Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Monstrous Problem for Scientists ; Dinosaur Bones Didn't Mesh with the Prevailing Wisdom about the Evolution of Species - or the Earth

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Monstrous Problem for Scientists ; Dinosaur Bones Didn't Mesh with the Prevailing Wisdom about the Evolution of Species - or the Earth

Article excerpt

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. …

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