The epic quest for missing links and other myths about evolution.
A highly instructive tour of the fossil record, from New Jersey State Museum research associate Switek.
"[E]very single bone has a story to tell about the life and evolution of the animal it once belonged to," writes the author in this easily digestible survey of paleontological history. Some of the scientists reading the evidence brought the quirks and contingencies of their times to the stories they told, trying, for example, to corroborate science with scripture, while others sallied into new and blasphemous realms. Switek invests all of them with a wonderful engagement as they try to make sense of the stone bones. The author weds the geological conjectures of James Hutton to the comparative anatomy of Georges Cuvier, and shows how the tinkerings of Charles Lyell influenced French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Charles Darwin enters the picture along with Alfred Russell Wallace, allowing Switek to examine inherited variation, advantageous traits and natural selection. In his discussion of Thomas Huxley's skirmishes with reptile-bird relationships, the author conveys the heroic nature of field science—"In order to approximate the dinosaurian physiology, the...scientists carried out the unenviable task of sticking thermometers in the cloacae of American alligators"—while also pondering the self-contained life of the amniotic egg, the energy and perseverance of scientists like Albert Koch and his sea monsters and Hugh Falconer's tribulations with prehistoric elephants. Switek ranges across an astonishingly diverse variety of topics, including the evolution whales in Pakistan and the connection between jaw and ear bones in early mammals. The author brings all the branching patterns into focus, even when the language threatens to overwhelm, in a way that permits readers to fill the gaps in the circumstantially incomplete fossil record.
A warm, intelligent yeoman's guide to the progress of life.
- Bellevue Literary Press
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Barnes & Noble
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 4 MB
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 6. As Monstrous as a Whale
‘[L]et us not be too sure that in putting together the bones of extinct species we are not out of collected fossil remains creating to ourselves a monster’
—Samuel Best, After Thoughts on Reading Dr. Buckland’s Bridgewater Treatise (1837)
In the summer of 1841, the German-born fossil collector Albert Koch unveiled a monster. Over thirty feet in length and fifteen feet high at the shoulder, the tusked wonder dwarfed visitors to Koch’s eclectic St Louis Museum. He called it Missourium theristrocaulodon, the Leviathan from Missouri.
Koch had exhumed the remains of his star attraction not far from the lush banks of the Pomme de Terre River in Benton County, Missouri, the previous year. Among scraps of fossilized swamp moss and cypress trees were the bones of several individuals, and Koch cobbled together their bones to construct a beast that seemed larger than life. Patrons flocked to the museum to marvel at its enormous tusks and tree-sized limbs.
Koch’s Missourium proved popular enough that he decided to expand his audience. The beast was to go on an east-coast tour, and one of the first stops was the Masonic Hall in the bustling port city of Philadelphia. Crowds came to gape at what Koch sold as the ruler of the Antediluvian world, but mixed among the curious members of the public were representatives of the city’s prestigious community of naturalists.
One of the first naturalists to examine Koch’s work was the anatomist Paul Goddard, and he immediately knew something was wrong. Koch’s Missourium was not a new creature but was already familiar to naturalists as a mastodon, an extinct elephant given the name Mammut americanum. Even worse, Koch had erred in his reconstruction by adding extra ribs and vertebrae to inflate the stature of the already gigantic proboscidean.
Koch’s lack of academic training and his sensational promotion of his specimen did little to help him. Had he deliberately manufactured an imaginary creature or was he just ignorant of palaeontology? Accusations and counter-accusations circulated through Philadelphia’s scientific community, but Richard Harlan, another local anatomist and polymath, took the middle ground. After studying the skeleton himself, Harlan could only conclude that Koch had simply made a few honest mistakes. Surely, now the errors had been exposed, the extraneous bones would be removed.
If Koch agreed with Harlan’s assessment, he did not let on. When the skeleton was erected in London’s Egyptian Hall later the same year, it appeared with every extra bone in place. Now, however, it had some competition. The scaly representatives of the recently described (and soon to be named) Dinosauria threatened to overshadow the Missourium. So Koch played up the might and size of his ancient pachyderm. A broadside poster proclaimed:
This unparalleled Gigantic remains, when its huge frame was clad with its peculiar fibrous integuments, and when moved by its appropriate muscles, was Monarch over all the Animal Creation; the Mammoth, and even the mighty Iguanodon may easily have crept between his legs.
Such fanfare did not deceive British naturalists. Even though the Missourium was greeted with enthusiasm by some members of the London scientific elite, in 1842 the anatomist Richard Owen pointed out the spare ribs and vertebrae that his American colleagues had previously noticed. Koch passionately defended his reconstruction before the Geological Society, but the British scholars were not convinced.
In the wake of this controversy, Koch took the skeleton on tour elsewhere in Europe, yet the London scientists had not entirely soured on Missourium. Despite Koch’s overblown claims, it was still an impressive and valuable mastodon skeleton. When Koch stopped back in London in November 1843 at the end of the tour, the British Museum purchased it for £1,300. This was enough to enroll the Koch children in a school in Dresden, Germany, while the palaeontologist and his wife travelled the European continent. All of Koch’s hard work had paid off.
By 1844, however, Koch was itching to head back into the field to rebuild his
collection. A fossil-hunting trip through the United States would be just the thing, and as soon as Koch arrived in New England he started prospecting the local outcrops for choice specimens. Shells, shark teeth and a few bones rewarded Koch’s efforts, but what he was really after was another monster. The Yale professor Benjamin Silliman, a close friend of Koch’s, would be instrumental in providing him with one.
When Koch stopped in New Haven, Connecticut, to visit Silliman on 17 August, he had his entire array of fossil treasures in tow. Silliman was impressed with what his friend had already accumulated, but he knew of another place where there were even more impressive bones to be found. In parts of southern Alabama, local residents had found the abundant remains of an enormous sea-serpent, and Silliman knew a woman who could tell Koch where to chisel his own sea monster from the rock. They went off to meet her at once. If Koch could obtain these remains then he would surely have a new attraction unrivalled by any other.
With directions to the monster graveyard in hand Koch soon continued on his way through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri, picking up fossils as he went. He finally reached Alabama on 20 January 1845, but the fossils he sought proved elusive. It would be another month before he would first catch sight of them, and they would not be in the place he expected. On 14 February, Koch was on his way to meet an acquaintance in Macon County when he spotted an enormous, charred vertebra lying in a fireplace. It could only have come from the sea serpent.
When he asked about the scorched bone, Koch was told that it had been used for nearly three years as a fireplace support, and this was only one of the ways in which the plentiful fossils were regularly destroyed. During his travels, Koch saw the gigantic vertebrae used to prop up a fence, as a cornerstone in a fireplace, as a slave’s pillow, and had even heard of a man who thought he could extract lime from the fossils by burning them. (All he got for his trouble were burnt bones that crumbled to pieces.) Indeed, the bones were so numerous that in some fields they were destroyed because they interfered with cultivation of the land, and the widespread waste of the
petrified treasures troubled Koch. As he wrote in his journal it was a shame that so many fine specimens were ‘snatched from science by ignorance’.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >