THE BEGINNING OF THE EARTH—MAKING A HOME FOR LIFE—THE FIRST LIVING CREATURES
The Evolution-idea is a master-key that opens many doors. It is a luminous interpretation of the world, throwing the light of the past upon the present. Everything is seen to be an antiquity, with a history behind it—a natural history, which enables us to understand in some measure how it has come to be as it is. We cannot say more than "understand in some measure," for while the fact of evolution is certain, we are only beginning to discern the factors that have been at work.
The evolution-idea is very old, going back to some of the Greek philosophers, but it is only in modern times that it has become an essential part of our mental equipment. It is now an everyday intellectual tool. It was applied to the origin of the solar system and to the making of the earth before it was applied to plants and animals; it was extended from these to man himself; it spread to language, to folk-ways, to institutions. Within recent years the evolution-idea has been applied to the chemical elements, for it appears that uranium may change into radium, that radium may produce helium, and that lead is the final stable result when the changes of uranium are complete. Perhaps all the elements may be the outcome of an inorganic evolution. Not less important is the extension of the evolution-idea to the world within as well as to the world without. For alongside of the evolution of bodies and brains is the evolution of feelings and emotions, ideas and imagination.
Organic evolution means that the present is the child of the past and the parent of the future. It is not a power or a principle; it is a process—a process of becoming. It means that the present-day animals and plants and all the subtle inter-relations between them have arisen in a natural knowable way from a preceding state of affairs on the whole somewhat simpler, and that again from forms and inter-relations simpler still, and so on backwards and backwards for millions of years till we lose all clues in the thick mist that hangs over life's beginnings.
Our solar system was once represented by a nebula of some sort, and we may speak of the evolution of the sun and the planets. But since it has been the same material throughout that has changed in its distribution and forms, it might be clearer to use some word like genesis. Similarly, our human institutions were once very different from what they are now, and we may speak of the evolution of government or of cities. But Man works with a purpose, with ideas and ideals in some measure controlling his actions and guiding his achievements, so that it is probably clearer to keep the good old word history for all processes of social becoming in which man has been a conscious agent. Now between the genesis of the solar system and the history of civilisation there comes the vast process of organic evolution. The word development should be kept for the becoming of the individual, the chick out of the egg, for instance.
Organic evolution is a continuous natural process of racial change, by successive steps in a definite direction, whereby distinctively new individualities arise, take root, and flourish, sometimes alongside of, and sometimes, sooner or later, in place of, the originative stock. Our domesticated breeds of pigeons and poultry are the results of evolutionary change whose origins are still with us in the Rock Dove and the Jungle Fowl; but in most cases in Wild Nature the ancestral stocks of present-day forms are long since extinct, and in many cases they are unknown. Evolution is a long process of coming and going, appearing and disappearing, a long-drawn-out sublime process like a great piece of music.
The Beginning of the Earth
When we speak the language of science we cannot say "In the beginning," for we do not know of and cannot think of any condition of things that did not arise from something that went before. But we may qualify the phrase, and legitimately inquire into the beginning of the earth within the solar system. If the result of this inquiry is to trace the sun and the planets back to a nebula we reach only a relative beginning. The nebula has to be accounted for. And even before matter there may have been a pre-material world. If we say, as was said long ago, "In the beginning was Mind," we may be expressing or trying to express a great truth, but we have gone BEYOND SCIENCE.
The Nebular Hypothesis
One of the grandest pictures that the scientific mind has ever thrown upon the screen is that of the Nebular Hypothesis. According to Laplace's famous form of this theory (1796), the solar system was once a gigantic glowing mass, spinning slowly and uniformly around its centre. As the incandescent world-cloud of gas cooled and its speed of rotation increased the shrinking mass gave off a separate whirling ring, which broke up and gathered together again as the first and most distant planet. The main mass gave off another ring and another till all the planets, including the earth, were formed. The central mass persisted as the sun.
Laplace spoke of his theory, which Kant had anticipated forty-one years before, with scientific caution: "conjectures which I present with all the distrust which everything not the result of observation or of calculation ought to inspire." Subsequent research justified his distrust, for it has been shown that the original nebula need not have been hot and need not have been gaseous. Moreover, there are great difficulties in Laplace's theory of the separation of successive rings from the main mass, and of the condensation of a whirling gaseous ring into a planet.
