On our knowledge of the causes of the phenomena of organic nature, by T.H. Huxley

The Past Condition of Organic Nature

IN the lecture which I delivered last Monday evening, I endeavoured to sketch in a very brief manner, but as well as the time at my disposal would permit, the present condition of organic nature, meaning by that large title simply an indication of the great, broad, and general principles which are to be discovered by those who look attentively at the phenomena of organic nature as at present displayed. The general result of our investigations might be summed up thus: we found that the multiplicity of the forms of animal life, great as that may be, may be reduced to a comparatively few primitive plans or types of construction; that a further study of the development of those different forms revealed to us that they were again reducible, until we at last brought the infinite diversity of animal, and even vegetable life, down to the primordial form of a single cell.

We found that our analysis of the organic world, whether animals or plants, showed, in the long run, that they might both be reduced into, and were, in fact, composed of, the same constituents. And we saw that the plant obtained the materials constituting its substance by a peculiar combination of matters belonging entirely to the inorganic world; that, then, the animal was constantly appropriating the nitrogenous matters of the plant to its own nourishment, and returning them back to the inorganic world, in what we spoke of as its waste; and that finally, when the animal ceased to exist, the constituents of its body were dissolved and transmitted to that inorganic world whence they had been at first abstracted. Thus we saw in both the blade of grass and the horse but the same elements differently combined and arranged. We discovered a continual circulation going on — the plant drawing in the elements of inorganic nature and combining them into food for the animal creation; the animal borrowing from the plant the matter for its own support, giving off during its life products which returned immediately to the inorganic world; and that, eventually, the constituent materials of the whole structure of both animals and plants were thus returned to their original source: there was a constant passage from one state of existence to another, and a returning back again.

Lastly, when we endeavoured to form some notion of the nature of the forces exercised by living beings, we discovered that they — if not capable of being subjected to the same minute analysis as the constituents of those beings themselves — that they were correlative with — that they were the equivalents of the forces of inorganic nature — that they were, in the sense in which the term is now used, convertible with them. That was our general result.

And now, leaving the Present, I must endeavour in the same manner to put before you the facts that are to be discovered in the Past history of the living world, in the past conditions of organic nature. We have, to-night, to deal with the facts of that history — a history involving periods of time before which our mere human records sink into utter insignificance — a history the variety and physical magnitude of whose events cannot even be foreshadowed by the history of human life and human phenomena — a history of the most varied and complex character.

We must deal with the history, then, in the first place, as we should deal with all other histories. The historical student knows that his first business should be to inquire into the validity of his evidence, and the nature of the record in which the evidence is contained, that he may be able to form a proper estimate of the correctness of the conclusions which have been drawn from that evidence. So, here, we must pass, in the first place, to the consideration of a matter which may seem foreign to the question under discussion. We must dwell upon the nature of the records, and the credibility of the evidence they contain; we must look to the completeness or incompleteness of those records themselves, before we turn to that which they contain and reveal. The question of the credibility of the history, happily for us, will not require much consideration, for, in this history, unlike those of human origin, there can be no cavilling, no differences as to the reality and truth of the facts of which it is made up; the facts state themselves, and are laid out clearly before us.

But, although one of the greatest difficulties of the historical student is cleared out of our path, there are other difficulties — difficulties in rightly interpreting the facts as they are presented to us — which may be compared with the greatest difficulties of any other kinds of historical study.

What is this record of the past history of the globe, and what are the questions which are involved in an inquiry into its completeness or incompleteness? That record is composed of mud; and the question which we have to investigate this evening resolves itself into a question of the formation of mud. You may think, perhaps, that this is a vast step — of almost from the sublime to the ridiculous — from the contemplation of the history of the past ages of the world’s existence to the consideration of the history of the formation of mud! But, in nature, there is nothing mean and unworthy of attention; there is nothing ridiculous or contemptible in any of her works; and this inquiry, you will soon see, I hope, takes us to the very root and foundations of our subject.

