Darwin and Modern Science: Essays in Commemoration of the Centenary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Publication of the Origin of Species

By A. C. Seward | Go to book overview

XI
THE PALAEONTOLOGICAL RECORD

I. ANIMALS

BY W. B. SCOTT.

Professor of Geology in the University of Princeton, U.S.A.

TO no branch of science did the publication of The Origin of Species prove to be a more vivifying and transforming influence than to Palaeontology. This science had suffered, and to some extent, still suffers from its rather anomalous position between geology and biology, each of which makes claim to its territory, and it was held in strict bondage to the Linnean and Cuvierian dogma that species were immutable entities. There is, however, reason to maintain that this strict bondage to a dogma now abandoned, was not without its good side, and served the purpose of keeping the infant science in leading-strings until it was able to walk alone, and preventing a flood of premature generalisations and speculations.

As Zittel has said: "Two directions were from the first apparent in palaeontological research -- a stratigraphical and a biological. Stratigraphers wished from palaeontology mainly confirmation regarding the true order or relative age of zones of rock-deposits in the field. Biologists had, theoretically at least, the more genuine interest in fossil organisms as individual forms of life 1." The geological or stratigraphical direction of the science was given by the work of William Smith, "the father of historical geology," in the closing decade of the eighteenth century. Smith was the first to make a systematic use of fossils in determining the order of succession of the rocks which make up the accessible crust of the earth, and this use has continued, without essential change, to the present day. It is true that the theory of evolution has greatly modified our conceptions concerning the introduction of new species and the manner in which palaeontological data are to be interpreted in terms of stratigraphy, but, broadly speaking, the method remains fundamentally the same as that introduced by Smith.

The biological direction of palaeontology was due to Cuvier and his associates, who first showed that fossils were not merely varieties

____________________
1
Zittel, History of Geology and Palaeontology, p. 363, London, 1901.

-185-

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