Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/August 1879/Geographical Evolution I




IN the quaint preface to his "Navigations and Voyages of the English Nation," Hakluyt calls geography and chronology "the sunne and moone, the right eye and the left of all history." The position thus claimed for geography three hundred years ago by the great English chronicler was not accorded by his successors, and has hardly been admitted even now. The functions of the geographer and the traveler, popularly assumed to be identical, have been supposed to consist in descriptions of foreign countries, their climate, productions, and inhabitants, bristling on the one hand with dry statistics, and relieved on the other by as copious an introduction as may be of stirring adventure and personal anecdote. There has, indeed, been much to justify this popular assumption. It was not until the keynote of its future progress was struck by Karl Ritter, within the present century, that geography advanced beyond the domain of travelers' tales and desultory observation into that of orderly, methodical, scientific progress. This branch of inquiry, however, is now no longer the pursuit of mere numerical statistics, nor the chronicle of marvelous and often questionable adventures by flood and fell. It seeks to present a luminous picture of the earth's surface, its various forms of configuration, its continents, islands, and oceans, its mountains, valleys, and plains, its rivers and lakes, its climates, plants, and animals. It thus endeavors to produce a picture which shall not be one of mere topographical detail. It ever looks for a connection between scattered facts, tries to ascertain the relations which subsist between the different parts of the globe, their reactions on each other and the function of each in the general economy of the whole. Modern geography studies the distribution of vegetable and animal life over the earth's surface, with the action and reaction between it and the surrounding inorganic world. It traces how man, alike unconsciously and knowingly, has changed the face of nature, and how, on the other hand, the conditions of his geographical environment have molded his own progress.

With these broad aims, geography comes frankly for assistance to many different branches of science. It does not, however, claim in any measure to occupy their domain. It brings to the consideration of their problems a central human interest, in which these sciences are sometimes apt to be deficient; for it demands first of all to know how the problems to be solved bear upon the position and history of man and of this marvelously ordered world wherein he finds himself undisputed lord. Geography freely borrows from meteorology, physics, chemistry, geology, zoölogy, and botany; but the debt is not all on one side. Save for the impetus derived from geographical research, many of these sciences would not be in their present advanced condition. They gain in vast augmentation of facts, and may cheerfully lend their aid in correlating these for geographical requirements.

In no respect does modern geography stand out more prominently than in the greater precision and fullness of its work. It has fitted out exploratory expeditions, and in so doing has been careful to see them provided with the instruments and apparatus necessary to enable them to contribute accurate and definite results. It has guided and fostered research, and has been eager to show a generous appreciation of the labors of those by whom our knowledge of the earth has been extended. Human courage and endurance are not less enthusiastically applauded than they once were; but they must be united to no common powers of observation before they will now raise a traveler to the highest rank. When we read a volume of recent travel, while warmly appreciating the spirit of adventure, fertility of resource, presence of mind, and other moral qualities of its author, we instinctively ask ourselves, as we close its pages, What may be the sum of its additions to our knowledge of the earth? From the geographical point of view—and it is to this point alone that these remarks apply—we must rank an explorer according to his success in widening our knowledge and enlarging our views regarding the aspects of nature.

The demands of modern geography are thus becoming every year more exacting. It requires more training in its explorers abroad, more knowledge on the part of its readers at home. The days are drawing to a close when one can gain undying geographical renown by struggling against man and beast, fever and hunger and drought, across some savage and previously unknown region, even though little can be shown as the outcome of the journey. All honor to the pioneers by whom this first exploratory work has been so nobly done! They will be succeeded by a race that will find its laurels more difficult to win—a race from which more will be expected and which will need to make up in the variety, amount, and value of its detail, what it lacks in the freshness of first glimpses into new lands.

With no other science has geography become more intimately connected than with geology, and the connection is assuredly destined to become yet deeper and closer. These two branches of human knowledge are, to use Hakluyt's phrase, "the sunne and moone, the right eye and the left," of all fruitful inquiry into the character and history of the earth's surface. As it is impossible to understand the genius and temperament of a people, its laws and institutions, its manners and customs, its buildings, and its industries, unless we trace back the history of that people, and mark the rise and effect of each varied influence by which its progress has been molded in past generations; so it is clear that our knowledge of the aspect of a continent, its mountains and valleys, rivers and plains, and all its surface features, can not be other than singularly feeble and imperfect, unless we realize what has been the origin of these features. The land has had a history, not less than the human races that inhabit it.

One can hardly consider attentively the future progress of geography without being convinced that, in the wide development yet in store for this branch of human inquiry, one of its main lines of advance must be in the direction of what may be termed geographical evolution. The geographer will no longer be content to take continents and islands, mountain-chains and river valleys, table-lands and plains, as initial or aboriginal outlines of the earth's surface. He will insist on knowing what the geologist can tell him regarding the growth of these outlines. He will try to trace out the gradual evolution of a continent, and may even construct maps to show its successive stages of development. At the same time he will seek for information regarding the history of the plants and animals of the region, and may find much to reward his inquiry as to the early migrations of the fauna and flora, including those even of man himself. Thus his pictures of the living world of to-day, as they become more detailed and accurate, will include more and more distinctly a background of bygone geographical conditions, out of which, by continuous sequence, the present conditions will be shown to have arisen.

I propose this evening to sketch in mere outline the aspects of one side of this evolutional geography. I wish to examine, in the first place, the evidence whereby we establish the fundamental fact that the present surface of any country or continent is not that which it has always worn, and the data by which we may trace backward the origin of the land; and, in the second place, to consider, by way of illustration, some of the more salient features in the gradual growth of the framework of Europe.

The first of these two divisions of the subject deals with general principles, and may be conveniently grouped into two parts: 1. The Materials of the Land. 2. The Building of the Land.

The Materials of the Land.—Without attempting to enter into detailed treatment of this branch of the subject, we may, for the immediate purpose in view, content ourselves with the broad, useful classification of the materials of the land into two great series, (a) Fragmental and (b) Crystalline.

(a.) Fragmental.—A very cursory examination of rocks in almost any part of the world suffices to show that by far the larger portion of them consists of compacted fragmentary materials. Shales, sandstones, and conglomerates in infinite variety of texture and color, are piled above each other to form the foundation of plains and the structure of mountains. Each of these rocks is composed of distinct particles, worn by air, rain, frost, springs, rivers, glaciers, or the sea, from previously existing rocks. They are thus derivative formations, and their source, as well as their mode of origin, can be determined. Their component grains are for the most part rounded, and bear evidence of having been rolled about in water. Thus we easily and rapidly reach a first and fundamental conclusion—that the substance of the main part of the solid land has been originally laid down and assorted under water.

The mere extent of the area covered by these water-formed rocks would of itself suggest that they must have been deposited in the sea. We can not imagine rivers or lakes of magnitude sufficient to have spread over the sites of the present continents. The waters of the ocean, however, may easily be conceived to have rolled at different times over all that is now dry land. But the fragmental rocks contain within themselves proof that they were mainly of marine and not of lacustrine or fluviatile origin. They have preserved in abundance the remains of foraminifera, corals, crinoids, mollusks, annelides, crustaceans, fishes, and other organisms of undoubtedly marine habitat, which must have lived and died in the places where their traces remain still visible.

But not only do these organisms occur scattered through sedimentary rocks; they actually themselves form thick masses of mineral matter. The Carboniferous or Mountain limestone of Central England and Ireland, for example, reaches a thickness of from two thousand to three thousand feet, and covers thousands of square miles of surface. Yet it is almost entirely composed of congregated stems and joints and plates of crinoids, with foraminifera, corals, bryozoans, brachiopods, lamellibranchs, gasteropods, fish-teeth, and other unequivocally marine organisms. It must have been for ages the bottom of a clear sea, over which generation after generation lived and died, until their accumulated remains had gathered into a compact sheet of rock. From the internal evidence of the stratified formations we thus confidently announce a second conclusion—that a great portion of the solid land consists of materials which have been laid down on the floor of the sea.

From these familiar and obvious conclusions we may proceed further to inquire under what conditions these marine formations, so widely spread over the land, were formed. According to a popular belief, shared in perhaps by not a few geologists, land and sea have been continually changing places. It is supposed that while, on the one hand, there is no part of a continent over which sea-waves may not have rolled, so, on the other, there is no lonely abyss of the ocean where a wide continent may not have bloomed. That this notion rests upon a mistaken interpretation of the facts may be shown from an examination—(1) of the rocks of the land, and (2) of the bottom of the ocean.

