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SCIENTIST IN THE WHITE HOUSE
OF THE FIVE MEN entrusted with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence two were, or became, scientists of international renown. One was the aged Benjamin Franklin, known for his fundamental research into meteorology and electricity. The other was Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the draft of the Declaration. In 1797, when Vice-President of the United States and president of the American Philosophical Society, Jefferson read before the society, and published in its Transactions, one of the first technical papers on vertebrate paleontology in America, "A Memoir on the Discovery of Certain Bones of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia."
Jefferson, then fifty-four years old, had since his youth been fascinated by the Virginia countryside, and by the West, which was then the blue horizon seen beyond the Cumberland Gap. As a young circuit lawyer, he had traveled far through the Virginian wilderness on horseback, visiting backwoods settlements that were sometimes a day's ride apart. He long remembered the beauty of the land, and later was to write in his "Notes on Virginia" with the eye of a naturalist, and even of a geologist years before that science was founded and established in the school curricula:
The passage of the Patomac through the Blue Ridge is, perhaps, one of the most stupendous scenes in nature. You stand on a very high point of land. On your right comes up the Shenandoah having ranged along the foot of the mountain an hundred miles to seek a vent. On your left approaches the Patomac, in quest of a passage also. In the moment of their junction, they rush together against the mountain, rend it asunder and pass to the sea. The first glance of this scene hurries the senses into the opinion, that this earth has been created in time, that the mountains were formed first, that the rivers began to flow afterwards ...
A most formative experience of Jefferson's youth was his education at William and Mary's College by Dr. William Small, a young Scotsman who had been influenced by the Enlightenment. The aim of this eighteenth-century European philosophical movement was well expressed by the pronouncement of a University of Glasgow professor that "The intention of Moral Philosophy is to direct men to that course of action which tends most effectually to promote their greatest happiness and perfection; as far as it can be done by observations and conclusions discoverable from the constitution of nature, without any aids of supernatural revelation." Protected by the free-thinking deputy governor of Virginia, Francis Fauquier, Small was able to revolutionize the curriculum at the tiny Virginia college. Of the influence of Dr. Small, Jefferson later said:
Dr. William Small of Scotland ... Professor of Mathematics, a man profound in the most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly mannered, and an enlarged and liberal mind ... most happily for me, soon attached to me, and made me his daily companion when not engaged in the school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science, and of the system in which we are placed.
Jefferson's contribution to a science directly concerned with "the system in which we are placed" was based on three enormous claws that were found in the dirt floor of a cave in western Virginia. Of their owner he writes, "I will venture to call him by the name of Great Claw or Megalonyx, to which he seems sufficiently entitled by the distinguished size of that member." Indians had told him legends of great lions that once lived in the forest, and he naturally compared his fossils with that animal, coming to the conclusion that the beast was probably two or three times the size of the African lion. Later he learned that similar claws had been found in South America associated with bones of a gigantic, extinct ground sloth. In spite of his misidentification, Jefferson's name Megalonyx is still used for this gigantic sloth, which ranged widely over the United States, until the time of the early Indians.
Jefferson also knew about the bones of other great animals scattered along the banks of the Ohio in Kentucky—the huge vertebrae of mastodons at the Big Bone Lick of Kentucky were used by hunters for campstools—and thought that great animals might still be found roaming the vast continent beyond the Blue Ridge; "In the present interior of our continent there is surely space and range enough for elephants and lions."
After he became President in 1800, Jefferson continued "the tranquil pursuits of science ... my supreme delight." At the same time, he competently extended the influence of the young Republic to the shores of the Pacific. As early as 1785 Jefferson was concerned about the consequences of exploration in the West by other powers. He wrote that "I find they have subscribed a very large sum of money in England for exploring the country from the Mississippi to California. They pretend it is only to promote knoledge. I am afraid they have thoughts of colonizing in the quarter. Some of us have been talking here in a feeble way of making the attempt to search that country, but I doubt whether we have enough of that kind of spirit to raise the money."
