Paleontology

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Paleontology (pronounced /ˌpælɪɒnˈtɒlədʒi/; British: palaeontology) is the study of prehistoric life, including organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). As a "historical science" it tries to explain causes rather than conduct experiments to observe effects. Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BC. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. Fossils found in China since the 1990s have provided new information about the earliest evolution of animals, early fish, dinosaurs and the evolution of birds and mammals. Paleontology lies on the border between biology and geology, and shares with archaeology a border that is difficult to define. It now uses techniques drawn from a wide range of sciences, including biochemistry, mathematics and engineering. As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialized sub-divisions, some of which focus on different types of fossil organisms while others study ecology and environmental history, such as ancient climates.

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  • The abrupt manner in which whole groups of species suddenly appear in certain formations has been urged by several paleontologists . . . as a fatal objection to the belief in the transmutation of species. If numerous species, belonging to the same genera or families, have really started into life at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of evolution through natural selection. For the development by this means of a group of forms, all of which are descended from some one progenitor, must have been an extremely slow process; and the progenitors must have lived long before their modified descendants. But we continually overrate the perfection of the geological record, and falsely infer, because certain genera or families have not been found beneath a certain stage, that they did not exist before that stage. In all cases positive palæontological evidence may be implicitly trusted; negative evidence is worthless, as experience has so often shown. We continually forget how large the world is, compared with the area over which our geological formations have been carefully examined; we forget that groups of species may elsewhere have long existed, and have slowly multiplied, before they invaded the ancient archipelagoes of Europe and the United States. We do not make due allowance for the intervals of time which have elapsed between our consecutive formations,—longer perhaps in many cases than the time required for the accumulation of each formation. These intervals will have given time for the multiplication of species from some one parent-form: and in the succeeding formation, such groups or species will appear as if suddenly created.
    • Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1902 edition, Part Two, pp. 83, 88.
  • There is another and allied difficulty, which is much more serious. I allude to the manner in which species belonging to several of the main divisions of the animal kingdom suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks. . . . The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the [evolutionary] views here entertained.
    • Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1902 edition, Part Two, pp. 91, 92.
  • I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view, the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished, or even disappear.
    • Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1902 edition, Part Two, pp. 94, 296.

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