2015 GSA Annual Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, USA (1-4 November 2015)

Paper No. 1-5
Presentation Time: 10:10 AM


WILSON, Mark A., Department of Geology, The College of Wooster, 944 College Mall, Wooster, OH 44691, TAYLOR, Paul D., Department of Earth Sciences, Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD, United Kingdom and PALMER, Timothy J., The Palaeontological Association, IGES, Llandinam Building, University of Aberystwyth, Aberystwyth, Wales, SY23 3DB, United Kingdom, mwilson@wooster.edu

William Smith is famous as a pioneering stratigrapher who used fossils as indicators of specific strata that could then be mapped. Less understood are his concepts of what fossils represented and how different fossils came to be preserved in different strata. His 1817 work entitled the “Stratigraphical System of Fossils” contains his most direct statements on these matters. This volume was written as a catalogue of the fossils he sold to the British Museum. In the introduction, Smith laid out the guiding principles behind his paleontology, as well as his suppositions on the origins of “Fossil Shells, Zoophites, and other organized Fossils”. To Smith, fossils “proved that a large portion of the earth once teemed with animation, and that the animals and plants thus finely preserved in the solid parts of the earth's interior, are so materially different from those now in existence, that they may be considered as a new creation, or rather as an undiscovered part of an older creation.” He wrote further: “… at separate periods of the earth's formation they vary as much from each other; insomuch that each layer of these fossil organized bodies must be considered as a separate creation; or how could the earth be formed stratum super stratum, and each abundantly stored with a different race of animals and plants.” Smith thus held a view of the fossil record resembling that of his French contemporary Georges Cuvier, whose work is cited by Smith. Unlike Cuvier, however, he did not directly postulate successive catastrophes ending each interval of creation unless they are encoded in his concept of preservation in which fossilization is a process “similar to that of freezing water, which would suddenly fix all the inhabitants of the ocean, each in its place, with all the original form and character.” Smith, ever the practical geologist, ends his introduction with the caveat that he is here demonstrating the providential utility of fossils in stratigraphy, and that “numerous useful and interesting deductions thence resulting will more appropriately follow than precede the regular description of them in the order of the strata.”