Terrible Lizard

A monstrous problem for scientists
Dinosaur bones didn’t mesh with the prevailing wisdom of the evolution of species – or the earth

(First published in The Christian Science Monitor, May 31, 2001) )

Terrible Lizard
By Deborah Cadbury
Henry Holt 374 pp. $27.50

In 1822, the year Gideon Mantell published his first book about dinosaurs, the earth was 4,176 years old and every creature, great and small, had been specially created.

Talk about career trouble.

Archbishop James Usher had calculated the age of the earth. While a few geologists were beginning to suggest expanding the dating somewhat, on the question of creation itself there was no doubt. Scholarly opinion was unanimous: God had made the deer in Scotland and the tigers in India.

The suggestion of a few maverick fossil hunters that creatures might somehow evolve into new species was not to be considered.

When strange fossils were found, the explanation was simple: In rounding up the animals two by two, Noah missed a few types whose bones could be found buried under deposits laid down by the flood.

This is the world that springs vividly to life in the pages of “Terrible Lizard.” Deborah Cadbury draws us into the story of the early dinosaur hunters without oversimplifying the complexity of the research enterprise.

In her capable hands, we begin to understand the scale of the problem that Gideon Mantell and his colleagues were up against.

It was possible to imagine that woolly mammoths might have browsed England’s green and pleasant land before the flood. And Noah might have overlooked the mammoths, leaving them to be exterminated by the waters.

But what were Englishmen to think when Mantell began to unearth the remnants of creatures that were unimaginably strange? One had bones very like an iguana, only it was the size of, well, a dinosaur. A terrestrial creature that large was impossible.

The creature’s teeth, moreover, were not proper reptilian teeth. They were kind of flat, grinding teeth that belong to ruminants, animals that chew large volumes of grass and leaves. Ruminants possess special stomachs designed to digest large quantities of leafy matter, a kind of stomach that was unheard of in any reptile. A ruminant reptile was inconceivable in the well-established zoological categories.

The fossils of plants found with the dinosaurs were even more problematic than the bones themselves, for they gave evidence of the existence of a tropical forest in England. If tropical forests once grew in England, then the climate itself had changed. Such a thing simply could not be.

In the pages of “Terrible Lizard,” we witness the birth of the scientific understanding of the world. To the pre-modern mind, a fact was proven or disproven by reference to authority. Quoting Aristotle or Scripture constituted proof.

But the new scientific method demanded observed reality for evidence. By accepting what they observed, dinosaur hunters began to understand that the world had changed many times over a much longer period; that species appeared to evolve from species that preceded them in time; that tropical forests had once covered an England inhabited by terrible lizards.

But it was not enough simply to unearth and make sense of the fossil record. It was necessary to make a living while doing so. Cadbury makes the career struggles of the men and women who first described dinosaurs as real as yesterday’s pink slip.

Jurassic England was red in tooth and claw. In the gentlemanly scientific society of Georgian London, it still was. Only a very limited number of paying jobs existed for scientists.

If one dinosaur hunter was appointed, another must earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, and would, most probably, be unable to go on studying fossils.

How far would you go to win such a coveted and rare appointment? Would you sequester an important fossil? Block a competitor’s paper from publication? Blackball him from membership in the Royal Society? Publish someone else’s findings in your name?

“Terrible Lizard” heats up as respected scientific gentlemen do all of these things, and worse. We hold our breath as we turn the pages to discover if it’s what a man knows that will win the day, or if it’s who he knows that counts.

Diana Muir is the author of “Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England” (University Press of New England).