Among the thickest masses of sedimentary rock those of the ancient palæozoic systems—no features recur more continually than the alternations of different sediments, and the recurrence of surfaces covered with well-preserved ripple-marks, trails and burrows of annelides, polygonal and irregular desiccation-marks, like the cracks at the bottom of a sun-dried, muddy pool. These phenomena unequivocally point to shallow and even littoral waters. They occur from bottom to top of formations which reach a thickness of several thousand feet. They can be interpreted only in one way, viz., that the formations in question began to be laid down in shallow water; that during their formation the area of deposit gradually subsided for thousands of feet; yet that the rate of accumulation of sediment kept pace on the whole with this depression; and hence, that the original shallow-water character of the deposits remained, even after the original sea-bottom had been buried under a vast mass of sedimentary matter. Now, if this explanation be true, even for the enormously thick and comparatively uniform formations of older geological periods, the relatively thin and much more varied formations of later date can offer no difficulty. In short, the more attentively the stratified rocks of the crust of the earth are studied, the more striking becomes the absence of any formations among them which can legitimately be considered those of a deep sea. They have all been deposited in comparatively shallow water.

The same conclusion may be arrived at from a consideration of the circumstances under which the deposition must have taken place. It is evident that the sedimentary rocks of all ages have been derived from the degradation of land. The gravel, sand, and mud, of which they consist, existed previously as part of mountains, hills, or plains. These materials carried down to the sea would arrange themselves there as they do still, the coarser portions nearest the shore, the finer silt and mud farthest from it. From the earliest geological times the great area of deposit has been, as it still is, the marginal belt of sea-floor skirting the land. It is there that nature has always strewed "the dust of continents to be." The decay of old rocks has been unceasingly in progress on the land, and the building up of new rocks has been as unintermittently going on underneath the adjoining sea. The two phenomena are the complementary sides of one process, which belongs to the terrestrial and shallow oceanic parts of the earth's surface and not to the wide and deep ocean-basins.

Recent explorations of the bottom of the deep sea all over the world have brought additional light to this question. No part of the results obtained by the Challenger Expedition has a profounder interest for geologists and geographers than the proof which they furnish that the floor of the ocean-basins has no real analogy among the sedimentary formations which form most of the framework of the land. We now know by actual dredging and inspection that the ordinary sediment washed off the land sinks to the sea-bottom before it reaches the deeper abysses, and that, as a rule, only the finer particles are carried more than a few score of miles from the shore. Instead of such sandy and pebbly material as we find so largely among the sedimentary rocks of the land, wide tracts of the sea-bottom at great depths are covered with various kinds of organic ooze, composed sometimes of minute calcareous foraminifera, sometimes of siliceous radiolaria or diatoms. Over other areas vast sheets of clay extend, derived apparently from the decomposition of volcanic detritus, of which large quantities are floated away from volcanic islands, and much of which may be produced by submarine volcanoes. On the tracts farthest removed from any land the sediment seems to settle scarcely so rapidly as the dust that gathers over the floor of a deserted hall. Mr. Murray, of the Challenger staff, has described how from these remote depths large numbers of sharks' teeth and ear-bones of whales were dredged up. We can not suppose the number of sharks and whales to be much greater in these regions than in others where their relics were found much less plentifully. The explanation of the abundance of their remains was supplied by their varied condition of decay and preservation. Some were comparatively fresh, others had greatly decayed, and were incrusted with or even deeply buried in a deposit of earthy manganese. Yet the same cast of the dredge brought up these different stages of decay from the same surface of the sea-floor. While generation after generation of sea creatures drops its bones to the bottom, now here, now there, so exceedingly feeble is the rate of deposit of sediment, that they lie uncovered, mayhap, for centuries, so that the remains which sink today may lie side by side with the moldered and incrusted bones that found their way to the bottom hundreds of years ago.

Another striking indication of the very slow rate at which sedimentation takes place in these abysses has also been brought to notice by Mr. Murray. Among the clay from the bottom he found numerous minute spherical granules of native iron, which, as he suggests, are almost certainly of meteoric origin—fragments of those falling stars, which, coming to us from planetary space, burst into fragments when they rush into the denser layers of our atmosphere. In tracts where the growth of silt upon the sea-floor is excessively tardy, the fine particles, scattered by the dissipation of these meteorites, may remain in appreciable quantity. In this case, again, it is not needful to suppose that meteorites have disappeared over these ocean-depths more numerously than over other parts of the earth's surface. The iron granules have no doubt been as plentifully showered down elsewhere, though they can not be so readily detected in accumulating sediment. I know no recent discovery in physical geography more calculated to impress deeply the imagination than the testimony of this meteoric iron from the most distant abysses of the ocean. To be told that mud gathers on the floor of these abysses at an extremely slow rate, conveys but a vague notion of the tardiness of the process. But to learn that it gathers so slowly that the very star-dust which falls from outer space forms an appreciable part of it, brings home to us, as hardly anything else could do, the idea of undisturbed and excessively slow accumulation.