How, then, is mud formed? Always, with some trifling exception, which I need not consider now — always, as the result of the action of water, wearing down and disintegrating the surface of the earth and rocks with which it comes in contact — pounding and grinding it down, and carrying the particles away to places where they cease to be disturbed by this mechanical action, and where they can subside and rest. For the ocean, urged by winds, washes, as we know, a long extent of coast, and every wave, loaded as it is with particles of sand and gravel as it breaks upon the shore, does something towards the disintegrating process. And thus, slowly but surely, the hardest rocks are gradually ground down to a powdery substance; and the mud thus formed, coarser or finer, as the case may be, is carried by the rush of the tides, or currents, till it reaches the comparatively deeper parts of the ocean, in which it can sink to the bottom, that is, to parts where there is a depth of about fourteen or fifteen fathoms, a depth at which the water is, usually, nearly motionless, and in which, of course, the finer particles of this detritus, or mud as we call it, sinks to the bottom.

Or, again, if you take a river, rushing down from its mountain sources, brawling over the stones and rocks that intersect its path, loosening, removing, and carrying with it in its downward course the pebbles and lighter matters from its banks, it crushes and pounds down the rocks and earths in precisely the same way as the wearing action of the sea waves. The matters forming the deposit are torn from the mountain-side and whirled impetuously into the valley, more slowly over the plain, thence into the estuary, and from the estuary they are swept into the sea. The coarser and heavier fragments are obviously deposited first, that is, as soon as the current begins to lose its force by becoming amalgamated with the stiller depths of the ocean, but the finer and lighter particles are carried further on, and eventually deposited in a deeper and stiller portion of the ocean.

It clearly follows from this that mud gives us a chronology; for it is evident that supposing this, which I now sketch, to be the sea bottom, and supposing this to be a coast-line; from the washing action of the sea upon the rock, wearing and grinding it down into a sediment of mud, the mud will be carried down, and at length, deposited in the deeper parts of this sea bottom, where it will form a layer; and then, while that first layer is hardening, other mud which is coming from the same source will, of course, be carried to the same place; and, as it is quite impossible for it to get beneath the layer already there, it deposits itself above it, and forms another layer, and in that way you gradually have layers of mud constantly forming and hardening one above the other, and conveying a record of time.

It is a necessary result of the operation of the law of gravitation that the uppermost layer shall be the youngest and the lowest the oldest, and that the different beds shall be older at any particular point or spot in exactly the ratio of their depth from the surface. So that if they were upheaved afterwards, and you had a series of these different layers of mud, converted into sandstone, or limestone, as the case might be, you might be sure that the bottom layer was deposited first, and that the upper layers were formed afterwards. Here, you see, is the first step in the history — these layers of mud give us an idea of time.

The whole surface of the earth — I speak broadly, and leave out minor qualifications — is made up of such layers of mud, so hard, the majority of them, that we call them rock whether limestone or sandstone, or other varieties of rock. And, seeing that every part of the crust of the earth is made up in this way, you might think that the determination of the chronology, the fixing of the time which it has taken to form this crust is a comparatively simple matter. Take a broad average, ascertain how fast the mud is deposited upon the bottom of the sea, or in the estuary of rivers; take it to be an inch, or two, or three inches a year, or whatever you may roughly estimate it at; then take the total thickness of the whole series of stratified rocks, which geologists estimate at twelve or thirteen miles, or about seventy thousand feet, make a sum in short division, divide the total thickness by that of the quantity deposited in one year, and the result will, of course, give you the number of years which the crust has taken to form.

Truly, that looks a very simple process! It would be so except for certain difficulties, the very first of which is that of finding how rapidly sediments are deposited; but the main difficulty — a difficulty which renders any certain calculations of such a matter out of the question — is this, the sea-bottom on which the deposit takes place is continually shifting.

Instead of the surface of the earth being that stable, fixed thing that it is popularly believed to be, being, in common parlance, the very emblem of fixity itself, it is incessantly moving, and is, in fact, as unstable as the surface of the sea, except that its undulations are infinitely slower and enormously higher and deeper.

Now, what is the effect of this oscillation? Take the case to which I have previously referred. The finer or coarser sediments that are carried down by the current of the river, will only be carried out a certain distance, and eventually, as we have already seen, on reaching the stiller part of the ocean, will be deposited at the bottom.

