Saturday, September 12, 2009


These two types of organisms were the bird and the mammal. Both existed in the Jurassic, and the mammals at least had many representatives in the Triassic. In other words, they existed, with all their higher organisation, during several million years without attaining power.

The mammals remained, during at least 3,000,000 years, a small and obscure caste, immensely overshadowed by the small-brained reptiles. The birds, while making more progress, apparently, thanthe mammals, were far outnumbered by the flying reptiles until the last part of the Mesozoic. Then there was another momentous turn of the wheel of fate, and they emerged from their obscurity to assume the lordship of the globe. 

In earlier years, when some serious hesitation was felt by many to accept the new doctrine of evolution, a grave difficulty was found in the circumstance that new types--not merely new species and new genera, but new orders and even sub-classes--appeared in the geological record quite suddenly. Was it not a singular coincidence that in ALL cases the intermediate organisms between one type and another should have wholly escaped preservation? The difficulty was generally due to an imperfect acquaintance with the conditions of the problem. The fossil population of a period is only that fraction of its living population which happened to be buried in a certain kind of deposit under water of a certain depth. We shall read later of insects being preserved in resin (amber), and we have animals (and even bacteria) preserved in trees from the Coal-forests. Generally speaking, however, the earth has buried only a very minute fraction of its land-population. Moreover, only a fraction of the earth's cemeteries have yet been opened. When we further reflect that the new type of organism, when it first appears, is a small and local group, we see what the chances are of our finding specimens of it in a few scattered pages of a very fragmentary record of the earth's life. We shall see that we have discovered only about ten skeletons or fragments of skeletons of the men who lived on the earth before the Neolithic period; a stretch of some hundreds of thousands of years, recorded in the upper strata of the earth. 

Whatever serious difficulty there ever was in this scantiness of intermediate types is amply met by the fact that every fresh decade of search in the geological tombs brings some to light. We have seen many instances of this-- the seed-bearing ferns and flower-bearing cycads, for example, found in the last decade--and will see others. But one of the most remarkable cases of the kind now claims our attention. The bird was probably evolved in the late Triassic or early Jurassic. It appears in abundance, divided into several genera, in the Chalk period. Luckily, two bird-skeletons have been found in the intermediate period, the Jurassic, and they are of the intermediate type, between the reptile and the bird, which the theory of evolution would suggest. But for the fortunate accident of these two birds being embedded in an ancient Bavarian mud-layer, which happened to be opened, for commercial purposes, in the second half of the nineteenth century, critics of evolution--if there still were any in the world of science--might be repeating to-day that the transition from the reptile to the bird was unthinkable in theory and unproven in fact.

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