Against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, an extraordinary circle of fossilists struggled to make sense of a mysterious, prehistoric world--a world they had to piece together from the fossilized and often fragmentary remains of animals never before seen. In this transporting, seamlessly written book, Christopher McGowan takes us back to a time when geology and paleontology were as young and vibrant as genetic engineering is today. The nineteenth-century pioneers of these new disciplines were an eccentric lot, from different social classes and sexes, with a range of motivations in fossil hunting. These "Dragon Seekers" sought to persuade a populace raised on a literal interpretation of Genesis that the ground they walked was once a very frightening and unfamiliar place. A sweeping narrative history, The Dragon Seekers shows how these remarkable characters forever changed our interpretation of the world and its inhabitants.
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