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Fossils and Dinosaurs
Much of Darwin’s theory of evolution was based upon what he had learned from his study of fossils discovered during the Beagle voyage. Fossils can provide invaluable evidence of how the earth has changed over time and how plant and animal life has evolved from its earliest beginnings. They are particularly useful when comparisons can be made between extinct and closely related living species (for example, ammonites and the nautilus, the glyptodont and the armadillo), which is what Darwin had been able to do. Palaeontologists (people who study fossil flora and fauna in order to understand ancient life) need to be both geologists, able to establish the ages of the rocks in which the fossils are found, and biologists, able to work out how the fossilised organisms once lived.
The most common fossil finds are body fossils. These are the remains of the hard parts of long-dead organisms, such as bones, teeth, claws and shells. The likelihood of an organism being fossilised is increased if the body is buried soon after death, as this helps prevent damage to the remains from exposure to the effects of air, the weather or scavengers. It is for this reason that about 90 per cent of finds are in locations that were previously under water and where the remains had quickly been covered by sediment. The soft tissues in the organism decompose while the hard parts are slowly infiltrated by waterborne minerals. The weight of accumulated layers of mud and sand, along with the passage of time, turn the mineralised remains into a fossil. Trace fossils – such as droppings, footprints, eggs or tooth marks – record examples of animal activity. The oldest known fossils are of bacteria-like cells dating back over 3,500 million years.
There are records of fossil finds in Ancient Greece and Rome, though few at that time seem to have recognised their significance. In the seventeenth century, the Danish geologist Neils Stensen was among the first to establish that fossils were the buried remains of ancient animals and, in the 1750s, the discoveries of mastodon and mammoth bones in the USA brought the realisation that species could become extinct. Extinction was a contentious subject at this time as it suggested a flaw in what the majority still considered to be a divinely conceived creation. Some Biblical geologists – those who believed in the literal truth of the Bible – explained this by saying there had been several creations and extinctions, and that the book of Genesis only dealt with the most recent one.
One of the richest locations in Britain for fossil finds is the 95-mile long Jurassic Coast Natural World Heritage Site which runs from Orcombe Rocks, Devon to Studland Bay in Dorset. This was the hunting ground of the most famous female collector of the nineteenth century, Mary Anning, who, from an early age, had helped her impoverished father collect fossil curios from the beach and cliffs at Lyme Regis to sell to tourists. These included gigantic pointed teeth, like those of an enormous crocodile, and fragments of backbones, as well as ammonites and belemnites. In 1812, Anning uncovered the first complete skeleton in Britain of an ichthyosaur, a five-metre long marine reptile that resembled a large dolphin. She also found Britain’s first complete plesiosaur skeleton (a long-necked fish-eating aquatic reptile), and the first pterosaur (a winged lizard).
The fossil finds that elicit the greatest interest among the general public are those of the dinosaurs, which dominated the earth from around 200 million years ago until their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago (humans first appeared on earth long after this, around three millions years ago). The first fossilised dinosaur remains identified in Britain were discovered by the physician and geologist Gideon Algernon Mantell in a quarry at Cuckfield, Sussex, in the early 1820s. These were the teeth and bones of a gigantic plant-eating reptile comparable to a modern-day iguana, hence the name Mantell coined in 1825 to describe it, ‘iguanodon’ or ‘iguana tooth’. This was the second dinosaur find to be officially named. The first was the megalosaurus (‘big reptile’), a name given in 1824 by the geologist William Buckland to a collection of large bones acquired by the Ashmolean Museum from quarries in Stonesfield, Oxfordshire.
The name ‘dinosaur’ first appeared in print in 1842 in the published version of Richard Owen’s ‘Report on British Fossil Reptiles’ which had been presented at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1841. Owen had once been a close colleague of Darwin and had been entrusted with Darwin’s fossil mammals from the Beagle voyage, but he became one of Darwin’s fiercest critics following the publication of On the Origin of Species, a reaction Darwin attributed to professional jealousy. The word ‘dinosaur’ was derived from the Greek, meaning ‘terrible or fearfully great lizard’. It was used by Owen to describe what he had identified as a distinct species of large, advanced, extinct reptiles.
