April 4th, 2019

The Dinosaur Hunters: Deborah Cadbury

It was Richard Owen who coined the term dinosaur. It came late in the day- and most of the pioneering work had been done before the big lizards acquired their generic name- which makes the title of the book a little anachronistic. The gentlemanly geologists and anatomists- most of whom had professional lives as doctors and clergymen- didn't know they were hunting dinosaurs. Mainly they were grubbing about in the detritus of quarries, trying to make sense of a past that kept vouchsafing them evidence in the shape of shells and bones and weathered teeth. They puzzled over the time frame, agonised about the implications for religion and invented a new science more or less from scratch. It's a fascinating story.

In the course of telling it, Cadbury picks herself a hero and a villain. The hero is Gideon Mantell- the provincial doctor who sacrificed everything- wealth, marriage, health- to his passion for fossils- and the villain is Richard Owen- a man with a knack for impressing his social superiors and alienating his colleagues. Both were hugely ambitious, both were social climbers, both were brilliant. Mantell was honourable and unlucky, Owen was lucky and not above taking credit for other men's work. A heroine hovers in the wings- Mary Anning (soon to be the subject of a highly fictionalised biopic) who chiselled ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs out of the cliffs at Lyme- but she was a working class woman about whom information is limited. Depending on which of her contemporaries you credit she was either humble and sweet-tempered or arrogant and angry. Perhaps she was both; perhaps it depended on who she was dealing with at the time. Whatever the truth, there's not a lot that can be said about her for certain, except that her life was a continual struggle- and that she- like the men- was brilliant.

Owen soared- and left Mantell behind him in the dust. But then he butted up against Darwin and Darwin's attack dog Huxley- who set him up- a little unfairly- as a creationist Aunt Sally to be bashed about and trampled. Of course Owen loved a fight and pitched in enthusiastically (the depth of his hatred bewildered Darwin who was a peaceable man) but now he was old school- and youth got the upper hand. In the end one feels a little sorry for him- because- personally unlikeable as he may have been- his achievements were real. His monument is that cathedral of science, the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. He dreamed it up and got it built- and for many years his statue stood halfway up its grand staircase- benignly surveying the vast exhibition hall. But then- just a few years ago- subsequent to the publication of Cadbury's book- it itself got moved to a less prominent position. And who took his place? None other than bloody Charles Darwin in white marble- that's who.


The business of the House of Commons was suspended today when water started pouring through the roof of the chamber. If it had happened in a novel you'd have called the symbolism clumsy but this was real life.