Show Me the Bone

By Gowan Dawson

Show me the Bone

I have just published a book, Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America, on which I have been working for a very long time.  In the book’s acknowledgements I describe it as ‘a labor of curiosity’ that began ‘more than a decade ago’.  Even this, though, is a rather conservative estimate, as I first conceived the idea for Show Me the Bone way back in 2001 or 2002 when I was a postdoctoral Research Fellow on the precursor to ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’, the ‘Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical’ or ‘SciPer’ project.  An inevitable consequence of spending such a long time researching and writing a book is that you encounter new ideas and approaches that change, sometimes only subtly but on other occasions more dramatically, the book that had already taken shape in your mind.  One of the most important new approaches that I came upon when putting Show Me the Bone together, although I encountered it quite late in the process, was citizen science of the sort practiced by Zooniverse.

In fact, working on ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ has very much taken me out of my comfort zone as a nineteenth-century literary and cultural historian.  But collaborating with Zooniverse, as well as with contemporary scientists and museum professionals, has compelled me to think in new ways about my own research, especially with regard to citizen science.  The term ‘citizen science’ is obviously anachronistic when applied to the nineteenth century, but at a time when professional structures in science were just beginning to emerge, there were no clear divisions between amateur and professional, although there were nonetheless marked hierarchies, and intense rivalries, both individual and collective.  The modern term ‘citizen science’ implies more than mere ‘popular’ science, and instead entails the creation of genuine science by non-professional and voluntary participants working with mass data sets.  The vital significance of such voluntary contributions to the future of a range of scientific disciplines, from astrophysics to ecology and climate science, requires the Zooniverse team to be especially attentive to the individual motivations of their participants, who, after all, could spend their valuable time doing other things than classifying galaxies or counting penguins.  Working alongside the Zooniverse team while in the final stages of writing Show Me the Bone, led me to think more closely about the motivations of my historical actors in the nineteenth century, and to take their voluntary—albeit sometimes highly unconventional—contributions to science more seriously.

Show Me the Bone explores the famous claim of nineteenth-century paleontologists that, from just a single bone, they could identify and sometimes even reconstruct previously unknown prehistoric creatures (‘Show me the bone, and I will describe the animal!’ was their alleged boast).  Such extraordinary displays of predictive reasoning were accomplished through the law of correlation, which was formulated by the French savant Georges Cuvier and proposed that each element of an animal corresponds mutually with all the others.  Richard Owen, who revelled in his status as the ‘British Cuvier’, used this law of correlation to infer the past existence of a giant struthian bird in New Zealand from just a broken piece of femur, a prediction that was spectacularly vindicated when a more substantial set of bones arrived from the colony, enabling Owen to reconstruct what he called the Dinornis.  Above all, what such celebrated palaeontological feats confirmed was the authority of a small cadre of scientific experts who could wield the esoteric laws of organic economy with such astonishing success.

Rather than being the exclusive preserve of virtuoso experts such as Owen, however, the famous Cuvierian method was defiantly democratized by self-educated members of the proletarian masses, with even women amongst those who claimed to be able to reconstruct unknown creatures from merely a single part.  Notably, in such demotic appropriations, the uncanny predictive powers of paleontologists were conflated with the occult beliefs that many plebeian autodidacts embraced as a riposte to the religious and secular orthodoxies of the intellectual elite.  But their supernatural beliefs did not prevent such quasi-citizen scientists from making important contributions to the science of palaeontology.

During the 1860s, William Denton, a self-taught geologist who fled the religious dogmatism of Britain for the intellectual liberty of the New World, made his living as an itinerant lecturer in America.  In popular geological lectures Denton regularly adopted the ‘language of Cuvier’ to explain how the ‘man familiar with the relation between the bony structure of an animal can sometimes, from a small fragment, determine the form of the perfect animal and its habits’.  Denton’s fortitude and perseverance in also pursuing his own researches on fossils collected during his lecture tours meant that, as an admiring biographer remarked, ‘Smiles would do well in a future edition of “Self-Help”, to add William Denton to his list of subjects’.  But Samuel Smiles would have struggled to accommodate this émigré autodidact amongst his gallery of humble and deferential heroes of hard work.