Owen’s work thrilled the general public, as well as attracting the attention of the scientific community, and he was generally recognised as Britain’s leading authority on palaeontological classification. He had the ability to deduce the appearance of an animal on the basis of a single fragment of bone. One of his most impressive feats of deduction was based on a six-inch section of marrow bone originating from New Zealand that was given to him by a sailor in 1839. Owen decided the fragment must belong to a large, extinct flightless bird. He was proved right when he received a box containing a collection of bones from a New Zealand missionary in 1843 from which he could partially reconstruct a skeleton. The bird became known as the moa or dinornis.
Owen’s moa prediction was brought to the attention of Prince Albert, who, contemporary reports say, led the rush of society people eager to see the remains. Owen served on the committee that planned the Great Exhibition of 1851, a project that had been largely instigated through the prince consort’s efforts. When it was decided that the Crystal Palace complex should be relocated to a permanent site at Sydenham after the exhibition closed, Owen was invited to design a prehistoric park to be erected in the grounds. The dinosaurs were built out of reinforced concrete by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins from Owen’s designs. As a publicity stunt, a celebratory dinner for 21 distinguished guests was held on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside a life-size reconstruction of an iguanodon. When Owen’s ‘Mausoleum to the Memory of a Ruined World’ was officially opened on 10 June 1854, the dinosaur sculptures were a sensation and proved a major attraction. It was exhilarating to think such creatures had once walked upon the earth.
In 1863, a lizard-bird fossil was discovered in Solenhofen, Germany, and Owen arranged to buy it for the British Museum, naming it Archaeopteryx; it has proved to be one of the most important fossils ever found. For Darwin and his supporters, this fossil provided the evidence of a transitional stage between species – a missing link from the dinosaurs to modern birds – that supported Darwin’s theory of evolution. Owen himself seems to have been unaware of the significance of the find, and might have been less keen to give it publicity if he had. Although he was not against the principle of evolution, he was firmly against Darwin’s interpretation of it, convinced that there was a divinely ordained limit to the degree by which a species could adapt and change. Fossil hunting had proved to be a dangerous business, as it could reveal knowledge that shook such long-held beliefs.
Evolution and Science Fiction
With its stories of strange evolutionary mutations and its speculations on future forms of species, British science fiction has for much of its history been driven by the same questions that were raised in Darwin’s work: Where did we come from? Where are we going? What will we have changed into when we get there?
Although some trace the origins of science fiction as far back as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), it was in the nineteenth century that the genre began to really take shape, developing in a period when science was making dramatic advances, challenging long-established beliefs. The book most frequently cited as the first true science fiction novel is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), which shows the terrifying consequence of taking scientific discovery to extremes and marks one of the earliest fictional appearances of the irresponsible scientist. However, it was not until English translations of the works of Jules Verne were published from the 1860s onwards that the genre really took off.
It was H G Wells who did most to establish “home-grown” science fiction – or, as it was referred to at the time, ‘scientific romance’ – as part of the literary landscape. Wells’ work reflected the emotional and intellectual upheaval brought by the startling new knowledge of how the world worked and what lay ahead for humankind. Despite the efforts of Charles Lyell and other modern geologists, until the mid-nineteenth century most people were still convinced that the earth had been formed around 4000BC, having calculated back through the ages of the prophets to the time of Genesis. Breakthroughs in geological research and in evolutionary theory undermined this confidence. Now came the astounding news that the earth was in fact millions of years old. What was more unnerving, it was a place of continuous environmental, behavioural and biological change in which decay and death, rather than glory, were the inevitable end result: it was hard to reconcile ‘evolution’ with that much loved Victorian concept, ‘progress’. Once humanity had reached the end of its particular branch on the tree of life, another species would supplant it.
