The Fossil Girl and Earth’s Deep History

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Catherine Brighton’s The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning’s Dinosaur Discovery is in many ways a lovely book. The pictures are glorious and the story of the young Mary discovering the first complete Ichthyosaur is fascinating. However, a couple of minor moments mar the whole. The first is a page showing Mary having a tower constructed so she can chip out the enormous fossil she has found in Lyme Regis:

mary03

In the bottom lefthand corner, a clergyman waves a cross as he shouts at Mary: “If God wanted you to find curiosities, Mary Anning, why did he bury them?” (The book has speech bubbles which are absent in the picture above.)

Less problematically, the biography of Mary at the end of the book adds that “Mary lived at a time when scientists were working on a new idea – that the world was much older than they had always thought. This shocked some people, as it seemed to contradict what was written in the Bible.”

Of course, new geological discoveries did shock some people – and I suppose one of them might have gone down onto the beach with his cross, though it’s pretty unlikely – but there is another side to the story that is completely missing from this otherwise wonderful children’s book.

Fortunately, that part of the story appears in Martin J S Rudwick’s excellent Earth’s Deep History: How it was discovered and why it matters.

Rudwick

Rudwick is the world’s leading expert on the history of the Earth sciences so what he has to say on the topic is worth paying attention to. And what he argues, with some force, is that:

What is certainly untenable is any claim that the discovery of the Earth’s deep history has in the past been retarded or obstructed by “Religion.” Of course, in any period of history and in any culture it is possible to find plenty of fools and bigots; but there have also been plenty of those who were neither foolish nor bigoted, both among those who counted themselves religious believers and among those  who – often with good reason – criticized the practices of religion in their time. Of course, those for whom a religious perspective gave meaning and purpose to their lives have, in every period, wanted to integrate new scientific knowledge with their existing ideas about the world. But these projects have often provided intellectual templates that have served to extend scientific knowledge rather than constraining it. In every century covered by this narrative, some of those who have contributed most enduringly to the scientific story have also been religious believers. In the history of the discovery of the Earth’s own history, as in the history of many other aspects of the sciences, the idea of a perennial and intrinsic “conflict” between “Science” and “Religion” – so essential to the rhetoric of modern fundamentalists, both religious and atheistic – fails to stand up to historical scrutiny.  (pp.306-7)

It is certainly possible to explain this truth to children when reading the book with them but the danger is that, without such an explanation, children might be nudged towards accepting the myth of conflict between “religion” and “science” and that would be a real shame.

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