Impossible Monsters: Dinosaurs, Darwin and the War Between Science and Religion by Michael Taylor - review by Piers Brendon

Piers Brendon

Bones of Contention

Impossible Monsters: Dinosaurs, Darwin and the War Between Science and Religion


The Bodley Head 496pp £25

God created the world, according to the Bible-based calculations of the 17th-century Irish archbishop James Ussher, on the night of 22 October 4004 BC. Over six days, he populated it with flora, fish, fowl and beasts, finally making man in his own image. This cosmogony did not go unchallenged, but it long remained the basis of Christian belief. And it was reinforced by the argument from design, classically expounded in 1802 by the archdeacon William Paley, who likened the works of nature to the intricate machinery of a watch, a comparison which postulated the existence of a divine watchmaker. Within a decade, however, discoveries had been made in the rocks which challenged Ussher’s timeline and set geology against Genesis. The clash between science and religion, which precipitated an intellectual revolution that convulsed the Victorian age, is the subject of Michael Taylor’s excellent book.

It must be said that other writers have covered the subject in immense detail and Taylor has by no means produced, as his publisher claims, a ‘pioneering’ work. Moreover, his selection of events is somewhat arbitrary and there are gaps in his narrative. He says little or nothing about the climate of opinion generated by the Romantics, who saw the natural world as a wondrous organism rather than a Newtonian mechanism; or about the development of Christian doctrine as formulated by Newman, who subordinated science to conscience; or about the march of mind explicated by Comte, who thought the solar system badly designed; or about the gospel of progress championed by Macaulay, who remarked, incidentally, that no revelation in physics could affect the case for or against transubstantiation.

Nevertheless, Taylor’s book is everything that popular scholarly history should be. It is written with clarity, zest and wit. Although impressively wide-ranging, it sustains a strong storyline. Exciting scenes abound, the first of which unfolds on the Jurassic Coast near Lyme Regis, where in 1811 a poor girl called Mary Anning disinterred the petrified skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, an extinct creature unknown to science. Furthermore, the book contains a rich cast of characters, none more colourful than William Buckland, professor of geology at Oxford. In his long gown he looked like a necromancer, he kept snakes, frogs and guinea pigs (which were gobbled up by his jackal), and he aspired to taste every animal on earth – his mice baked in batter might have been acceptable but his crocodile dish was pronounced an ‘utter failure’. Buckland’s rooms in Corpus Christi College testified to his intense palaeontological preoccupations. He surrounded himself with rocks, skulls and bones, crowding his breakfast table with ‘beefsteaks and belemnites, tea and terebratula, muffins and madrepores, toast and trilobites’.

The remains of primordial creatures kept being uncovered, among them the long-necked Plesiosaurus, the Megalosaurus (or ‘great lizard’) and the Dimorphodon, Britain’s first flying reptile, which reminded the Quarterly Review of ‘the winged dragons of fabulous legends’. Such relics were hard evidence of pre-Adamite life and implied that the scriptural account was itself a myth. This smacked of blasphemy. One clergyman damned fossils as ‘the outer shells of devilish souls’. Another said that geologists were ‘a secret society dedicated to the overthrow of the established order’. And (though Taylor doesn’t mention it) John Keble engaged Buckland in a dispute on top of a coach travelling all the way from Oxford to Winchester, finally taking ‘his stand on the conceivability and indeed certainty of the Almighty having created all the fossils and other apparent outcomes of former existence in the six days of the Creation’.

As a clergyman himself, and an ambitious one at that, Buckland was anxious to mollify conventional opinion. He maintained that fossils were vestiges of earlier worlds created by God, which had contained animal types that were perfect and immutable. These had been rendered extinct by divinely ordained catastrophes, precursors of Noah’s flood. In the early 1830s, however, Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology convincingly asserted that the planet and its inhabitants had been shaped by gradual changes, still observable, extending over hundreds of millions of years. Although Lyell did not believe men came from monkeys, he gave Charles Darwin, then on his epic voyage as a naturalist aboard the Beagle, a timescale that would accommodate the transmutation of the species. Yet another clergyman, Thomas Malthus, who described the struggle for existence in a world of limited resources, led Darwin to conclude that animals with favourable variations survived and that from them humankind was descended.

To admit such ideas, Darwin said, was like ‘confessing a murder’. He delayed publishing his theory for two decades, being prompted to do so only when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, developed almost identical ideas about natural selection. Meanwhile, as Taylor vividly recounts, evolution was in the air. Tennyson wrote of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Robert Chambers produced a materialist account of the universe that was, though highly flawed, greeted with enthusiasm. Herbert Spencer coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. The earth gave up new bones of contention. Antediluvian monsters were all the rage. When the Crystal Palace moved to Sydenham Hill, a park full of sculpted dinosaurs was created and in 1853 twenty of the nation’s most distinguished naturalists dined together inside the half-completed model of an Iguanodon. The meal lasted more than seven hours and concluded with a rousing chorus: ‘The jolly old beast/Is not deceased/There’s life in him again! ROAR!’

Orthodoxy roared too. Magistrates imprisoned the radical George Holyoake for insulting Christianity. The dean of Exeter College, Oxford, publicly burned J A Froude’s heretical novel Nemesis of Faith. Richard Owen, the pugnacious anatomist who founded the Natural History Museum, insisted that any changes in species resulted from the ordained development of divine archetypes. The marine biologist Philip Henry Gosse tried to prove in his book Omphalos (1857) that just as God had given Adam a redundant belly button, so he had, at the time of the creation, planted antecedent forms in the ground. This was too much for Gosse’s friend Charles Kingsley, who refused to believe that ‘God has written on the rocks one enormous and superfluous lie’. Kingsley told Darwin that it was a noble conception of God to believe that he had created primal entities capable of self-improvement. 

After the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, its contentions won swift and wide acceptance. This owed much to Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, who disproved, for example, Owen’s assertion that the brains of gorillas were distinctively different from those of humans. The discovery of Neanderthal skulls made it easier to agree that man was a risen ape rather than a fallen angel. The theory of natural selection gradually overcame the supernatural and undermined Paley’s claim that God had designed ‘a happy world’. Darwin himself observed, ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horribly cruel works of nature!’

As Taylor shows, science shaped ideas and attitudes in myriad ways. Christians themselves tried to purge religion of the miraculous, portraying Jesus, for example, as human rather than divine. Atheists such as Charles Bradlaugh were permitted to enter the House of Commons. Socialists believed that the lowest might rise by means of class struggle. Eugenicists aimed to improve the quality of the race by preventing the survival of the unfit. Huxley disagreed with them, saying that social progress depended not on imitating the cosmic process but on combating it by means of what he called ‘the ethical process’. Darwinism had given dignity to humanity by dispensing with a superintending deity. But Huxley wanted to preserve Christian morality despite the ‘elaborate tomfooleries’ of the Church. He did not advocate burning the ship ‘to get rid of the cockroaches’.

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