Thursday, 9 January 2014

Review: The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury

Book cover of The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury
I'm not sure how many of you watched David Attenborough's Natural History Museum Alive TV programme around New Year's, but if you didn't, you should. It was brilliant - David Attenborough wandering around the Kensington museum as various exhibits came to life. That prompted a conversation with a historian friend of mine about Richard Owen, the man that set up the museum in the first place... which led to me dragging this book down from my TBR.

Summary: In The Dinosaur Hunters, Deborah Cadbury brilliantly recreates the remarkable story of the bitter rivalry between two men: Gideon Mantell uncovered giant bones in a Sussex quarry, became obsessed with the lost world of the reptiles and was driven to despair. Richard Owen, a brilliant anatomist, gave the extinct creatures their name and secured for himself unrivalled international acclaim.

First off, this is not really a book about dinosaurs. Obviously they feature significantly, but the focus of the book is about the key players in the fossil and bone discoveries (the titular hunters of the dinosaurs, one may assume). It's about their squabbles, outrages and hysterical fits as new scientific discoveries challenge the previously held Creationist views.

There are two camps - those who believe in evolution (although not necessarily referred to as such) and those who believe that view is blasphemous and some creatures are extinct because they were wiped out by the Deluge (Noah's flood). I should clarify that both of these groups are scientists. Educated men. All scientific schools of the time taught that God created the Earth as if it were Fact, so suddenly claiming that this may not be quite true was almost earth-shattering.

What amazed me was the many attempts to alter science to fit in with religion, not the other way round. Theories were dismissed by leading scientists, simply on the basis that it didn't fit in with the Bible. Not because they didn't want to create an uproar, but because they believed the Bible was fact. 

I'm not saying these things so we can all have a hearty laugh at religion - it just shocked me that there was such a huge backlash. Apparently the very fact that the dinosaurs had carnivorous teeth contravened God - theoretically reptiles were Created before Man (in Genesis), but meat-eating and killing only began after Adam sinned, so therefore the dinosaurs (pre-Adam) should not have needed meat teeth!

Buckland was concerned to explain why the Creator chose to fill the primitive world with evil carnivorous beasts. His very own evidence showed that the reptilian carnivores were furnished with 'organs for the purpose of capturing and killing their prey, instruments formed expressly for destruction'; Nature was hideously red in tooth and claw. He accepted that this was 'inconsistent with a Creation founded in Benevolence and tending to produce the greatest amount of enjoyment to the greatest number of individuals.' Nonetheless, he sought to reconcile even this to God's wisdom.  
Obviously I find this quite interesting... but I still had a problem connecting with The Dinosaur Hunters. It's written well, but very formally and with a huge amount of information-dumping. There's a lot of discussion about different rock types that I didn't understand but also had zero interest in. It's a heavy book that was occasionally difficult to follow.

I do appreciate the thoroughness of the research, quotes and discussion and perhaps it isn't aimed at a person with only a casual understanding of geology. The fact remains though that I struggled to want to pick up the book after I'd put it down. I wanted to have the knowledge it offered - I just didn't want to go through trying to read the damn thing.

To be fair, it does liven up towards the end, when both scientists are academically established and have moved on to a rivalry over actual dinosaurs instead of squabbling incomprehensibly over rock types. I was actually genuinely irate about Richard Owen's behaviour towards the work of other scientists. I know we have him to thank for the Natural History Museum, but that doesn't mean I have to like the man.

The end chapter which introduces Darwin, and therefore the downfall of Richard Owen, is wonderful. Natural selection and the concept than men evolved from primates was hugely shocking to Victorian England, especially as scientists like Owen had worked hard to ensure that God was still prevalent in Natural History.Deborah Cadbury paints a perfect picture of a desperate old man, scrabbling to keep hold of the reputation he forged by belittling others. It's actually quite moving and I felt the dredges of sympathy for him.

To conclude, this is a fairly heavy and frequently dry explanation of the rivalry between Richard Owen and Gideon Mantel. It is very, very thorough and yet still assumes that you already know a certain about about geological strata (as an example).  It becomes slightly easier towards the end and it's worth reading just for the last third of the book, which is very good indeed. This isn't a casual book but it is interesting.

 Visit The Natural History Museum, London, to learn more about Richard Owen.


  1. I reveal my incredibly geekiness by saying I'd find the rock stuff fascinating! I have put this on my wishlist already. Have you read Remarkable Creatures? Fictionalised account but about women fossil hunters who had such a hard time being accepted.

    Interesting this is written by the Cadbury woman (I haven't got round to her book you sent me for Secret Santa last year about the actual chocolate).

    1. I have read Remarkable Creatures, which is actually where I learnt some of the things about Mary Anning etc. I really want to reread it now though!

      It's not geeky! I have a thing about fossils and dinosaurs, but the 'rock stuff' just leaves me cold.

      AH! THAT'S where I knew her name from! Oh Ellie, you've just solved a problem that's been bugging me for days.

  2. It's a shame this is so dry, as I loved reading about Owen when I read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything - he was so nasty!
    And I missed the Attenborough show, I was gutted.

  3. A non fiction thought provoking book about dinosaur hunters set in the early 19th century. A riveting book about the discovery of the prehistoric world and a true story of scientific rivalry.

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