Laelaps

Book Review: The Earth on Show

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It is often accepted that science and the humanities have long been in conflict with each other, science providing a cold, objective look at the world while having read the entire works of Shakespeare (or similar equivalent) represents the true hallmark of a cultivated mind in the humanities. This disjunction was identified in 1959 by C.P. Snow in his book The Two Cultures, and in a 1963 follow-up he described the idea of a “third culture” in which science and the humanities could support each other and no longer be seen as entirely opposing forces. The development of a Snow’s idea of a third culture is often invoked today, science generally suffering from a bad public image despite its greater integration into daily life & public concern, but the gap between science and literature during the 19th century was much smaller (if it existed at all). As Ralph O’Connor illuminates in The Earth on Show, a fantastic summary of monsters, geology, literature, and science in the 19th century, we may have imposed barriers between science and art that have not always been present.

From the beginning geology has had a close association with religion, questions about the accuracy of the Bible, how to make sense of all the antediluvian monsters that were coming out of the ground, and the change of life through the ages all being closely tied to philosophical & theological debates of the era. While many British geologists were Christians or supported the overall religious truth of the Bible, the Enlightenment allowed them to interpret theology based upon what they found in rocks, not try to shove columns of strata into scripture. While it might be fashionable today to label some of these researchers as creationists today, such a categorization does a disservice to the founders of this particular area of science, and this is especially dangerous if we start dismissing entire works out of hand because of the beliefs of the writer. The general public (and even some naturalists) were not ready for an extremely old earth populated with strange monsters, and the early British geologists had to walk a fine line between geologic fact and religious sentiments that pervaded the public realm.

O’Connor’s book differs from most other overviews of this topic, however, the volume taking a novel approach to the question of how science, religion, and literature influenced each other. The pictorial representations of ancient life and lengthy descriptions of pre-Adamite monsters influenced by George Byron’s Cain (which was itself influenced by geology) and John Milton’s Paradise Lost resulted in an admixture of science and poetry that we might find strange today. Outside of epigraphs, modern science writers rarely (if ever) appeal to literary works to help illustrate their points, poetry having no place within scientific discourse. As Aldo Leopold wrote in his essay “Song of the Gavilan,”;

A professor may pluck the strings of this own instrument, but never that of another, and if he listens for music he must never admit it to his fellows or to his students. For all are restrained by an ironbound taboo which decrees that the construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets.

Yet the humanities, too, are guilty of not giving science its due. The archetype of extinct animals being monstrous beats inhabiting the forest primeval has influenced various artistic works, from literary classics to pop-cinema, yet paleontological reconstructions are often considered kitsch or oddities rather than “true” art. Writers, artists, and film-makers have been provided with an ever-growing pantheon of beasts to populate a variety of settings, yet mentions of extinct monsters in literature are usually relegated to the footnotes of semi-technical books about the history of paleontology, one of the most often cited being Charles Dickens’ invocation of a Megalosaurus at the beginning of Bleak House;

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

The most important aspect of O’Connor’s book, however, is that the reconstructions of extinct animals and visits to epochs past pioneered by early 19th century geologists in England set the stage for all those that have come after. While the theatrics of William Buckland and the widespread borrowing of poetry to appeal to the reader’s aesthetics by may no longer be fashionable, geologists employed a number of techniques to explain their discoveries to others, namely transporting the reader back in time to view the creatures in situ, having the reader realize that bones are the vestiges of a past age ruled by brute nature, or clothing those bones with muscles and sinew to resurrect these creatures in a modern setting. We might identify these conventions with science fiction rather than popular science books today (especially since genetics has provided another way to understand relations to life without the implicit need of time-travel), but such conventions have their roots in early 19th century geology.

In looking back at the work of 19th century geologists, however, we should be careful not to fall into many of the trappings that O’Connor identifies along the way. Presently we live in an age where science is integrated into culture but often ignored or misunderstood, professional scientists alone seemingly having a monopoly on “true” understanding (and, indeed, this movement away from skilled amateurs and towards professional societies is a minor theme in O’Connor’s book). Still, the gap between science and culture (especially in biology) is one that has been artificially dug and then constantly bemoaned. As O’Connor rightly notes, many scientific works can be considered literature in their own right, the understanding of style and metaphor being just as meaningful in a scientific book as in a piece of fiction. Unfortunately I don’t think this idea will be welcomed with open arms, but geological science has been intertwined with art and literature for so long that it is impossible to ignore the association. This may not be true of every discipline, the “hard” sciences like physics requiring their own studies of myth and metaphor, but the general concept can still be applied to various fields.

There are few places that I enjoy visiting more than the fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This is where the dinosaurs live, perhaps only in my imagination, but no other description properly does justice to their overwhelming presence. One early morning, arriving before the hordes of children and parents, I could hear the echoes of my own footsteps as I walked through the corridors towards the Hall of Saurischian dinosaurs, the looming form of Apatosaurus greeting me with a pencil-toothed grin. I had seen the skeleton plenty of times before, but as I rounded that corner I could have sworn that the armature had just stopped in place, the body freeze-framed in position as if caught in the act. Of course I knew that this was simply my imagination gone wild, but I feel that such daydreams should be embraced rather than shunned.

The present reconstruction may be based upon the more accurate science than was available when “Brontosaurus” was first mounted, but the method of representing extinct creates as they would be in life has a much longer and richer history than most people know about. The Earth on Show helps to understand this connection to the early days of paleontology, and it has quickly become one of the most intellectually valuable books I’ve had the pleasure to read. In imagining the deep past we encounter beauty and horror both, and if we can begin to recognize this as part of the legacy of paleontology’s founders we can all the better appreciate the art of science, a concept that need not be an oxymoron.

[I am thankful to the University of Chicago Press for an review copy of this book.]

Comments

  1. #1 Avid Book Reader
    February 28, 2008

    This sounds like an excellent book, thanks for the review. I’ve never had the honor of making it to the American Museum of Natural History, but I go to the “dinosaur” room in Denver all the time – ever since I was a little kid. I’ve always been fascinated in this topic.