Sunday, 24 June 2012

Dorset - How the English invented Dinosaurs

It was only when I first visited Dorset that I heard of the county's 'Jurassic Coast', one of the UK's 28 UNESCO World Heritage sites.  It starts in Devon, actually, not far from Exmouth and continues all the way to Swanage in East Dorset.  It includes geological wonders such as the Isle of Portland, which is a tied island, ie. only linked to the mainland by a spit of gravel, known as a tombolo.  Portland is famous for its limestone and Portland stone has been used in important buildings like St Paul's Cathedral, Buckingham Palace and the UN world headquarters in New York.

Remarkable Creatures

The Jurassic coast became the haunt of geologists and palaeontologists, in the 19th century, when scientists became interested in fossils of 'remarkable creatures' that were abundant along this coast, notably in the area around Lyme Regis.  I've just finished reading a wonderful book called Remarkable Creatures by the London-based US writer, Tracy Chevalier (she also wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I really loved, about the life of Vermeer).  

Mary Anning and the fossils of Lyme Regis

Dinosaurs at Musee des Science Naturelles
Remarkable Creatures brings to life the story of Mary Anning, Lyme Regis' most famous fossil collector and her close friend Elizabeth Philpot.   Anning came from a very lowly background and started off fossil-collecting as a child, earning money to keep her family out of the poorhouse.  She had an incredible talent for spotting and preparing fossil specimens and, as she gained more experience, she herself became a leading expert on the fossils she was collecting and selling - her advice was sought after by prominent geologists such as William Buckland and the Reverend William D Coneybeare. 

Of course, in the 19th century, the doors of Scientific institutions were completely closed to women, even more so to working-class women with no education and, towards the end of her life, Mary Anning felt aggrieved by the lack of recognition she'd received in a male-dominated world.  In her novel, Chevalier very cleverly explores the tensions between Anning and Philpot who, despite coming from different social classes, had an incredible friendship and united against the adversity they both faced, as women working in a new scientific field. 

The Englishmen who invented the Dinosaur

The work of Mary Annings and other scientists paved the way for the work of early palaeontologists such as Richard Owen and Gideon Algernon Mantell.  I mention Owen and Mantell in particular, as they had a rivalry which was every bit as fractious and intense, as the friendship between Annings and Philpot.  When I say the English 'invented' Dinosaurs, what I mean is that Owen and Mantell were amongst the first scientists who tried to conceptualise dinosaurs.  Considering how little material they had available to them at the time, the work of the first palaeontologists was both revolutionary and visionary.

Owen v Mantell

Richard Owen coined the word Dinosaur
Richard Owen first coined the word dinosaur from the Greek for terrible lizard in a publication in 1842.  The -saur part had already been used for the first specimen found by Mary Anning, the Icthyosaur or fish lizard.  Owen's conceptualisation of dinosaurs was of large, slow-moving, elephantine creatures that walked on four column-like legs.  This conceptualisation was popularised by his dinosaur models at the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in the 1850's.  Largely ignored by his contemporaries, Mantell's conceptualisation of large, fast-moving, two-legged creatures, turned out to be a more accurate conceptualisation, backed up by further fossil finds in later years.

Nowadays, thanks to a myriad of books and movies, an image of dinosaurs is well-and-truly imprinted on our minds.  It's hard for us to imagine the difficulty of trying to conceptualise what a dinosaur looked like, but it's worth bearing in mind that early palaeontologists were working with often incomplete fossils, pressed into rocks, with no obvious indication of what these creatures might look like, if they were stood upright.

The influence of Australia?

Something that really interested me, as I was researching all of this, was how the conceptualisation of dinosaurs co-incided with the colonisation of Australia and the 'discovery' of lots of new creatures, like the kangaroo which had never been seen by Europeans before.  Early examples of dinosaur skeletons were often juxtaposed with skeletons of Australian animals, like the wallaby and cassowary and I can't help wondering whether or not the physiognomy of these Australian animals influenced palaeontologists like Mantell, as they tried to conceptualise the stature of dinosaurs?

In his book, A Very Short Introduction to Dinosaurs (part of the OUP series), David Norman outlines the importance of paleobiology as a branch of palaeontology that can clearly inform, not only the stature of dinosaurs, but also their eating habits, sex and movement patterns. 

Dinosaurs and Darwin

It's also hard to imagine the societal attitude towards palaeontology at that time.  For many people in the 19th century, the idea that creatures existed before Noah's Ark was inconceivable.  Not only did the study of dinosaurs challenge the widely held belief in Bishop Ussher's biblical theory about the age of the Earth (ie. that the Earth was created on the 23rd of October 4004 BC!), but the idea that God would create life and then let it become extinct was considered sacrilegious.  The dinosaur debate fed into and supported Darwin's theory on Evolutionary gradualism, an even greater discussion that was to revolutionise 19th-century thought. 

Why are we so fascinated by dinosaurs?

Some dinosaurs were quite small!
Accepting the idea that God might let the dinosaurs become extinct, opened up the possibility that some day God might let humans become extinct.  A lot of the 19th-century anxiety around the study of dinosaurs was tied up in greater concerns about the fate of the human species.  Perhaps this goes some way to explaining the eternal fascination we have with dinosaurs.  Very few branches of science have captured the imagination more than the study of dinosaurs - what they were, what they looked like and what happened to make them 'suddenly' die out. 

It's also interesting to note how fascinated children are by dinosaurs.  As part of my research, I visited the famous Bernissart Iguanadons in the Musee des Sciences Naturelles in Brussels and I realised I'd never seen a reconstructed dinosaur before.  It's a fantastic place to bring children and their awe of dinosaurs reminded me that, even today, the conceptualisation of living dinosaurs requires a lot of imagination. 

Did dinosaurs have wings?
Dinosaurs and Dragons

I also think that there is something deep in the human psyche that 'remembers' a time when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  Of course, we know that this is impossible, dinosaurs became extinct long before the human species had evolved.  But how do we explain the stories of dragons and mythical beasts in many world cultures?  Isn't there something in our 'ancestral memory' that haunts our dreams and children's fairy tales?  It's quite apt that the English invented dinosaurs, a symbol of St George conquering his dragon!

Dinosaurs today

Something that I didn't know, before I started researching this topic, is that birds are believed to have evolved from dinosaurs!  Studies of bone structures show amazing similarities between dinosaurs and birds and it's quite possible that when the continents moved and the Earth flooded, dinosaurs simply became smaller and took to the skies to survive.  I don't think I'll ever look at birds in quite the same way again!

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me at the Musee des Sciences Naturelles in Brussels.  Please feel free to reuse these images under the Creative Commons license:

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