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Critics of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution often cited the fossil record's lack of creatures "caught in the act" of evolution. And though fossils had been important to the development of Darwin’s evolutionary thoughts, these absences frustrated him.
Fossils had been important to the development of Darwin’s evolutionary thoughts. He had collected the bones of many strange fossil mammals from South America during his days voyaging on the Beagle and wondered if there was a connection between animals like the giant ground sloths of prehistory and the continent's modern, arboreal sloths. If sloths, armadillos and other mammals were so different in the ancient past, then obviously life was not static and could change over time.
But by 1859 when On the Origin of Species was published, Darwin had largely left paleontology behind. It was up to other researchers to find the fossil proofs of evolutionary change.
Many paleontologists agreed with Darwin that some sort of natural laws were behind the succession of different organisms through time discovered in the earth's layers. But many — if not most — were not convinced that natural selection was the driving force behind these changes.
On the surface, it would seem that Archaeopteryx showed up at just the right time to confirm the gradual evolution of species. The early bird was heralded by some as the sort of creature that proved evolution by tiny tweaks over vast expanses of time. In 1863 the British paleontologist Hugh Falconer wrote to Charles Darwin:
Apparently half-reptile, half-bird, this creature seemed to be just what Darwin was hoping for, yet he was cautious in his assessment of it. Rather than direct evidence for his theory, Darwin cast Archaeopteryx as an example that there were still mysteries remaining to be uncovered in the fossil record.
T.H. Huxley was similarly reserved about the fossil. Though Huxley prominently espoused the hypothesis that birds had evolved from small, dinosaur-like creatures, he considered Archaeopteryx to be a relatively irrelevant side-branch that only showed that the reptile/bird division could be breached without actually playing a direct role in the transition.