scientific study of the past of life on Earth through fossils

Paleontology (pronounced /ˌpælɪɒnˈtɒlədʒi/; British: palaeontology) is the study of prehistoric life, including organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology).


  • The abrupt manner in which whole groups of species suddenly appear in certain formations has been urged by several paleontologists . . . as a fatal objection to the belief in the transmutation of species. If numerous species, belonging to the same genera or families, have really started into life at once, the fact would be fatal to the theory of evolution through natural selection. For the development by this means of a group of forms, all of which are descended from some one progenitor, must have been an extremely slow process; and the progenitors must have lived long before their modified descendants. But we continually overrate the perfection of the geological record, and falsely infer, because certain genera or families have not been found beneath a certain stage, that they did not exist before that stage. In all cases positive palæontological evidence may be implicitly trusted; negative evidence is worthless, as experience has so often shown. We continually forget how large the world is, compared with the area over which our geological formations have been carefully examined; we forget that groups of species may elsewhere have long existed, and have slowly multiplied, before they invaded the ancient archipelagoes of Europe and the United States. We do not make due allowance for the intervals of time which have elapsed between our consecutive formations,—longer perhaps in many cases than the time required for the accumulation of each formation. These intervals will have given time for the multiplication of species from some one parent-form: and in the succeeding formation, such groups or species will appear as if suddenly created.
    • Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1902 edition), Part Two, pp. 83, 88.
  • There is another and allied difficulty, which is much more serious. I allude to the manner in which species belonging to several of the main divisions of the animal kingdom suddenly appear in the lowest known fossiliferous rocks. . . . The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the [evolutionary] views here entertained.
    • Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1902 edition), Part Two, pp. 91, 92.
  • I look at the geological record as a history of the world imperfectly kept, and written in a changing dialect; of this history we possess the last volume alone, relating only to two or three countries. Of this volume, only here and there a short chapter has been preserved; and of each page, only here and there a few lines. Each word of the slowly-changing language, more or less different in the successive chapters, may represent the forms of life, which are entombed in our consecutive formations, and which falsely appear to have been abruptly introduced. On this view, the difficulties above discussed are greatly diminished, or even disappear.
  • To discover the changes that have taken place in our globe, which can account for the remains of animals only fitted to live in warm climates being found in so northern a situation; and to explain the circumstances of human bones never having been met with in a fossil state, is the province of the geologist. To examine such fossil bones, and to determine the class to which the animal belonged, comes within the sphere of inquiry of the anatomist, and considerable increases its extent.
  • The same Time which so ruthlessly assails the works and the monuments of man, was inspired with a zeal for the perpetuation of those which belong to the gods, really startling. The Vasty Cycles of Days since the Avatar of Time have been consumed by him but for this end. The Populations of the Old World seem to have lived that Time might solemnize their obsequies, and Stamp the forged Seal of Eternity upon their bones. The acts and Inscriptions of man dissolve into thin air, while the Races co-temporary with adolescent Time continue for our own and the years that are To Come. To touch the former with a breath is to blot them out, while the last are hermetically soldered down with stone, and coffined in the Centres of the Earth: so carefully guarded are they from rude and sacriligious [sic] hands, that to unrol the Cerements which bind them, it requires the most peculiar and subtle Genius of Skill, and fingers tipped each one with a most energetic soul.

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