Digging for Darwin
In our final tribute to Darwin year, Sally Feldman celebrates the life of Mary Anning, the woman whose work helped to lay the foundations for the theory of evolution
In October, an incredible cluster of skeletons was uncovered in north-east China. The bones belonged to a species of hitherto unknown feathered creatures which have been identified as a missing link – directly descended from dinosaurs. The clue is that the fossils were found in rocks that are 160 million years old, making them 10 million years older than the first bird, Archaeopteryx.
This new species, named Darwinopterus as a mark of the 200th anniversary of the great naturalist’s birth, is a magnificent and terrifying bird. It resembles a hawk-like reptile, its head and neck resembling those of advanced pterosaurs, but the rest of the skeleton corresponds to more primitive forms. With its long jaws and rows of sharp-pointed teeth, the creature was very well equipped for catching and killing other flying species.
Meanwhile, something of a controversy is raging about the origin of Ida, a 47-million-year-old primate. Researchers who had worked for two years on the remains of the fossil had presented the species as a missing link, connecting human beings to apes and hence to the rest of the animal kingdom. Detractors, though, are claiming that there is no such link. If anything, the fossil looks more like a lemur.
Exciting though these finds may be to palaeontologists, and gratifying to anyone looking for yet more proof of the theory of evolution, neither of them has caused that much of a flurry beyond these narrow circles. But 200 years ago, when fossils first began to be excavated and recognised, every discovery was greeted with amazement – and an almost equal degree of anxiety. For while the public imagination was fired by the glimpses of forgotten worlds and terrifying monsters, the Church was profoundly dismayed by what appeared to be direct challenges to the accepted wisdoms.
But one young woman – poor, uneducated, scavenging a living by scouring her local beach for curiosities – would have been quite unfazed by the appearance of Darwinopterus. After all, she’d uncovered a few pretty astonishing species herself. While scientists and churchmen argued and debated and raged about the implications of the new discoveries, Mary Anning doggedly continued her daily forages, excavating a series of treasures that bore witness to a strange, rich prehistory.
Mary, from a struggling working-class family living close to the inhospitable, rugged seashore at Lyme Regis, first developed her interest in fossils on beach forays with her cabinet-maker father, who began to see a market for the strangely-shaped curios. Local people had long been familiar with the small, rather delicate pebbles that littered their beaches, but regarded them simply as God’s benevolent decorations, rock versions of flowers or trees. Indeed, they had traditionally been invested with miraculous divine powers. Powdered belemnites were believed to be able to clear up infections in a horse’s eye; water in which they were soaked was thought to cure horses with worms. Ammonites were considered particularly magical, able to ward off all sorts of maladies from snakebites to impotence.
But Richard Anning recognised the true provenance of the rocks. He taught his daughter to spot and identify fossils, and showed her how to salvage and clean them so that they could be sold to visitors.
It was after he died that her fascination became a necessity: the sale of fossils was the only means of livelihood for the family. Her first major discovery came in 1810, after her brother Joseph uncovered an enormous skull. Mary then found its skeleton, and assumed it to be a giant crocodile. It was so enormous, with its four-foot-long head, huge eyes and at least 200 teeth, that it took several men to raise the skeleton off the hillside. And only when Mary painstakingly began to clean the fossilised remains and piece them together did it become clear that this 17-foot monster was quite unlike a crocodile. It sported flippers like a dolphin, a mouth like a crocodile, a pointed snout like a swordfish, a backbone like that of a fish but with a lizard-like chest. It was not until Mary sold the fantastical creature to a local landowner that it was eventually identified as an ichthyosaur – and began to attract the curiosity of scientists and collectors.
In The Fossil Hunter, a new biography of Mary Anning, Shelley Emling puts the impact of her discoveries into context. “Pre-Victorian England exemplified a powerful period in the history of science,” she writes. “A time when one never-before-seen monster after another was being cajoled from its Jurassic tomb, drawn out into the light of day where it could blow holes through the Biblical account of scientific history.”
It’s hard to imagine now just how shocking to a devout, stable Christian society these discoveries would have been. Religious thinkers and evangelists rushed to retaliate with a mixture of declarations, complex rationalisations or simply flat denials – like that of the evangelical pastor George Bugg. “Was ever the word of God laid so deplorably prostrate at the feet of an infant and precocious science!” he spluttered in Scriptural Geology in the early 1820s.
No wonder he and other believers were apoplectic. The prevailing belief at the time was that the earth was made in six divinely ordered 24-hour time slots during which God created first the sun, moon, stars and oceans, then the creatures of the air, sea and land, and on the sixth day produced his masterpiece: man. All species of life were created during those six days, a few thousand years ago.
Many even still held to the conclusions of the Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher, who in 1650 pronounced that the world had been created at 8.00pm on 23 October 4004 BC. Before that, there was nothing.
So excavations revealing ages and worlds so distant and foreign were a terrible affront. How could the evidence of billions of years of existence be squared with the Biblical orthodoxy that the earth was only a few thousand years old? And how could these strange and monstrous imprints really be the hardened remains of long-dead animals, when such species had never been seen by any human being?
How could the Bible be re-jigged to accomodate the new discoveries? Some sought to save orthodox religious beliefs by embracing the ideas of the 18th-century mineralogist Abraham Werner. He departed from the literal creation account of the Bible by proposing that Earth had started as an ocean of water, gradually built into land by God’s sure, transforming hand. Others, though, like James Hutton, thought it an affront to God even to question his mysterious ways. His notion of uniformitarianism did acknowledge that the planet must be very old and that it had been formed through shifts in geological structures. But rather than try to second-guess God, man should accept that the Earth had “no vestige of a beginning, no prospects of an end” – and leave well alone.
Meanwhile, those still clinging to the literal Biblical account of creation tried to find comfort in the reasoning of Swiss philosopher Jean Andre De Luc, who concluded that the six days laid out in Genesis were really six epochs, ending with the flood.
By the turn of the century a rather more radical explanation enjoyed a brief period in the sun. The naturalist Jean-Baptise Lamarck had rocked traditional thinking with his theory of transmutation, the first ever suggestion that organisms could transform into higher forms. Giraffes had developed stretched necks, he speculated, in order to reach higher in the trees for food, and this characteristic had been passed on to future generations, in much the same way as a blacksmith who develops strong arm muscles will pass his biceps on to his children.
By far the most respected of the claims and counter-claims, though, came from the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who in 1796 had startled the French establishment by suggesting that mammoths were a separate species from elephants, and therefore must be extinct. He was able to accept that the earth was immensely old. But, as a lifelong Protestant, he still needed to find a way to reconcile his scientific beliefs with his faith. So he suggested that periodic catastrophes had befallen the planet and that each one had wiped out a number of species.
But this only created more trouble. How could a species become extinct? Surely God had made them all at once? Others, though, eagerly seized on Cuvier’s catastrophe theory since it was at least compatible with one part of the Biblical account: Noah’s flood.
And several of the fossil enthusiasts who had come to befriend Mary were also keen to accept Cuvier’s explanation. Among them was the flamboyant geologist William Buckland, who spent many days beachcombing with Mary, impressed by her knowledge and meticulousness. Buckland, an ordained minister, was later to become professor of geology at Oxford University, and eventually president of the British Geological Society. And he made it a lifelong mission to reconcile the findings of geology with the teachings of the Bible, arguing passionately that all of life and its infinite, changing species were proof of the existence of a supreme creator.
Like Buckland, many of the other foremost fossil-hunters of the day were clergymen, or at least had solid Christian beliefs, as did most of the gentlemen collectors who were among Mary’s regular buyers. One prominent fossil fanatic was Buckland’s friend the Reverend Conybeare, who was keen to match Mary’s series of discoveries with his own research. But, still, these enthusiasts were constantly assailed by doubts, perplexed by the scientific revelations which appeared so at odds with religious teachings. As John Ruskin was to put it some decades later: “If only the geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of Bible verses.”
Mary herself was also a devout believer, and only slowly came to recognise just how radical her findings were. With a meagre education and little contact with intellectual society, her main access to the scientific thinking of the day was through men like Buckland and others who would accompany her on her remarkable hunting excursions. And she was also befriended by a series of older women who recognised her abilities and strange combination of talents.
The most notable of these was Elizabeth Philpot, from a genteel family down on its luck, who also collected fossils and did a great deal to help Mary to organise and classify her increasingly numerous and rare treasures. As Tracy Chevalier shows in her new novel, Remarkable Creatures, a dramatised account of their relationship, neither of them behaved or appeared as a Victorian woman should. They would hitch their skirts to clamber across rocks in treacherous weather, scrabble in mud to release their treasures, altogether engaging in heavy and dirty labouring in a manner quite unsuited to the expected demeanour of a lady. In other ways, though, their activities were highly feminine. For while women were not considered intellectually able to engage in analytic or experimental work, they were frequently used as scribes and documenters, able to use the domestic skills of close work, drawing and classifying in support of the men’s “real” work.
For example, Charlotte Murchison, who accompanied her husband Roderick on a trip with the ground-breaking geologist Charles Lyell, was charged with sketching the landscapes and geological structures, more as a secretary than a fellow-scientist. And the fossil expert Gideon Mantell, whose discovery of the tooth of an iguanodon was hailed as a major advance in palaeontology, never came clean that the tooth had actually been found by his wife Mary Anne.
As women could not practise as scientists themselves, they would often be only too pleased with the role of helpmeet, as a way of achieving some form of involvement. But their contribution would rarely be properly credited. Even experts like Buckland and Conybeare, who were quite happy to pick Mary Anning’s brains and use her meticulous sketches for their scientific presentations, gave her work only marginal recognition.
But the mechanics of digging, salvaging and classifying were far from mere drudgery. It was Mary’s keen eye and attention to detail that gave her what was becoming an encyclopaedic knowledge of variations in species. And this ability is fundamental to the detective work of palaeontology. It eventually gave her the confidence to stand up to the great Cuvier himself, when he had the audacity to doubt her findings.
