“The Dinosaur Hunters’ by Deborah Cadbury
Book of The Month March 2023
“Were ‘the dinosaur hunters’ of the early 19th century, like ‘modern day conspiracy theorists’?” ..
This book is much more than just a beautifully written quaint history of the pioneering archaeologists who first reported the discovery of dinosaur remains! It is also a story about these individuals’ incredible struggle to overcome the ‘mainstream narrative’ of the early 19th Century, a narrative that did not allow for there to have been animals on earth millions of years before humans. The author Deborah Cadbury is a direct descendant of the founders of Cadbury’s Chocolates, she is an award-winning documentary maker and has written a number of interesting books that explore the lessons of history that are profoundly valuable but are often ignored by today’s ‘mainstream leaders’.
I would highly recommend the audiobook, which is wonderfully read by Andrew Sachs (the actor who plays Manuel in Fawlty Towers)
In the early 1800s the then ‘mainstream science’ was based on ‘the book of Genesis’, stating that ….the earth was created in 7 days, with man created on the 7th day, so anything claiming to be older than earliest man must be a myth, mis-information or false science! Which begs the question “Were ‘the dinosaur hunters’ of the early 19th century, like ‘modern day conspiracy theorists’?” It would appear from this book that they were treated as such for at least one or two decades, before things changed.
I have a strong personal connection with this story because my wife’s parents live near the Lyme Bay area in Lyme Regis where my family have had many great holidays along what is known as ‘The Jurassic Coast’.
One of the legendry dinosaur discovery pioneers of all ‘Mary Anning’ lived in Lyme Regis, where she unearthed many of the fossilised remains of dinosaurs that sent the traditional establishment into a spin!
If we go back in time to the 1800’s we need to appreciate that the then ‘mainstream science’ supported the theologically based belief that ‘humanity had been on earth as long as any animals had’. When the remains of these extraordinary creatures were discovered, the majority of scientific authorities claimed that ‘these must be the remains of creatures that died during Noah’s flood’. That was ‘the narrative’ and as far as the mainstream authorities were concerned the facts and the evidence HAD to fit the narrative.
This book recounts the amazing work conducted by the likes of Gideon Mantel, Richard Owen, William Buckland, Thomas Huxley and Mary Anning, these five great pioneers of dinosaur discovery who each, to varying degrees, had to endure vilification, censorship and financial and lifestyle penalties from the establishment for presenting archaeological and anatomical evidence that did not fit the then ‘mainstream scientific narrative’.
In the 1830s when receiving funding from the British Archaeological Association, Gideon Mantell was told in no uncertain terms that this funding to extract and examine these ‘unusual animal remains’ was dependent on his published findings supporting the mainstream scientific narrative!! I wonder if we have learned anything at all from such parts of history and to what extent this ‘narrative based’ practice for funding science continues?
In many of Mantell’s early findings he categorised the dinosaur bones as ‘Lizard bones’ or as ‘uncategorised mammal bones’, he obviously felt that he had to do this in order to be allowed to carry on with his work.
Richard Owen was an anatomist whose legacy to diligently and relentlessly unearth, identify and categorise dinosaur remains was absolutely immense. The contribution of his bitter rival Thomas Huxley has to also be acknowledged. Back in the 1830s and 40s both Huxley and Owen had to each deal with the great difficulty of informing people that they had discovered compelling evidence that for millions of years before human beings had walked the earth, there were these gigantic creatures roaming the earth that were clearly not like any animals previously known about.
For many it was a bit too much of a stretch for their minds, it was too uncomfortable for their model of the world, so it was easier to accuse people like Owen and Thomas of being a bit cuckoo! Although, strangely the bitter rivalry between the two men that is well documented probably helped them to ignore and overcome the difficulties and criticisms they received from the mainstream at various points in their careers.
To put the journey of these pioneers into context we should consider a profound quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:
“Truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident!”
During the same period in history Charles Darwin famously had his own difficulties and fall outs with the establishment over ‘his theory of evolution’ for which many scientists and the mainstream media initially mocked him. Then several years later, key members of the establishment and the media eventually conceded that his theory was not only credible, but a game changer in terms of understanding the evolution of life.
History is littered with other examples of people who were treated in the same way as the archaeologists and anatomists who first uncovered the previous existence of dinosaurs. Albert Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ was equally treated with contempt by the vast majority of the scientific establishment, some scientists accused Einstein of being ‘mentally ill’ for coming up with such a theory. Then a few years later, just like with Darwin, the genius of his theory was not only accepted by the mainstream but celebrated by them as a gigantic scientific leap forward.
Long before Einstein, Darwin and ‘the Dinosaur hunters’, Copernicus and Galileo were famously vilified and persecuted as heretics and even sent to prison for stating that their telescopes presented evidence that planet earth was not at the centre of the universe and that it actually rotates around the sun. This was at odds with the then ‘mainstream science’ that ‘the earth was at the centre of the universe’.
The term ‘conspiracy theorist’ was only created in the 1960s after the assassination of John F Kennedy. The term was used by the FBI to discredit people who claimed that the number one suspect Lee Harvey Oswald (who himself was shot prior to his trial) did not act alone. Whilst no conclusive evidence has emerged as to who, other than Oswald, may have been involved, conclusive evidence has emerged that Kennedy was shot by 2 bullets that came from completely different directions, meaning that the so called ‘conspiracy theorists’ were at least correct that ‘Oswald did not act alone’!
No doubt, if the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ existed when all these other ‘ground-breaking’ pioneers were alive, they would all probably have had to endure the ‘conspiracy theory’ label for a number of years before eventually being accepted and then acknowledged for their work.
The book is beautifully written and captures many elements of the personal lives of these pioneers, not only their struggle to convince people that dinosaurs really did exist, but their rivalries with each other to be the first to discover and understand this
In summary you could say that yesterday’s conspiracy theorists are today’s heroes, as indeed Mary Anning, Gideon Mantell, Thomas Huxley, William Buckland, Richard Owen and several other early archaeologists and anatomists mentioned in the book are now lauded as the heroes that they were, for their discoveries, but little attention is drawn to the profound difficulties they had overcoming ‘the mainstream narrative’ of their day.
After reading this lovely little book, it left me admiring what these archaeologists and anatomists had endured to bring their amazing discoveries to the world. And the book also left me wondering, as this is a pattern that has repeated again and again throughout history ….
“Who are the people and scientists being labelled as conspiracy theorists of today, that perhaps will be considered the geniuses and heroes of tomorrow?”