THE PROCESSION OF LIFE THROUGH THE AGES
The Rock Record
How do we know when the various classes of animals and plants were established on the earth? How do we know the order of their appearance and the succession of their advances? The answer is: by reading the Rock Record. In the course of time the crust of the earth has been elevated into continents and depressed into ocean-troughs, and the surface of the land has been buckled up into mountain ranges and folded in gentler hills and valleys. The high places of the land have been weathered by air and water in many forms, and the results of the weathering have been borne away by rivers and seas, to be laid down again elsewhere as deposits which eventually formed sandstones, mudstones, and similar sedimentary rocks. Much of the material of the original crust has thus been broken down and worked up again many times over, and if the total thickness of the sedimentary rocks is added up it amounts, according to some geologists, to a total of 67 miles. In most cases, however, only a small part of this thickness is to be seen in one place, for the deposits were usually formed in limited areas at any one time.
The Use of Fossils
When the sediments were accumulating age after age, it naturally came about that remains of the plants and animals living at the time were buried, and these formed the fossils by the aid of which it is possible to read the story of the past. By careful piecing together of evidence the geologist is able to determine the order in which the different sedimentary rocks were laid down, and thus to say, for instance, that the Devonian period was the time of the origin of Amphibians. In other case, the geologist utilizes the fossils in his attempt to work out the order of the strata when these have been much disarranged. For the simpler fossil forms of any type must be older than those that are more complex. There is no vicious circle here, for the general succession of strata is clear, and it is quite certain that there were fishes before there were amphibians, and amphibians before there were reptiles, and reptiles before there were birds and mammals. In certain cases, e.g. of fossil horses and elephants, the actual historical succession has been clearly worked out.
If the successive strata contained good samples of all the plants and animals living at the time when the beds were formed, then it would be easy to read the record of the rocks, but many animals were too soft to become satisfactory fossils, many were eaten or dissolved away, many were destroyed by heat and pressure, so that the rock record is like a library very much damaged by fire and looting and decay.
The Geological Time-table
The long history of the earth and its inhabitants is conveniently divided into eras. Thus, just as we speak of the ancient, medieval, and modern history of mankind, so we may speak of Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras in the history of the earth as a whole.
Geologists cannot tell us except in an approximate way how long the process of evolution has taken. One of the methods is to estimate how long has been required for the accumulation of[Pg 90] the salts of the sea, for all these have been dissolved out of the rocks since rain began to fall on the earth. Dividing the total amount of saline matter by what is contributed every year in modern times, we get about a hundred million years as the age of the sea. But as the present rate of salt-accumulation is probably much greater than it was during many of the geological periods, the prodigious age just mentioned is in all likelihood far below the mark. Another method is to calculate how long it would take to form the sedimentary rocks, like sandstones and mudstones, which have a total thickness of over fifty miles, though the local thickness is rarely over a mile. As most of the materials have come from the weathering of the earth's crust, and as the annual amount of weathering now going on can be estimated, the time required for the formation of the sedimentary rocks of the world can be approximately calculated. There are some other ways of trying to tell the earth's age and the length of the successive periods, but no certainty has been reached.
The eras as before the Cambrian correspond to about thirty-two miles of the thickness of strata, and all the subsequent eras with fossil-bearing rocks to a thickness of about twenty-one miles-in itself an astounding fact. Perhaps thirty million years must be allotted to the Pre-Cambrian eras, eighteen to the Paleozoic, nine to the Mesozoic, three to the Cenozoic, making a grand total of sixty million.
The rarity of direct traces of life in the oldest rocks is partly due to the fact that the primitive animals would be of delicate build, but it must also be remembered that the ancient rocks have been profoundly and repeatedly changed by pressure and heat, so that the traces which did exist would be very liable to obliteration. If it be asked what right we have to suppose the presence of living creatures in the absence or extreme rarity of fossils, we must point to great accumulations of limestone which indicate the existence of calcareous algae, and to deposits of iron which probably indicate the activity of iron-forming Bacteria. Ancient beds of graphite similarly suggest that green plants flourished in these ancient days.