Sitting around in airports and (briefly) on planes is good reading time, though I tend to take something on the lighter side of the pile. First on the list was Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. It’s quite an old book, and I’ve had a copy for years. Now I finally had a reason to read it. The Burgess Shale was a significant fossil field in British Columbia – an interesting book though I’m not sure it’s especially useful for my work, and apparently it is not without problems. I will probably look at Simon Conway Morris, The Crucible of Creation for a different perspective.
I then moved onto Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I read this years ago as a kid – and yes, I have heard the very dodgy Rick Wakeman concept album – but I wanted to revisit it because of the fossil theme. Next up was Conan Doyle’s The Lost World – not sure I’d ever read that before, though as with Verne I’d seen film and TV versions. Both are short and quick reads.
Why are Verne and Conan Doyle interesting? Partly because they provide versions of the idea that the fossil record shows not the remains of extinct creatures, but of creatures that are no longer living in known places. Instead of opening up the idea of deep time, of a past that is difficult to comprehend, especially in literal interpretations of Genesis, many thinkers proposed that the no-longer known animals simply existed elsewhere. This was of course more plausible when the question was that of insects, fish or smaller creatures that were fossilised – dinosaurs was coined as a term only in 1842. Verne (1864) and Conan Doyle (1912) situate these creatures in inaccessible places – deep underground or on a remote plateau in the Amazon rainforest. Both are quite late, especially Conan Doyle, and both have their protagonists running against conventional wisdom which denies the possibility of access to these places and/or the existence of such creatures. I wonder if the dinosaurs exhibited at the Crystal Palace in 1854 were inspirations? Both are obviously fictions, and I’m not suggesting either author actually believed in continued existence. But there were certainly people proposing this idea in more general terms somewhat earlier. Were there previous examples in literature? (There are other later ones – Edgar Rice Burrough’s The Land that Time Forgot, for instance, and a whole slew of films, etc.) Previously (and of course now, but I really don’t want to get into creationism) the claim was that prior animals had been wiped out by ‘the flood’. I’m not sure this will go anywhere, but it seems interesting that one way of dealing with the abyss of deep time was to push these creatures further away spatially.