Let C y (Fig. 4) be the sea-bottom, y D the shore, x y the sea-level, then the coarser deposit will subside over the region B, the finer over A, while beyond A there will be no deposit at all; and, consequently, no record will be kept, simply because no deposit is going on. Now, suppose that the whole land, C, D, which we have regarded as stationary, goes down, as it does so, both A and B go further out from the shore, which will be at yl; x1, y1, being the new sea-level. The consequence will be that the layer of mud (A), being now, for the most part, further than the force of the current is strong enough to convey even the finest ‘debris’, will, of course, receive no more deposits, and having attained a certain thickness will now grow no thicker.

We should be misled in taking the thickness of that layer, whenever it may be exposed to our view, as a record of time in the manner in which we are now regarding this subject, as it would give us only an imperfect and partial record: it would seem to represent too short a period of time.

Fig.4.

Suppose, on the other hand, that the land (C D) had gone on rising slowly and gradually — say an inch or two inches in the course of a century — what would be the practical effect of that movement? Why, that the sediment A and B which has been already deposited, would eventually be brought nearer to the shore-level, and again subjected to the wear and tear of the sea; and directly the sea begins to act upon it, it would of course soon cut up and carry it away, to a greater or less extent, to be re-deposited further out.

Well, as there is, in all probability, not one single spot on the whole surface of the earth, which has not been up and down in this way a great many times, it follows that the thickness of the deposits formed at any particular spot cannot be taken (even supposing we had at first obtained correct data as to the rate at which they took place) as affording reliable information as to the period of time occupied in its deposit. So that you see it is absolutely necessary from these facts, seeing that our record entirely consists of accumulations of mud, superimposed one on the other; seeing in the next place that any particular spots on which accumulations have occurred, have been constantly moving up and down, and sometimes out of the reach of a deposit, and at other times its own deposit broken up and carried away, it follows that our record must be in the highest degree imperfect, and we have hardly a trace left of thick deposits, or any definite knowledge of the area that they occupied, in a great many cases. And mark this! That supposing even that the whole surface of the earth had been accessible to the geologist — that man had had access to every part of the earth, and had made sections of the whole, and put them all together — even then his record must of necessity be imperfect.

But to how much has man really access? If you will look at this Map you will see that it represents the proportion of the sea to the earth: this coloured part indicates all the dry land, and this other portion is the water. You will notice at once that the water covers three-fifths of the whole surface of the globe, and has covered it in the same manner ever since man has kept any record of his own observations, to say nothing of the minute period during which he has cultivated geological inquiry. So that three-fifths of the surface of the earth is shut out from us because it is under the sea. Let us look at the other two-fifths, and see what are the countries in which anything that may be termed searching geological inquiry has been carried out: a good deal of France, Germany, and Great Britain and Ireland, bits of Spain, of Italy, and of Russia, have been examined, but of the whole great mass of Africa, except parts of the southern extremity, we know next to nothing; little bits of India, but of the greater part of the Asiatic continent nothing; bits of the Northern American States and of Canada, but of the greater part of the continent of North America, and in still larger proportion, of South America, nothing!

Under these circumstances, it follows that even with reference to that kind of imperfect information which we can possess, it is only of about the ten-thousandth part of the accessible parts of the earth that has been examined properly. Therefore, it is with justice that the most thoughtful of those who are concerned in these inquiries insist continually upon the imperfection of the geological record; for, I repeat, it is absolutely necessary, from the nature of things, that that record should be of the most fragmentary and imperfect character. Unfortunately this circumstance has been constantly forgotten. Men of science, like young colts in a fresh pasture, are apt to be exhilarated on being turned into a new field of inquiry, to go off at a hand-gallop, in total disregard of hedges and ditches, losing sight of the real limitation of their inquiries, and to forget the extreme imperfection of what is really known. Geologists have imagined that they could tell us what was going on at all parts of the earth’s surface during a given epoch; they have talked of this deposit being contemporaneous with that deposit, until, from our little local histories of the changes at limited spots of the earth’s surface, they have constructed a universal history of the globe as full of wonders and portents as any other story of antiquity.

