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- Time and Life - 1/3 -


by Thomas H. Huxley

[footnote] *"Macmillan's Magazine", December 1859.

EVERYONE knows that that superficial film of the earth's substance, hardly ten miles thick, which is accessible to human investigation, is composed for the most part of beds or strata of stone, the consolidated muds and sands of former seas and lakes, which have been deposited one upon the other, and hence are the older the deeper they lie. These multitudinous strata present such resemblances and differences among themselves that they are capable of classification into groups or formations, and these formations again are brigaded together into still larger assemblages, called by the older geologists, primary, secondary, and tertiary; by the moderns, palaeozoic, mesozoic, and cainozoic: the basis of the former nomenclature being the relative age of the groups of strata; that of the latter, the kinds of living forms contained in them.

Though but a film if compared with the total diameter of our planet, the total series of formations is vast indeed when measured by any human standard, and, as all action implies time, so are we compelled to regard these mineral masses as a measure of the time which has elapsed during their accumulation. The amount of the time which they represent is, of course, in the inverse proportion of the intensity of the forces which have been in operation. If, in the ancient world, mud and sand accumulated on sea-bottoms at tenfold their present rate, it is clear that a bed of mud or sand ten feet thick would have been formed then in the same time as a stratum of similar materials one foot thick would be formed now, and 'vice versa'.

At the outset of his studies, therefore, the physical geologist had to choose between two hypotheses; either, throughout the ages which are represented by the accumulated strata, and which we may call 'geologic time', the forces of nature have operated with much same average intensity as at present, and hence the lapse of time which they represent must be something prodigious and inconceivable, or, in the primeval epochs, the natural powers were infinitely more intense than now, and hence the time through which they acted to produce the effects we see was comparatively short.

The earlier geologists adopted the latter view almost with one consent. For they had little knowledge of the present workings of nature, and they read the records of geologic time as a child reads the history of Rome or Greece, and fancies that antiquity was grand, heroic, and unlike the present because it is unlike his little experience of the present.

Even so the earlier observers were moved with wonder at the seeming contrast between the ancient and the present order of nature. The elemental forces seemed to have been grander and more energetic in primeval times. Upheaved and contorted, rifted and fissured, pierced by dykes of molten matter or worn away over vast areas by aqueous action, the older rocks appeared to bear witness to a state of things far different from that exhibited by the peaceful epoch on which the lot of man has fallen.

But by degrees thoughtful students of geology have been led to perceive that the earliest efforts of nature have been by no means the grandest. Alps and Andes are children of yesterday when compared with Snowdon and the Cumberland hills; and the so-called glacial epoch--that in which perhaps the most extensive physical changes of which any record remaining occurred--is the last and the newest of the revolutions of the globe. And in proportion as physical geography--which is the geology of our own epoch--has grown into a science, and the present order of nature has been ransacked to find what, 'hibernice', we may call precedents for the phenomena of the past, so the apparent necessity of supposing the past to be widely different from the present has diminished.

The transporting power of the greatest deluge which can be imagined sinks into insignificance beside that of the slowly floating, slowly melting iceberg, or the glacier creeping along at its snail's pace of a yard a day. The study of the deltas of the Nile, the Ganges, and the Mississippi has taught us how slow is the wearing action of water, how vast its effects when time is allowed for its operation. The reefs of the Pacific, the deep-sea soundings of the Atlantic, show that it is to the slow-growing coral and to the imperceptible animalcule, which lives its brief space and then adds its tiny shell to the muddy cairn left by its brethren and ancestors, that we must look as the agents in the formation of limestone and chalk, and not to hypothetical oceans saturated with calcareous salts and suddenly depositing them.

And while the inquirer has thus learnt that existing forces--'give them time'--are competent to produce all the physical phenomena we meet with in the rocks, so, on the other side, the study of the marks left in the ancient strata by past physical actions shows that these were similar to those which now obtain. Ancient beaches are met with whose pebbles are like those found on modern shores; the hardened sea-sands of the oldest epochs show ripple-marks, such as may now be found on every sandy coast; nay, more, the pits left by ancient rain-drops prove that even in the very earliest ages, the "bow in the clouds" must have adorned the palaeozoic firmament. So that if we could reverse the legend of the Seven Sleepers,--if we could sleep back through the past, and awake a million ages before our own epoch, in the midst of the earliest geologic times,--there is no reason to believe that sea, or sky, or the aspect of the land would warn us of the marvellous retrospection.

