Dinosaur Crazy

The Road to Chilecito

by James A. Jensen
Launceston, Tasmania: Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 183 pp., $20.00 Australian (paper)

The year 1677 saw Dr. Robert Plot, Professor of Chymistry and first Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, struggling with a perplexing mystery. Quarry workers at Cornwell (near what is now Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire) had unearthed an object that to modern eyes looks like the end of a bone from a Flintstones cartoon. Plot correctly identified it as “a real bone, now petrified” but its size was incredible—“in compass, near the capita femoris,…two foot,” he marveled. It “must have been the bone of some elephant, brought hither during the government of the Romans in Britain,” concluded the good doctor, who, thankfully for posterity, illustrated the now lost specimen.

Later comparisons revealed that the bone was decidedly unlike those of elephants, and for nearly a century it languished in obscurity. Then in 1758 Carl von Linné published his Systema Naturae, establishing the modern method of classification based on binomial nomenclature, whereby every living and fossil thing is given a binomen—a unique, universally recognized double name. Homo sapiens had begun the task of classifying the world, and within five years Plot’s bone had been incorporated into the new system. The job was done by one Richard Brookes, an Oxford researcher who was so unsure of the identity of the relic that he bestowed a purely descriptive binomen. His appellation Scrotum humanum implied the existence of a very big human being indeed, yet evidently caused no unseemly laughter.

In those infant days of science the very nature of fossils was obscure. A French school of philosophy championed by Jean-Baptist Robinet held that they were a sort of prototype, an attempt by nature to reproduce in stone the organs of humankind. To Robinet, the Scrotum humanum was a rare treasure. Oversize it may have been, but so firm was Robinet’s belief in his theory that it permitted him to make out details in the bony mass, such as the musculature of the testes and even the vestiges of a urethra.

Deborah Cadbury’s Terrible Lizard opens at the dawn of an age when the study of fossils was assuming a more scientific aspect. Although Cadbury makes reference to Plot’s bone, which was the first dinosaur fossil to receive a detailed description, her story proper commences in the England of Jane Austen and concludes in the era of Charles Dickens, when dinosaurs make a debut of sorts in Bleak House (1852). “And would it not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill,” Dickens mused. Cadbury sets herself the task of explaining how this curious Victorian image of dinosaurs came to be, and along the way to reveal something of the human story behind the discoveries.

Cadbury is a writer of great talent and, as one might surmise from her day job as a TV science producer with the BBC, she can tell a story skillfully. Regrettably her grasp of the history of paleontology is slight, resulting in some errors and lost opportunities.…

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