But what does this attempt to construct a universal history of the globe imply? It implies that we shall not only have a precise knowledge of the events which have occurred at any particular point, but that we shall be able to say what events, at any one spot, took place at the same time with those at other spots.

Let us see how far that is in the nature of things practicable. Suppose that here I make a section of the Lake of Killarney, and here the section of another lake — that of Loch Lomond in Scotland for instance. The rivers that flow into them are constantly carrying down deposits of mud, and beds, or strata, are being as constantly formed, one above the other, at the bottom of those lakes. Now, there is not a shadow of doubt that in these two lakes the lower beds are all older than the upper — there is no doubt about that; but what does ‘this’ tell us about the age of any given bed in Loch Lomond, as compared with that of any given bed in the Lake of Killarney? It is, indeed, obvious that if any two sets of deposits are separated and discontinuous, there is absolutely no means whatever given you by the nature of the deposit of saying whether one is much younger or older than the other; but you may say, as many have said and think, that the case is very much altered if the beds which we are comparing are continuous. Suppose two beds of mud hardened into rock — A and B-are seen in section. (Fig. 5.)

[Fig. 5.]

Well, you say, it is admitted that the lowermost bed is always the older. Very well; B, therefore, is older than A. No doubt, ‘as a whole’, it is so; or if any parts of the two beds which are in the same vertical line are compared, it is so. But suppose you take what seems a very natural step further, and say that the part ‘a’ of the bed A is younger than the part ‘b’ of the bed B. Is this sound reasoning? If you find any record of changes taking place at ‘b’, did they occur before any events which took place while ‘a’ was being deposited? It looks all very plain sailing, indeed, to say that they did; and yet there is no proof of anything of the kind. As the former Director of this Institution, Sir H. De la Beche, long ago showed, this reasoning may involve an entire fallacy. It is extremely possible that ‘a’ may have been deposited ages before ‘b’. It is very easy to understand how that can be. To return to Fig. 4; when A and B were deposited, they were ‘substantially’ contemporaneous; A being simply the finer deposit, and B the coarser of the same detritus or waste of land. Now suppose that that sea-bottom goes down (as shown in Fig. 4), so that the first deposit is carried no farther than ‘a’, forming the bed Al, and the coarse no farther than ‘b’, forming the bed B1, the result will be the formation of two continuous beds, one of fine sediment (A A1) over-lapping another of coarse sediment (B Bl). Now suppose the whole sea-bottom is raised up, and a section exposed about the point Al; no doubt, ‘at this spot’, the upper bed is younger than the lower. But we should obviously greatly err if we concluded that the mass of the upper bed at A was younger than the lower bed at B; for we have just seen that they are contemporaneous deposits. Still more should we be in error if we supposed the upper bed at A to be younger than the continuation of the lower bed at Bl; for A was deposited long before B1. In fine, if, instead of comparing immediately adjacent parts of two beds, one of which lies upon another, we compare distant parts, it is quite possible that the upper may be any number of years older than the under, and the under any number of years younger than the upper.

Now you must not suppose that I put this before you for the purpose of raising a paradoxical difficulty; the fact is, that the great mass of deposits have taken place in sea-bottoms which are gradually sinking, and have been formed under the very conditions I am here supposing.

Do not run away with the notion that this subverts the principle I laid down at first. The error lies in extending a principle which is perfectly applicable to deposits in the same vertical line to deposits which are not in that relation to one another.

It is in consequence of circumstances of this kind, and of others that I might mention to you, that our conclusions on and interpretations of the record are really and strictly only valid so long as we confine ourselves to one vertical section. I do not mean to tell you that there are no qualifying circumstances, so that, even in very considerable areas, we may safely speak of conformably superimposed beds being older or younger than others at many different points. But we can never be quite sure in coming to that conclusion, and especially we cannot he sure if there is any break in their continuity, or any very great distance between the points to be compared.

