Let us now see whether the several facts and rules relating to the geological succession of organic beings, better accord with the common view of the immutability of species.
New species have appeared very slowly, one after another, both on the land and in the waters. Lyell has shown that it is hardly possible to resist the evidence on this head in the case of the several tertiary stages; and every year tends to fill up the blanks between them, and to make the percentage system of lost and new forms more gradual.
In some of the most recent beds, though undoubtedly of high antiquity if measured by years, only one or two species are lost forms, and only one or two are new forms, having here appeared for the first time, either locally, or, as far as we know, on the face of the earth.
If we may trust the observations of Philippi in Sicily, the successive changes in the marine inhabitants of that island have been many and most gradual. The secondary formations are more broken; but, as Bronn has remarked, neither the appearance nor disappearance of their many now extinct species has been simultaneous in each separate formation.
The Silurian Lingula
Species of different genera and classes have not changed at the same rate, or in the same degree. In the oldest tertiary beds a few living shells may still be found in the midst of a multitude of extinct forms. Falconer has given a striking instance of a similar fact, in an existing crocodile associated with many strange and lost mammals and reptiles in the sub-Himalayan deposits.
The Silurian Lingula differs but little from the living species of this genus; whereas most of the other Silurian Molluscs and all the Crustaceans have changed greatly. The productions of the land seem to change at a quicker rate than those of the sea, of which a striking instance has lately been observed in Switzerland. There is some reason to believe that organisms, considered high in the scale of nature, change more quickly than those that are low: though there are exceptions to this rule. The amount of organic change, as Pictet has remarked, does not strictly correspond with the succession of our geological formations; so that between each two consecutive formations, the forms of life have seldom changed in exactly the same degree.
Yet if we compare any but the most closely related formations, all the species will be found to have undergone some change. When a species has once disappeared from the face of the earth, we have reason to believe that the same identical form never reappears.
The strongest apparent exception to this latter rule, is that of the so-called "colonies" of M. Barrande, which intrude for a period in the midst of an older formation, and then allow the pre-existing fauna to reappear; but Lyell's explanation, namely, that it is a case of temporary migration from a distinct geographical province, seems to me satisfactory.
These several facts accord well with my theory. I believe in no fixed law of development, causing all the inhabitants of a country to change abruptly, or simultaneously, or to an equal degree. The process of modification must be extremely slow. The variability of each species is quite independent of that of all others.
Whether such variability be taken advantage of by natural selection, and whether the variations be accumulated to a greater or lesser amount, thus causing a greater or lesser amount of modification in the varying species, depends on many complex contingencies,—on the variability being of a beneficial nature, on the power of intercrossing, on the rate of breeding, on the slowly changing physical conditions of the country, and more especially on the nature of the other inhabitants with which the varying species comes into competition.
Hence it is by no means surprising that one species should retain the same identical form much longer than others; or, if changing, that it should change less.
We see the same fact in geographical distribution; for instance, in the land-shells and coleopterous insects of Madeira having come to differ considerably from their nearest allies on the continent of Europe, whereas the marine shells and birds have remained unaltered.
We can perhaps understand the apparently quicker rate of change in terrestrial and in more highly organised productions compared with marine and lower productions, by the more complex relations of the higher beings to their organic and inorganic conditions of life, as explained in a former chapter.
When many of the inhabitants of a country have become modified and improved, we can understand, on the principle of competition, and on that of the many all-important relations of organism to organism, that any form which does not become in some degree modified and improved, will be liable to be exterminated.
Hence we can see why all the species in the same region do at last, if we look to wide enough intervals of time, become modified; for those which do not change will become extinct.
In members of the same class the average amount of change, during long and equal periods of time, may, perhaps, be nearly the same; but as the accumulation of long-enduring fossiliferous formations depends on great masses of sediment having been deposited on areas whilst subsiding, our formations have been almost necessarily accumulated at wide and irregularly intermittent intervals; consequently the amount of organic change exhibited by the fossils embedded in consecutive formations is not equal.
Each formation, on this view, does not mark a new and complete act of creation, but only an occasional scene, taken almost at hazard, in a slowly changing drama.