The Dragon Seekers: How An Extraordinary Cicle Of Fossilists Discovered The Dinosaurs And Paved The Way For Darwin
© 2009 Christopher McGowan
Ancient bones and magnets were both known to antiquity, but not until the 19th century did their importance begin to be realized. Attribute that to a quickly-developing worldview that regarded these things not as curiosities to be put aside with a pat explanation, but mysteries that needed to be solved – and mysteries, that once poked in to, transformed our understanding of the world. The quickening pace of fossil discoveries and the rising interest in placing them accurately, were essential in shifting the western understanding of the universe from one small, young, and personal, to one incomprehensibly vast, ancient, and cold as clockwork.
The “dragon hunters” driving these discoveries were not pre-Victorian Jack Horners; long before the days of science funded by governments and pursued by microspecialists, all that was needed for discovery were simple tools and insatiable curiosity — or at least an interest in selling fossils to tourists. That brought together a mere villager, a clergyman, and a lawyer into the same company as natural historians – and that shared company was literal. The people of this book were not separate actors, but corresponded and worked together; in one chapter, a young Charles Darwin accompanied Charles Lyell along with two other fossil-hunters, and together they met another fossil hunter (Mary Anning, the villager) to poke around together, and are nearly trapped in a cliffside cave when the tide comes in. Together, they argued about what these things in the rocks meant.
While general audiences strongly associate Darwin with the theory of evolution, this chronicle of discovery makes it clear that the general idea of evolution predated Darwin, and was ventured by some theorists as ‘transmutation’. What caused transmutation was then unknown; the fossils discovered here spurred speculation. (Darwin’s contribution was identify the mechanism of natural selection that spurred speciation.) Some wondered if perhaps the Earth didn’t regularly shift from cold to tropical epochs and back again, with the life on Earth following them; perhaps one day these ancient lost creatures would return, like bats at dusk and wild geese in autumn. That was a little easier to sell than the idea that these strange beings had simply ceased to be, that Creation had chapters untold to men before. Although the discovery of these bones did not force a shift of worldviews the way Charles Lyells’ Principles of Geology and Darwin’s Origin of Species did, they did open the door to those inquiries given how poorly they fit in to the previous understanding.