It is not too much to say that, had Darwin not been a geologist, the "Origin of Species" could never have been written by him. But apart from those geological questions, which have an important bearing on biological thought and speculation, such as the proofs of imperfection in the geological record, the relations of the later tertiary faunas to the recent ones in the same areas, and the apparent intermingling of types belonging to distant geological epochs, when we study the palaeontology of remote districts,--there are other purely geological problems, upon which the contributions made by Darwin are of the very highest value. I believe that the verdict of the historians of science will be that if Darwin had not taken a foremost place among the biologists of this century, his position as a geologist would have been an almost equally commanding one.
But in the case of Darwin's principal geological work--that relating to the origin of the crystalline schists,--geologists were not at the time prepared to receive his revolutionary teachings. The influence of powerful authority was long exercised, indeed, to stifle his teaching, and only now, when this unfortunate opposition has disappeared, is the true nature and importance of Darwin's purely geological work beginning to be recognised.
The two first chapters of the "Geological Observations on South America," deal with the proofs which exist of great, but frequently interrupted, movements of elevation during very recent geological times. In connection with this subject, Darwin's particular attention was directed to the relations between the great earthquakes of South America--of some of which he had impressive experience--and the permanent changes of elevation which were taking place. He was much struck by the rapidity with which the evidence of such great earth movements is frequently obliterated; and especially with the remarkable way in which the action of rain-water, percolating through deposits on the earth's surface, removes all traces of shells and other calcareous organisms. It was these considerations which were the parents of the generalisation that a palaeontological record can only be preserved during those periods in which long-continued slow subsidence is going on. This in turn, led to the still wider and more suggestive conclusion that the geological record as a whole is, and never can be more than, a series of more or less isolated fragments. The recognition of this important fact constitutes the keystone to any theory of evolution which seeks to find a basis in the actual study of the types of life that have formerly inhabited our globe.
In his third chapter, Darwin gives a number of interesting facts, collected during his visits to the plains and valleys of Chili, which bear on the question of the origin of saliferous deposits--the accumulation of salt, gypsum, and nitrate of soda. This is a problem that has excited much discussion among geologists, and which, in spite of many valuable observations, still remains to a great extent very obscure. Among the important considerations insisted upon by Darwin is that relating to the absence of marine shells in beds associated with such deposits. He justly argues that if the strata were formed in shallow waters, and then exposed by upheaval to subaerial action, all shells and other calcareous organisms would be removed by solution.
Following Lyell's method, Darwin proceeds from the study of deposits now being accumulated on the earth's surface, to those which have been formed during the more recent periods of the geological history.
His account of the great Pampean formation, with its wonderful mammalian remains--Mastodon, Toxodon, Scelidotherium, Macrauchenia, Megatherium, Megalonyx, Mylodon, and Glyptodon--this full of interest. His discovery of the remains of a true Equus afforded a remarkable confirmation of the fact- -already made out in North America--that species of horse had existed and become extinct in the New World, before their introduction by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.