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The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin

The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin

by Christopher Mcgowan

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

McGowan dwells... on what pronouncements the scientific high-hats in London were handing down about the strange animals... [a] fine book
LA Times
...an informative and exciting account of... those scientists who discovered the dinosaurs and thus paved the way for Darwin's theory of evolution... suspenseful"
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
McGowan (The Raptor and the Lamb; Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons) brings his expertise as a zoologist and paleontologist to this decorative summary of the first dinosaur hunters leading up to Darwin. The author, who is senior curator of paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum, skillfully distills the debate over origins that occupied the scientists and theologians of the 19th century, and his streamlined history of the Victorian fossilists advances at breakneck speed (bear in mind that bone hunters like Mary Anning, the woman who discovered the first complete dinosaur skeleton, predate Queen Victoria). In addition, he treats the reader to fascinating professional details, such as how fossil skeletons were dug up in Anning's day compared to the techniques used today, and the common pitfalls curators encounter when purchasing fossils. But McGowan misses the mark in his efforts to popularize the first dinosaur hunters as an entertaining gallery of rogues and misfits. He gives undue emphasis to curiosities such as Thomas Hawkins, an amateur collector who "improved upon" fossils with plaster and paint, at the expense of a fuller, more rounded account of the real contributors to the field. And the author engages in some cosmetic restoration of his own by dressing up Richard Owen as the father of modern paleontology, entirely ignoring the ambitious scoundrel behind the academic honors who ruined the careers of fellow scientists and worked to discredit his rival, Gideon Mantell. McGowan seems content to leave these skeletons locked in the closet rather than risk blemishing his cheerful fable of the coming of Darwin. His dragon seekers are bone-thin, and his story, while succinct, is ultimately superficial. Readers wanting the whole story will be better off taking on Deborah Cadbury's Terrible Lizard (see review, p. 229). Illus. (May) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
McGowan (zoology, U. of Toronto, Canada) provides an account of the 19th-century pioneers in the field of geology and paleontology. An eccentric lot, hailing from various social classes and sexes, and with a range of motivations in fossil hunting, these pioneer "dragon-seekers" sought to persuade a mostly Christian populace of an alternative account of the origins of the world and its inhabitants. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

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Basic Books
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: In the Beginning

It is a remarkable fact that the human mind, which has had a presence on Earth for over 2 million years, only began rational thought on how species came into existence during the last three centuries. Prior to this age of enlightenment people were content with mythological explanations. These were later supplanted by formal religious beliefs, as in the Genesis account of the Creation.

Fossils, which are central to the issue of origins, have been known since the classical time of the Greeks. But it was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that the stony objects, dug from the ground, were correctly interpreted as the remains of former inhabitants of the Earth. Even then, the intellectuals who studied fossils were often unable to identify them correctly, far less to place them in their proper context. For example, the bilobed bony fossil that Robert Plot of Oxford ascribed to a giant human in 1676, and which R. Brooks labeled as Scrotum humanum in 1763, was actually the lower end of the femur of a dinosaur. Dinosaurs, and their reptilian kin, therefore passed unrealized, if not unnoticed, until the early part of the nineteenth century.

Why did it take so long for paleontology-and even longer for evolutionary studiesto come of age in this age of discovery? This question is made all the more perplexing when account is taken of the progress that had been made in many other branches of science by the nineteenth century. John Dalton (1766-1844), for example, derived his atomic theory of matter in 1803, Isaac Newton's (1642-1727) laws of motion were formulated over a century before, in 1687, and Edward Jenner (1749-1823) introduced immunization against smallpox in 1798. The reason for the differential development of the various branches of science probably has much to do with the graded response of the established church, specifically the Anglican Church in England. English theologians and clerics had no argument with those who tinkered with chemistry or physics, but intellectuals who questioned the biblical account of the Creation could expect the full and considerable weight of the church to bear down upon them.

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. It was in this secular environment that some of the most radical ideas of the age were spawned, such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's (1744-1829) ideas on the transmutation of species. 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 Biblein the same way that today's science teachers are constrained in North American school districts where fundamentalists hold political power. The Genesis account of the Creation therefore remained the predominant view in Britain for most of the nineteenth century.

It is difficult for us in our modern world to appreciate the powerful influence the church had over philosophical and scientific issues during Darwin's (1809-1882) time. Except to many present-day Christian fundamentalists, the Book of Genesis has no relevance to the way we interpret the natural world and its long geological history. But it was not so when early fossilists attempted to interpret the remarkable creatures they discovered. Back then, the biblical account of how living things came into being was the accepted and seldom questioned truth. Charles Darwin himself records how orthodox he was in his religious beliefs when he was cruising aboard the Beagle (1831-1836), at least on moral issues, and there is no reason to suppose this did not extend to the Genesis account of creation too:

. . . I remember being heartily laughed at by several officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.

The early fossilists, like most other intellectuals of their time, recognized that the fossilized creatures they studied were no longer in existence. But others denied the concept of extinction on religious grounds. The idea that any of God's creatures had failed to survive cast aspersions on his wisdom and was...

What People are Saying About This

John Fowles
"A most valuable guide to the mysteries of our own past. I warmly recommend it to all who wonder whence our modern world developed."
Kevin Padian
"Few casts of characters in the history of science are as varied and colorful as the disparate group of Victorian fossilists who found and described the first dinosaurs. In this lively and cogent book, McGowan brings their own words and time back to life, and shows how their discoveries and ideas forged the basis for understanding the great sweep of evolutionary history."
Philip Currie
"Seldom have I been so captivated by a historical treatment. I couldn't put The Dragon Seekers down. It's all there -- history, humor, philosophy, science, and the romance of discovery -- in a well-written package that shows science doesn't have to be dry and boring."
David B. Weishampel
"Everyone knows about dinosaurs, but few appreciate the intertwining of their discovery and the advent of Darwin's theory of evolution. McGowan's wonderful book offers up the historical struggle of the scientists who turned dinosaurs into living creatures and who championed evolution to explain their place in antiquity. What a great read!"

Meet the Author

Christopher McGowan is a full professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto and Senior Curator of Paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum. He is the author of ten other books, including The Raptor and the Lamb and Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons.

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