So it has come about that the picture of a hot gaseous nebula revolving as a unit body has given place to other pictures. Thus Sir Norman Lockyer pointed out (1890) that the earth is gathering to itself millions of meteorites every day; this has been going on for millions of years; in distant ages the accretion may have been vastly more rapid and voluminous; and so the earth has grown! Now the meteoritic contributions are undoubted, but they require a centre to attract them, and the difficulty is to account for the beginning of a collecting centre or planetary nucleus. Moreover, meteorites are sporadic and erratic, scattered hither and thither rather than collecting into unit-bodies. As Professor Chamberlin says, "meteorites have rather the characteristics of the wreckage of some earlier organisation than of the parentage of our planetary system." Several other theories have been propounded to account for the origin of the earth, but the one that has found most favour in the eyes of authorities is that of Chamberlin and Moulton. According to this theory a great nebular mass condensed to form the sun, from which under the attraction of passing stars planet after planet, the earth included, was heaved off in the form of knotted spiral nebulæ, like many of those now observed in the heavens.
Of great importance were the "knots," for they served as collecting centres drawing flying matter into their clutches. Whatever part of the primitive bolt escaped and scattered was drawn out into independent orbits round the sun, forming the "planetesimals" which behave like minute planets. These planetesimals formed the food on which the knots subsequently fed.
The Growth of the Earth
It has been calculated that the newborn earth—the "earth-knot" of Chamberlin's theory—had a diameter of about 5,500 miles. But it grew by drawing planetesimals into itself until it had a diameter of over 8,100 miles at the end of its growing period. Since then it has shrunk, by periodic shrinkages which have meant the buckling up of successive series of mountains, and it has now a diameter of 7,918 miles. But during the shrinking the earth became more varied.
A sort of slow boiling of the internally hot earth often forced molten matter through the cold outer crust, and there came about a gradual assortment of lighter materials nearer the surface and heavier materials deeper down. The continents are built of the lighter materials, such as granites, while the beds of the great oceans are made of the heavier materials such as basalts. In limited areas land has often become sea, and sea has often given place to land, but the probability is that the distinction of the areas corresponding to the great continents and oceans goes back to a very early stage.
The lithosphere is the more or less stable crust of the earth, which may have been, to begin with, about fifty miles in thickness. It seems that the young earth had no atmosphere, and that ages passed before water began to accumulate on its surface—before, in other words, there was any hydrosphere. The water came from the earth itself, to begin with, and it was long before there was any rain dissolving out saline matter from the exposed rocks and making the sea salt. The weathering of the high grounds of the ancient crust by air and water furnished the material which formed the sandstones and mudstones and other sedimentary rocks, which are said to amount to a thickness of over fifty miles in all.
Making a Home for Life
It is interesting to inquire how the callous, rough-and-tumble conditions of the outer world in early days were replaced by others that allowed of the germination and growth of that tender plant we call LIFE. There are very tough living creatures, but the average organism is ill suited for violence. Most living creatures are adapted to mild temperatures and gentle reactions. Hence the fundamental importance of the early atmosphere, heavy with planetesimal dust, in blanketing the earth against intensities of radiance from without, as Chamberlin says, and inequalities of radiance from within. This was the first preparation for life, but it was an atmosphere without free oxygen. Not less important was the appearance of pools and lakelets, of lakes and seas. Perhaps the early waters covered the earth. And water was the second preparation for life—water, that can dissolve a larger variety of substances in greater concentration than any other liquid; water, that in summer does not readily evaporate altogether from a pond, nor in winter freeze throughout its whole extent; water, that is such a mobile vehicle and such a subtle cleaver of substances; water, that forms over 80 per cent. of living matter itself.
Of great significance was the abundance of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (in the form of carbonic acid and water) in the atmosphere of the cooling earth, for these three wonderful elements have a unique ensemble of properties—ready to enter into reactions and relations, making great diversity and complexity possible, favouring the formation of the plastic and permeable materials that build up living creatures. We must not pursue the idea, but it is clear that the stones and mortar of the inanimate world are such that they built a friendly home for life.
Origin of Living Creatures upon the Earth
During the early chapters of the earth's history, no living creature that we can imagine could possibly have lived there. The temperature was too high; there was neither atmosphere nor surface water. Therefore it follows that at some uncertain, but inconceivably distant date, living creatures appeared upon the earth. No one knows how, but it is interesting to consider possibilities.
