In England the interest thus aroused was sent to fever-heat in 1821 by the discovery of abundant beds of fossil bones in the stalagmite-covered floor of a cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire which went to show that England, too, had once had her share of gigantic beasts. Dr. Buckland, the incumbent of the chair of geology at Oxford, and the most authoritative English geologist of his day, took these finds in hand and showed that the bones belonged to a number of species, including such alien forms as elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, and hyenas. He maintained that all of these creatures had actually lived in Britain, and that the caves in which their bones were found had been the dens of hyenas.
The claim was hotly disputed, as a matter of course. As late as 1827 books were published denouncing Buckland, doctor of divinity though he was, as one who had joined in an "unhallowed cause," and reiterating the old cry that the fossils were only remains of tropical species washed thither by the deluge. That they were found in solid rocks or in caves offered no difficulty, at least not to the fertile imagination of Granville Penn, the leader of the conservatives, who clung to the old idea of Woodward and Cattcut that the deluge had dissolved the entire crust of the earth to a paste, into which the relics now called fossils had settled. The caves, said Mr. Penn, are merely the result of gases given off by the carcasses during decomposition-- great air-bubbles, so to speak, in the pasty mass, becoming caverns when the waters receded and the paste hardened to rocky consistency.
But these and such-like fanciful views were doomed even in the day of their utterance. Already in 1823 other gigantic creatures, christened ichthyosaurus and plesiosaurus by Conybeare, had been found in deeper strata of British rocks; and these, as well as other monsters whose remains were unearthed in various parts of the world, bore such strange forms that even the most sceptical could scarcely hope to find their counterparts among living creatures. Cuvier's contention that all the larger vertebrates of the existing age are known to naturalists was borne out by recent explorations, and there seemed no refuge from the conclusion that the fossil records tell of populations actually extinct. But if this were admitted, then Smith's view that there have been successive rotations of population could no longer be denied. Nor could it be in doubt that the successive faunas, whose individual remains have been preserved in myriads, representing extinct species by thousands and tens of thousands, must have required vast periods of time for the production and growth of their countless generations.
As these facts came to be generally known, and as it came to be understood in addition that the very matrix of the rock in which fossils are imbedded is in many cases one gigantic fossil, composed of the remains of microscopic forms of life, common-sense, which, after all, is the final tribunal, came to the aid of belabored science. It was conceded that the only tenable interpretation of the record in the rocks is that numerous populations of creatures, distinct from one another and from present forms, have risen and passed away; and that the geologic ages in which these creatures lived were of inconceivable length. The rank and file came thus, with the aid of fossil records, to realize the import of an idea which James Hutton, and here and there another thinker, had conceived with the swift intuition of genius long before the science of paleontology came into existence. The Huttonian proposition that time is long had been abundantly established, and by about the close of the first third of the last century geologists had begun to speak of "ages" and "untold aeons of time" with a familiarity which their predecessors had reserved for days and decades.
CHARLES LYELL COMBATS CATASTROPHISM
And now a new question pressed for solution. If the earth has been inhabited by successive populations of beings now extinct, how have all these creatures been destroyed? That question, however, seemed to present no difficulties. It was answered out of hand by the application of an old idea. All down the centuries, whatever their varying phases of cosmogonic thought, there had been ever present the idea that past times were not as recent times; that in remote epochs the earth had been the scene of awful catastrophes that have no parallel in "these degenerate days." Naturally enough, this thought, embalmed in every cosmogonic speculation of whatever origin, was appealed to in explanation of the destruction of these hitherto unimagined hosts, which now, thanks to science, rose from their abysmal slumber as incontestable, but also as silent and as thought-provocative, as Sphinx or pyramid. These ancient hosts, it was said, have been exterminated at intervals of odd millions of years by the recurrence of catastrophes of which the Mosaic deluge is the latest, but perhaps not the last.
This explanation had fullest warrant of scientific authority. Cuvier had prefaced his classical work with a speculative disquisition whose very title (Discours sur les Revolutions du Globe) is ominous of catastrophism, and whose text fully sustains the augury. And Buckland, Cuvier's foremost follower across the Channel, had gone even beyond the master, naming the work in which he described the Kirkdale fossils, Reliquiae Diluvianae, or Proofs of a Universal Deluge.
Both these authorities supposed the creatures whose remains they studied to have perished suddenly in the mighty flood whose awful current, as they supposed, gouged out the modern valleys and hurled great blocks of granite broadcast over the land. And they invoked similar floods for the extermination of previous populations.