The Dragon Seekers:
Of Dinosaurs and Darwin

17 November 2009

This is an essay that I wrote in November 2009 for my Great Britain From 1714 class, taught by Dr. Peter Linebaugh. It is based on Christopher McGowan's 2001 book, The Dragon Seekers, which is a volume that I highly recommend. It is a well-written and extraordinarily entertaining history about the lives and times of those early fossilists who first discovered and classified the great extinct reptiles of yesteryear that continue to amaze and inspire us today.

The opening with Michael Foale on the ISS has nothing to do with McGowan's work and is instead my own introduction to the fossilists. I wanted to connect and contrast modern British science with its Eighteenth Century counterpart and, given my personal penchant for spaceflight, this seemed an appropriate angle. Interestingly enough, barely a month after I turned this paper in, England announced the development of its own space agency. Talk about timing!

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Prologue The 21st Century: Low Earth Orbit

Michael Foale glided through the air, pushing off walls and handholds until he came to a window positioned, peculiarly enough, in the floor. Not that it was particularly difficult to forget where he was but, lest any doubts have arisen, the view that met his eyes through the window erased all uncertainty. Two-hundred and twenty miles below him the immense blue sphere of the Earth rotated slowly, puffy white cloudbanks passing silently over viridian landmasses and cerulean seas, signs of its inhabitants relegated to a scattering of grey clusters indicating cities and settlement, their lights shining through the darkness into which he passed every forty-five minutes. Humanity had arisen on this great blue marble lazily orbiting its brilliant sun, and Michael Foale was currently separated from all of it. It was the year 2003 and Foale was serving in a position that few of his fellow humans could claim: he was the commander of the International Space Station, the latest and the greatest in human endeavours orbiting high above the atmosphere of his home planet.

Gazing out the window as the British Isles passed below, Foale might have felt a twinge of homesickness. Though he had worn an American flag on the sleeve of his flight suit and was working under the auspices of the U. S. space agency, NASA, Foale had actually been born in the town of Louth, in the county Lincolnshire, in the nation of England. Due to his home country's lackluster efforts to encourage aerospace development, Foale was forced to emigrate to and become a citizen of the United States in order to achieve his dreams of spaceflight. He was an Englishman, employed by Americans, and launched on a Russian rocket to a space station that contained no considerable components of British manufacture. Undoubtedly the station represented a current pinnacle of scientific and engineering achievement and England was not, by its own volition, taking an active role in sharing it.

Still gazing out the window as the British Isles passed below, Foale might have made out some locations that had once set England apart from the rest of the world. Quarries dug to fuel the Industrial Revolution could be spotted, chiseled all across the land. A telephoto lens might pick out the Natural History Museum from amongst the bustle of London, housing fossilized specimens of the world's former inhabitants. The chalk cliffs of Dover may be spotted, a thin stretch of pristine white in contrast to the dark ocean if viewed from above, composed of the calcified remains of lifeforms that once occupied the seas long before these cliffs were thrust above the waves into glimmering daylight. If one were to squint really squint they might just pick out the unassuming beachfront at Lyme Regis, on the southern coast of the island. Lyme Regis is a quiet place for tourists to catch a much needed retreat from the workaday world but is also known as a site rich in the fossils of ancient seaborne reptiles whose discovery helped pave the way for Charles Darwin and a period of global greatness in British scientific thought and achievement nearly two centuries ago.

The Eighteenth Century
Winter in Lyme Regis was thoroughly unpleasant, as freezing winds blew in from the Atlantic, washing frigid waves onto the Dorset shores. There were no tourists flocking to the briny seas to seek restorative health benefits from nature. There were no children scampering along the beach collecting interesting rocks and shells. There was, however, Mary Anning, quietly trudging along in the bitter cold, hammer and pick in hand, searching for the occasional glimpse of something unique amongst the surrounding shale cliffs. Her goal this winter was the same as it had been the rest of the year, for many years: to pick out fossils peaking from the rock or uncovered by the waves. Anning was notably unique among the women of this period. No tightly corseted lady she! As a woman living under the institutionalized sexism of Regency Era England, Anning could hold little sway with academia and was relegated to passing off her finds to men who were in a position (through status and gender) to present the fossils for the greatest consumption. Her low birth and lack of education presented a sort of double and triple insult to injury, serving to keep her forever out of the spotlight. To this she shouldered silent resentment, as recorded by a confidant, that "these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages." (204)

Though societal restraints forced her to remain low, she refused to be relegated to a mere fossil provider. While this had been a lucrative business started by her parents, Mary became deeply invested in the science behind it. For Anning the stories that the fossils could tell were just as important as the amount the educated gentlemen were willing to pay to take them off her hands. Though the fossils fetched a pretty pound from the scholarly collectors, she had distinguished herself in seeking out as much of the published literature as she could, carefully transcribing it, and reproducing the illustrations by hand with an astonishing exactness. Going out every day in rain or shine in search for prehistoric fossils was, for Mary Anning, a personal quest to understand the world she lived in and, by selling her finds, a method of affording a lifestyle that allowed her to be a minor player in guiding the hand of humanity's knowledge of their biologic past.

