Competitive Exams: The Beginning of Life

There is, perhaps, no other chapter in the chronicle of the earth that we approach with so lively an interest as the chapter which should record the first appearance of life. Unfortunately, as far as the authentic memorials of the past go, no other chapter is so impenetrably obscure as this. The reason is simple. It is a familiar saying that life has written its own record, the long-drawn record of its dynasties and its deaths, in the rocks. But there were millions of years during which life had not yet learned to write its record, and further millions of years the record of which has been irremediably destroyed. The first volume of the geological chronicle of the earth is the mass of the Archaean (or “primitive” ) rocks. What the actual magnitude of that volume, and the span of time it covers, may be, no geologist can say. The Archaean rocks still solidly underlie the lowest depth he has ever reached. It is computed, however, that these rocks, as far as they are known to us, have a total depth of nearly ten miles, and seem therefore to represent at least half the story of the earth from the time when it rounded into a globe, or cooled sufficiently to endure the presence of oceans.

Yet all that we read of the earth's story during those many millions of years could be told in a page or two. That section of geology is still in its infancy, it is true. A day may come when science will decipher a long and instructive narrative in the masses of quartz and gneiss, and the layers of various kinds, which it calls the Archaean rocks. But we may say with confidence that it will not discover in them more than a few stray syllables of the earlier part, and none whatever of the earliest part, of the epic of living nature. A few fossilised remains of somewhat advanced organisms, such as shell-fish and worms, are found in the higher and later rocks of the series, and more of the same comparatively high types will probably appear. In the earlier strata, representing an earlier stage of life, we find only thick seams of black shale, limestone, and ironstone, in which we seem to see the ashes of primitive organisms, cremated in the appalling fires of the volcanic age, or crushed out of recognition by the superimposed masses. Even if some wizardry of science were ever to restore the forms that have been reduced to ashes in this Archaean crematorium, it would be found that they are more or less advanced forms, far above the original level of life. No trace will ever be found in the rocks of the first few million years in the calendar of life.

The word impossible or unknowable is not lightly uttered in science to-day, but there is a very plain reason for admitting it here. The earliest living things were at least as primitive of nature as the lowest animals and plants we know to-day, and these, up to a fair level of organisation, are so soft of texture that, when they die, they leave no remains which may one day be turned into fossils. Some of them, indeed, form tiny shells of flint or lime, or, like the corals, make for themselves a solid bed; but this is a relatively late and higher stage of development. Many thousands of species of animals and plants lie below that level. We are therefore forced to conclude, from the aspect of living nature to-day, that for ages the early organisms had no hard and preservable parts. In thus declaring the impotence of geology, however, we are at the same time introducing another science, biology, which can throw appreciable light on the evolution of life. Let us first see what geology tells us about the infancy of the earth.

Distribution of Early Rocks

The distribution of the early rocks suggests that there was comparatively little dry land showing above the surface of the Archaean ocean. Our knowledge of these rocks is not at all complete, and we must remember that some of this primitive land may be now under the sea or buried in unsuspected regions. It is significant, however, that, up to the present, exploration seems to show that in those remote ages only about one-fifth of our actual land-surface stood above the level of the waters. Apart from a patch of some 20, 000 square miles of what is now Australia, and smaller patches in Tasmania, New Zealand, and India, nearly the whole of this land was in the far North. A considerable area of eastern Canada had emerged, with lesser islands standing out to the west and south of North America. Another large area lay round the basin of the Baltic; and as Greenland, the Hebrides, and the extreme tip of Scotland, belong to the same age, it is believed that a continent, of which they are fragments, united America and Europe across the North Atlantic. Of the rest of what is now Europe there were merely large islands--one on the border of England and Wales, others in France, Spain, and Southern Germany. Asia was represented by a large area in China and Siberia, and an island or islands on the site of India. Very little of Africa or South America existed.

It will be seen at a glance that the physical story of the earth from that time is a record of the emergence from the waters of larger continents and the formation of lofty chains of mountains. Now this world-old battle of land and sea has been waged with varying fortune from age to age, and it has been one of the most important factors in the development of life. We are just beginning to realise what a wonderful light it throws on the upward advance of animals and plants. No one in the scientific world to-day questions that, however imperfect the record may be, there has been a continuous development of life from the lowest level to the highest. But why there was advance at all, why the primitive microbe climbs the scale of being, during millions of years, until it reaches the stature of humanity, seems to many a profound mystery. The solution of this mystery begins to break upon us when we contemplate, in the geological record, the prolonged series of changes in the face of the earth itself, and try to realise how these changes must have impelled living things to fresh and higher adaptations to their changing surroundings.

Imagine some early continent with its population of animals and plants. Each bay, estuary, river, and lake, each forest and marsh and solid plain, has its distinctive inhabitants. Imagine this continent slowly sinking into the sea, until the advancing arms of the salt water meet across it, mingling their diverse populations in a common world, making the fresh-water lake brackish or salt, turning the dry land into swamp, and flooding the forest. Or suppose, on the other hand, that the land rises, the marsh is drained, the genial climate succeeded by an icy cold, the luscious vegetation destroyed, the whole animal population compelled to change its habits and its food. But this is no imaginary picture. It is the actual story of the earth during millions of years, and it is chiefly in the light of these vast and exacting changes in the environment that we are going to survey the panorama of the advance of terrestrial life.