Essentially there were two main problems surrounding fossils during early modern history. The first of these was the location where many of the fossils were discovered, and the second was what they definitively were. There was also a secondary issue surrounding fossils which became far more prevalent at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and this was religion. It is important to remember that the term fossil was not widely used in its modern context until the nineteenth century, when the study of palaeontology really came into being.
Before that point the word fossil was used very liberally to mean anything that was dug out of the ground. However, throughout history there was a general interest in these “curios” or “curiosities” as they were commonly known, and they came to be a source of income to some people. They would be sold as it was believed that they had magical powers. For example the “snake-stone”, or ammonite, could, apparently, bring protection from serpents and be a cure for blindness, impotence and barrenness.
Some people even thought that these “snake-stones” were once people, who for their sins or crimes were turned into snakes and then cast into rock. By divine retribution anyone who was evil could be turned to dust, just as Lot’s wife had been turned into a pillar of salt in the Bible. Yet, it was not until the beginning of the nineteenth century that that the study of fossils was to clash with religion and this was primarily due to a renaissance in geology under men such as William Buckland. It is also worth mentioning that during this period the study of fossils is almost akin to the study of geology.
This is well highlighted in the works of Plot, Hooke and Steno. The problem of the location of the fossils was one that baffled many during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I shall focus on the work of Robert Plot, Robert Hooke and Nicolas Steno, all of whom were working at the end of the seventeenth century. Each had very different theories which merely added to the conjecture that was flying about at the time, partially due to the paucity of fossils available to natural philosophers.
Both Hooke and Plot were members of the Royal Society at the same time and there was much opposition between the two, because of there differing views on the location of fossils. The problem was that the majority of the fossils discovered at that time seemed to be marine in nature, and yet they were being found well away from coasts, in the “… Hills of Hungary, the mountain Taurus, the Alps. “1, but also well below the surface of the earth. Hooke gives an example of a well in Amsterdam that was ninety-nine feet deep that at its base contained a layer of sand and sea shells four feet deep.
Hooke postulated that the solution probably involved a very large earthquake that dislocated the land so that parts of the continent were submerged and new land rose out of the sea. However, this theory was dismissed by many due to the paucity of evidence. This hypothesis was virtually completely demolished in the late 1680s by John Wallis, who reiterated that there was not enough evidence in the form of ancient records, and that an observer would notice such huge movements in the earth’s crust.
He also stated that Genesis describes a world with much the same geography and a pre Adam world that might be suggested by Hooke would go against all history both “sacred and profane” In contrast, and in dispute to, Plot came up with a different theory, which claimed that the fossils were created by some “plastic force”2 within the earth, and therefore there was no real need for transportation. There were also other equally implausible theories provided by the likes of Seth Ward, the bishop of Exeter.
Yet, contrary to this, Nicolas Steno was a man well ahead of his time, and his work would be a major precursor to the geologists and palaeontologists of the nineteenth century. He was able to provide a glimpse of how fossils might have found their way up mountains. He utilised the “corpuscular theory of matter”, a forerunner of atomic theory to argue that fossils could be altered in chemical composition without changing their form. This theory came to him while working on the teeth of a great white shark, given to him by Ferdinand.
He recognised the similarities between those teeth and “tongue stones” that were famous on the island of Malta, but also native to many parts of Europe. These “tongue stones” were in fact fossilised shark teeth and he recognised this, but he needed an explanation for why they were embedded in the rock. He thought that the matrix of the rock was not hard when the tooth was incorporated, therefore, at some stage the water was either higher or the land had been lower. If the land could rise after an earthquake why should the land not rise after having been underwater?
Although this thinking was a very modern approach it did not solve the problem as it was very hard to accept. The problem of the true nature of the fossils was not as diverse in its complexity. There were some fossils that markedly resembled species that were around at the time, and therefore it was easy to draw the conclusion that they were merely petrified versions of these. Yet, there were many fossils that were not as easily identified, for two reasons. Some were simply too big, although they seemed to resemble recognisable species they were far larger in weight and dimensions.
The other problem that some did not resemble any species that was known to them at the time, Plot writes, “… many stones resemble bivalves etc. which yet resemble no species of shell fish now to be found. “3 . Hooke also came up with a problem along similar lines. He was perplexed by the substance from which these objects were formed. He felt that either the pores of the animal had been filled with a liquid substance, and therefore the parts were “locked up and cemented together”4 It could also be argued that “fossils” could not become a problem until the nineteenth century.
This is because the term was not specifically used in its modern context until then and also it proved to be a major factor in evolutionary theory and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. At that time this provided a certain amount of friction between the scientific community and the church. In a similar vein it was not until “fossil forms were proved to belong to extinct… species was the space created for the theories of organic evolution… “5 and thus replacing the more static hypothesis of the eighteenth century and Charles Bonnet.
The friction between the church and the natural philosophers arose because of the implications of fossils on the idea of progressive creation. Scientists such as Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell and Charles Darwin were painting a picture that went against everything religious Creationists believed in at the time. The discovery of fossils in layers of rock was suggesting that they were laid down over a long period of time, and also that God had not created every creature on earth at the same time. Therefore, the Creationists belief that the earth was formed in 4004 BC, based on the scriptures, had to be drastically re-evaluated.
The further understanding of fossils during the nineteenth century allowed the evolutionary theories that had been threatening to surface in the eighteenth century, under the likes of Lamark and Goethe, to be confirmed which provided a huge step in science away from the constraints of religion that had held a firm grip on the sciences for centuries. This was in part due to the fact that many scientists were in fact men of the clergy, as they could afford to dedicate time to study. In conclusion fossils proved to be a large problem to the scientific community during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
This was due to the fact that they were being discovered in places that defied scientific explanation, and they also gave an insight into a period of time that nobody knew about and on which there were no records. Many ideas as to their origins and methods of transport were offered by the likes of Hooke, Plot and Ward all of which did not really stand the test of scrutiny, and some were merely too ridiculous. This was best highlighted by Plot’s discovery of a huge thigh bone in Cornwall, to which he ended up suggesting that it was the thigh bone of a giant human.
However, amongst this wild conjecture Nicolas Steno provided a very modern and plausible theory on the method by which the fossils found their way into rocks. The problem with fossils was to escalate during the nineteenth century when a far greater number were being discovered. Many of them did not resemble creatures that were alive at the time, and this provided a true problem. Also men such as Lyell were suggesting that they had been fossilised over a long period of time, and therefore going against the churches scripture based belief that the world was only several thousand years old.