While still in Britain, Denton had, as he described it, already ‘entered the mystical realm of Mesmerism’, and he soon encountered new and even more potent extrasensory forces on the other side of the Atlantic.  Being, as he later recalled, ‘intensely interested in geology and palaeontology, it occurred to me that perhaps something might be done by psychometry …in these departments of science’.  Psychometry had been founded in 1842 as a method of extra-sensory perception in which physical contact with an object gave access to an energy field which communicated knowledge regarding its history.  As an enthusiastic adherent, Denton was soon convinced that the ‘science of psychometry will shed new light upon many extinct animals’ by enabling its clairsentient practitioners—regardless of their lack of scientific training—to evoke more detailed visions of the creatures than were possible even for Cuvier. This was done by having ‘fossil specimens …placed upon the forehead, and held there during the examination’.

It was not Denton himself, though, who was capable of this tactile form of palaeontological divination.  Rather, it was his American wife Elizabeth who, when a ‘small fragment of …a mastodon’s tooth’ was pressed against her brow, not only had the ‘impression …that it is a part of some monstrous animal’, but herself began to inhabit the creature’s colossal frame.  During the experiment she declared:

I feel like a perfect monster, with heavy legs, unwieldy head, and very large body.  I go down to a shallow stream to drink. (I can hardly speak my jaws are so heavy) …My ears are very large and leathery, and I can almost fancy they flap my face as I move my head …(It seems so out of keeping to be talking with these heavy jaws) …I feel like getting down on all fours.


Elizabeth Denton, circa 1860s. Courtesy of the Wellesley Historical Society, Wellesley, Massachussetts.

Now our first response to this highly unconventional description, published in the Dentons’ The Soul of Things (1863), might be simply to laugh.  However, Elizabeth’s idiosyncratic process of identification evinces an empathetic connection with the heavy-jawed Mastodon, as well as an emphasis on the subjective and internal, that was notably absent from the detached objectivism of her male counterparts.  In any case, the Denton’s psychometric methods were not so very different from how elite men of science represented their own palaeontological discoveries.

In fact, Cuvier himself had used a prophetic, quasi-Scriptural rhetoric of resurrecting the dead with an almighty trumpet to describe his own scientific accomplishments, and the renowned capacity to reconstruct strange prehistoric creatures from just fragmentary remnants of their fossilized remains had long had distinctly supernatural connotations that were crucial to establishing the expertise and even genius of such palaeontological wizards.  Spectral modes of prescience and foresight clearly afforded seductive, if ultimately only figurative, parallels for the prodigious predictive powers of Cuvier and Owen.  The autodidactic interventions of the Dentons certainly draw out the implications of the occult self-fashioning of experts like Cuvier and Owen, making literal what was initially used only figuratively.

By thinking of the activities of the Dentons within the frame of the contemporary model of citizen science it also becomes apparent that they made more significant contributions to palaeontology, notwithstanding their supernatural interests.  The detailed knowledge of fossils that the Dentons accrued through their extensive psychometric experiments—and The Soul of Things runs to nearly 400 pages!—had benefits for experts at the most prestigious scientific institutions.  William and Elizabeth lent fossils to Louis Agassiz’s Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, while Othniel Charles Marsh, the Professor of Palaeontology at Yale, asked William Denton for advice on fossils in the Rocky Mountains, where he had collected many of specimens that were identified by placing them on Elizabeth’s forehead.  For both Agassiz and Marsh, it would seem, the heterodox paranormal interests of such citizen scientists did not negate the very real contributions they could make to expert knowledge of palaeontology.

By the 1880s, Denton, the self-taught citizen scientist, was sufficiently emboldened to publish a book entitled Is Darwin Right? and to assert that his ‘investigations in mesmerism, spiritualism, and psychometry, showed me the defectiveness of the theories advanced by Darwin’.  Charles Darwin, of course, deployed the observations of autodidactic contributors to periodicals like the Magazine of Natural History, and his ability to forge the small facts he gleaned from the steam-printed press into momentous theoretical generalizations affords a historical precedent for the kinds of contemporary citizen science now facilitated by the internet.  Taking this modern model back into the nineteenth century, as I have done in my book Show Me the Bone, also reminds us, though, that such citizen scientists, while often making important contributions to science, do not simply defer to scientific experts like Darwin, and can instead use their self-taught knowledge to contest the very theories built upon the facts and observations submitted to science journals.  As volunteers, modern citizen scientists are very much free agents, and, as their nineteenth-century counterparts show us, they are far from merely passive and pliable.  This is something that the contemporary scientists we work with on ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ are increasingly having to take on board with the design of new Zooniverse projects that allow increasing degrees of independence and autonomy.

Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016)

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