From all this evidence we may legitimately conclude that the present land of the globe, though formed in great measure of marine formations, has never lain under the deep sea; but that its site must always have been near land. Even its thick marine limestones are the deposits of comparatively shallow water. Whether or not any trace of aboriginal land may now be discoverable, the characters of the most unequivocally marine formations bear emphatic testimony to this proximity of a terrestrial surface. The present continental ridges have probably always existed in some form, and as a corollary we may infer that the present deep ocean-basins likewise date from the remotest geological antiquity.

(b.) Crystalline.—While the greater part of the framework of the land has been slowly built up of sedimentary materials, it is abundantly varied by the occurrence of crystalline masses, many of which have been injected in a molten condition into rents underground, or have been poured out in lava-streams at the surface.

Without entering at all into geological detail, it will be enough for the present purpose to recognize the characters and origin of two great types of crystalline material which have been called respectively the Igneous and Metamorphic.

1. Igneous.—As the name denotes, igneous rocks have risen from the heated interior of the earth. In a modern volcano, lava ascends the central funnel, and, issuing from the lip of the crater or from lateral fissures, pours down the slopes of the cone in sheets of melted rock. The upper surface of the lava column within the volcano is kept in constant ebullition by the rise of steam through its mass. Every now and then a vast body of steam rushes out with a terrific explosion, scattering the melted lava into impalpable dust, and filling the air with ashes and stones, which descend in showers upon the surrounding country. At the surface, therefore, igneous rocks appear, partly as masses of congealed lava, and partly as more or less consolidated sheets of dust and stones. But beneath the surface there must be a downward prolongation of the lava column, which no doubt sends out veins into the rents of the subterranean rocks. We can suppose that the general aspect of the lava which consolidates at some depth will differ from that which solidifies above-ground.

As a result of the revolutions which the crust of the earth has undergone, the roots of many ancient volcanoes have been laid bare. We have been as it were admitted into the secrets of these subterranean laboratories of nature, and have learned much regarding the mechanism of volcanic action, which we could never have discovered from any modern volcano. Thus, while on the one hand we meet with beds of lava and consolidated volcanic ashes, which were undoubtedly erupted at the surface of the ground in ancient periods, and were subsequently buried deep beneath sedimentary accumulations now removed, on the other hand, we find masses of igneous rock which certainly never came near the surface, but must have been arrested in their ascent from below, while still at a great depth, and have been laid bare to the light after the removal of the pile of rock under which they originally lay.

By noting these and other characters, geologists have learned that, besides the regions of still active volcanoes, there are few large areas of the earth's surface where proofs of former volcanic action or of the protrusion of igneous rocks may not be found. The crust of the earth, crumpled and fissured, has been, so to speak, perforated and cemented together by molten matter driven up from below.

2. Metamorphic.—The sedimentary rocks of the land have undergone many changes since their formation, some of which are still far from being satisfactorily accounted for. One of these changes is expressed by the term Metamorphism, and the rocks which have undergone this process are called Metamorphic. It seems to have taken place under widely different conditions, being sometimes confined to small local tracts, at other times extending across a large portion of a continent. It consists in the rearrangement of the component materials of rocks, and notably in their recrystallization along particular lines or laminæ. It is usually associated with evidence of great pressure; the rocks in which it occurs having been corrugated and crumpled, not only in vast folds, which extend across whole mountains, but even in such minute puckerings as can only be observed with the microscope. It shows itself more particularly among the older geological formations, or those which have been once deeply buried under more recent masses of rock, and have been exposed as the result of the removal of these overlying accumulations. The original characters of the sandstones, shales, grits, conglomerates, and limestones, of which no doubt these metamorphic masses once consisted, have been almost entirely effaced and have given place to that peculiar crystalline laminated or foliated structure so distinctively a result of metamorphism.

An attentive examination of a metamorphic region shows that here and there the alteration and recrystallization have proceeded so far that the rocks graduate into granites and other so-called igneous rocks. A series of specimens may be collected showing unaltered or at least quite recognizable sedimentry rocks at the one end, and thoroughly crystalline igneous rocks at the other. Thus the remarkable fact is brought home to the mind that ordinary sandstones, shales, and other sedimentary materials may in the course of ages be converted by underground changes into crystalline granite. The framework of the land, besides being knit together by masses of igneous rock intruded from below, has been strengthened by the welding and crystallization of its lowest rocks. It is these rocks which rise along the central crests of mountain-chains, where, after the lapse of ages, they have been uncovered and laid bare, to be bleached and shattered by frost and storm.—Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society.

  1. A Lecture delivered at the Evening Meeting, March 24, 1879.