Popular Science Monthly/Volume 23/October 1883/Some Unsolved Problems in Geology I


By Dr. J. W. DAWSON.

MY predecessor in office remarked, in the opening of his address, that two courses are open to the retiring president of this Association in preparing the annual presidential discourse—he may either take up some topic relating to his own specialty, or he may deal with various or general matters relating to science and its progress. A geologist, however, is not necessarily tied up to one or the other alternative. His subject covers the whole history of the earth in time. At the beginning it allies itself with astronomy and physics and celestial chemistry. At the end it runs into human history, and is mixed up with archæology and anthropology. Throughout its whole course it has to deal with questions of meteorology, geography, and biology. In short, there is no department of physical or biological science with which geology is not allied, or at least on which the geologist may not presume to trespass. When, therefore, I announce as my subject on the present occasion some of the unsolved problems of this universal science, you need not be surprised if I should be somewhat discursive. Perhaps I shall begin at the utmost limits of my subject by remarking that in matters of natural and physical science we are met at the outset with the scarcely solved question as to our own place in the nature which we study, and the bearing of this on the difficulties we encounter. The organism of man is decidedly a part of nature. We place ourselves, in this aspect, in the sub-kingdom vertebrata, and class mammalia, and recognize the fact that man is the terminal link in a chain of being, extending throughout geological time. But the organism is not all of man; and, when we regard man as a scientific animal, we raise a new question. If the human mind is a part of nature, then it is subject to natural law; and nature includes mind as well as matter. On the other hand, without being absolute idealists, we may hold that mind is more potent than matter, and nearer to the real essence of things. Our science is in any case necessarily dualistic, being the product of the reaction of mind on nature, and must be largely subjective and anthropomorphic. Hence, no doubt, arise much of the controversy of science and much of the unsolved difficulty. We recognize this when we divide science into that which is experimental, or depends on apparatus, and that which is observational and classificatory—distinctions, these, which relate not so much to the objects of science as to our methods of pursuing them. This view also opens up to us the thought that the domain of science is practically boundless; for who can set limits to the action of mind on the universe, or of the universe on mind? It follows that science must be limited on all sides by unsolved mysteries; and it will not serve any good purpose to meet these with clever guesses. If we so treat the enigmas of the sphinx Nature, we shall surely be devoured. Nor, on the other hand, must we collapse into absolute despair, and resign ourselves to the confession of inevitable ignorance. It becomes us, rather, boldly to confront the unsolved questions of Nature, and to wrestle with their difficulties till we master such as we can, and cheerfully leave those we can not overcome to be grappled with by our successors.

Fortunately, as a geologist, I do not need to invite your attention to those transcendental questions which relate to the ultimate constitution of matter, the nature of the ethereal medium filling space, the absolute difference or identity of chemical elements, the cause of gravitation, the conservation and dissipation of energy, the nature of life, or the primary origin of bioplasmic matter. I may take the much more humble rôle of an inquirer into the unsolved or partially solved problems which meet us in considering that short and imperfect record which geology studies in the rocky layers of the earth's crust, and which leads no further back than to the time when a solid rind had already formed on the earth and was already covered with an ocean. This record of geology covers but a small part of the history of the earth and of the system to which it belongs, nor does it enter at all into the more recondite problems involved; still it forms, I believe, some necessary preparation, at least, to the comprehension of these.

