Creekstone Press

Northern BC's publisher

Creekstone Press Publications

Excerpts from Sidetracked: The Struggle for BC’s Fossils


Seeing a lawyer’s name on my call display made me nervous. I knew of no wealthy relatives who might be leaving me a fortune. More likely, I was being dinged for the funeral expenses of some destitute cousin or uncle. Or maybe I’d made a libelous statement in a book or magazine article. It was March 2007 and Prince George, BC, lawyer Glen Nicholson, a loquacious kind of guy, instantly dispelled my anxiety.

“It’s a social call,” he said.

After exchanging short anecdotes about hiking and skiing, pastimes we both enjoyed, he suggested I write a book about a client of his, a local medical doctor, hiker, hunter and, most recently, amateur paleontologist.

According to the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, a paleontologist is someone who “studies the forms of life existing in former geologic periods, as represented by fossil animals and plants.” Dr. Garnet Fraser, according to Nicholson, was an amateur one of these. That status, along with the fact he and his friend, Bryan Monroe, had discovered an ancient and important dinosaur trackway in a remote part of northeastern British Columbia, Canada, was causing him no end of trouble, some of it legal.

A few days later Fraser and I sat in my kitchen sipping herbal tea and sizing each other up through small talk while my husband, John, confident that I was wasting time on another local cause when I should be writing the Great Canadian Novel, disappeared into his basement office.

Fraser looked about 35 years old. He had sandy blond hair and penetrating blue eyes. His soft voice and non-assuming manner masked a confidence that became evident when he spoke. His muscular, five-foot-ten-inch build glowed with health. His clothes were meticulous – his blue shirt was ironed crisp and matched his pants. He smiled often but he was guarded too.
I asked how he found the trackway and scribbled notes as he explained. His attention to detail frustrated me but I knew it would ultimately make any writing easier should I decide to tell this tale. When he left, I assured him I’d think seriously about his story. I liked it so far and I liked him.

It took only a few days of curious web surfing and nightly brooding to commit to the project. What piqued my curiosity and finalized my decision were the numerous interesting stories I found – stories showing how the science of paleontology is often impeded by personal and political conflicts and how, occasionally, these conflicts can be avoided or resolved.

All the stories had a common theme. Science works best when the human factor is eliminated from observation and experiment. Scientists are expected to maintain objectivity, to avoid fudging research, grasping for publicity and obstructing the work of others. For the general public, stories about such behaviours are interesting, comic even, since humour is based on deflating the ego and bringing down the mighty. But for scientists, such stories are hard to laugh at. They represent failure.

I discovered that the history of paleontology is rife with such failures, from the attempts of early paleontologists to acquire status by favouring creationist interpretations to an attempt in the 1990s by Society of Vertebrate Paleontology scientists to get control of the most complete, fossilized skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Perhaps one of the most famous and damaging battles for scientific recognition was waged by Edward Cope and Othneil Marsh, two natural history scientists who, from the 1870s through the 1890s, high-graded fossil records of the American West, resorting to theft, bribery and the reckless destruction of bones in their ego-driven attempts to outdo one another. Such was their passion to claim paleontological supremacy that they even resorted to slandering each other in scientific publications.

Another of these failures is connected to a peculiar feature of paleontology – its ongoing dependence on amateurs who find most of the fossils the professionals need for study. Take, for instance, the story of Mary Anning who was born in Lyme Regis, England, in 1799.

She was just 11 years old when she made her first important find.

Anning’s story began on the Dorset coast in western England where she and her older brother Joseph made a meager living finding and selling “curiosities,” as fossils were called then. One day, while walking the beach after a powerful storm, Anning’s brother noticed that gouging waves had dislodged some rocks from the base of a cliff revealing what looked like the skull of an especially large crocodile. Anning knew from experience that a fossil find in the cliff meant more fossilized remains immediately below, under the sand and gravel of the beach. The children dug and found the rest of the skeleton, a giant marine reptile called an ichthyosaur, mostly intact. After carefully hauling it out and putting it together, a skill learned from their father, they offered the ichthyosaur for sale, knowing full well it would be instantly snapped up by the gentry and nobility, some of whom were scientists. The fossil was purchased for £23 by Henry Host Henley of Norfolk who donated it to the William Bullock’s Museum of Natural History in Piccadilly. A description of it appeared in the Royal Society’s publication Philosophical Transactions.