One of Wells’ most popular novels, The Time Machine (1895), moves forwards and backwards through time, revealing different evolutionary stages. In 802,701 AD, the time traveller encounters a world inhabited by the refined, beautiful, surface-living Eloi and the reverted, subterranean Morlocks. The shock is that it is not the physically perfect Eloi who are in the ascendant, as convention might suggest. Their evolutionary path has turned them into simplistic, ineffectual creatures with the sensibility of sheep, providing a passive food supply for the bestial Morlocks. In the book’s final sections the traveller moves 30 million years into the future. It was a commonly held belief that by this time the sun would be much cooler as it would have burned off most of its energy. Wells presents the reader with an austere vision of a silent, cold earth where the only living things appear to be the lichens on the rocks and the strange creatures that the traveller sees dragging themselves out of the ocean and on to the shore, marking the start of another evolutionary cycle. Like Conan Doyle, Wells was a friend of Edwin Ray Lankester who advised him on what the potential stages of evolutionary degeneration might be like. Lankester and Wells later collaborated on the book Outline of History (1920).
Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898) shows the cruel nature of evolutionary competition in the form of the superior alien invader attempting to destroy or colonise inferior beings. Over many generations, limbs and organs that have proved of little use to the Martians have shrunk or been lost, while those that are of most value have become bigger or multiplied in number. The Martians have big heads and shrivelled arms as on their planet brains are more important than brawn. The Martians are in nearly all respects more advanced than humans, but their fatal flaw is that they have not evolved to a level where they can withstand earth’s infectious diseases. In the final pages Wells seems sympathetic to the keening of the last dying Martian, the death being presented as a tragedy. It is interesting to note that as a student Wells had attended lectures by Darwin’s friend and colleague T H Huxley whose speculative essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’ suggested that humanity may evolve towards something not unlike Wells’ descriptions of the Martians. Although The Lost World is essentially a light-hearted book, like War of the Worlds it does show the potential cruelty of natural law, this time in the conflict between the ape-men and the Indians, and can also be read in terms of imperialism, with the ape-men comparable to native peoples being exterminated by colonialists.
Wells presented his readers with a godless universe spinning towards its inevitable end. By contrast, the philosopher Olaf Stapledon, one of the great British science fiction writers of the interwar years, offered a more spiritual journey, although the potential outcome for humans might be considered equally bleak. For his 1930 novel Last and First Men: a story of the near and far future, Stapledon drew up detailed plans for the projected history of humankind up to the point of extinction. The book moves from the present day to two billion years into the future, describing 18 distinct human species, evolving through a cycle of ascents and falls. One of the species incorporates Martian genes into their bodies to produce descendants that have huge heads and telepathic powers. This raises the question of whether humans might be able to control or direct their own evolution and thus disrupt the process of natural selection by artificial means. Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) also provides a detailed projection of man’s future evolutionary forms, going on a mental voyage into the upper most reaches of the cosmos in search of the ultimate ruler, who is revealed as a kind of blind, indifferent watchmaker tinkering with events.
Arthur C Clarke was one of the many authors who acknowledged the influence of Stapledon upon their own writing. In his work Clarke used aliens as benign forces intervening at critical moments along the evolutionary path. In Childhood’s End (1954), for example, the aliens trigger humankind into a bold evolutionary leap and the last of the old-style humans watch as the new, superior beings ascend to the stars. 2001: a space odyssey (1968), developed concurrently with Stanley Kubrick’s film from an earlier short story, is an account of the shaping of human evolution by an outside force from the remote past to the distant future. Like the work of Stapledon, this journey can be seen as a spiritual quest although Clarke in interview said he did not believe in ‘mystical nonsense’. It also hints at intelligent design; a logical, self-contained entity at work in the universe – the ‘Overmind’ of Childhood’s End. Further examples of speculations on what humans might evolve into can be found in the fiction of Stephen Baxter, Greg Egan, Charles Stross and Justina Robson, among others. By contrast, in The Lost World, Conan Doyle is looking back to where his present-day “civilised” human beings have come from: the cave-dwelling Indians and before them the brutal ape-men.
