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On The Geological Succession Of Organic Beings - Chapter XI

Page 85 Contents - 'The Origin of Species' by Charles Darwin prev page     next page

This great fact of the parallel succession of the forms of life throughout the world, is explicable on the theory of natural selection. New species are formed by having some advantage over older forms; and the forms, which are already dominant, or have some advantage over the other forms in their own country, give birth to the greatest number of new varieties or incipient species. We have distinct evidence on this head, in the plants which are dominant, that is, which are commonest and most widely diffused, producing the greatest number of new varieties. It is also natural that the dominant, varying and far-spreading species, which have already invaded, to a certain extent, the territories of other species, should be those which would have the best chance of spreading still further, and of giving rise in new countries to other new varieties and species. The process of diffusion would often be very slow, depending on climatal and geographical changes, on strange accidents, and on the gradual acclimatization of new species to the various climates through which they might have to pass, but in the course of time the dominant forms would generally succeed in spreading and would ultimately prevail. The diffusion would, it is probable, be slower with the terrestrial inhabitants of distinct continents than with the marine inhabitants of the continuous sea. We might therefore expect to find, as we do find, a less strict degree of parallelism in the succession of the productions of the land than with those of the sea.

Thus, as it seems to me, the parallel, and, taken in a large sense, simultaneous, succession of the same forms of life throughout the world, accords well with the principle of new species having been formed by dominant species spreading widely and varying; the new species thus produced being themselves dominant, owing to their having had some advantage over their already dominant parents, as well as over other species; and again spreading, varying, and producing new forms. The old forms which are beaten and which yield their places to the new and victorious forms, will generally be allied in groups, from inheriting some inferiority in common; and, therefore, as new and improved groups spread throughout the world, old groups disappear from the world; and the succession of forms everywhere tends to correspond both in their first appearance and final disappearance.

There is one other remark connected with this subject worth making. I have given my reasons for believing that most of our great formations, rich in fossils, were deposited during periods of subsidence; and that blank intervals of vast duration, as far as fossils are concerned, occurred during the periods when the bed of the sea was either stationary or rising, and likewise when sediment was not thrown down quickly enough to embed and preserve organic remains. During these long and blank intervals I suppose that the inhabitants of each region underwent a considerable amount of modification and extinction, and that there was much migration from other parts of the world. As we have reason to believe that large areas are affected by the same movement, it is probable that strictly contemporaneous formations have often been accumulated over very wide spaces in the same quarter of the world; but we are very far from having any right to conclude that this has invariably been the case, and that large areas have invariably been affected by the same movements. When two formations have been deposited in two regions during nearly, but not exactly, the same period, we should find in both, from the causes explained in the foregoing paragraphs, the same general succession in the forms of life; but the species would not exactly correspond; for there will have been a little more time in the one region than in the other for modification, extinction, and immigration.

I suspect that cases of this nature occur in Europe. Mr. Prestwich, in his admirable Memoirs on the eocene deposits of England and France, is able to draw a close general parallelism between the successive stages in the two countries; but when he compares certain stages in England with those in France, although he finds in both a curious accordance in the numbers of the species belonging to the same genera, yet the species themselves differ in a manner very difficult to account for considering the proximity of the two areas, unless, indeed, it be assumed that an isthmus separated two seas inhabited by distinct, but contemporaneous faunas. Lyell has made similar observations on some of the later tertiary formations. Barrande, also, shows that there is a striking general parallelism in the successive Silurian deposits of Bohemia and Scandinavia; nevertheless he finds a surprising amount of difference in the species. If the several formations in these regions have not been deposited during the same exact periods--a formation in one region often corresponding with a blank interval in the other--and if in both regions the species have gone on slowly changing during the accumulation of the several formations and during the long intervals of time between them; in this case the several formations in the two regions could be arranged in the same order, in accordance with the general succession of the forms of life, and the order would falsely appear to be strictly parallel; nevertheless the species would not all be the same in the apparently corresponding stages in the two regions.


Let us now look to the mutual affinities of extinct and living species. All fall into a few grand classes; and this fact is at once explained on the principle of descent. The more ancient any form is, the more, as a general rule, it differs from living forms. But, as Buckland long ago remarked, extinct species can all be classed either in still existing groups, or between them. That the extinct forms of life help to fill up the intervals between existing genera, families, and orders, is certainly true; but as this statement has often been ignored or even denied, it may be well to make some remarks on this subject, and to give some instances. If we confine our attention either to the living or to the extinct species of the same class, the series is far less perfect than if we combine both into one general system. In the writings of Professor Owen we continually meet with the expression of generalised forms, as applied to extinct animals; and in the writings of Agassiz, of prophetic or synthetic types; and these terms imply that such forms are, in fact, intermediate or connecting links. Another distinguished palaeontologist, M. Gaudry, has shown in the most striking manner that many of the fossil mammals discovered by him in Attica serve to break down the intervals between existing genera. Cuvier ranked the Ruminants and Pachyderms as two of the most distinct orders of mammals; but so many fossil links have been disentombed that Owen has had to alter the whole classification, and has placed certain Pachyderms in the same sub-order with ruminants; for example, he dissolves by gradations the apparently wide interval between the pig and the camel. The Ungulata or hoofed quadrupeds are now divided into the even-toed or odd-toed divisions; but the Macrauchenia of South America connects to a certain extent these two grand divisions. No one will deny that the Hipparion is intermediate between the existing horse and certain other ungulate forms. What a wonderful connecting link in the chain of mammals is the Typotherium from South America, as the name given to it by Professor Gervais expresses, and which cannot be placed in any existing order. The Sirenia form a very distinct group of the mammals, and one of the most remarkable peculiarities in existing dugong and lamentin is the entire absence of hind limbs, without even a rudiment being left; but the extinct Halitherium had, according to Professor Flower, an ossified thigh-bone "articulated to a well-defined acetabulum in the pelvis," and it thus makes some approach to ordinary hoofed quadrupeds, to which the Sirenia are in other respects allied. The cetaceans or whales are widely different from all other mammals, but the tertiary Zeuglodon and Squalodon, which have been placed by some naturalists in an order by themselves, are considered by Professor Huxley to be undoubtedly cetaceans, "and to constitute connecting links with the aquatic carnivora."

Even the wide interval between birds and reptiles has been shown by the naturalist just quoted to be partially bridged over in the most unexpected manner, on the one hand, by the ostrich and extinct Archeopteryx, and on the other hand by the Compsognathus, one of the Dinosaurians--that group which includes the most gigantic of all terrestrial reptiles. Turning to the Invertebrata, Barrande asserts, a higher authority could not be named, that he is every day taught that, although palaeozoic animals can certainly be classed under existing groups, yet that at this ancient period the groups were not so distinctly separated from each other as they now are.

Some writers have objected to any extinct species, or group of species, being considered as intermediate between any two living species, or groups of species. If by this term it is meant that an extinct form is directly intermediate in all its characters between two living forms or groups, the objection is probably valid. But in a natural classification many fossil species certainly stand between living species, and some extinct genera between living genera, even between genera belonging to distinct families. The most common case, especially with respect to very distinct groups, such as fish and reptiles, seems to be that, supposing them to be distinguished at the present day by a score of characters, the ancient members are separated by a somewhat lesser number of characters, so that the two groups formerly made a somewhat nearer approach to each other than they now do.

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