Sunday, December 27, 2009
Deborah Cadbury - The Dinosaur Hunters
At the start of the 19th century, the world was a very young place. God had created the planet a few thousand years previously and placed, according to the book of Genesis, everything on it in a few days. Less than a hundred years later, the natural world and its history had been expanded to include tens of thousands of creatures not mentioned in the Bible, a history spanning at hundreds of thousands of years and the very basis of much that was held as true had been turned upsidedown. It was, in every sense a ideological revolution.
Deborah Cadbury takes us through the amazing individuals that broke down the barriers of a rigid religious based society and strove for a new way of looking at the world. It shouldn't be underestimated what a suffocating atmosphere Victorian atmosphere must have had on this process. At one point in her tale, Cadbury describes a chance meeting between William Buckland, one of the countries greatest scientists with a women in a carriage. Both of them happen to be reading a new book by the French scientist Georges Cuvier, one of the world's most eminent scholars of fossils and geology. There is no one to introduce the two and Buckland has to overcome the social stigma of talking to a female stranger, despite their obvious mutual interests.
The characters at the centre of this fascinating tale of how the past gradually became unravelled make for great reading. But what is really interesting is the way many of them break with their past. Gideon Mantell for instance, the son of a lowly shoemaker, who never went to university, fights to break free of his social position to establish himself as one of the greatest scientists of his time. Despite opposition from his "betters" he is eventually recognised, though much of his hopes are dashed along the way.
We also read of the way that stereotypes are being broken. The stuffy, aristocratic atmosphere of the Royal Society being challenged merely by the existence of women like Mary Anning, fossil collector extraoridinare who despite not coming from the "easier classes", "contributed by her talents and her untiring researches... to our knowledge of the great Enalio-Saurians and other forms of gigantic life."
Scientific was no longer the realm of the rich man who could pursue his researches as part of his life of leisure. It was time for the professional, dedicated scientist who could devote his or her life to the study of the world around them.
The discovery of the great fossils, their identification as extinct animals and the growing understanding of the scale and age of their remains is a story too long for this review. But it is one worth studying as it illuminates just how with the expansion of commerce and industry at the beginning of the 19th century, a new way of viewing the world was needed.
The individuals who fought and argued just how this vision was laid out were not necessarily motivated by trying to expand that viewpoint. Often they were trying to defend the old order. But ultimately they all contributed in part to breaking down the barriers. The rest, as they say is history.