What do we know of the oldest and most primitive rocks? At this moment the question may be answered in many and discordant ways; yet the leading elements of the answer may be given very simply. The oldest rock formation known to geologists is the lower Laurentian, the fundamental gneiss, the Lewisian formation of Scotland, the Ottawa gneiss of Canada. This formation of enormous thickness corresponds to what the older geologists called the fundamental granite—a name not to be scouted, for gneiss is only a stratified granite. Perhaps the main fact in relation to this old rock is that it is a gneiss; that is, a rock at once bedded and crystalline, and having for its dominant ingredient the mineral orthoclase—a compound of silica, alumina, and potash—in which are imbedded, as in a paste, grains and crystals of quartz and hornblende. We know very well, from its texture and composition, that it can not be a product of mere heat; and, being a bedded rock, we infer that it was laid down layer by layer, in the manner of aqueous deposits. On the other hand, its chemical composition is quite different from that of the muds, sands, and gravels usually deposited from water. Their special characters are caused by the fact that they have resulted from the slow decay of rocks like these gneisses, under the operation of carbonic acid and water, whereby the alkaline matter and the more soluble part of the silica have been washed away, leaving a residue mainly silicious and aluminous. Such more modern rocks tell of dry land subjected to atmospheric decay and rain-wash. If they have any direct relation to the old gneisses, they are their grandchildren, not their parents. On the contrary, the oldest gneisses show no pebbles, or sand, or limestone—nothing to indicate that there was then any land undergoing atmospheric waste, or shores with sand and gravel. For all that we know to the contrary, these old gneisses may have been deposited in a shoreless sea, holding in solution or suspension merely what it could derive from a submerged crust recently cooled from a state of fusion, still thin, and exuding here and there through its fissures heated waters and volcanic products.

It is scarcely necessary to say that I have no confidence in the supposition of unlike composition of the earth's mass on different sides, on which Dana has partly based his theory of the origin of continents. The most probable conception seems to be that of Lyell; namely, a molten mass, uniform except in so far as denser material might exist toward its center, and a crust at first approximately even and homogeneous, and subsequently thrown into great bendings upward and downward. This question has recently been ably discussed by Mr. Crosby in the London "Geological Magazine."[2]

In short, the fundamental gneiss of the lower Laurentian may have been the first rock ever formed; and in any case it is a rock formed under conditions which have not since recurred, except locally. It constitutes the first and best example of these chemico-physical, aqueous or aqueo-igneous rocks, so characteristic of the earliest period of the earth's history. Viewed in this way, the lower Laurentian gneiss is probably the oldest kind of rock we shall ever know—the limit to our backward progress, beyond which there remains nothing to the geologist except physical hypotheses respecting a cooling, incandescent globe. For the chemical conditions of these primitive rocks, and what is known as to their probable origin, I must refer you to my friend Dr. Sterry Hunt, to whom we owe so much of what is known of the older crystalline rocks,[3] as well as of their literature and the questions which they raise. My purpose here is to sketch the remarkable difference which we meet as we ascend into the middle and upper Laurentian.

In the next succeeding formation, the true lower Laurentian of Logan, the Grenville series of Canada, we meet with a great and significant change. It is true we have still a predominance of gneisses which may have been formed in the same manner with those below them; but we find these now associated with great beds of limestone and dolomite, which must have been formed by the separation of calcium and magnesium carbonates from the sea-water, either by chemical precipitation or by the agency of living beings. We have also quartzite, quartzose gneisses, and even pebble-beds, which inform us of sand-banks and shores. Nay, more, we have beds containing graphite which must be the residue of plants, and iron-ores which tell of the deoxidation of iron oxide by organic matters. In short, here we have evidence of new factors in world-building—of land and ocean, of atmospheric decay of rocks, of deoxidizing processes carried on by vegetable life on the land and in the waters, of limestone-building in the sea. To afford material for such rocks, the old Ottawa gneiss must have been lifted up into continents and mountain-masses. Under the slow but sure action of the carbonic dioxide dissolved in rain-water, its feldspar had crumbled down in the course of ages. Its potash, soda, lime, magnesia, and part of its silica, had been washed into the sea, there to enter into new combinations and to form new deposits. The crumbling residue of fine clay and sand had been also washed down into the borders of the ocean, and had been there deposited in beds.[4] Thus the earth had entered into a new phase, which continues onward through the geological ages; and I place in your hands one key for unlocking the mystery of the world when I affirm that this great change took place, this new era was inaugurated, in the midst of the Laurentian period.

