A Short History of Nearly Everything | Study Guide

Bill Bryson

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A Short History of Nearly Everything | Part 2, Chapter 6 : The Size of the Earth (Science Red in Tooth and Claw) | Summary

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Summary

In this chapter Bryson describes the rise of paleontology in the late 18th century. The fossil craze at this time was initiated by Comte de Buffon's book, Histoire Naturelle. Buffon's book caused great controversy and debate for declaring America's soil was unproductive and its water stagnant, and saying Indians lack "ardor for the female." Buffon contended nature and animal life in the Old World (Europe) was far superior to the New World (America). In an effort to address these claims, scientists in Europe and America began hunting for fossils that would show the superiority of one continent over the other.

Georges Cuvier, a gifted French paleontologist who in 1796 laid out the first formal extinction theory, researched fossils and was the first to discover and name the mastodon. Bryson writes the idea of extinction "raised uncomfortable implications since it suggested an unaccountable casualness on the part of Providence. To what end would God create species only to wipe them out later?" At approximately the same time, Englishman William Smith described the concept of relative dating of fossils based on their appearance and disappearance within layers of rocks.

The two ideas—extinction theory and relative dating—prompted the discovery of more fossils and inspired the work of early paleontologists. These included Mary Anning, who gathered a staggering number of fossils from the cliffs of the English Channel, and Gideon Algernon Mantell, an English country doctor who in 1822 was the first to accurately identify a dinosaur fossil and recognize it as belonging to the Cretaceous period.

Bryson also discusses the work of Richard Owen, who coined the term dinosauria ("terrible lizard") in 1841. He was a superb anatomist and did much to improve the construction of dinosaurs from their bones. At the same time, he ruthlessly claimed credit for the work of others and, after Gideon Mantell had a disfiguring accident, so erased the other scientist's contributions that Mantell ultimately committed suicide. Owen created London's Natural History Museum and is credited with making museums accessible to the public rather than serving as research institutes.

Part of the chapter is devoted to the rivalry between 19th-century paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, whose onetime friendship devolved into a war that included rock-throwing and insults in print. The two managed nonetheless to make numerous spectacular discoveries.

Unfortunately, up until the 20th century, despite a large fossil record, paleontologists had no agreed-upon, accurate method of dating the absolute age for any fossils. The problem would not be solved until the appearance of a scientist named Ernest Rutherford.

Analysis

The political and social lenses of the 18th and 19th centuries colored how paleontological discoveries were initially interpreted. Bryson raises an important point about the intersection of religious beliefs and new evidence that animal species like dinosaurs and mastodons—whose fossils had just been discovered and analyzed—go extinct. However, Bryson points out religious views did not necessarily inhibit scientific advancements within paleontology. Rather, religious ideas were reinterpreted and scientific advancement continued. Religion is often portrayed as having a stunting effect on scientific growth; however, Bryson is careful to point out this was not always the case.

Bryson's conversational and narrative writing style brings to life subjects who would not otherwise be memorable except for their discoveries. By describing, for example, the painstaking work of the impoverished Mary Anning and the bitter rivalry between Cope and Marsh, he gives readers insight into the day-to-day workings of science. Readers learn most discoveries do not happen through the sudden inspiration of a lone scientist in a laboratory, but through collaboration, debate, missteps, repeated and continually revised experimentation, and long hours of data collection, organization, and analysis.

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