John Wyndham began writing science fiction in the 1930s but made his commercial breakthrough with The Day of the Triffids (1951). In this novel the reader is presented with an imaginative take on the theory of natural selection by which those species best suited to the surrounding environment can survive and thrive, while others die out (in evolutionary theory life is an endless competition, temporarily won by the ‘fittest’ of the moment). A meteor storm has rendered most inhabitants of earth blind. The triffids, genetically modified carnivorous plants that have been farmed for their valuable oil, are now in the ascendant. Prior to the disaster, the hero, Bill Masen, worked for a triffid-oil company where his colleague Walter had observed signs of intelligence in the plants. Walter thinks it is significant that a high proportion of triffid victims have been stung across the eyes. He says:
Take away our vision, and the superiority is gone. Worse than that – our position becomes inferior to theirs because they are adapted to a sightless existence, and we are not.
In the overall scheme of things, Bill believes that ‘It’s an unnatural thought that one type of creature should dominate perpetually’ and that ‘life has to be dynamic and not static’. However, he will not let humanity go the way of the dinosaur without a fight and the book follows his struggle for survival against the odds.
Like Wells and Wyndham before him, the novelist John Christopher described in his fiction how a once comfortable, familiar environment can become strange and threatening. He placed ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and focused on how successfully they – and the wider society – adapted to the change. His protagonists must make difficult moral decisions, and draw on previously unused skills and mental resources, in order to survive. In The Death of Grass (1956), for example, a viral strain kills off much of the planet’s vegetation, and anarchy soon sweeps a world faced with starvation. The narrator takes his family from London to the North of England in the hope of finding safety on his brother’s isolated farm. Christopher was writing during the Cold War period, when the world seemed to be on the brink of a terrible cataclysm. Who knew what lay beyond this man-made apocalypse and who would be the fittest to survive?
For a comprehensive bibliography of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle visit http://www.sirarthurconandoyle.com/index.htm
Among the biographies of Conan Doyle consulted in writing this guide were Michael Coren’s Conan Doyle (1995) and Andrew Lycett’s Conan Doyle: the man who created Sherlock Holmes (2007).
Among places to visit associated with Conan Doyle and his work are the Sherlock Holmes statue, Picardy Place, Edinburgh; the Conan Doyle exhibition at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh; the Conan Doyle pub, York Place, Edinburgh; the Conan Doyle statue, Crowborough; the Sherlock Holmes Museum, London; and Conan Doyle’s grave, Minstead. A map of Edinburgh locations linked to Conan Doyle is available from Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust.
For a comprehensive bibliography of the works of Charles Darwin visit http://darwin-online.org.uk
Among the biographies of Darwin consulted in writing this guide were Francis Darwin’s The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin including an Autobiographical Chapter (1887), Julian Huxley and H B D Kettlewell’s Charles Darwin and His World (1965), and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: voyaging (1995) and Charles Darwin: the power of place (2002).
Among the places to visit associated with Darwin and his work are St Chad’s Church and the Darwin statue, Shrewsbury; Christ’s College, Cambridge; Down House, Kent; the John Murray Archive, Edinburgh; and Westminster Abbey, London.
Conan Doyle and Darwin are included in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is available from most library services.
A more detailed list of resource material and suggestions for places to visit is available on the Lost World Read 2009 website at www.lostworldread.com.
‘Evolution and Science Fiction’ was inspired by the opening episode of the BBC series The Martians and Us, broadcast on 13 November 2006. Our thanks to Andy Sawyer from the University of Liverpool Library, Special Collections, for his comments on the first draft.
Guide text copyright: Melanie Kelly © 2008