And as the course of human history has flowed in an unbroken stream along quiet reaches of slow change and through periods of rapid change and revolution, so with the course of geologic history. Periods of quiescence, in which revolutionary forces are perhaps gathering head, alternate with periods of comparatively rapid change in physical geography and in organisms, when new and higher forms appear which serve to draw the boundary line of new epochs. Nevertheless, geological history is a continuous progress; its periods and epochs shade into one another by imperceptible gradations, and all our subdivisions must needs be vague and more or less arbitrary.
How fossils tell of the geography of the past. Fossils are used not only as a record of the development of life upon the earth, but also in testimony to the physical geography of past epochs. They indicate whether in any region the climate was tropical, temperate, or arctic. Since species spread slowly from some center of dispersion where they originate until some barrier limits their migration farther, the occurrence of the same species in rocks of the same system in different countries implies the absence of such barriers at the period. Thus in the collection of antarctic fossils referred to on page 294 there were shallow-water marine shells identical in species with Mesozoic shells found in India and in the southern extremity of South America. Since such organisms are not distributed by the currents of the deep sea and cannot migrate along its bottom, we infer a shallow-water connection in Mesozoic times between India, South America, and the antarctic region. Such a shallow-water connection would be offered along the marginal shelf of a continent uniting these now widely separated countries.
THE PRE-CAMBRIAN SYSTEMS
The earth’s beginnings. The geological record does not tell us of the beginnings of the earth. The history of the planet, as we have every reason to believe, stretches far back beyond the period of the oldest stratified rocks, and is involved in the history of the solar system and of the nebula,—the cloud of glowing gases or of cosmic dust,—from which the sun and planets are believed to have been derived.
The nebular hypothesis. It is possible that the earth began as a vaporous, shining sphere, formed by the gathering together of the material of a gaseous ring which had been detached from a cooling and shrinking nebula. Such a vaporous sphere would condense to a liquid, fiery globe, whose surface would become cold and solid, while the interior would long remain intensely hot because of the slow conductivity of the crust. Under these conditions the primeval atmosphere of the earth must have contained in vapor the water now belonging to the earth’s crust and surface. It held also all the oxygen since locked up in rocks by their oxidation, and all the carbon dioxide which has since been laid away in limestones, besides that corresponding to the carbon of carbonaceous deposits, such as peat, coal, and petroleum. On this hypothesis the original atmosphere was dense, dark, and noxious, and enormously heavier than the atmosphere at present.