Was not this time a fit period for the first appearance of life? Should we not expect it to appear, independently of the evidence we have of the fact? I do not propose to enter here into that evidence, more especially in the case of the one well-characterized Laurentian fossil, Eozoön Canadense. I have already amply illustrated it elsewhere. I would merely say here, that we should bear in mind that in this latter half of the lower Laurentian, or, if we so choose to style it, middle Laurentian period, we have the conditions required for life in the sea and on the land; and, since in other periods we know that life was always present when its conditions were present, it is not unreasonable to look for the first traces of life in this formation, in which we find for the first time the completion of those physical arrangements which make life, in such forms of it as exist on our planet, possible.

This is also a proper place to say something of the doctrine of what is termed "metamorphism." The Laurentian rocks are undoubtedly greatly changed from their original state, more especially in the matters of crystallization and the formation of disseminated minerals by the action of heat and heated water. Sandstones have thus passed into quartzites, clays into slates and schists, limestones into marbles. So far metamorphism is not a doubtful question; but, when theories of metamorphism go so far as to suppose an actual change of one element for another, they go beyond the bounds of chemical credibility: yet such theories of metamorphism are often boldly advanced and made the basis of important conclusions. Dr. Hunt has happily given the name "metasomatosis" to this imaginary and impossible kind of metamorphism, which may be regarded as an extreme kind of evolution, akin to some of those forms of that theory employed with reference to life, but more easily detected and exposed. I would have it to be understood that, in speaking of the metamorphism of the older crystalline rocks, it is not to this metasomatosis that I refer, and that I hold that rocks which have been produced out of the materials decomposed by atmospheric erosion can never, by any process of metamorphism, be restored to the precise condition of the Laurentian rocks. Thus there is in the older formations a genealogy of rocks which, in the absence of fossils, may be used with some confidence, but which does not apply to the more modern deposits. Still, nothing in geology absolutely perishes or is altogether discontinued; and it is probable that, down to the present day, the causes which produced the old Laurentian gneiss may still operate in limited localities. Then, however, they were general, not exceptional. It is further to be observed that the term "gneiss" is sometimes of wide and even loose application. Besides the typical orthoclase and hornblendic gneiss of the Laurentian, there are micaceous, quartzose, garnetiferous, and many other kinds of gneiss; and even gneissose rocks, which hold labradorite or anorthite instead of orthoclase, are sometimes, though not accurately, included in the term.

The Grenville series, or middle Laurentian, is succeeded by what Logan in Canada called the upper Laurentian, and which other geologists have called the Norite or Norian series. Here we still have our old friends the gneisses, but somewhat peculiar in type; and associated with them are great beds rich in lime-feldspar the—so-called labradorite and anorthite rocks. The precise origin of these is uncertain, but this much seems clear, namely, that they originated in circumstances in which the great limestones deposited in the lower or middle Laurentian were beginning to be employed in the manufacture, probably by aqueo-igneous agencies, of lime-feldspars. This proves the Norian rocks to be much younger than the Laurentian, and that, as Logan supposed, considerable earth-movements had occurred between the two, implying lapse of time.

Next we have the Huronian of Logan—a series much less crystalline and more fragmentary, and affording more evidence of land elevation and atmospheric and aqueous erosion, than any of the others. It has great conglomerates, some of them made up of rounded pebbles of Laurentian rocks, and others of quartz-pebbles, which must have been the remains of rocks subjected to very perfect erosion. The pure quartz-rocks tell the same tale, while limestones and slates speak also of chemical separation of the materials of older rocks. The Huronian evidently tells of movements in the previous Laurentian, and changes in its texture so great that the former may be regarded as a comparatively modern rock, though vastly older than any part of the palæozoic series.

