "Placental" Quadrupeds are not with certainty known to have existed prior to the commencement of the Tertiary period.

Facts of a very similar nature are offered by the succession of Plants upon the globe. Thus the vegetation of the Palæozoic period consisted principally of the lowly-organised groups of the Cryptogamous or Flowerless plants. The Mesozoic formations, up to the Chalk, are especially characterised by the naked-seeded Flowering plants—the Conifers and the Cycads; whilst the higher groups of the Angiospermous Exogens and Monocotyledons characterise the Upper Cretaceous and Tertiary rocks.

Facts of the above nature—and they could be greatly multiplied—seem to point clearly to the existence of some law of progression, though we certainly are not yet in a position to formulate this law, or to indicate the precise manner in which it has operated. Two considerations, also, must not be overlooked. In the first place, there are various groups, some of them highly organised, which make their appearance at an extremely ancient date, but which continue throughout geological time almost unchanged, and certainly unprogressive. Many of these "persistent types" are known—such as various of the Page 372 Foraminifera, the Lingulœ, the Nautili, &c.; and they indicate that under given conditions, at present unknown to us, it is possible for a life-form to subsist for an almost indefinite period without any important modification of its structure. In the second place, whilst the facts above mentioned point to some general law of progression of the great zoological groups, it cannot be asserted that the primeval types of any given group are necessarily "lower," zoologically speaking, than their modern representatives. Nor does this seem to be at all necessary for the establishment of the law in question. It cannot be asserted, for example, that the Ganoid and Placoid Fishes of the Upper Silurian are in themselves less highly organised than their existing representatives; nor can it even be asserted that the Ganoid and Placoid orders are low groups of the class Pisces. On the contrary, they are high groups; but then it must be remembered that these are probably not really the first Fishes, and that if we meet with Fishes at some future time in the Lower Silurian or Cambrian, these may easily prove to be representatives of the lower orders of the class. This question cannot be further entered into here, as its discussion could be carried out to an almost unlimited length; but whilst there are facts pointing both ways, it appears that at present we are not justified in asserting that the earlier types of each group—so far as these are known to us, or really are without predecessors—are necessarily or invariably more "degraded" or "embryonic" in their structure than their more modern representatives.

It remains to consider very briefly how far Palæontology supports the doctrine of "Evolution," as it is called; and this, too, is a question of almost infinite dimensions, which can but be glanced at here. Does Palæontology teach us that the almost innumerable kinds of animals and plants which we know to have successively flourished upon the earth in past times were produced separately and wholly independently of each other, at successive periods? or does it point to the theory that a large number of these supposed distinct forms, have been in reality produced by the slow modification of a comparatively small number of primitive types? Upon the whole, it must be unhesitatingly replied that the evidence of Palæontology is in favour of the view that the succession of life-forms upon the globe has been to a large extent regulated by some orderly and constantly-acting law of modification and evolution. Upon no other theory can we comprehend how the fauna of any given formation is more closely related to that of the formation next below in the series, and to that of Page 373 the formation next above, than to that of any other series of deposits. Upon no other view can we comprehend why the Post-Tertiary Mammals of South America should consist principally of Edentates, Llamas, Tapirs, Peccaries, Platyrhine Monkeys, and other forms now characterising this continent; whilst those of Australia should be wholly referable to the order of Marsupials. On no other view can we explain the common occurrence of "intermediate" or "transitional" forms of life, filling in the gaps between groups now widely distinct.

On the other hand, there are facts which point clearly to the existence of some law other than that of evolution, and probably of a deeper and more far-reaching character. Upon no theory of evolution can we find a satisfactory explanation for the constant introduction throughout geological time of new forms of life, which do not appear to have been preceded by pre-existent allied types; The Graptolites and Trilobites have no known predecessors, and leave no known successors. The Insects appear suddenly in the Devonian, and the Arachnides and Myriapods in the Carboniferous, under well-differentiated and highly-specialised types. The Dibranchiate Cephalopods appear with equal apparent suddenness in the older Mesozoic deposits, and no known type of the Palæozoic period can be pointed to as a possible ancestor. The Hippuritidœ of the Cretaceous burst into a varied life to all appearance almost immediately after their first introduction into existence. The wonderful Dicotyledonous flora of the Upper Cretaceous period similarly surprises us without any prophetic annunciation from the older Jurassic.

Many other instances could be given; but enough has been said to show that there is a good deal to be said on both sides, and that the problem is one environed with profound difficulties. One point only seems now to be universally conceded, and that is, that the record of life in past time is not interrupted by gaps other than those due to the necessary imperfections of the fossiliferous series, to the fact that many animals are incapable of preservation in a fossil condition, or to other causes of a like nature. All those who are entitled to speak on this head are agreed that the introduction of new and the destruction of old species have been slow and gradual processes, in no sense of the term "catastrophistic." Most are also willing to admit that "Evolution" has taken place in the past, to a greater or less extent, and that a greater or less number of so-called species of fossil animals are really the modified descendants of pre-existent forms. How this process of evolution has Page 374 been effected, to what extent it has taken place, under what conditions and laws it has been carried out, and how far it may be regarded as merely auxiliary and supplemental to some deeper law of change and progress, are questions to which, in spite of the brilliant generalisations of Darwin, no satisfactory answer can as yet be given. In the successful solution of this problem—if soluble with the materials available to our hands—will lie the greatest triumph that Palæontology can hope to attain; and there is reason to think that, thanks to the guiding-clue afforded by the genius of the author of the 'Origin of Species,' we are at least on the road to a sure, though it may be a far-distant, victory.

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