From the presidential office he watched for the chance to get an expedition underway. The opportunity came in 1803 in the shape of a congressional bill concerning Indian trading posts. He included in this a modest appropriation for investigation of a trade route from the Missouri to the mouth of the Columbia. He asked his young private secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to head up the expedition. Lewis chose his friend Lieutenant William Clark to share command, and informally gave him the rank of captain. While Lewis and Clark were on their way West, Jefferson consummated the Louisiana Purchase, which transferred ownership of the land between the Mississippi and the "Stony Mountains" to the United States. Starting out from the Mandan country of the Upper Missouri in April of 1805, with a party of fourteen soldiers, nine Kentucky frontiersmen, an Indian girl named Sacajawea, her new baby, and her French-Canadian husband, the Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Continental Divide in mid-August, and were camped on the cold and rainy Pacific shore by early November.
Jefferson had charged Lewis to find a waterway to the Pacific, to determine the names of the Indian nations and their numbers, and to observe soil, vegetation, animals, minerals, volcanos, and climate. The humane Jefferson also wanted Lewis to distribute "kine-pox" (cowpox) vaccine among the Indians to ward off the smallpox that already was decimating the tribes of the Upper Missouri.
The expedition expended most of its efforts in forcing its way through the wilderness and in gathering enough food to stay alive, but Lewis, an amateur botanist, did an impressive amount of work as a scientist. His lengthy notes on natural history are a priceless record of the red man's West.
Two months out of the Mandan villages, on their way west, Lewis and Clark had gone through what came to be one of the classic fossil-hunting grounds. About a hundred miles below the great Falls of the Missouri, they came upon a beautifully clear stream, flowing from the south through rugged badlands to empty into the Missouri. Clark named it the Judith River after a thirteen-year-old friend Julia (called Judy), whom he later married. In the Judith River badlands pieces of dinosaur bone can be found in abundance, but they lie in the topmost layers of the gigantic bluffs, which rise 800 feet above the river, and Lewis passed by them unaware.
Jefferson did not get a successful bone-hunting expedition underway until the return of the Lewis and Clark expedition, when he asked Clark, now a general, to dig at the Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. Clark collected more than 300 bones, most of them of the elephantlike mastodon, and sent them to Washington by way of New Orleans. Jefferson, who believed that education was the most important aspect of the life of the nation, and dreamed of an entire populace of educated farmers like himself, made one of the rooms of the White House into a museum, where he spread out the fossil bones to show to visitors. In the yard of the presidential mansion he kept a pair of grizzly cubs brought back by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Like many another scientist and rationalist, Jefferson was an object of abuse from the conservatives of his time as a "French infidel" and "atheist." A famous piece of literature from early America is a satiric poem directed against Jefferson written by the thirteen-year-old prodigy William Cullen Bryant who, no doubt on the advice of his elders, associated science and sin:
Go, wretch, resign thy presidential chair,
Disclose thy secret measures, foul or fair,
Go, search with curious eyes for horned frogs,
'Mid the wild wastes of Louisianian bogs;
Or where the Ohio rolls his turbid stream;
Dig for huge bones, thy glory and thy theme.
Go scan, Philosophist, thy ****** charms
And sink supinely in her sable arms;
But quit to abler hands the helm of state.
Scholars read the six asterisks as "Sally's," in reference to the contemporary gossip about Jefferson's "black Aspasia."
During the nineteenth century, the Enlightenment's "smile of reason" faded from the high councils of state. Jefferson's friend Tom Paine fell upon evil days, and died abused and neglected. His bones were dug up and taken to England for a traveling show, where the populace could shudder pleasurably at the relics of the notorious atheist. A mastodon also was exported to England, exhibited as the "Leviathan of Holy Writ." But the spirit of Jefferson still lingers about his grave, which bears the epitaph, written by himself, "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia." His simple farmer's vision of the future of science in America was recorded in a letter to the president of Harvard College:
What a field we have at our doors to signalize ourselves in. The botany of America is far from being exhausted, its mineralogy is untouched, and its natural history of zoology totally mistaken or misrepresented.... It is for such institutions as that over which you preside so worthily, sir, to do justice to our country, its productions and its genius. It is the work to which the young men you are forming should lay their hands. We have spent the prime of our lives in procuring the precious blessing of liberty. Let them spend theirs in showing that it is the great parent of science and of virtue, and that a nation will be great in both always in proportion as it is free.CHAPTER 2
ROCKS AND FOSSILS
EDWARD DRINKER COPE and Othniel Charles Marsh, as paleontologists, were in the middle of a new science, geology, which was so young that the effective founder of geology was still alive when they began their professional careers. Although observations and theories that would make possible a science of the history of the earth had been accumulating since the reawakening of interest in nature that took place with the Renaissance, these observations were not brought together in a systematic way until the beginning of the nineteenth century. This organization was carried out almost single-handedly by the Englishman Charles Lyell, who created geology as a large-scale and going concern with his three-volume Principles of Geology which began to appear in 1830 and which he constantly revised for the next forty-two years, keeping pace with and in many ways leading the rapid growth of the new science. His approach to geology is shown by the subtitle to the Principles: "An Attempt to Explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes now in Operation."
