Saturday, April 10, 2010

Terrible Lizard, by Deborah Cadbury (book review)

I had mentioned that I was reading Terrible Lizard, but hadn't posted much about what I learned or whether it was a good book.

Yes, it is an excellent book. In fact, I would say that if you want to understand where Charlotte Mason and her PNEU cohorts were coming from in their views of the natural world, this is essential reading. It covers the whole digging-up-dinosaurs-in-Britain story from Mary Anning's discoveries around 1810 to the huge shift in thinking fifty years later. It connects geology and anatomy...and, more exactly, geologists and anatomists...with the race to identify, name, and take credit for the new/old creatures. The story starts with a poverty-stricken girl digging up bones, and an aspiring geologist puzzling over a tooth that just had to belong to an herbivore but didn't fit any known category of creature. It peaks with an 1850's dinner party inside a model Iguanodon. It ends with people looking towards the established heads of science, those who had always come up with Biblically-acceptable answers, to respond to Darwin and Huxley...and those same sources of knowledge and faith finally throwing up their hands.

Actually Darwin and Huxley play only a small part in this story--they were the rebels who took over from the previous generation of geologists. Geology was a sort of gentleman's science in the first half of the nineteenth century; if you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to be a member of the Geological Society. The pre-Darwin British geologists were careful to present their findings in a God-inspired, Biblical context; some of them, like William Buckland, held high positions in the Church of England; few of them agreed with "evolution," but they were finding themselves believing less and less in a literal six days of creation, in a worldwide deluge, and in a world that was only a few thousand years old. The stories they read in the rocks and the bones seemed to show without any question that the large creatures must have existed in a time before man--perhaps in a whole other time that God had also created.

And then the evolutionists came along and took even that away.

"When he met Darwin in December 1859, [Richard]Owen praised him for his original ideas on the formation of species. Owen did not accept that Man was a transmuted ape, but in the Origin Darwin had only hinted at Man's relationship with apes. He was eager to build bridges with the famous anatomist, and it is possible that Owen may have imagined that there was some common ground between them: each step in Darwin's evolution could still be planned by God."--Cadbury, page 307

But it didn't work out that way.

"[In 1860, Thomas Huxley] discussed Man's relationship to the apes, highlighting similarities. Owen was furious; had always sought to show that Man was zoologically distinct from the animals. Those seeking to reconcile the findings of science with their belief in the Bible faced a terrible dilemma. How could the 'monkey theory' fit with Creation in Genesis? Owen was the obvious scientific leader who could surely be relied upon to expose the flaws in Darwin's thinking....[but] Owen could no longer shelter behind the ambiguous language he had used for so long....Even though Owen was not a Creationist the sides became polarised, with Darwin and his supporters, 'the Devil's Disciples' Huxley and Hooker, standing in opposition to Owen, who was trying to uphold traditional values....One by one, Owen's cherished notions on the dinosaurs were seen to fall apart."--Cadbury, pages 307-317

There are other fascinating people in this story--Gideon Mantell, the doctor and geologist who puzzled over the herbivore's tooth; Charles Lyell, who had a strong influence in moving scientific beliefs away from having to agree with the Bible; Georges Cuvier. And Mary Anning, who never got enough credit or enough compensation.

But for me the most interesting aspect of the book--aside from the actual dinosaur discoveries--was the clear presentation of how Creationist Christianity was suddenly left in the lurch. I don't have good answers for that even now. I don't know if I could have handled this book twenty years ago, or if I would have wanted to read anything at all where the "good guys" didn't believe that it all happened exactly as the Bible said. Today Christians who don't want to "leave their brains at the door" are being offered Creationist research to consider that was not available then. I'd like to believe all the young-earth-creationist material, because the fact that God made us in his image--really made us--is as central to our beliefs as it was to Buckland and Owen. However, I did not grow up with the idea that men and dinosaurs co-existed, so I have as hard a time trying to fit that all together as they did their piles of bones. I'm trying to keep an open mind on both sides.

Anyway--a very good read, very worthwhile especially for high school students. There are only two places I could see that you might want to have them skip over--an early adventure of Owen's involving body parts, and some other graphic material on page 270.


Sebastian said...

Nice review. I read Saving Darwin recently, hoping that it would provide some reconciliation between evolution and being a Christian. Left me feeling like it hadn't really answered the questions that it had proposed to. But it did provide a historical overview of the rise of and adoption of evolution as well as the challenges to it in the US from the church. That was interesting reading.

Mama Squirrel said...

Sounds like it would be a good complement to the British end of the story.