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The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin Paperback – May, 2002
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Though inarguably revolutionary, Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection had many intellectual forebears, some of them little known. One was Mary Anning, a young Dorset woman who, in the early 19th century, turned to "fossiling" to earn a living, supplying private collectors and museums with the curiosities she found in the chalk cliffs--and who knew far more about comparative anatomy than many of the academics of her time. Anning's identification of unknown dinosaur species and explanations of curiosities such as the ichthyosaurus's kinked tail provided grist for contemporary scientists, who, arguing against theological orthodoxy, sought to extend the chronology of life far into the past--and who, in the bargain, published Anning's work as their own even as they professed scorn for amateurs.
In this lucid and lively book, Christopher McGowan, a Canadian zoologist, examines the contributions to 19th-century science of Anning and other self-taught fossil-hunters, from difficult eccentrics like Thomas Hawkins to superb scholars like Richard Owen, all of whom had to battle plenty of orthodoxies in their status-conscious time. They succeeded admirably, McGowan suggests, and they should provide inspiration for other amateurs in science. For, he writes, "the future for paleontological discoveries looks very bright ... [and] many of the most important finds will be made by those who are not employed as paleontologists." --Gregory McNamee --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
From Publishers Weekly
McGowan (The Raptor and the Lamb; Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons) brings his expertise as a zoologist and paleontologist to this decorative summary of the first dinosaur hunters leading up to Darwin. The author, who is senior curator of paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum, skillfully distills the debate over origins that occupied the scientists and theologians of the 19th century, and his streamlined history of the Victorian fossilists advances at breakneck speed (bear in mind that bone hunters like Mary Anning, the woman who discovered the first complete dinosaur skeleton, predate Queen Victoria). In addition, he treats the reader to fascinating professional details, such as how fossil skeletons were dug up in Anning's day compared to the techniques used today, and the common pitfalls curators encounter when purchasing fossils. But McGowan misses the mark in his efforts to popularize the first dinosaur hunters as an entertaining gallery of rogues and misfits. He gives undue emphasis to curiosities such as Thomas Hawkins, an amateur collector who "improved upon" fossils with plaster and paint, at the expense of a fuller, more rounded account of the real contributors to the field. And the author engages in some cosmetic restoration of his own by dressing up Richard Owen as the father of modern paleontology, entirely ignoring the ambitious scoundrel behind the academic honors who ruined the careers of fellow scientists and worked to discredit his rival, Gideon Mantell. McGowan seems content to leave these skeletons locked in the closet rather than risk blemishing his cheerful fable of the coming of Darwin. His dragon seekers are bone-thin, and his story, while succinct, is ultimately superficial. Readers wanting the whole story will be better off taking on Deborah Cadbury's Terrible Lizard (see review, p. 229). Illus.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Also very good at portraying the times and how religious views had to be overcome before science could become real and respected.
The large cast of characters here includes an eccentric but brilliant academic (William Buckland), a scoundrel fossil collector (Thomas Hawkins), a distinguished anatomist (Richard Owen) and a working class woman, deprived of her rightful status because of Victorian social conservatism (Mary Anning).
With the increasing number of fossils discovered, and the increase in knowledge in other areas, Modern science was wrestling itself out of religious dogma, and the arguments about it are the core of this book.
Among the chief arguments at the time was whether the global, Noachian Flood existed, or not. Great disputes about these question took place, between supporters and the so called anti-Diluvians, who opposed it .
An even greater controversy was the one surrounding evolution ('transmutation' in the vernacular). Transmutationism was a bona fide heresy, and when the young Charles Darwin enters McGowan's narrative, he has to hide his views from Richard Owen, a great scientist who coined the very term 'Dinosaur', but whose opposition to transmutation was well known.
One of the major advantages of this book is the way in which it can forgive the scientists for their errors. Although McGowan clearly points out the mistakes, and how the likes of Owen, Buckland and Charles Lyell (who was a major influence, and a confident, of Darwin's) allowed their pre conceived notions to deter them from reaching the truth, he discusses how it is that science advances despite these failures. The errors and pre-conceived notions of individuals can hinder science, but the setbacks are merely temporary, and these scientists, for all their errors, held lay down the ground for Darwin's breathtaking insights.
My one greatest regret for this book is that it does not include the reaction of the surviving 'dragon seekers' to Darwin's 'The Origin of Species'. Richard Owen's responses, especially, would have been very interesting, and would have made an interesting summation for the book.
Instead, McGowan chooses to dedicate his conclusion to today's collectors, the followers of Mary Anning's. It is both interesting and moving, as McGowan has studies fossils discovered in the very beaches were the Anning and co. have worked. So modern paleontologists, too, depend upon the newest generation of dragon seekers
There is an eccentric cast of characters within these pages. Thomas Hawkins was a master at getting monstrous specimens displayed, but was really too good at it; he helped his displays with faked bones, a deception whose controversy was elevated to the House of Commons. Gideon Mantell had a hectic medical practice, but it was fossilizing that he loved, and because people thought he was too much of a fossilizer while not enough of a doctor, they stayed away from his practice. He also alienated his wife and family. Although he discovered and named the _Iguanodon_, fossils ruined him. But the most fascinating figure in the book, though, is Mary Anning. She has recognition now as a star discoverer of fossils, but the earliest recognition she got in her own time was, sadly, a eulogy at the Geographic Society. She had no advantages she did not make herself. She was poor, her family was low, and she was, of course, a woman. She was born in Lyme Regis, a seaside hamlet on the Dorset coast, and she got her living digging out the cliff's fossils and selling them to private collectors and to academics. She didn't just collect fossils, she analyzed them and compared them to contemporary animals. She had no access to a formal education, but studied the papers of the published experts, sometimes hand copying them with their drawings so that she could keep them for reference. It was, however, always the "clever men" who formally studied the specimens she discovered, and wrote them up, and named them, often without crediting her. None of her specimens bears her name.
The sensational finds described here sparked heated debates on many issues. Some who believed that God had created all, for instance, insisted that there could be no such thing as an extinction, for that would mean that God had produced some creatures mistakenly. The enormous and ancient beasts found by the fossilists meant that people had to start questioning the usefulness of the Bible as a guide to cosmology. In fact, most of the fossilists described in these pages believed strictly in the Bible, and were unconvinced when Lyell published on geology or Darwin on evolution. McGowan's entertaining book fits them within the social and intellectual history of the period, and shows that although they did not directly pave the way for Darwin, their discoveries put forth evidence to be argued about, and they fostered the learned debate that has resulted in our current understanding of geology and biology.