Emphasis on what could be seen before one's eyes provided a base for the healthy growth of geology. One of the first results of the science was the realization that the earth must be very old. It could be observed that the landscape was constantly being shaped by the slow forces of erosion. Instead of being permanent structures, the very hills had a history of change that extended over eons of time. Study of the silts and sands carried from the hillsides by streams out into broad valleys and onto deltas showed that hard rocks such as sandstones and shales were obviously ancient sediments of this kind. Analysis of the patchwork of sedimentary rocks scattered over the earth showed that they could be arranged in a vertical sequence, the older at the bottom, that totaled mile upon mile in thickness. The processes of erosion and deposition that can be seen now must have been in operation for millions of years. As a geologic force countering this mass wasting of the highlands, there could be observed the inch-by-inch movements or even catastrophic uplifts of several feet produced by earthquakes.
Civilized societies are so constructed that any new conception produces waves of political disturbance. Lyell wrote that some of his contemporaries believed geology to be a "dangerous, or at least a visionary pursuit." In Lyell's day many of the schools still taught a timetable of earth history that was only an up-to-date version of the following one, published in the sixteenth century and obtained by an analysis of the genealogy since Adam given in the Bible:
YEARS BEFORE PRESENT
Birth of Christ 1,561
The Captivity 2,175
Building of the Temple 2,589
Departure of Israel from Egypt 3,070
The Deluge 3,865
Creation of the World 5,521
Lyell and his followers also had to combat the influence of speculative scientists. The astronomers had seen nebulae that looked as if they could gradually evolve into solar systems, with planets revolving around a central sun. They concluded that the earth had first appeared as a fiery mass condensed out of a nebular cloud. The French naturalist Buffon in the eighteenth century measured the rate of cooling of a large heated iron sphere to give an estimate of the age of the earth that indicated the biblical estimate to be far too small. Lyell took the position that this kind of approach was too hypothetical to be of any real significance, and that the question of the origin of the earth was not really a scientific one. So far as geological evidence went, it was his opinion that the earth could have existed forever in about its present form.
Paleontology, usually considered a subdivision of geology, is the study of the remains of animals and plants buried in the sedimentary rocks. Whereas Lyell was subversive in giving the earth an age of at least millions of years, his ideas about the meaning of fossils were quite innocuous. His original conception was that the same kinds of animals existed in the past as are now in existence, that there had been no evolutionary change. The absence of the bones of mammals, for example, in the oldest sedimentary rocks was, he thought, merely an illusion: the heat and pressure to which these ancient rocks had been subjected had destroyed the fossils they contained. He was confident that with further geologic exploration, the fossils of the modern groups of animals would be found in sedimentary rocks of all ages.
The only new thing under the sun, Lyell thought, was man himself. He admitted that such objects as the pyramids of Egypt or the stone roads of the Romans would certainly have left traces in the rocks impossible to overlook had they been present in the geologic past. He therefore thought man had been created suddenly in relatively recent times.
Lyell eventually came to the conclusion that he was wrong in thinking that the animal world did not have a history of change. This came about, not from new discoveries in paleontology, but from the influence of his friend Charles Darwin. Darwin published in 1859 his Origin of Species, the product of some twenty-five years of observation and thought, a book that convinced most of the scientific world that animals and plants had evolved through time. Darwin came to this conclusion almost entirely from a study of living organisms. What was known about fossils at the time gave little direct evidence to support the theory of evolution.
The modern science of paleontology was systematized a few years ahead of Lyell's organization of geology. The French ex-botanist J. B. Lamarck, at the age of fifty-eight, began publication of what is generally taken as the foundation of invertebrate paleontology: The Fossils of the Paris Region (1802–06). Taking into account all animals except the vertebrates, the invertebrate paleontologist deals primarily with shells instead of bones, shells being the limy covering of snails and clams or the jointed armor of arthropods that live in the water.
Excerpted from THE BONE HUNTERS by Url Lanham. Copyright © 1973 Url Lanham. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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