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On The Geological Succession Of Organic Beings - Chapter XI

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It is a common belief that the more ancient a form is, by so much the more it tends to connect by some of its characters groups now widely separated from each other. This remark no doubt must be restricted to those groups which have undergone much change in the course of geological ages; and it would be difficult to prove the truth of the proposition, for every now and then even a living animal, as the Lepidosiren, is discovered having affinities directed towards very distinct groups. Yet if we compare the older Reptiles and Batrachians, the older Fish, the older Cephalopods, and the eocene Mammals, with the recent members of the same classes, we must admit that there is truth in the remark.

Let us see how far these several facts and inferences accord with the theory of descent with modification. As the subject is somewhat complex, I must request the reader to turn to the diagram in the fourth chapter. We may suppose that the numbered letters in italics represent genera, and the dotted lines diverging from them the species in each genus. The diagram is much too simple, too few genera and too few species being given, but this is unimportant for us. The horizontal lines may represent successive geological formations, and all the forms beneath the uppermost line may be considered as extinct. The three existing genera, a14, q14, p14, will form a small family; b14 and f14, a closely allied family or subfamily; and o14, i14, m14, a third family. These three families, together with the many extinct genera on the several lines of descent diverging from the parent form (A) will form an order; for all will have inherited something in common from their ancient progenitor. On the principle of the continued tendency to divergence of character, which was formerly illustrated by this diagram, the more recent any form is the more it will generally differ from its ancient progenitor. Hence, we can understand the rule that the most ancient fossils differ most from existing forms. We must not, however, assume that divergence of character is a necessary contingency; it depends solely on the descendants from a species being thus enabled to seize on many and different places in the economy of nature. Therefore it is quite possible, as we have seen in the case of some Silurian forms, that a species might go on being slightly modified in relation to its slightly altered conditions of life, and yet retain throughout a vast period the same general characteristics. This is represented in the diagram by the letter F14.

All the many forms, extinct and recent, descended from (A), make, as before remarked, one order; and this order, from the continued effects of extinction and divergence of character, has become divided into several sub-families and families, some of which are supposed to have perished at different periods, and some to have endured to the present day.

By looking at the diagram we can see that if many of the extinct forms supposed to be embedded in the successive formations, were discovered at several points low down in the series, the three existing families on the uppermost line would be rendered less distinct from each other. If, for instance, the genera a1, a5, a10, f8, m3, m6, m9, were disinterred, these three families would be so closely linked together that they probably would have to be united into one great family, in nearly the same manner as has occurred with ruminants and certain pachyderms. Yet he who objected to consider as intermediate the extinct genera, which thus link together the living genera of three families, would be partly justified, for they are intermediate, not directly, but only by a long and circuitous course through many widely different forms. If many extinct forms were to be discovered above one of the middle horizontal lines or geological formations--for instance, above No. VI.--but none from beneath this line, then only two of the families (those on the left hand a14, etc., and b14, etc.) would have to be united into one; and there would remain two families which would be less distinct from each other than they were before the discovery of the fossils. So again, if the three families formed of eight genera (a14 to m14), on the uppermost line, be supposed to differ from each other by half-a-dozen important characters, then the families which existed at a period marked VI would certainly have differed from each other by a less number of characters; for they would at this early stage of descent have diverged in a less degree from their common progenitor. Thus it comes that ancient and extinct genera are often in a greater or less degree intermediate in character between their modified descendants, or between their collateral relations.

Under nature the process will be far more complicated than is represented in the diagram; for the groups will have been more numerous; they will have endured for extremely unequal lengths of time, and will have been modified in various degrees. As we possess only the last volume of the geological record, and that in a very broken condition, we have no right to expect, except in rare cases, to fill up the wide intervals in the natural system, and thus to unite distinct families or orders. All that we have a right to expect is, that those groups which have, within known geological periods, undergone much modification, should in the older formations make some slight approach to each other; so that the older members should differ less from each other in some of their characters than do the existing members of the same groups; and this by the concurrent evidence of our best palaeontologists is frequently the case.

Thus, on the theory of descent with modification, the main facts with respect to the mutual affinities of the extinct forms of life to each other and to living forms, are explained in a satisfactory manner. And they are wholly inexplicable on any other view.

On this same theory, it is evident that the fauna during any one great period in the earth's history will be intermediate in general character between that which preceded and that which succeeded it. Thus the species which lived at the sixth great stage of descent in the diagram are the modified offspring of those which lived at the fifth stage, and are the parents of those which became still more modified at the seventh stage; hence they could hardly fail to be nearly intermediate in character between the forms of life above and below. We must, however, allow for the entire extinction of some preceding forms, and in any one region for the immigration of new forms from other regions, and for a large amount of modification during the long and blank intervals between the successive formations. Subject to these allowances, the fauna of each geological period undoubtedly is intermediate in character, between the preceding and succeeding faunas. I need give only one instance, namely, the manner in which the fossils of the Devonian system, when this system was first discovered, were at once recognised by palaeontologists as intermediate in character between those of the overlying carboniferous and underlying Silurian systems. But each fauna is not necessarily exactly intermediate, as unequal intervals of time have elapsed between consecutive formations.

It is no real objection to the truth of the statement that the fauna of each period as a whole is nearly intermediate in character between the preceding and succeeding faunas, that certain genera offer exceptions to the rule. For instance, the species of mastodons and elephants, when arranged by Dr. Falconer in two series--in the first place according to their mutual affinities, and in the second place according to their periods of existence--do not accord in arrangement. The species extreme in character are not the oldest or the most recent; nor are those which are intermediate in character, intermediate in age. But supposing for an instant, in this and other such cases, that the record of the first appearance and disappearance of the species was complete, which is far from the case, we have no reason to believe that forms successively produced necessarily endure for corresponding lengths of time. A very ancient form may occasionally have lasted much longer than a form elsewhere subsequently produced, especially in the case of terrestrial productions inhabiting separated districts. To compare small things with great; if the principal living and extinct races of the domestic pigeon were arranged in serial affinity, this arrangement would not closely accord with the order in time of their production, and even less with the order of their disappearance; for the parent rock-pigeon still lives; and many varieties between the rock-pigeon and the carrier have become extinct; and carriers which are extreme in the important character of length of beak originated earlier than short-beaked tumblers, which are at the opposite end of the series in this respect.

Closely connected with the statement, that the organic remains from an intermediate formation are in some degree intermediate in character, is the fact, insisted on by all palaeontologists, that fossils from two consecutive formations are far more closely related to each other, than are the fossils from two remote formations. Pictet gives as a well-known instance, the general resemblance of the organic remains from the several stages of the Chalk formation, though the species are distinct in each stage. This fact alone, from its generality, seems to have shaken Professor Pictet in his belief in the immutability of species. He who is acquainted with the distribution of existing species over the globe, will not attempt to account for the close resemblance of distinct species in closely consecutive formations, by the physical conditions of the ancient areas having remained nearly the same. Let it be remembered that the forms of life, at least those inhabiting the sea, have changed almost simultaneously throughout the world, and therefore under the most different climates and conditions. Consider the prodigious vicissitudes of climate during the pleistocene period, which includes the whole glacial epoch, and note how little the specific forms of the inhabitants of the sea have been affected.

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