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IV. The Age of Fishes
Chapter four of A Short History of the World,
by H.G. Wells
In the days when the world was supposed to have endured for only a few thousand years, it was supposed that the different species of plants and animals were fixed and final; they had all been created exactly as they are to-day, each species by itself. But as men began to discover and study the Record of the Rocks this belief gave place to the suspicion that many species had changed and developed slowly through the course of ages, and this again expanded into a belief in what is called Organic Evolution, a belief that all species of life upon earth, animal and vegetable alike, are descended by slow continuous processes of change from some very simple ancestral form of life, some almost structureless living substance, far back in the so-called Azoic seas.
This question of Organic Evolution, like the question of the age of the earth, has in the past been the subject of much bitter controversy. There was a time when a belief in Organic Evolution was for rather obscure reasons supposed to be incompatible with sound Christian, Jewish and Moslem doctrine. That time has passed, and the men of the most orthodox Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Mohammedan belief are now free to accept this newer and broader view of a common origin of all living things. No life seems to have happened suddenly upon earth. Life grew and grows. Age by age through gulfs of time at which imagination reels, life has been growing from a mere stirring in the intertidal slime towards freedom, power and consciousness.
Life consists of individuals. These individuals are definite things, they are not like the lumps and masses, nor even the limitless and motionless crystals, of non-living matter, and they have two characteristics no dead matter possesses. They can assimilate other matter into themselves and make it part of themselves, and they can reproduce themselves. They eat and they breed. They can give rise to other individuals, for the most part like themselves, but always also a little different from themselves. There is a specific and family resemblance between an individual and its offspring, and there is an individual difference between every parent and every offspring it produces, and this is true in every species and at every stage of life.
Now scientific men are not able to explain to us either why offspring should resemble nor why they should differ from their parents. But seeing that offspring do at once resemble and differ, it is a matter rather of common sense than of scientific knowledge that, if the conditions under which a species live are changed, the species should undergo some correlated changes. Because in any generation of the species there must be a number of individuals whose individual differences make them better adapted to the new conditions under which the species has to live, and a number whose individual differences make it rather harder for them to live. And on the whole the former sort will live longer, bear more offspring, and reproduce themselves more abundantly than the latter, and so generation by generation the average of the species will change in the favourable direction. This process, which is called Natural Selection, is not so much a scientific theory as a necessary deduction from the facts of reproduction and individual difference. There may be many forces at work varying, destroying and preserving species, about which science may still be unaware or undecided, but the man who can deny the operation of this process of natural selection upon life since its beginning must be either ignorant of the elementary facts of life or incapable of ordinary thought.
Many scientific men have speculated about the first beginning of life and their speculations are often of great interest, but there is absolutely no definite knowledge and no convincing guess yet of the way in which life began. But nearly all authorities are agreed that it probably began upon mud or sand in warm sunlit shallow brackish water, and that it spread up the beaches to the intertidal lines and out to the open waters.
That early world was a world of strong tides and currents. An incessant destruction of individuals must have been going on through their being swept up the beaches and dried, or by their being swept out to sea and sinking down out of reach of air and sun. Early conditions favoured the development of every tendency to root and hold on, every tendency to form an outer skin and casing to protect the stranded individual from immediate desiccation. From the very earliest any tendency to sensitiveness to taste would turn the individual in the direction of food, and any sensitiveness to light would assist it to struggle back out of the darkness of the sea deeps and caverns or to wriggle back out of the excessive glare of the dangerous shallows.
Probably the first shells and body armour of living things were protections against drying rather than against active enemies. But tooth and claw come early into our earthly history.
We have already noted the size of the earlier water scorpions. For long ages such creatures were the supreme lords of life. Then in a division of these Palæozoic rocks called the Silurian division, which many geologists now suppose to be as old as five hundred million years, there appears a new type of being, equipped with eyes and teeth and swimming powers of an altogether more powerful kind. These were the first known backboned animals, the earliest fishes, the first known Vertebrata.
These fishes increase greatly in the next division of rocks, the rocks known as the Devonian system. They are so prevalent that this period of the Record of the Rocks has been called the Age of Fishes. Fishes of a pattern now gone from the earth, and fishes allied to the sharks and sturgeons of to-day, rushed through the waters, leapt in the air, browsed among the seaweeds, pursued and preyed upon one another, and gave a new liveliness to the waters of the world. None of these were excessively big by our present standards. Few of them were more than two or three feet long, but there were exceptional forms which were as long as twenty feet.
We know nothing from geology of the ancestors of these fishes. They do not appear to be related to any of the forms that preceded them. Zoologists have the most interesting views of their ancestry, but these they derive from the study of the development of the eggs of their still living relations, and from other sources. Apparently the ancestors of the vertebrata were soft-bodied and perhaps quite small swimming creatures who began first to develop hard parts as teeth round and about their mouths. The teeth of a skate or dog-fish cover the roof and floor of its mouth and pass at the lip into the flattened toothlike scales that encase most of its body. As the fishes develop these teeth scales in the geological record, they swim out of the hidden darkness of the past into the light, the first vertebrated animals visible in the record.