In subsequent years, numerous other fossils – including two distinct species of ichthyosaur, the complete skeleton of a previously unknown animal named a plesiosaur, a pterodactyl (a flying reptile) and the first complete skeleton of a pterosaur – were found, extracted, assembled and sold by Anning. But she didn’t just skillfully extract and assemble skeletons. She made drawings of her finds and had them engraved. So exacting was her work that it took her 10 years, using basic tools under difficult conditions, to extract the plesiosaur. It still sits in the Museum of Natural History in London where professionals can see the skill with which this uneducated amateur worked.

Anning also had a keen eye for anatomical detail. She was reputed to have observed, for example, that her ichthyosaur could not be a crocodile, as one scientist claimed, because her fossil had the same nasal passages as a bird. Within a dozen years of her first major find, scientists were searching her out for other discoveries. Many of the scientific observations she made and provided to those scientists were claimed as their own even though some of Anning’s theories were in conflict with popular beliefs.

In those days the professionals were bent on establishing a creationist explanation for fossils. Observations not in accord with this often resulted in controversy and caused trouble for the observer. The standard theory of creation was simple: the earth was about 6000 years old and stories of Noah’s flood explained the presence of fossils on the tops of mountains. The theory stated that the fossils were mineralized and compacted by the weight of the water. When the water receded, layers of rock containing the fossils were visible on cliffs and mountains and were believed to be akin to bathtub rings.
The wording in Genesis 1:25 was taken to mean that species were immutable. “And God made the beasts of the earth after his kind and the cattle after their kind and everything that creepeth upon the earth after his kind. And God saw that it was good.” It was generally accepted that each “kind” is separate and distinct and did not derive from earlier “kinds.” This, in turn, indicated that every species was still around, including the strange animals found by Anning and other fossil hunters. People didn’t believe in extinction since that would suggest that God’s creations could be flawed. Even today there are a few scientists around who look for creationist interpretations of the fossil record. Dr. Emil Silvestru, a Romanian geologist and ardent Christian, investigated some trackways in the Tumbler Ridge area on the request of two creationist families who thought they might be human prints. The quality of the prints prevented a definitive interpretation.

As knowledge increased, a “secular” version of Genesis, one that sounds familiar even now, developed. This version is revealed in various popular science books written by known atheists and dissenters. The most popular of these books during Anning’s time were those of Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the infinitely more famous Charles. Erasmus Darwin’s speculations were presented in a series of poems published in the 1790s. His ideas were not original; he was no scientist like his grandson, but a reader and synthesizer. He believed in the idea of a “big-bang” creation. He believed in the idea of elements combining and inter-reacting to form compounds like water. He envisioned the early earth as a seething hot laboratory producing new compounds, a reverse of labs in his own time where the chemists were zapping, smashing and heating compounds to break them down into elements. He pictured the oceans condensing out of the clouds as the earth cooled. Darwin speculated that rocks were formed by the cooling of lava and the compaction of organic matter under the oceans over huge periods of time (more than 6000 years!). Earthquakes mixed the strata. Darwin also espoused an early version of the “drift” theory, noting that the shapes of continents suggest they all, at one time, fitted together and have since been split and driven apart.

As scientists took up the ideas contained in the works of their great predecessors and popularized by synthesizers like Erasmus Darwin, Anning’s work became more and more appreciated. When a certain Lady Harriet Silvester of London came to purchase some curiosities in 1824, she was so impressed with Anning, she noted in her diary that “by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge [privately] that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.”

Lady Harriet might have been willing to acknowledge Anning’s expertise but few of those who actually benefited from her work shared that willingness because they wanted credit for her finds. In fact Anning once wrote that the world had treated her “so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” This included the famous Richard Owen, a scientist from the British Association for the Advancement of Science in London who apparently told his father that he would “make love to her” so he could get more information. Anning had nothing to do with him romantically although she later dealt with him professionally.

In 1846, a few months before her death, Anning was finally honoured by (but not admitted to) the Geological Society of London in recognition of the help she had given professional geologists. In 1859, twelve years after she died, she was recognized as an authority on animal bones of prehistoric creatures. That same year, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species which caused a new wave of arguments in support of evolution by means of natural selection. It also increased the number of professional and amateur dinosaur hunters and collectors, all trying to receive recognition for their work.
It is at this interface, where professionals cross paths with amateurs and commercial ventures, that misunderstandings, egos, jurisdictional disputes and philosophical differences can and do lead to trouble.

Vivien Lougheed

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