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The Fossil Record & A History of Life on Earth
Part 3 of 5

The French anatomist George Cuvier established as fact the revolutionary idea of extinction. It is said that Cuvier could identify the remains of an organism from just a few bones. Several people were key to ordering fossils chronologically and thus building a history of life on Earth.

The Industrial Revolution helped catalyze our understanding of fossils and the history of life on Earth. Large machines used for digging coal, making railroad beds and canals removed great volumes of earth exposing many rock layers and their fossils. William Smith (1769-1839), a British engineer, was in charge of building the Somerset Canal. Smith came to realize that fossils exhibited a regular pattern in different strata. Thus Smith could recognize a particular rock layer from the combination of fossils present. This observation allowed Smith to predict the locations of different rock layers making him more efficient and successful when surveying for canal construction. Smith was able to map out the succession of fossils found in different rock formations. His geologic maps showed that life forms appear and disappear through time.

At about the same time George Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847), a French naturalist and geologist, were mapping the Paris Basin. In reconstructing the changing sea levels of the Atlantic Ocean Brongnairt and Cuvier showed that fossils had been layed down during alternating fresh and salt-water conditions thus establishing the fact that there existed a succession of fossils in different formations representing different environments.

Cuvier noticed that the more ancient a fossil the less it resembled present day organisms. In ordering fossils chronologically Cuvier, like Smith, was constructing a history of life on Earth using geologic strata. Thus began the science of
biostratigraphy. Cuvier was opposed to early theories of evolution and viewed faunal succession as evidence for a cycle of creation and extinction known as the Theory of Catastrophism. Cuvier's vital contributions to our understanding of geologic time are ironic. As Michael Benton (2001), an English paleontologist, points out Cuvier was unable to "...make two vital connections: between extinction and evolution, and between geological change and time (p. 99)."

James Hutton (1726-1797) a Scottish geologist, and later Charles Lyell (1797-1875), another Scottish geologist, reasoned that current geological processes are the same as those that have shaped the Earth in the past, a concept called uniformatarianism. Uniformatarianism firmly took supernatural explanations out of geology. The idea that fossils show change through time was well accepted by the 1840’s.

One of the chief legacies of these 19th century efforts is the geological time scale. The present day scale or column divides geologic time into intervals separated from each other by changes in rock type and abrupt changes in fossil groups. Stephen J. Gould (1941-2002), an American evolutionary biologist, believed the geologic time table to be one of the greatest contributions to human understanding (2001).

"The establishment of a time scale, and the working out of a consistent and worldwide sequence of changes in fossils through the stratigraphic record, represents the major triumph of the developing science of geology during the first half of the nineteenth centruy....By 1850, geology had developed a coherent global chronology based on life's history. This discovery and construction of history itself must rank as the greatest contribution ever made--indeed, I would argue, ever makable--by geology to human understanding. (p.15)."

Continue to Part 4

Bibliography for Echoes of Life Through Time

Benton, M. (2001). Four Feet on the Ground. In Gould, S. [Ed]. The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth (pp. 79-126). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Gould, S. (2001). Reconstructing (and Deconstructing) the Past. In Gould, S. [Ed]. The Book of Life: An Illustrated History of the Evolution of Life on Earth (pp. 6-21). New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Jenkins-Jones, S., Random House Webster's Dictionary of Scientists. New York: Random House, 1997.

Jones, S., Darwin's Ghost: The Origin of Species Updated. New York: Random House, 2000.

Kirk, G.S. & Raven, J.E., The Presocaratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Seclection of Texts. Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Miller, K.R., Finding Darwin's God: A Scientist's Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Milner, R., The Encyclopedia of Evolution: Humanity's Search for Its Origins. New York: Facts on File, 1990.

Palmer, D., Atlas of the Prehistoric World. New York: Random House, 1999.

Prothero, D.R., Brining Fossils to Life: An Introduction to Paleobiology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Stanley, S.M., Extinction. New York: Scientific American Books, 1987.

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