Well now, so much for the record itself — so much for its imperfections — so much for the conditions to be observed in interpreting it, and its chronological indications, the moment we pass beyond the limits of a vertical linear section.

Now let us pass from the record to that which it contains — from the book itself to the writing and the figures on its pages. This writing and these figures consist of remains of animals and plants which, in the great majority of cases, have lived and died in the very spot in which we now find them, or at least in the immediate vicinity. You must all of you be aware — and I referred to the fact in my last lecture — that there are vast numbers of creatures living at the bottom of the sea. These creatures, like all others, sooner or later die, and their shells and hard parts lie at the bottom; and then the fine mud which is being constantly brought down by rivers and the action of the wear and tear of the sea, covers them over and protects them from any further change or alteration; and, of course, as in process of time the mud becomes hardened and solidified, the shells of these animals are preserved and firmly imbedded in the limestone or sandstone which is being thus formed. You may see in the galleries of the Museum up stairs specimens of limestones in which such fossil remains of existing animals are imbedded. There are some specimens in which turtles’ eggs have been imbedded in calcareous sand, and before the sun had hatched the young turtles, they became covered over with calcareous mud, and thus have been preserved and fossilized.

Not only does this process of imbedding and fossilization occur with marine and other aquatic animals and plants, but it affects those land animals and plants which are drifted away to sea, or become buried in bogs or morasses; and the animals which have been trodden down by their fellows and crushed in the mud at the river’s bank, as the herd have come to drink. In any of these cases, the organisms may be crushed or be mutilated, before or after putrefaction, in such a manner that perhaps only a part will be left in the form in which it reaches us. It is, indeed, a most remarkable fact, that it is quite an exceptional case to find a skeleton of any one of all the thousands of wild land animals that we know are constantly being killed, or dying in the course of nature: they are preyed on and devoured by other animals or die in places where their bodies are not afterwards protected by mud. There are other animals existing in the sea, the shells of which form exceedingly large deposits. You are probably aware that before the attempt was made to lay the Atlantic telegraphic cable, the Government employed vessels in making a series of very careful observations and soundings of the bottom of the Atlantic; and although, as we must all regret, up to the present time that project has not succeeded, we have the satisfaction of knowing that it yielded some most remarkable results to science. The Atlantic Ocean had to be sounded right across, to depths of several miles in some places, and the nature of its bottom was carefully ascertained. Well, now, a space of about 1,000 miles wide from east to west, and I do not exactly know how many from north to south, but at any rate 600 or 700 miles, was carefully examined, and it was found that over the whole of that immense area an excessively fine chalky mud is being deposited; and this deposit is entirely made up of animals whose hard parts are deposited in this part of the ocean, and are doubtless gradually acquiring solidity and becoming metamorphosed into a chalky limestone. Thus, you see, it is quite possible in this way to preserve unmistakable records of animal and vegetable life. Whenever the sea-bottom, by some of those undulations of the earth’s crust that I have referred to, becomes upheaved, and sections or borings are made, or pits are dug, then we become able to examine the contents and constituents of these ancient sea-bottoms, and find out what manner of animals lived at that period.

Now it is a very important consideration in its bearing on the completeness of the record, to inquire how far the remains contained in these fossiliferous limestones are able to convey anything like an accurate or complete account of the animals which were in existence at the time of its formation. Upon that point we can form a very clear judgment, and one in which there is no possible room for any mistake. There are of course a great number of animals — such as jelly-fishes, and other animals — without any hard parts, of which we cannot reasonably expect to find any traces whatever: there is nothing of them to preserve. Within a very short time, you will have noticed, after they are removed from the water, they dry up to a mere nothing; certainly they are not of a nature to leave any very visible traces of their existence on such bodies as chalk or mud. Then again, look at land animals; it is, as I have said, a very uncommon thing to find a land animal entire after death. Insects and other carnivorous animals very speedily pull them to pieces, putrefaction takes place, and so, out of the hundreds of thousands that are known to die every year, it is the rarest thing in the world to see one imbedded in such a way that its remains would be preserved for a lengthened period. Not only is this the case, but even when animal remains have been safely imbedded, certain natural agents may wholly destroy and remove them.