Such are the beliefs which modern physical geologists hold, or, at any rate, tend towards holding. But, in so doing, it is obvious that they by no means prejudge the question, as to what the physical condition of the globe may have been before our chapters of its history begin, in what may be called (with that licence which is implied in the often-used term "prehistoric epoch") "pre-geologic time." The views indicated, in fact, are not only quite consistent with the hypothesis, that, in the still earlier period referred to, the condition of our world was very different; but they may be held by some to necessitate that hypothesis. The physical philosopher who is accurately acquainted with the velocity of a cannon-ball, and the precise character of the line which it traverses for a yard of its course, is necessitated by what he knows of the laws of nature to conclude that it came from a certain spot, whence it was impelled by a certain force, and that it has followed a certain trajectory. In like manner, the student of physical geology, who fully believes in the uniformity of the general condition of the earth through geologic time, may feel compelled by what he knows of causation, and by the general analogy of nature, to suppose that our solar system was once a nebulous mass; that it gradually condensed, that it broke up into that wonderful group of harmoniously rolling balls we call planets and satellites, and that then each of these underwent its appointed metamorphosis, until at last our own share of the cosmic vapour passed into that condition in which we first meet with definite records of its state, and in which it has since, with comparatively little change, remained.

The doctrine of uniformity and the doctrine of progression are, therefore, perfectly consistent; perhaps, indeed, they might be shown to be necessarily connected with one another.

If, however, the condition of the world, which has obtained throughout geologic time, is but the sequel to a vast series of changes which took place in pre-geologic time, then it seems not unlikely that the duration of this latter is to that of the former as the vast extent of geologic time is to the length of the brief epoch we call the historical period; and that even the oldest rocks are records of an epoch almost infinitely remote from that which could have witnessed the first shaping of our globe.

It is probable that no modern geologist would hesitate to admit the general validity of these reasonings when applied to the physics of his subject, whence it is the more remarkable that the moment the question changes from one of physics and chemistry to one of natural history, scientific opinions and the popular prejudices, which reflect them in a distorted form, undergo a sudden metamorphosis. Geologists and palaeontologists write about the "beginning of life" and the "first-created forms of living beings," as if they were the most familiar things in the world; and even cautious writers seem to be on quite friendly terms with the "archetype" whereby the Creator was guided "amidst the crash of falling worlds." Just as it used to be imagined that the ancient world was physically opposed to the present, so it is still widely assumed that the living population of our globe, whether animal or vegetable, in the older epochs, exhibited forms so strikingly contrasted with those which we see around us, that there is hardly anything in common between the two. It is constantly tacitly assumed that we have before us all the forms of life which have ever existed; and though the progress of knowledge, yearly and almost monthly, drives the defenders of that position from their ground, they entrench themselves in the new line of defences as if nothing had happened, and proclaim that the 'new' beginning is the 'real' beginning.

Without for an instant denying or endeavouring to soften down the considerable positive differences (the negative ones are met by another line of argument) which undoubtedly obtain between the ancient and the modern worlds of life, we believe they have been vastly overstated and exaggerated, and this belief is based upon certain facts whose value does not seem to have been fully appreciated, though they have long been more or less completely known.

The multitudinous kinds of animals and plants, both recent and fossil, are, as is well known, arranged by zoologists and botanists, in accordance with their natural relations, into groups which receive the names of sub-kingdoms, classes, orders, families, genera and species. Now it is a most remarkable circumstance that, viewed on the great scale, living beings have differed so little throughout all geologic time that there is no sub-kingdom and no class wholly extinct or without living representatives.

If we descend to the smaller groups, we find that the number of orders of plants is about two hundred; and I have it on the best authority that not one of these is exclusively fossil; so that there is absolutely not a single extinct ordinal type of vegetable life; and it is not until we descend to the next group, or the families, that we find types which are wholly extinct. The number of orders of animals, on the other hand, may be reckoned at a hundred and twenty, or thereabouts, and of these, eight or nine have no living representatives. The proportion of extinct ordinal types of animals to the existing types, therefore, does not exceed seven per cent.--a marvellously small proportion when we consider the vastness of geologic time.

Another class of considerations--of a different kind, it is true, but tending in the same direction--seems to have been overlooked. Not only is it true that the general plan of construction of animals and plants has been the same in all recorded time as at present, but there are particular kinds of animals and plants which have existed throughout

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