Reconciling the Fossil Record

This elaborate image includes a rich combination of fossils in the border surrounding the fantastic prehistoric landscape: bivalves, spiral shells, shark's teeth, fish, plant stems, ferns, corals, ammonites, trilobites, and several unidentifiable forms.

These images taken from Heck’s Iconographic Encyclopedia (1851) reveal precisely how the fossil record by mid-century led naturalists and the general public to imagine prehistoric life. A fantastic, almost surreal, image of primordial seas in the center of this illustration–full of aquatic monsters engaged in mortal combat and in remarkably close proximity–suggests a powerful link between scientific and “poetic” imaginations.The fossil record likewise provided powerful evidence for use by comparative anatomists. Scientists by the middle of the century were classifying living and extinct species based on structural similarities. The specimens collected in anatomical museums throughout Europe and North America revealed similar creatures across the globe. Once these bodily forms were placed so physically close together in cases and museum displays, it became impossible to ignore the numerous and remarkable similarities between and among these shapes and living structures. In addition, the similarities suggested not only that these creature might be closely related, but that they might also share common sources. Comparable forms were troubling, and also revealing, because they suggested common ancestry if not a common origin. Why did every creature that had a backbone also have ribs, something like ribs? Even a turtle’s shell is composed of his ribs, flattened out and melded together into a single, protective, exterior shell. Why did so many creatures from very early forms have two eyes, one nose (with two nostrils), one mouth (with teeth or something like teeth), and two ears? Why did whale fins have exactly the same bones as mammalian paws, or claws, or hands? (We now know, of course, that the whale family had walked around on land for millennia before returning to the seas, where it required a flat paddle-like structure to move through the water (whatever the precise bone  configuration beneath).

Another remarkable set of images: mammoth tusks, ground sloths, fish imprints, jaws, skulls, a turtle imprint, a long gar-like fish, a sea urchin, at least one large molar, and several unidentifiable claws, or teeth, or imprinted fossil remains.

Tennyson‘s lines about dinosaur and other ancient bones and casts in quarries are clearly one of the most well known poetic expressions of the sorts of anxiety that were being generated in the mid-1800s by fossil remains. All sorts of strange creatures and parts of creatures were falling out of quarry walls throughout Europe, sandy cliffs in Norfolk (an almost complete steppe mammoth–Mammuthus trogontherii–was unearthed from a cliff near West Runton, north of Norwich, in 1990. The creature was c. 600,000 years old and would have weighed over 10 European tons when alive) and the clays and limestone of Devon. Mary Anning had discovered the first ichthyosaur near Lyme Regis in 1811, when she was just 12 years old. Tennyson had an interest in fossils and discoveries of prehistoric remains during the entirety of his long career; he published poetry for 65 years. Here are famous stanzas from his In Memoriam, published in 1850,  almost a decade before Darwin‘s Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859):

So careful of the type?” but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

“Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more.” And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll’d the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law–
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed–

Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match’d with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

They say,
The solid earth whereon we tread

In tracts of fluent heat began,
And grew to seeiming-random forms,
The seeming prey of cyclic storms,
Till at the last arose the man;

Who throve and branched from clime to climb,
The herald of a higher race . . .

[Whose]  life is not as idle ore,

But iron dug from central gloom,
And heated hot with burning fears,
And dipt in baths of hissing tears,
And battered with the shocks of doom

To shape and use. Arise and fly
The reeling Faun, the sensual feast;
Move upward, working out the beast,
And let the ape and tiger die.
(1851, LVI, CXVIII)

But Tennyson was not the first–or only–poet worried about fossil remains. Here are lines by Percy Shelley, writing almost four decades earlier, in 1816:

. . . even these primaeval mountains
Teach the adverting mind. The glaciers creep
Like snakes that watch their prey, from their far fountains,
Slow rolling on; there, many a precipice,
Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power
Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,
A city of death . . .
. . . The dwelling-place
Of insects, beasts, and birds, becomes its spoil
Their food and their retreat for ever gone,
So much of life and joy is lost. The race
Of man flies far in dread; his work and dwelling
Vanish, like smoke before the tempest’s stream,
And their place is not known.
(“Mont Blanc,” ll. 99-105, 114-120)

In Prometheus Unbound (1819), Percy Bysshe Shelley likewise reveals his awareness of previous forms of life (including human life) that have occupied the planet for eons and the catastrophic forces that have led to their destruction (cf. Cuvier). Shelley imagines, not only the era of dinosaurs and their kin, but also the forces that led to their extinction. This sense of the brevity of individual human lives, in relation to the long history of life on the planet, becomes a common theme throughout Romantic writing :

Dead Destruction, ruin within ruin!
The wrecks beside of many a city vast,
Whose population which the earth grew over
Was mortal but not human; see, they lie,
Their monstrous works and uncouth skeletons,
Their statues, homes, and fanes; prodigious shapes
Huddled in grey annihilation, split,
Jammed in the hard black deep; and over these
The anatomies of unknown winged things,
And fishes which were isles of living scale,
And serpents, bony chains, twisted around
The iron crags, or within heaps of dust
To which the tortuous strength of their last pangs
Had crushed the iron crags;–and over these
The jagged alligator and the might
Of earth-convulsing behemoth, which once
Were monarch beats, and on the slimy shores
And weed-overgrown continents of Earth
Increased and multiplied like summer worms
On an abandoned corpse, till the blue globe
Wrapt Deluge round it like a cloak, and they
Yelled, gaspt and were abolished. (iv. 295-316)

Of course, these passages from both Tennyson and Shelley also reveal the extent to which fossil evidence for evolution and extinction was being confirmed by parallel discoveries in geology and the earth sciences. (A.N.)

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