The Earth on Show: Encountering Lost Worlds Through Fossil Displays

Scene from Universal Studios Jurassic Park.
Scene from Universal Studios Jurassic Park.

Most of us remember our first life-like encounter with dinosaurs sitting in a theater watching Jurassic Park (1993).  Although dinosaurs had been very popular in picture books for many years the vivid recreation of them on the screen rekindled a sense of awe of these amazing creatures of a past age.  Today, movies with depictions of dinosaurs draw little awe anymore in the wake of transformers and superheros which are portrayed as life-like as any real historical beast.   But, imagine though you knew nothing of dinosaurs, mammoths, or any of the great sea reptiles and an exhibit rolled into town claiming to show the ancient remains of a lost world filled with these exotic beasts. What would be your reaction?

Recently, I enjoyed reading The Earth on Show:  Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856 by Ralph O’Connor.  O’conner examines how the fossilized monstrosities that were being uncovered by geologists were presented to the British public in the early Victorian era.  By blending science with spectacle, the public was introduced through poetics and dramatic description to displays of  bones of extinct mammoths, dinosaurs, and great sea reptiles.  But more importantly, entire exotic ecosystems were being reconstructed in words and images that revealed past epochs of Earth’s history that were ruled by animals and plants that were unlike anything alive today.

A "Young Mammouth" unearthed by Charles Willson Peale on display at the Philadelphia museum in 1821.
A “Young Mammouth” unearthed by Charles Willson Peale on display at the Philadelphia museum in 1821.

These were radical images  and even poetry that captured the imagination.  In the 1800s when first faced with the prospect of a world filled with animals of such size and bizarre features the public was awed,  mystified, and disturbed all at the same time.   Some geologists of the early 1800s competed to find, describe and display fossils in order to draw attention to their work and to benefit monetarily.  Fossils were presented in traveling exhibits where people would stand in long lines to pay for a glimpse of these monsters and hear the tales of their past lives.

While there was a rush to describe new fossils, the astonishing and bizarre nature of the fossils raised questions about earth’s past that challenged  previously held beliefs about earth’s history.   Just when did these monsters live?  How did they come to be trapped in rock?  Where were the fossils of humans?  Why were there no mammoth fossils ever found with dinosaurs?

The prevailing opinion, even increasingly among Christians, was that the earth must have been very old to accommodate so many past ages and diverse sets of organisms. However, there were still some scriptural or “mosaic” geologists at the time who agreed that these exotic creatures were real but just represented life in the antiquarian age. This was the time after creation but before the Noahic Flood.  By placing all of the exotic past life into this short period an utterly foreign pre-flood world was imagined.  This raised additional questions about why these creatures no longer existed, where many modern organisms came from or why today’s species aren’t represented in the fossil record.

The distinctions between these scriptural geologists and the naturalist geologists – called mineralists –  was not as clear as they are today between young earth creationist and conventional geologists.  There were many geologists such as William Buckland, who I have written about several times (William Buckland: Minister and Geologists Grappling with Fossil Feces, Deep Time and the Age of Reptiles and Kirkdale Cave Hyena Den:  A Young Earth Puzzle Since 1821), who believed in a Noahic global flood but also believed the Earth to be ancient and to have experienced significant changes in the animal and plant biota through history.

The idea of distinct ages or epochs in earth’s history were developed as a result of a growing awareness of the consistency of the pattern of the fossil record was upheld as more and more fossils were found.  Great marine reptiles were found only in certain rocks while dinosaurs were found in others.  Associated with these animals were distinct groups of plants.   It is fascinating to read about the debate about how these different floras and faunas of the past could be accommodated to the scriptures or at least how the patterns in the rocks were acknowledged to exist even if dismissed as the result of global flood dynamics.  The most famous attempt to accommodate the ages of the earth was the gap theory which posited a large gap between Genesis 1:1 and 1:2 wherein the original creation was destroyed and the earth recreated in 6 days.  This allowed most of the fossils and bizarre creatures to be placed in this initial creation that was destroyed.  This seemed to provide some comfort in the church to those that were concerned about flood of fossils and their implications. However, this was just ad hoc explanation for both the fossil data and scripture evidence and has little support today.

I wanted to share just one image (below) from this book that illustrates the rising awareness that in earth’s history there had been multiple different epochs with distinct ecosystems.  It is the frontpiece of a book, Practical Geology,  from 1841.  It shows illustrations of four epochs of earth’s history.

Engraving entitled "Conditions of the terraqueous surface as to Vegetation and Vertebrated Animals during four remarkable Geological Epochs.  Engraving by John Whichelo for Joshua Trimmer's textbook Practical Geology.
Engraving entitled “Conditions of the terraqueous surface as to Vegetation and Vertebrated Animals during four remarkable Geological Epochs. Engraving by John Whichelo for Joshua Trimmer’s textbook Practical Geology.

The bottom panel what we now call the Carboniferous age in which there were no reptiles or mammals and no flowering plants. It was an age of ferns and fern-like plants on land and fish in the sea.  The second panel is of the Age of the Reptiles.  The large lizard is an Iguanodon one of the first described dinosaurs, there is a plesiosaur in the water and pterosaurs in the skies.  The third panel is of what we might call the Eocene today. It includes many strange mammals that have some similarities to mammals today but yet are clearly distinct from them.   The top panel includes Pleistocene animals which are Ice Age animals. They include many familiar animals thought these species are all extinct replaced with variations that we have today.

William Buckland around 1845. Image: Wikipedia
William Buckland around 1845. Image: Wikipedia

Notice the date of this image again – 1841.  That is 12 years before the publication of The Origin of Species by Darwin.  In the early 1800s the idea of past ages was becoming accepted but there was a big inference implicit in these images – that the organisms themselves had changed or been replaced over time.  That sounds a lot like evolution.  But that wasn’t necessarily viewed that way at the time.  As we saw with Buckland (William Buckland: Minister and Geologist Grappling with Deep Time) theologians and natural historians alike were compelled to wrestle with the implications of changes in the sets of organisms alive on earth over time  Buckland like many of his natural theologian colleagues at the time where not evolutionists as we understand evolution today. Rather Buckland and other prominent theistic geologists promoted a form of progressive creation whereby the fossil record was explained by a series of divine creations that prepared the earth for human beings.   Combined with various forms of catastrophic such as the gap theory the earth’s history could be viewed as a series of creative events and destruction each of which built on top of each other to produce the world which Adam and Ever were finally introduced into.

Of course Charles Darwin takes center stage at the end of Buckland’s lifetime with the proposal that the pattern of fossil succession could be explained by the mechanism of natural selection acting over time to change organisms from one species into another.  The idea that organisms had evolved through time clearly wasn’t a special creation of Darwin’s mind. No, the idea that organisms had changed or at least replaced preceding organism over time was well established prior to Darwin formulating a mechanism to help explain those changes.  In fact it was because change was obvious from the fossil record that Darwin and others were cognizant of the need to explain how this clear pattern of change could have occurred.  The former is what is sometimes referred to as the fact of evolution meaning the obvious pattern of change and replacement of whole groups of organisms with other over time.  Darwin’s theory of evolution is a proposed mechanism of how the fact of evolution can be explained.

A slide from a recent presentation outlining the major events and people I intended to discuss.  William Buckland lived at a time in which the implication of the discovery of deep time and fossil order were being debated. Image: Joel Duff
A slide from a recent presentation outlining the major events and people I intended to discuss.  Deep time was developed in the 1700s but it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the implications of an old age were; that there were entire changes in the ecosystem over time.   Image: Joel Duff


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