Their dispute resulted from Mary’s second great find. In 1823 she stumbled upon a giant skull quite different from that of the ichthyosaur. “The creature was starting to resemble not a crocodile but something akin to a turtle,” writes Emling, “with a flat mouth and stubby short tail and, oddest of all, an abnormally long neck.” Mary had found a new kind of sea monster, seized upon by Reverend Conybeare, who was sure that it confirmed his suspicion of the existence of a reptile-like sea creature, the plesiosaurus. He was even more convinced when he received a precise drawing by Mary of her findings.
Excitement was dimmed, however, by the eminent Cuvier. He expressed suspicion that the new animal might be a sham, since the impossibly long neck and large number of vertebrae contradicted his own anatomical classifications. He thought that Mary had put together two completely different skeletons – which must have been a terrible affront to the collector’s meticulous methods of reconstruction. If he had succeeded in declaring the fossil a fake her career and reputation would have been ruined. It was saved by Conybeare himself, who was able to show how accurately Mary’s skeleton matched his own fossil findings. And eventually Cuvier openly admitted that he’d been mistaken.
Of course, Mary had not been present at the Geological Society of London meeting where Conybeare had presented his findings. Women were not allowed to enter its hallowed portals. And even Buckland himself, once he became director of the Society, balked at the idea of admitting women.
But Mary’s persistence and her unfailing accuracy were beginning to bring her a certain fame. Scientists and curious tourists would seek her out, and even Dickens paid tribute to her in his journal All the Year Round, in a long report about the carpenter’s daughter who “has won a name for herself, and deserved to win it.” It was her ability to distinguish between species even through very tiny differences in the shape of a jaw or the socket of an eye that transformed her from fossil-hunter to expert. She would have been quite at home with the palaeontologists who have just discovered Darwinopterus, and with their process of matching and identifying variations. After all, in 1828 she had uncovered her own flying creature. “It looked to be a cross between a vampire bat and some kind of reptile,” Emling writes. “Indeed, the pièce de resistance was its three shorter clawlike fingers followed by a fourth outlandishly long finger.” This was the flying reptile which William Buckland had long suspected might have existed. Mary had found the first British pterosaur.
Excited though Buckland was at this discovery, it didn’t help him to sleep at night. He was becoming increasingly tortured by the growing evidence of the brutality and violence of the prehistoric world. He couldn’t understand how a good and benevolent God could have created a primitive world so savage and so evil. Eventually, he came up with a reason. God wanted to make sure that animals did not suffer unduly, even if they were destined as prey. So he gave his carnivores the ability to kill suddenly, to reduce the pain of their victims.
Ingenious though this rationalisation was, it was also clearly untenable. What kind of a god would let loose such terrible cruelty when it would have been much kinder, surely, to have created a peaceful world in the first place? And there was one more nagging detail that didn’t square with Buckland’s belief that divine disasters were responsible for the extinction of species. How could a perfect and all-powerful supreme being have spent several million years experimenting with imperfect creations, then creating global disasters to wipe out his first , faulty drafts? How could one revere a supreme being who made such regular mistakes?
But attitudes were shifting fast. Only a year after Mary’s discovery of the pterodactyl, Charles Lyell published his seminal work, Principles of Geology, in which he sought to “free the science from Moses” by demonstrating how the age of the earth could be measured through the formations of rock. He had no time for Buckland’s belief that catastrophic events had shaped the Earth. For him, geological processes, over long stretches of time, would continue to shift and change – but without the agency of any divine being.
And Lyell’s contribution dealt another alarming blow to established thinking. For because he believed in cyclical changes in landscapes and climates, he couldn’t see why conditions should not at some stage allow extinct species to return. He predicted a time when the “huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaurus in the sea, while pterodactyls might flit again through the trees.”
But one scientist who did cling to the theory of catastrophism was the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz. Agassiz, the son of a pastor, was a keen follower of Cuvier. He not only spent his life defending his ideas, but took them a great deal further, as the first proponent of the idea of an Ice Age. And this, too, threw the scientific and religious communities into paroxyms of anxiety.
In quite another way, Agassiz went against the mores of the time by giving due credit to a woman. He had tracked Mary down in Lyme and made several expeditions with her and her friend Elizabeth, whose chief interest was, like his own, fossil fish. He paid both women the great honour of naming a new species of fossil fish after each of them – a rare tribute to the achievements of women at a time when even their closest associates had sidelined them.
Since her death, though, the scientific world has come to recognise Mary Anning’s remarkable work. She is described by the Natural History Museum as “the greatest fossil-hunter ever known”. And, as Shelley Emling concludes: “It was Mary who, after spending day after day chiseling curiosities out of the chalk cliffs of southern England in all sorts of weather, laid the groundwork for the theory of evolution, not to mention nearly two centuries of spectacular discoveries in the still-evolving worlds of palaeontology and geology.”
The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling (Macmillan) and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (Harper Collins) are out now