Darwin’s Comments on the Geological Record

For Darwin, at the time of writing his ground-breaking study into evolution – “The Origin of Species”, palaeontology and geology were relatively new sciences.  Amongst the educated elite of Great Britain in the Georgian era, there were to our modern minds some very peculiar ideas.  For example, it was widely believed that Europeans were a separate species to those natives of places such as North America and the Pacific.  Women were considered intellectually inferior to men and they were not permitted to hold certain positions in society or to study at certain universities, or indeed enter a number of academic professions.  These ideas persisted into the Victorian era (indeed, some may say that they have persisted for much longer).

It is against this background and a backdrop of a general lack of understanding concerning natural selection and evolution that Darwin attempted to argue his case for a tree of life and an all embracing single theory that could explain the great diversity of life on Earth.

Aware of the difficulties that he would encounter when attempting to convince his readers about the merits of his theory, Darwin, naturally provides extensive evidence in support of his point of view in his book.  However, he also sets out to counter the arguments that he anticipated would be put forward against his hypothesis.  Darwin was aware that his theory centred around the belief that specific forms are distinct from each other but descended from a common ancestor.  Between two specific organisms that share a common ancestor there must have been innumerable transitional links that eventually resulted in the species seen in his day.  He put forward a number of proposals as to why extant transitional forms were extremely rare, the very fact that that subsequent generations would out compete and eradicate their parent generations was one of his main points here.  However, he knew that the lack of transitional extinct forms found in the fossil record would also be used as an argument to counter the thrust of his theory.

Darwin dedicates two of the fourteen chapters in his third edition to explaining why transitional forms are not found in plentiful numbers in the fossil record, some sixty pages in total.  Palaeontology and geology were very much nascent sciences, Darwin comments on the intermittent nature of the geological record and refers to the paucity of the fossil record.  He puts forward a number of points to explain why fossils are so rare and comments on the need for certain geological conditions to be present before fossilisation can occur.  To him the imperfections found in the then known geological record were no barrier to his theory on natural selection.

The “Origin of Species”, or to give this book its full title; “The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, was first published in 1859.  The first complete fossilised skeleton of Archaeopteryx was found in 1861.  A perceived weakness in Darwin’s theory was the lack of intermediate creatures preserved in the fossil record.  If animals and plants had been changing from one form to another over vast amounts of time, the process of evolution, then some evidence should be found in palaeontological collections.  Here was a bird with Dinosaurian features, Darwin had predicted that such forms would be found and this was seen by evolutionists as clear support from the geological record for Darwin’s point of view.

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