When I started graduate school in science journalism, my adviser insisted that I include history of science classes in my program. “No journalist really understands a subject unless she knows its history,” he said.
It was some of the best – and the most influential – advice I received. It led me think of science always as a work in progress. It led me to write three history of science books (currently starting on the fourth). It led me to appreciate that we cannot really understand where we stand without knowledge of the path that led us here. And, more simply, it led me to take a class on Charles Darwin and the history of biology which left me with a battered copy of On the Origin of Species (which I still treasure) and an enduring fascination for the subject.
All of which leads me to Brian Switek‘s terrific new book, Written in Stone. which explores both the evolution of life on earth and the evolution of the science that seeks interpret it. Switek focuses on the story of evolution spelled out in the fossil record, that undeniable evidence of life forms come and gone. But, as happens when one really explores history of science, he also tells a wonderfully human tale of scientists, naturalists, amateur fossil collectors, and geologists as they seek to breathe life into these buried remnants of the past.
We forget today how world-shaking was the discovery of ancient rock strata and the relics that lay within. As they burrowed downward, geologists of the 19th century found evidence of ancient seas, of vanished marshes and mountains, pebbled with fossilized plants, insects, and creatures great and small. Long before Darwin published his famous treatise in 1859, the geologists were shaking the foundations of world history, chipping away at the religious world view.
The British social critic and essayist John Ruskin lamented in 1851 that his faith was being beaten to the thinness of gold leaf by such rock-bound evidence: “If only the geologists would leave me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.”
Switek’s elegant tale reminds us that knowledge, like life, is ever evolving and not always by a predictable path. From our 21st century perspective, too, it’s fascinating to follow early naturalists as they struggle to make sense of the bits and pieces unearthed from the ground. They build single monsters from the bones of several creatures. They take these oddities out on tour, exhibiting them at museums and carnivals alike. They advertised them like circus freaks: “This unparalleled Gigantic remains…Monarch over all the Animal Creation; the Mammoth, and even the mighty Iguanodon may easily have crept between his legs.”
But even this isn’t entirely bad. The flamboyant mistakes set their countrymen’s imaginations ablaze. And as slowly corrections occurred, the non-scientists of the world also received a very good lesson in how science works, in the gradual way researchers grope toward real understanding.
In one of my favorite pieces of this history, 18th century European scientists declared that the fossils of great creatures unearthed on their side of the Atlantic – and the lack of comparable New World fossils – proved that the fledgling United States of America was shallow by nature, built on on a primitive continent. They ignored the fact, of course, that the country was so young that similar excavations had yet to be done. But the insult prompted Thomas Jefferson not only to write a natural history, detailing America’s native riches, but to encourage fossil explorations, even instructing Lewis & Clark to hunt for fossil evidence during their westward mapping expeditions.
Thus, in reality, is knowledge often advanced. Thus are White House fossil collection enriched. And thus do really excellent science histories – like Written in Stone – make our world a more fascinating place.
Editor’s Note: Speakeasy Science is proud to publish this post as part of the Written in Stone blog tour.