The majority of Anning's major finds were ichthyosaurs, giant Mesozoic-era reptiles that bore a striking resemblance to modern dolphins while sharing absolutely no relation in the slightest. Ichthyosaur fossils had been known for some time and in various states of preservation, but Anning's finds at Lyme Regis contributed greatly to the lot of specimens available to study. Ichthyosaurs were all well and good but, by Anning's time, museums and collections were teaming with them. It was in 1821 that Mary Anning struck the proverbial gold, unearthing the greatest discovery of her career: an all new species of giant marine reptile. This animal would be known as a plesiosaurus, a massive creature with a long arching neck and equally long tail, with paddles for limbs. Nothing like it had ever before been discovered and it offered the first real evidence that the Earth had once been populated, not just by ichthyosaurs, but perhaps a great many varieties of giant reptiles. In 1821 this concept had never been truly considered and the bizarre creature plucked from the limestone and shale at Lyme Regis succeeded in turning the entire world of academia on its edge as the gravity of this new fossil sank in.

The fossils that the Eighteenth Century world was beginning to take such keen interest in were created by the sheer luck of happenstance and discovered by the sheer pluck of their finders. Fossilization is a difficult process that occurs when the skeletal remains of an animal are replaced by minerals leaching into the decaying material, leaving behind a perfect replica to be preserved in rock for untold millions of years until some hapless person finally stumbles across them. Sea animals such as fish, mollusks, ammonites, ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs, are generally preserved as fossils more often than land animals. Should an animal die underwater then its body will often settle to the seafloor where sediments quickly cover it, aiding in its fossilization in situ. Land animals have a harder time. Their remains are more prone to being scattered as they decay, bones being carried off by scavengers and broken down by the environment before any sort of fossilization can occur. Due to these difficulties, it is unknown how many extinct species may be forever lost due to a lack of fossilized evidence of their existence.

Knowledge of fossils greatly predated any activities the Anning family may have accomplished and go as far back as Ancient Greece. The Ancient Grecians did not fully grasp what the rock-like impressions of animal remains meant and subsequent centuries maintained little interest in their own finds. It took the Enlightenment for would-be scientists to begin obsessing over these fossils and that England served as the veritable launch pad for these pursuits was no random fluke. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution was to thank for that. This great force of progress, the machine driving a bold new era of enlightened thought and technological advancement, required large quantities of fuel and resources. Deep quarries were dug throughout the United Kingdom in order to harvest the raw materials necessary to run the ever-hungry machines of industry. In the process of digging deep into the land to locate the proper rocks for smelting, workers inevitably began unearthing fossilized animal remains. How many priceless fossils were destroyed may never be known but collectors quickly took action, paying the quarrymen to be a tad bit more careful with their excavations. While Anning's method was predominantly seeking out bones exposed by natural weathering, the quarries presented dedicated digging that uncovered fossils that would otherwise have been out of reach. Fossils, after all, can only be excavated if they are located near the surface. Anything buried deep underground is inaccessible and unknown.

Two close acquaintances who took specimens from both Anning and the quarries entered the scene at this juncture: William Buckland and William Conybeare. Both were ordained ministers who held passionate interests in biology and fossil studies, though their career paths differed: Buckland chose to teach biological sciences at Oxford rather than preach while Conybeare dedicated himself to the cloth. Buckland, jovial and eccentric by nature, and despite his erudite standing, was never above visiting Mary Anning every year, riding the one-hundred miles from Oxford to Lyme Regis alone to explore the region. (26) The rest of the year he took from the rocks dug up from Stonesfield Quarry, much closer to home, whose rocks dated back to the Jurassic Era. It was at Stonesfield, from 1815 to 1824, that Buckland made the discovery that forever cemented his name in the ledgers of history. A portion of fossilized jaw, a tooth, a femur and a single vertebra, miniscule remains that pointed to something massive. Buckland hadn't the slightest clue what he had but presumed it to be some sort of huge, extinct crocodile. He sought the advice of Georges Cuvier in Paris, the world expert on all things anatomical and the go-to guy for questionable animal parts. Cuvier suggested the remains were of a giant lizard, which reconciled with Buckland's crocodile presumption. There were not enough collected parts to rationalize what the animal had looked like, but Buckland allowed Conybeare to provide the animal's name, which was revealed on 20 February 1824: Megalosaurus, or "great lizard." (75) What nobody knew at the time was that Buckland had discovered and named the first known dinosaur, and it had lived in England some 150 million years ago, near present-day Oxford. Buckland's discovery had shocked academic circles as it once again provided the increasing proof that Earth's former guardians had been giant reptiles.