Still later than the Huronian is the great micaceous series called by Hunt the Mont Alban or White Mountain group, and the Taconian or lower Taconic of Emmons, which recalls in some measure the conditions of the Huronian. The precise relations of these to the later formations, and to certain doubtful deposits around Lake Superior, can scarcely be said to be settled, though it would seem that they are all older than the fossiliferous Cambrian rocks which practically constitute the base of the palæozoic. I have, I may say, satisfied myself, in regions which I have studied, of the existence and order of these rocks as successive formations, though I would not dogmatize as to the precise relations of those last mentioned, or as to the precise age of some disputed formations which may either be of the age of the older eozoic formations, or may be peculiar kinds of palæozoic rocks modified by metamorphism. Probably neither of the extreme views now agitated is absolutely correct.

After what has been said, you will perhaps not be astonished that a great geological battle rages over the old crystalline rocks. By some geologists they are almost entirely explained away, or referred to igneous action or to the alteration of ordinary sediments. Under the treatment of another school, they grow to great series of pre-Cambrian rocks, constituting vast systems of formations, distinguishable from each other, not by fossils, but by differences of mineral character. I have already indicated the manner in which I believe the dispute will ultimately be settled, and the President of the Geological Section will treat it more fully in his opening address.

After the solitary appearance of Eozoön in the Laurentian, and of a few uncertain forms in the Huronian and Taconian, we find ourselves in the Cambrian, in the presence of a nearly complete invertebrate fauna of protozoa, polyps, echinoderms, mollusks, and Crustacea; and this not confined to one locality merely, but apparently extended simultaneously throughout the ocean. This sudden incoming of animal life, along with the subsequent introduction of successive groups of invertebrates, and finally of vertebrate animals, furnishes one of the greatest of the unsolved problems of geology, which geologists were wont to settle by the supposition of successive creations. In an address delived at the Detroit meeting of the Association in 1875, I endeavored to set forth the facts as to this succession, and the general principles involved in it, and to show the insufficiency of the theories of evolution suggested by biologists to give any substantial aid to the geologist in these questions. In looking again at the points there set forth, I find they have not been invalidated by subsequent discoveries, and that we are still nearly in the same position with respect to these great questions that we were in at that time—a singular proof of the impotency of that deductive method of reasoning which has become fashionable among naturalists of late. Yet the discussions of recent years have thrown some additional light on these matters; and none more so than the mild disclaimers with which my friend Dr. Asa Gray and other moderate and scientific evolutionists have met the extreme views of such men as Romanes, Haeckel, Lubbock, and Grant Allen. It may be useful to note some of these as shedding a little light on this dark corner of our unsolved problems.

It has been urged, on the side of rational evolution, that this hypothesis does not profess to give an explanation of the absolute origin of life on our planet, or even of the original organization of a single cell or of a simple mass of protoplasm, living or dead. All experimental attempts to produce by synthesis the complex albuminous substances, or to obtain the living from the non-living, have so far been fruitless; and, indeed, we can not imagine any process by which such changes could be effected. That they have been effected we know; but the process employed by their Maker is still as mysterious to us as it probably was to him who wrote the words, "And God said, Let the waters swarm with swarmers." How vast is the gap in our knowledge and our practical power implied in this admission, which must, however, be made by every mind not absolutely blinded by a superstitious belief in those forms of words which too often pass current as philosophy!

