Wednesday, October 05, 2005

the age of paleontology

I'd always kind of wondered about the study of paleontology and how it came to be. As with so many other of our modern sciences, I had a vague idea of it rising from the muck of the Industrial Revolution, but I didn't really know how or when. I had a sort of collective image of the late-Victorian Egyptologist grave-robbers and the early fossil-hunters being cut from the same cloth. And perhaps they were; before the turn of the century there still wasn't a lot of differentiation between the sciences or the scientists who studied them--an educated man was supposed to know a little about everything.

Today I found a site that overviews the rise of paleontology in America and Europe and now I'm all excited and discombobulated.
Colonial Americans understood neither the concept of geological time nor the actual process by which fossils were created. Their society was one that still looked largely to scripture for explanations of much of the surrounding natural world. For instance, the fossil fish and seashells found at quarries and construction excavations in the 1700s were widely believed to be residue from the great flood survived by Noah.

In 1841, Dr. Richard Owen, a leading British authority on anatomy, published a report concluding that the individual bones [found up until that time] were from animals that had all been members of a group of large reptiles that had completely died out in some past age. Because of their apparent size, as well as their fangs and claws, Owen called them by a combination of the Greek words for "terrible lizards" -- dino saurs.

The very idea -- that previously unknown species of monstrously large reptiles could have existed outside of the events documented in the Bible -- was a highly controversial one. It also exerted a deliciously exotic pull on the imaginations of nineteenth-century scientists and laymen alike.

I should think it would. And every time I read something like this I'm appalled to realize just how narrow and shaky the platform of science and reasoning is. Barely a hundred years ago we were still living in the dark ages. Most of the world still does. Hell, most of humanity still does. What passes for logic these days is not, by and large, a structured method of thought.

Of course now I'm brainstorming ways of letting Sabine work a lecture about dinosaurs into casual conversation and wondering if Trace will run across any dinosaur bones while he's out in the desert and musing over whether dead monsters buried in the earth could serve as a metaphor for anything else--or at least provide a horror sequence. The temptation with a character like Miss Fairweather is to give her a miraculous insight into all kinds of things we understand now--germ theory, for instance, which was in its infancy--antibiotics, anesthetics, stuff like that. But I must restrain myself, or I'll come off sounding like Clan of the Cave Bear chick, with cavegirl Ayla feeding digitalis to the mongoloid kid with the heart murmur.

At the same time, part of my interest in creating Miss Fairweather was to explore the collision of science and faith, which I have not done much of to this point because the science keeps taking a back seat to the occult overtones. Maybe something useful will come out of this new bit of knowledge.


C8H10N4HO2O2 said...

I get a real kick out of reading the histories that cover the big jumps in scientific thought; there's a real beauty in watching people's wheels turning, new ideas coming in, with so many tiny ahas and the odd lusty eureka. It's one thing to get evolutionary biology, heliocentricism, relativity et al well enough to grasp their elegance when they're explained to you by competent speakers and authors; seems to me it's quite another to work out natural selection's role in natural history in the bowels of a survey ship plying the Pacific while musing on finches and animal husbandry, to take precise observations of the tracks of the planets in the night sky and work out Kepler's laws and each bodies' orbital elements--all while working in a world whose reaction to your insights could well be hostile--to assemble all the odd bits and pieces of data that point that way and make the leap, when no one else has quite put it all together (or, at least, not quite so well) yet. Darwin, Kepler, Galileo, they're all heroes, you ask me--the people who had the nerve to say: whatever we thought before, that's not where *my* evidence goes.

And to imagine that moment, looking at those bones, thinkin' damn, there's millenia in there--who knows how many--we didn't know about before? How many? What's been going on in that time? Just how much more is there to know? There's some serious chills in that.

Holly said...

I thoroughly agree, AJ. To me, a big part of genius is the capacity for synthesis--being able to take disparate parts and make something new and transcendent of them.