William Conybeare never discovered a dinosaur himself, but he did become the world expert in the newly discovered plesiosaurs, even going so far as to coin the name plesiosaur, or "near lizard" to distinguish it from the far less-lizardlike ichthyosaurs, or "fish lizards." Conybeare never gained the same recognition as his friend Buckland, and it should not be for lack of skill or knowledge. Perhaps history has allowed Conybeare to slip through the cracks due to his penchant for plesiosaurs which, though giant reptiles living during the age of the dinosaurs, were decidedly not dinosaurs and thereby have considerably less appeal to the general public.

Another reason for Conybeare's poor recognition by history stems from views he shared with Buckland. Both were brilliant men and expert fossilists, but both were catastrophists who denied the transmutation of species (what we now know as evolution). If any fault can be found in Buckland and Conybeare it would be their stubborn closed-mindedness and persistent efforts to force the fossil record to fit their preconceived beliefs. Their primary frame of reference was the Noachian Flood which divided all of history into two portions: ante-diluvial and post-diluvial. Their strict adherence to the Biblical account of Genesis led them to reason that the extinct animals whose fossils they were examining had been among the species wiped out by God's wrath during the Flood. Why a flood would affect marine organisms was never explained but their persistence to upholding this belief blinded them against evidence otherwise. An example of this would be Buckland's exploration of Kirkdale Cave in South Wales during the December of 1821. Inside the cave Buckland found fossilized hyena bones, a surprising discovery in and of itself and indicative of a warmer time in England's past when hyenas lived in the region. The floor of the cave was caked with a layer of mud that the bones rested in. Buckland rationalized that the hyenas had been swept into the cave by the floodwaters despite the level of mud rising only partway up the wall and the ceiling being perfectly clean. (57) This should suggest that the cave had never been immersed in rising waters, but Buckland refused to see that evidence. In this regard history has not been a kindred companion to these two men but has turned a blind eye for Buckland in light of his discovery of Megalosaurus.

Dinosaurs have long held a tremendous appeal to individuals of all ages, and Gideon Mantell was able to enjoy the benefits of their discovery. Mantell could almost be considered the anti-Buckland. Where the Oxfordian seemed to have everything falling neatly into place in his lap, Mantell spent his life being constantly pursued by a persistent raincloud over his head. Everything Buckland touched turned to gold; everything Mantell touched blew up in his face. Plagued by frequent illness and debilitating back pain (caused by scoliosis, which medicine had yet to diagnose), Mantell drove himself to wit's end, made him abandon his medical practice, destroyed his marriage, and nearly estranged himself from his children in his fruitless quest for relevance. His interest in fossils was fueled by Anning and Buckland and he frequented Cuckfield Quarry in West Sussex for interesting specimens. In 1822 Cuckfield yielded the surprise discovery of several large, fluted teeth from some huge animal. Once again Cuvier was consulted in Paris but the anatomical expert dismissed them as belonging to a modern rhinoceros. (50) Mantell was crestfallen, as might be expected, and frustrated because he believed the teeth to be much more significant, but Cuvier had the final say. Cuvier might be considered an ultimate form of peer review in that his opinions and his alone were treated as the definitive word on the subject. This makes for very bad science, especially in the case of Mantell's teeth, where Cuvier was entirely in error. Mantell tried for years to gain recognition and have his fossil teeth reappraised, even with Buckland's help, but to no avail. Instead Buckland only offered the belief that they came from some kind of big fish. (83)

The big break for Gideon Mantell came from a visit to the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London where he observed the skeletal remains of an iguana, mounted for presentation. The iguana's teeth appeared to be scaled down replicas of the teeth from Cuckfield, with very similar flutes. (85) Reenergized with this reptilian association, he began postulating that his teeth came from a gargantuan species of extinct iguana, which he erroneously and naively scaled up using a one-to-one ratio to create an absurdly large iguana some one-hundred feet in length. (111) As more and more bones were excavated from Cuckfield, Mantell's monster began to take shape and gain proportions until he felt confident in publically presenting his findings on 10 February 1825. Mantell named his animal Iguanosaurus, or literally "iguana lizard." Conybeare pointed out the fallacy of that name noting, quite succinctly, that all iguanas are lizards and that the name was repetitive and might as well refer to a normal iguana. Since the animal's relation to the iguana was based on its teeth, Conybeare recommended the name that stuck: Iguanodon, or "iguana teeth." (87) With that the second dinosaur was named and Mantell found his place in history. His later discovery, in 1833, of the armored Ankylosaurid dinosaur Hyaelosaurus, the "forest lizard," though less known among dinosaur species, was the third named and was seen as just cause to assign these animals to their own distinct group several years later.

If Mantell was the anti-Buckland in terms of livelihood then his friend, Scotsman Charles Lyell, was the anti-Buckland in terms of philosophy. Lyell was a lawyer by trade and geologist by passion. He and Mantell were also uniformitarian, arguing that the world and the lifeforms on it were not shaped by catastrophes (such as the Noachian Flood of the Bible) as Buckland and Conybeare reasoned, but rather that natural processes had governed the Earth and its inhabitants, past and present. The uniformitarian approach searches for secular and rational explanations for how the world works rather than simply ascribing the workings of an omniscient and invisible deity. (93) This was something of a novel approach and earned the ire of the Buckland/Conybeare league that, over time, began to find their numbers dwindling. (172) Lyell's great contribution to science was his three-volume Principles of Geology, one of the first texts written on this new field of science. Lyell's name ought to stand as a figurehead of modern scientific thought, the champion of all those who support a rationalist approach towards the natural world, as his influence was carried across the circumference of the Earth. In 1831 a young man boarded a vessel in Plymouth harbor with Volume One of Lyell's Principles carefully packed amongst his trunks. The book provided intellectual reading and food for thought during the long voyage that lay ahead. That young man was Charles Darwin and the vessel sailing out of Plymouth was HMS Beagle. (97)

Neither Charles Darwin nor the theory of evolution emerged from out of a vacuum. One might say that Darwin and evolution both had to evolve from more primitive forms of thought. Without the influences and discoveries of Mary Anning, William Buckland, William Conybeare, Georges Cuvier, Gideon Mantell, Charles Lyell, and others, Darwin might never have felt inspired to examine the relatively new concept of the transmutation of species. Indeed, Darwin had not conceived of evolution all on his own. The transmutation of species that early, primordial form of evolution had been the pet idea of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who presented the concept in 1800. (2) Over the next three decades evolution had grown, aided in part by Lyell's books, to become something tangible, something testable, something that Darwin could experiment with and provide decided proof for. The five-year voyage aboard Beagle from 1831-36 was designed to do just that, carrying the young naturalist across the Atlantic to South America, around Cape Horn, to the Galapagos, through the Pacific to Australia, over to the Cape of Good Hope, and back to Plymouth. During the voyage Darwin collected live specimens, dug for fossils, and examined the multitude of species that he encountered along the way. Darwin returned home a celebrated circumnavigator with plenty of stories to tell, plenty of specimens to show off, and plenty of work to get done.

Lyell held a dinner party on 26 October 1836, shortly after Beagle's return, with Darwin as guest of honor. It was here that Charles Darwin first met Richard Owen. (159) Owen, like Mantell, was in the business of medicine and took a more clinical approach toward fossils. However, Owen was also like Buckland in terms of prescribing Biblical beliefs to the world. By this time Darwin had firmly been sold by Lyell's arguments in Principles and was hard at work sorting out the theory of evolution in his head. It would take until 1859 for him to publish the theory in his groundbreaking tome, On the Origin of Species, but he bided his time by ensuring that the science was sound based on the observations made by experts in the field. His collection from the Beagle expedition was distributed to several parties with Buckland taking a few items but the majority going to Owen and the Hunterian Museum. This began a unique and potentially unhealthy relationship between Darwin and Owen, part parasitic, part educational. Darwin, today known as the father of evolutionary theory, remained mum on the word during his first few years back on terra firma. Not only was he trying to keep others from running and publishing his ideas before he could but his secrecy was a necessary option when dealing with Owen. Here Darwin had one of the greatest anatomical minds in England at his disposal, the man considered the worthy successor of the now-deceased Cuvier, examining his collections. During their work together, Owen fed Darwin information that would eventually form the scientific background necessary for the theory of evolution that Darwin, with little scientific training of his own, felt short on. Darwin knew that Owen would abandon him should their vast philosophical conflict of interest be revealed. For the sake of his work Darwin spoke not a word of evolution to Owen, and Owen was perhaps never the wiser. (185) Later, once Darwin published his thoughts on evolution, did Owen and Darwin have a falling out, the former penning a damning review of Origin of Species anonymously. (184) Owen's outright rejection evolution led to his eventual rejection by the scientific community, even during his own lifetime. (200)