But if we are content to start with a number of organisms ready made—a somewhat humiliating start, however—we still have to ask, How do these vary so as to give new species? It is a singular illusion in this matter, of men who profess to be believers in natural law, that variation may be boundless, aimless, and fortuitous, and that it is by spontaneous selection from varieties thus produced that development arises. But surely the supposition of mere chance and magic is unworthy of science. Varieties must have causes, and their causes and their effects must be regulated by some law or laws. Now, it is easy to see that they can not be caused by a mere innate tendency in the organism itself. Every organism is so nicely equilibrated, that it has no such spontaneous tendency, except within the limits set by its growth and the law of its periodical changes. There may, however, be equilibrium more or less stable. I believe all attempts hitherto made have failed to account for the fixity of certain, nay, of very many, types throughout geological time; but the mere consideration that one may be in a more stable state of equilibrium than another so far explains it. A rocking stone has no more spontaneous tendency to move than an ordinary bowlder, but it may be made to move with a touch. So it probably is with organisms. But, if so, then the causes of variation are external, as in many cases we actually know them to be; and they must depend on instability or change in surroundings, and this so arranged as not to be too extreme in amount, and to operate in some determinate direction. Observe how remarkable the unity of the adjustments involved in such a supposition. How superior they must be to our rude and always more or less unsuccessful attempts to produce and carry forward varieties and races in definite directions! This can not be chance. If it exists, it must depend on plans deeply laid in the nature of things, else it would be most monstrous magic and causeless miracle. Still more certain is this conclusion when we consider the vast and orderly succession made known to us by geology, and which must have been regulated by fixed laws, only a few of which are as yet known to us.

Beyond these general considerations, we have others of a more special character, based on paleontological facts, which show how imperfect are our attempts, as yet, to reach the true causes of the introduction of genera and species.

One is the remarkable fixity of the leading types of living beings in geological time. If, instead of framing, like Haeckel, fanciful phylogenies, we take the trouble, with Barrande and Gaudry, to trace the forms of life through the period of their existence, each along its own line, we shall be greatly struck with this, and especially with the continuous existence of many low types of life through vicissitudes of physical conditions of the most stupendous character, and over a lapse of time scarcely conceivable. What is still more remarkable is, that this holds in groups which, within certain limits, are perhaps the most variable of all. In the present world no creatures are individually more variable than the protozoa; as, for example, the foraminifera and the sponges. Yet these groups are fundamentally the same, from the beginning of the palæozoic until now; and modern species seem scarcely at all to differ from specimens procured from rocks at least half-way back to the beginning of our geological record. If we suppose that the present sponges and foraminifera are the descendants of those of the Silurian period, we can affirm that, in all that vast lapse of time, they have, on the whole, made little greater change than that which may be observed in variable forms at present. The same remark applies to other low animal forms. In forms somewhat higher and less variable, this is equally noteworthy. The pattern of the venation of the wings of cockroaches and the structure and form of land snails, gaily-worms, and decapod crustaceans were all settled in the carboniferous age in a way that still remains. So were the foliage and the fructification of club-mosses and ferns. If at any time members of these groups branched off, so as to lay the foundation of new species, this must have been a very rare and exceptional occurrence, and one demanding even some suspension of the ordinary laws of nature.

Certain recent utterances of eminent scientific men in England and France are most instructive with reference to the difficulties which encompass this subject. Huxley, at present the leader of English evolutionists, in his "Rede Lecture"[5] delivered at Cambridge, England, holds that there only two "possible alternative hypotheses" as to the origin of species: 1. That of "construction," or the mechanical putting together of the materials and parts of each new species separately; and, 2. That of "evolution," or that one form of life "proceeded from another" by the "establishment of small successive differences." After comparing these modes, much to the disadvantage of the first, he concludes with the statement that "this was his case for evolution, which he rested wholly on arguments of the kind he had adduced"; these arguments being the threadbare false analogy of ordinary reproduction and the transformation of species, and the mere succession of forms more or less similar in geological time, neither of them having any bearing whatever on the origin of any species or on the cause of the observed succession. With reference to the two alternatives, while it is true that no certain evidence has yet been obtained—either by experiment, observation, or sound induction—as to the mode of origin of any species, enough is known to show that there are numerous possible methods, grouped usually under the heads of absolute creation, mediate creation, critical evolution, and gradual evolution. It is also true that almost the only thing we certainly know in the matter is, that the differences characteristic of classes, orders, genera, and species, must have arisen, not in one or two, but in many ways. An instructive commentary on the capacity of our age to deal with these great questions is afforded by the fact that this little piece of clever mental gymnastic should have been practiced in a university lecture and in presence of an educated audience. It is also deserving of notice that, though the lecturer takes the development of the Nautili and their allies as his principal illustration, he evidently attaches no weight to the argument in the opposite sense deduced by Barrande—the man of all others most profoundly acquainted with these animals—from the palæozoic cephalopods.

Another example is afforded by a lecture recently delivered at the Royal Institution in London by Professor Flower.[6] The subject is, "The Whales, Past and Present, and their Probable Origin." The latter point, as is well known, Gaudry has candidly given up. "We have questioned," he says, "these strange and gigantic sovereigns of the tertiary oceans as to their ancestors—they leave us without reply." Flower is bold enough to face this problem; and he does so in a fair and vigorous way, though limiting himself to the supposition of slow and gradual change. He gives up at once, as every anatomist must, the idea of an origin from fishes or reptiles. He thinks the ancestors of the whales must have been quadrupedal mammals. He is obliged, for good reasons, to reject the seals and the otters, and turns to the ungulates, though here, also, the difficulties are formidable. Finally he has recourse to an imaginary ancestor, supposed to have haunted marshes and rivers of the mesozoic age and to have been intermediate between a hippopotamus and a dolphin, and omnivorous in diet. As this animal is altogether unknown to geology or zoölogy, and not much less difficult to account for than the whales themselves, he very properly adds, "Please to recollect, however, that this is a mere speculation." He trusts, however, that such speculations are "not without their use"; but this will depend upon whether or not they lead men's minds from the path of legitimate science into the quicksands of baseless conjecture.

Gaudry, in his recent work, "Enchainements du Monde Animal,"[7] though a strong advocate of evolution, is obliged in his final résumé to say: "Il ne laisse point percer le mystère qui entoure le developpement primitif des grandes classes du monde animal. Nul homme ne sait comment ont été formés les premiers individus de foraminifères, de polypes, d'etoiles de mer, de crinoides, etc. Les fossiles primaires ne nous ont pas encore fourni de preuves positives du passage des animaux d'une classe à ceux d'une autre classe."

Professor Williamson, of Manchester, in an address delivered in February last before the Royal Institution of Great Britain, after showing that the conifers, ferns, and lycopods of the palæozoic have no known ancestry, uses the significant words, "The time has not yet arrived for the appointment of a botanical king-at-arms and constructor of pedigrees."

Another caution which a paleontologist has occasion to give with regard to theories of life has reference to the tendency of biologists to infer that animals and plants were introduced under embryonic forms, and at first in few and imperfect species. Facts do not substantiate this. The first appearance of leading types of life is rarely embryonic. On the contrary, they often appear in highly perfect and specialized forms; often, however, of composite type, and expressing characters afterward so separated as to belong to higher groups. The trilobites of the Cambrian are some of them of few segments, and, so far, embryonic; but the greater part are many-segmented and very complex. The batrachians of the carboniferous present many characters higher than those of their modern successors, and now appropriated to the true reptiles. The reptiles of the Permian and trias usurped some of the prerogatives of the mammals. The ferns, lycopods, and equisetums of the Devonian and carboniferous were, to say the least, not inferior to their modern representatives. The shell-bearing cephalopods] of the palæozoic would seem to have possessed structures now special to a higher group, that of the cuttle-fishes. The bald and contemptuous negation of these facts by Haeckel and other biologists does not tend to give geologists much confidence in their dicta.

  1. Address of the President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, delivered at Minneapolis, August 15, 1883. Reprinted from "Science."
  2. June, 1883.
  3. Hunt, "Essays on Chemical Geology."
  4. Dr. Hunt has now in preparation for the press an important paper on this subject, read before the National Academy of Sciences.
  5. Report in "Nature," June 21st, corrected by the author.
  6. Reported in "Nature."
  7. Paris, 1883.