Saturday, September 12, 2009


The story of the earth from the beginning of the Cambrian period to the present day was long ago divided by geologists into four great eras. The periods we have already covered--the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian--form the Primary or Palaeozoic Era, to which the earlier Archaean rocks were prefixed as a barren and less interesting introduction. 

The stretch of time on which we now enter, at the close of the Permian, is the Secondary or Mesozoic Era. It will be closed by a fresh upheaval of the earth and disturbance of life-conditions in the Chalk period, and followed by a Tertiary Era, in which the earth will approach its modern aspect. At its close there will be another series of upheavals, culminating in a great Ice-age, and the remaining stretch of the earth's story, in which we live, will form the Quaternary Era.

In point of duration these four eras differ enormously from each other. If the first be conceived as comprising sixteen million years--a very moderate estimate--the second will be found to cover less than eight million years, the third less than three million years, and the fourth, the Age of Man, much less than one million years; while the Archaean Age was probably as long as all these put together. But the division is rather based on certain gaps, or "unconformities," in the geological record; and, although the breaches are now partially filled, we saw that they correspond to certain profound and revolutionary disturbances in the face of the earth. We retain them, therefore, as convenient and logical divisions of the biological as well as the geological chronicle, and, instead of passing from one geological period to another, we may, for the rest of the story, take these three eras as wholes, and devote a few chapters to the chief advances made by living things in each era. The Mesozoic Era will be a protracted reaction between two revolutions: a period of low-lying land, great sea-invasions, and genial climate, between two upheavals ofthe earth. The Tertiary Era will represent a less sharply defined depression, with genial climate and luxuriant life, between two such upheavals.

The Mesozaic ("middle life") Era may very fitly be described as the Middle Ages of life on the earth. It by no means occupies a central position in the chronicle of life from the point of view of time or antiquity, just as the Middle Ages of Europe are by no means the centre of the chronicle of mankind, but its types of animals and plants are singularly transitional between the extinct ancient and the actual modern types. Life has been lifted to a higher level by the Permian revolution. Then, for some millions of years, the sterner process of selection relaxes, the warm bosom of the earth swarms again with a teeming and varied population, and a rich material is provided for the next great application of drastic selective agencies. To a poet it might seem that nature indulges each succeeding and imperfect type of living thing with a golden age before it is dismissed to make place for the higher.

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