Lest Owen be presented in a poor light, some praise ought to be rendered his way. Richard Owen, despite his awkward relationship with Darwin, was a brilliant scientist and lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons. It was Owen who, in 1842, coined the word "dinosaur" to describe the family of extinct reptiles that Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hyaelosaurus belonged to. It was Owen who further created a set of anatomical standards for these dinosaurs: a large sacrum fused to five vertebrae, limbs situated vertically beneath the body (as opposed to lizards and crocodiles with their limbs splayed away from the body), and teeth set in sockets. (176) He was surprisingly accurate in predicting that these would be characteristics that the vast majority of dinosaurs would possess, given that he was working off of only three unrelated species at the time. The characteristics were there, but the forms were not. The animals were still rendered as large quadruped lizards. Megalosaurus, it would later be realized, resembled a slightly smaller Tyrannosaurus. Iguanodon was a bipedal animal whose thumb spikes Owen had mistakenly placed on the rostrum as nose horns. As it took time for the quirks to be worked out of evolution it also took time for the quirks to be worked out of the fossilized remains of Earth's former inhabitants.

The theory of evolution is widely regarded today as the rational explanation for how the world and its living occupants came into being. The Earth was formed by geologic processes, as described by Lyell. By the process of natural selection did species develop to fill specific niches in which they thrive. Lifeforms gradually change over time. Speciation occurs, branching new species out from common ancestors and creating extensive and deep lineages that one may trace backward in time. Evolution is testable and has left behind ample evidence in the fossil record. The sheer number of transitional fossils organisms representing a shift from one body type to another fills in the gaps between the various lineages to show a smooth passage from one species to another. As the centuries have passed the Lyell and Darwin perspectives have scientifically tested true. While the Buckland, Conybeare, and Owen Genesis-based perspectives still persist in force, they have been shown to have little substance and cannot be tested for validity. This rational approach of viewing our world is perhaps the greatest gift that the Enlightenment could have passed down to us.

Epilogue The 21st Century: London
The year 2009 heralded the bicentennial of Darwin's birth. Celebrations around the world reveled in appreciation for that most elegant of origin theories. The global festivities included everything from lectures by preeminent minds to fireworks bursting in the atmosphere. In London, the city where Darwin had settled due to the influx of talent and knowledge that could help him develop his theories, one would be able to find plenty of Darwin Day celebrations on 12 February. One public event was Darwin's Birthday Party 2009, held by the Natural History Museum with a lecture on "How Brains Evolved," focusing on the evolution of the brain from mankind's early primate ancestors up to the modern Homo sapiens sapiens. This is a huge step forward when one considers that the Natural History Museum had been founded in 1881 under the direction of Darwin's chief denouncer and once assistant, Richard Owen. That even Owen's own institution has come about to embrace the Darwinian way speaks well of the accepted validity of evolution. Owen himself may be dismayed, but Mary Anning would likely be flabbergasted and thrilled at how far we've come in terms of procuring rights and academic opportunities for women that were unimaginable in her day. What she would have given to have had some of those opportunities for herself.

Those individuals in Darwin's day reshaped the entire face of science over the course of nearly sixty years. They carved out an entirely new way of thinking about life and the world. Despite how far England has come, despite how far we as a species have come, there is still a hangup, a resistance to be too bold with new scientific endeavours. Somehow we seem to have lost some of that ambition. The enterprising spirit of the Eighteenth Century has been lost, replaced with a technology-spoiled malaise. There need to be more Mary Annings, more William Bucklands, more Charles Darwins, more Richard Owens. There needs to be more individuals willing to take a gamble at proving what great and amazing things human beings can do when they put their minds to it.

McGowan, Christopher. The Dragon Seekers. (Cambridge: Perseus Publishing, 2001)


Engaged 23 August 2010 | Updated 23 August 2010