The Dragon Seekers: How An Extraordinary Circle Of Fossilists Discovered The Dinosaurs And Paved The Way For Darwin

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9780738202822: The Dragon Seekers: How An Extraordinary Circle Of Fossilists Discovered The Dinosaurs And Paved The Way For Darwin
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Set in nineteenth-century England, The Dragon Seekers chronicles the amazing discoveries of the first fossilists, whose findings in geology and paleontology led to the discovery of the age of dinosaurs. The intriguing cast of characters includes Mary Anning, a working-class woman who became one of the most successful fossil collectors of all time; Thomas Hawkins, another amateur collector who "improved upon" fossils in order to increase their market value; the eccentric William Buckland, discoverer of the world's first dinosaur (Megalosaurus), and Richard Owen, an expert anatomist, who synthesized the discoveries of the age and ultimately coined the word "dinosaur" in 1842. Christopher McGowan takes us back to a time when the new sciences of geology and paleontology were as young and vibrant as genetic engineering is today. Through heated public debates on everything from the age of the earth to the notion of extinction, the Dragon Seekers initiated the shift from a biblical to a scientific interpretation of the remote past. In this way, they laid the intellectual groundwork for Darwin's revolutionary ideas, and launched a global obsession with the Age of Reptiles that continues even today.

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Review:

Though inarguably revolutionary, Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection had many intellectual forebears, some of them little known. One was Mary Anning, a young Dorset woman who, in the early 19th century, turned to "fossiling" to earn a living, supplying private collectors and museums with the curiosities she found in the chalk cliffs--and who knew far more about comparative anatomy than many of the academics of her time. Anning's identification of unknown dinosaur species and explanations of curiosities such as the ichthyosaurus's kinked tail provided grist for contemporary scientists, who, arguing against theological orthodoxy, sought to extend the chronology of life far into the past--and who, in the bargain, published Anning's work as their own even as they professed scorn for amateurs.

In this lucid and lively book, Christopher McGowan, a Canadian zoologist, examines the contributions to 19th-century science of Anning and other self-taught fossil-hunters, from difficult eccentrics like Thomas Hawkins to superb scholars like Richard Owen, all of whom had to battle plenty of orthodoxies in their status-conscious time. They succeeded admirably, McGowan suggests, and they should provide inspiration for other amateurs in science. For, he writes, "the future for paleontological discoveries looks very bright ... [and] many of the most important finds will be made by those who are not employed as paleontologists." --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Christopher McGowan is a full professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto and Senior Curator of Paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum.

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