From ancient times it has been a favourite answer that the dust of the earth may have become living in a way which is outside scientific description. This answer forecloses the question, and it is far too soon to do that. Science must often say "Ignoramus": Science should be slow to say "Ignorabimus."
A second position held by Helmholtz, Lord Kelvin, and others, suggests that minute living creatures may have come to the earth from elsewhere, in the cracks of a meteorite or among cosmic dust. It must be remembered that seeds can survive prolonged exposure to very low temperatures; that spores of bacteria can survive high temperature; that seeds of plants and germs of animals in a state of "latent life" can survive prolonged drought and absence of oxygen. It is possible, according to Berthelot, that as long as there is not molecular disintegration vital activities may be suspended for a time, and may afterwards recommence when appropriate conditions are restored. Therefore, one should be slow to say that a long journey through space is impossible. The obvious limitation of Lord Kelvin's theory is that it only shifts the problem of the origin of organisms (i.e. living creatures) from the earth to elsewhere.
The third answer is that living creatures of a very simple sort may have emerged on the earth's surface from not-living material, e.g. from some semi-fluid carbon compounds activated by ferments. The tenability of this view is suggested by the achievements of the synthetic chemists, who are able artificially to build up substances such as oxalic acid, indigo, salicylic acid, caffeine, and grape-sugar. We do not know, indeed, what in Nature's laboratory would take the place of the clever synthetic chemist, but there seems to be a tendency to complexity. Corpuscles form atoms, atoms form molecules, small molecules large ones.
Various concrete suggestions have been made in regard to the possible origin of living matter, which will be dealt with in a later chapter. So far as we know of what goes on to-day, there is no evidence of spontaneous generation; organisms seem always to arise from pre-existing organisms of the same kind; where any suggestion of the contrary has been fancied, there have been flaws in the experimenting. But it is one thing to accept the verdict "omne vivum e vivo" as a fact to which experiment has not yet discovered an exception and another thing to maintain that this must always have been true or must always remain true.
If the synthetic chemists should go on surpassing themselves, if substances like white of egg should be made artificially, and if we should get more light on possible steps by which simple living creatures may have arisen from not-living materials, this would not greatly affect our general outlook on life, though it would increase our appreciation of what is often libelled as "inert" matter. If the dust of the earth did naturally give rise very long ago to living creatures, if they are in a real sense born of her and of the sunshine, then the whole world becomes more continuous and more vital, and all the inorganic groaning and travailing becomes more intelligible.
The First Organisms upon the Earth
We cannot have more than a speculative picture of the first living creatures upon the earth or, rather, in the waters that covered the earth. A basis for speculation is to be found, however, in the simplest creatures living to-day, such as some of the bacteria and one-celled animalcules, especially those called Protists, which have not taken any very definite step towards becoming either plants or animals. No one can be sure, but there is much to be said for the theory that the first creatures were microscopic globules of living matter, not unlike the simplest bacteria of to-day, but able to live on air, water, and dissolved salts. From such a source may have originated a race of one-celled marine organisms which were able to manufacture chlorophyll, or something like chlorophyll, that is to say, the green pigment which makes it possible for plants to utilise the energy of the sunlight in breaking up carbon dioxide and in building up (photosynthesis) carbon compounds like sugars and starch. These little units were probably encased in a cell-wall of cellulose, but their boxed-in energy expressed itself in the undulatory movement of a lash or flagellum, by means of which they propelled themselves energetically through the water. There are many similar organisms to-day, mostly in water, but some of them—simple one-celled plants—paint the tree-stems and even the paving-stones green in wet weather. According to Prof. A. H. Church there was a long chapter in the history of the earth when the sea that covered everything teemed with these green flagellates—the originators of the Vegetable Kingdom.
On another tack, however, there probably evolved a series of simple predatory creatures, not able to build up organic matter from air, water, and salts, but devouring their neighbours. These units were not closed in with cellulose, but remained naked, with their living matter or protoplasm flowing out in changeful processes, such as we see in the Amœbæ in the ditch or in our own white blood corpuscles and other amœboid cells. These were the originators of the animal kingdom. Thus from very simple Protists the first animals and the first plants may have arisen. All were still very minute, and it is worth remembering that had there been any scientific spectator after our kind upon the earth during these long ages, he would have lamented the entire absence of life, although the seas were teeming. The simplest forms of life and the protoplasm which Huxley called the physical basis of life will be dealt with in the chapter on Biology in a later section of this work.