Some old habits die hard

Earth Pages News does not usually contain book reviews, but two that I read over the Christmas break deserve a comment.  The first, The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made The Future (Jenny Uglow, Faber & Faber, 2002) shows how what is now becoming known as the geosciences was central to the wide-ranging discourses and research of that group of men who created the foundations of modern science in Britain.  The Lunar Society was a loose association of free-thinking individuals, which included Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, James Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and James Hutton, who became close friends and collaborators at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  All emerged from the religious nonconformism that lay outside the aristocratic establishment of the late 18th century, but each came from different backgrounds.  What united them was an all-consuming curiosity as well as a desire to make a living.  Each was driven in his own way to serve those less fortunate, as well as to take their own wealth and talents to whatever limits they had.  Not one was a specialist, and they shared all their interests, ideas and discoveries, as well as supporting one another intellectually, economically and socially.  These were not men in thrall to peer-review or the building of academic empires.  Collectively they challenged established views of all kinds, and took the greatest delight in doing so, even when subject to physical attack, as was Priestley.

The characters depicted in The Dinosaur Hunters (Deborah Cadbury, Fourth Estate, 2001) are from one or two generations later, and do not cut such a merry dash.  Central figures are Gideon Mantell, William Buckland and Richard Owen.  They worked in a period when the challenge of the Lunar Society had created a state defence of religious orthodoxy (almost a panic), and in which a new and partitioned scientific establishment had emerged.  The first dinosaur remains were discovered by the daughter of a carpenter, subsisting on Poor Relief, who supplemented her family’s subsistence by selling Jurassic fossils that she had become adept at finding on the beaches of Lyme Regis.  170 years before the advent of the Open University, Mary’s brilliant insights brought no academic benefits to her, but many to the Reverend geologists who plagiarised her in exchange for just enough cash to keep her and her family in bread and potatoes.  The central characters, however, are Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen.  Mantell, a rural doctor, became obsessed with ancient reptiles following his and his wife’s discoveries of fragments of the Iguanodon.  He felt driven to make his name in scientific circles from outside the establishment, and a tough time he had, despite his growing insight and assiduous collection.  Owen, who hardly collected a specimen in his entire career, relied on his anatomical skills to describe, classify and steal those of others, such as Mantell.  The founder of the Natural History Museum (with Prince Albert’s patronage), Owen clawed his way to the pinnacle of British science over the backs of those more honest and naïve than himself.  Although he was exposed as a plagiarist and scoundrel by Thomas Huxley, Charles Darwin’s “bulldog”, following the publication of On The Origin of Species, Owen’s main victim Mantell had already died a broken man.  William Buckland, by all accounts a genuinely nice man, ended his days in a lunatic asylum having tried to square the growth of material evidence for evolution with his own deep religious beliefs.

Having read both books in quick succession, it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the best spirit of the “Lunar Men” seems largely to have departed from our science, while the meanest spirit of Victorian times lingers on among self-promoting empire builders with ever-narrower specialisations.

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