Almost all the hard parts of animals — the bones and so on — are composed chiefly of phosphate of lime and carbonate of lime. Some years ago, I had to make an inquiry into the nature of some very curious fossils sent to me from the North of Scotland. Fossils are usually hard bony structures that have become imbedded in the way I have described, and have gradually acquired the nature and solidity of the body with which they are associated; but in this case I had a series of ‘holes’ in some pieces of rock, and nothing else. Those holes, however, had a certain definite shape about them, and when I got a skilful workman to make castings of the interior of these holes, I found that they were the impressions of the joints of a backbone and of the armour of a great reptile, twelve or more feet long. This great beast had died and got buried in the sand; the sand had gradually hardened over the bones, but remained porous. Water had trickled through it, and that water being probably charged with a superfluity of carbonic acid, had dissolved all the phosphate and carbonate of lime, and the bones themselves had thus decayed and entirely disappeared; but as the sandstone happened to have consolidated by that time, the precise shape of the bones was retained. If that sandstone had remained soft a little longer, we should have known nothing whatsoever of the existence of the reptile whose bones it had encased.

How certain it is that a vast number of animals which have existed at one period on this earth have entirely perished, and left no trace whatever of their forms, may be proved to you by other considerations. There are large tracts of sandstone in various parts of the world, in which nobody has yet found anything but footsteps. Not a bone of any description, but an enormous number of traces of footsteps. There is no question about them. There is a whole valley in Connecticut covered with these footsteps, and not a single fragment of the animals which made them has yet been found. Let me mention another case while upon that matter, which is even more surprising than those to which I have yet referred. There is a limestone formation near Oxford, at a place called Stonesfield, which has yielded the remains of certain very interesting mammalian animals, and up to this time, if I recollect rightly, there have been found seven specimens of its lower jaws, and not a bit of anything else, neither limb-bones nor skull, or any part whatever; not a fragment of the whole system! Of course, it would be preposterous to imagine that the beasts had nothing else but a lower jaw! The probability is, as Dr. Buckland showed, as the result of his observations on dead dogs in the river Thames, that the lower jaw, not being secured by very firm ligaments to the bones of the head, and being a weighty affair, would easily be knocked off, or might drop away from the body as it floated in water in a state of decomposition. The jaw would thus be deposited immediately, while the rest of the body would float and drift away altogether, ultimately reaching the sea, and perhaps becoming destroyed. The jaw becomes covered up and preserved in the river silt, and thus it comes that we have such a curious circumstance as that of the lower jaws in the Stonesfield slates. So that, you see, faulty as these layers of stone in the earth’s crust are, defective as they necessarily are as a record, the account of contemporaneous vital phenomena presented by them is, by the necessity of the case, infinitely more defective and fragmentary.

It was necessary that I should put all this very strongly before you, because, otherwise, you might have been led to think differently of the completeness of our knowledge by the next facts I shall state to you.

The researches of the last three-quarters of a century have, in truth, revealed a wonderful richness of organic life in those rocks. Certainly not fewer than thirty or forty thousand different species of fossils have been discovered. You have no more ground for doubting that these creatures really lived and died at or near the places in which we find them than you have for like scepticism about a shell on the sea-shore. The evidence is as good in the one case as in the other.

Our next business is to look at the general character of these fossil remains, and it is a subject which it will be requisite to consider carefully; and the first point for us is to examine how much the extinct ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’ as a ‘whole’— disregarding altogether the ‘succession’ of their constituents, of which I shall speak afterwards — differ from the ‘Flora’ and ‘Fauna’ of the present day; — how far they differ in what we ‘do’ know about them, leaving altogether out of consideration speculations based upon what we ‘do not’ know.

I strongly imagine that if it were not for the peculiar appearance that fossilised animals have, any of you might readily walk through a museum which contains fossil remains mixed up with those of the present forms of life, and I doubt very much whether your uninstructed eyes would lead you to see any vast or wonderful difference between the two. If you looked closely, you would notice, in the first place, a great many things very like animals with which you are acquainted now: you would see differences of shape and proportion, but on the whole a close similarity.

