The Dragon Seekers

The Dragon Seekers: How An Extraordinary Cicle Of Fossilists Discovered The Dinosaurs And Paved The Way For Darwin
© 2009 Christopher McGowan
272 pages

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.

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Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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9 Responses to The Dragon Seekers

  1. What a fascinating topic. I can't say I've read much about it, but this sounds like a great book to start. Very informative write-up, thanks for sharing!

  2. Brian Joseph says:

    This book sounds so good. This is such an intriguing subject. I have previously read a little bit about the folks who thought about transmutation. I agree that evolution was an idea that evolved over time 🙂

  3. Mudpuddle says:

    Charles' grandfather, Erasmus, helped the former along quite a bit, with his “Zoonomia”, incipiently dealing with the idea of evolution, principally in the plant kingdom… one of my favorites was William Smith, early 19th c.; he built the English canal system and in the process did a lot of work on the fossils he unearthed… tx for the post: right up my alley…

  4. CyberKitten says:

    Mary Anning is a main character in 'Remarkable Creatures' by Tracy Chevalier which you might enjoy. I thought it was really good and gave a flavour of pre-'Origin of Species' fossil hunting.

  5. Stephen says:

    Transmutation is harder to take sounds like a class at Hogwarts!

  6. Stephen says:

    I hadn't heard of Smith! I have an interest in canals, so he might be worth poking into..

  7. Stephen says:

    I spotted that one a few days ago and checked it out, but there's no telling when I'll try it.

  8. James says:

    Having read Darwin and other books about the scientific developments of the nineteenth century this book sounds like it would be a great addition to my reading. The work of Lyell and other scientists is especially interesting.

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