Author Unearths the Origins of Species and a Leading Lady Fossilist


The bluish-hued cliffs along Lyme Regis, on England's Dorset coast, possess alternating bands of limestone and shale, referred to as "Blue Lias," that belong to the oldest section of the Jurassic period--the middle period of the Mesozoic Era. It was here that, in 1811, 12-year-old Mary Anning, scouring the cliffs for fossils that she could sell to vacationing seaside guests as souvenirs, discovered the bony remains of what she thought was a "sea dragon" and turned out to be the world's first uncovered ichthyosaur remains.

Anning's discovery marked her as one of the most important, though unacknowledged, paleontologists; she would go on to discover the first plesiosaur and the first British pterosaur. But her role as the science's "leading lady" and her continued work as a fossilist have been largely ignored by scientists and academicians. Christopher McGowan, author of "The Dragon Seekers," seeks to rectify the situation by providing us with an informative and exciting account of Anning and those fossilists who discovered the dinosaurs and thus paved the way for Darwin's theory of evolution.

The key players in McGowan's account include William Buckland, who taught at the University of Oxford; William Conybeare, considered "the brightest member of the geological circle during his day"; Georges Cuvier, a great intellect and "the world authority on anatomy"; Charles Lyell, "who became the most influential geologist of his time"; Richard Owen, an influential academic; Gideon Mantell, an avid and immensely productive fossilist, geologist and author; and finally, Thomas Hawkins, an eccentric gentleman of means who possessed one of the most impressive fossil collections of the time.

While first and foremost inspired by Anning, McGowan decided that placing her in the context of her male peers would be an instructive and intriguing endeavor. As McGowan points out, Anning's "lowly birth and humble station would not have earned her the appellation of lady in that rigidly stratified society," but it is precisely her circumstances that made her one of the most productive fossilists of all time. Anning collected and sold fossils in order to feed her family, but she also possessed an intense natural curiosity, reading everything she could find on the subject from borrowed publications which she often hand-copied for her own records. Since women were considered subordinate to men in every way during Anning's time, she was never made an official member of the London Geological Society, and in fact, many of her discoveries were appropriated without credit by the leading male fossilists of that time.

While these ambitious fellows shared common pursuits, they did not always agree on the significance of their findings. McGowan nicely details the manner in which their interests intersected and sometimes collided. The chief point of collision, perhaps unsurprisingly given the times, concerned itself with the conflict between creationist and evolutionist thinking and theory: "The church's role in slowing intellectual progress in unraveling the remote past was much greater in Britain than in France. The French Revolution of 1789 broke the powerful grip the Roman Catholic church had on the state, creating an intellectual milieu unfettered by religious dogma. . . . But in Britain, the Anglican Church was still an integral part of the establishment. Intellectuals in pre-Darwinian Britain therefore lacked the freedom of expression of ideas that ran contrary to the Bible--in the same way that today's science teachers are constrained in North American school districts where fundamentalists hold political power."

Lyell and Buckland in particular maintained an intensely antagonistic rapport, with Lyell feeling that Buckland wielded his "lofty scientific reputation" in order to unreasonably force geology to conform with the Scriptures. From our modern perspective, we can easily smile at some of the tortuous turns of thinking some of these men employed to these ends, but in the 19th century, smacking up against the Bible was no laughing matter. In a sense, Anning remained protected from the fray in that her opinions were never taken seriously or even sought out. McGowan paints a portrait of an exceedingly hearty, independent woman whose diligent work and impressive contributions to the field of paleontology have yet to be fully grasped.

The descriptions of desolate digging sites in Lyme Regis and elsewhere in Britain, where fossilists often worked for long stints in near isolation, add an affecting lyrical beauty to McGowan's historical account. Depictions of the often-charged conflict between church and science, as well as those of the scientists' sometimes unscrupulous practices, especially evident in fossil reconstruction, bring suspense to the plot line. And by dramatically bringing his tale to the edge of modernity, McGowan culminates his suspenseful buildup with the entrance of Charles Darwin himself.

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