I explained what I meant by ORDERS the other day, when I described the animal kingdom as being divided in sub-kingdoms, classes and orders. If you divide the animal kingdom into orders, you will find that there are about one hundred and twenty. The number may vary on one side or the other, but this is a fair estimate. That is the sum total of the orders of all the animals which we know now, and which have been known in past times, and left remains behind.

Now, how many of those are absolutely extinct? That is to say, how many of these orders of animals have lived at a former period of the world’s history, but have at present no representatives? That is the sense in which I meant to use the word “extinct.” I mean that those animals did live on this earth at one time, but have left no one of their kind with us at the present moment. So that estimating the number of extinct animals is a sort of way of comparing the past creation as a whole with the present as a whole. Among the mammalia and birds there are none extinct; but when we come to the reptiles there is a most wonderful thing: out of the eight orders, or thereabouts, which you can make among reptiles, one-half are extinct. These diagrams of the plesiosaurus, the ichthyosaurus, the pterodactyle, give you a notion of some of these extinct reptiles. And here is a cast of the pterodactyle and bones of the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaurus, just as fresh as if it had been recently dug up in a churchyard. Thus, in the reptile class, there are no less than half of the orders which are absolutely extinct. If we turn to the ‘Amphibia’, there was one extinct order, the Labyrinthodonts, typified by the large salamander-like beast shown in this diagram.

No order of fishes is known to be extinct. Every fish that we find in the strata — to which I have been referring — can be identified and placed in one of the orders which exist at the present day. There is not known to be a single ordinal form of insect extinct. There are only two orders extinct among the ‘Crustacea’. There is not known to be an extinct order of these creatures, the parasitic and other worms; but there are two, not to say three, absolutely extinct orders of this class, the ‘Echinodermata’; out of all the orders of the ‘Coelenterata’ and ‘Protozoa’ only one, the Rugose Corals.

So that, you see, out of somewhere about 120 orders of animals, taking them altogether, you will not, at the outside estimate, find above ten or a dozen extinct. Summing up all the orders of animals which have left remains behind them, you will not find above ten or a dozen which cannot be arranged with those of the present day; that is to say, that the difference does not amount to much more than ten per cent.: and the proportion of extinct orders of plants is still smaller. I think that that is a very astounding, a most astonishing fact, seeing the enormous epochs of time which have elapsed during the constitution of the surface of the earth as it at present exists; it is, indeed, a most astounding thing that the proportion of extinct ordinal types should be so exceedingly small.

But now, there is another point of view in which we must look at this past creation. Suppose that we were to sink a vertical pit through the floor beneath us, and that I could succeed in making a section right through in the direction of New Zealand, I should find in each of the different beds through which I passed the remains of animals which I should find in that stratum and not in the others. First, I should come upon beds of gravel or drift containing the bones of large animals, such as the elephant, rhinoceros, and cave tiger. Rather curious things to fall across in Piccadilly! If I should dig lower still, I should come upon a bed of what we call the London clay, and in this, as you will see in our galleries upstairs, are found remains of strange cattle, remains of turtles, palms, and large tropical fruits; with shell-fish such as you see the like of now only in tropical regions. If I went below that, I should come upon the chalk, and there I should find something altogether different, the remains of ichthyosauri and pterodactyles, and ammonites, and so forth.

I do not know what Mr. Godwin Austin would say comes next, but probably rocks containing more ammonites, and more ichthyosauri and plesiosauri, with a vast number of other things; and under that I should meet with yet older rocks, containing numbers of strange shells and fishes; and in thus passing from the surface to the lowest depths of the earth’s crust, the forms of animal life and vegetable life which I should meet with in the successive beds would, looking at them broadly, be the more different the further that I went down. Or, in other words, inasmuch as we started with the clear principle, that in a series of naturally-disposed mud beds the lowest are the oldest, we should come to this result, that the further we go back in time the more difference exists between the animal and vegetable life of an epoch and that which now exists. That was the conclusion to which I wished to bring you at the end of this Lecture.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/huxley/thomas_henry/six/essay2.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38