The Grandeur in this View of Life

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The Current Readings: Remarkable Creatures

Periodically, Biogeocenosis will share something about the books, papers, films, or music that are making (or have made) a strong impression. This week’s Current Reading is Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. This historical novel tells the story of friendship between two 19th century British fossil hunters, Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. As women, neither was admitted to the scientific community to which they both made tremendous contributions, discovering numerous fossil species new to science, including multiple ichthyosaurs and pleisiosaurs.

Anning and Philpot’s discoveries on the beaches and cliffs of Lyme Regis conclusively demonstrated the phenomenon of extinction. Of course, this discovery had manifold scientific, cultural, and even theological implications. Though they are not part of the official scientific discussion, both women struggled to reconcile their worldview with their discoveries. If the world was not simply created as it currently is some 6,000 years ago, if it is in fact almost unimaginably old, what is the status of the account of creation found in the Bible? If large, fantastic creatures could live for a time, then pass from existence, leaving only their mineralized skeletons in stone, how are we to interpret the perfection of God’s creation? Was the pleisiosaurus a mistake, an early error of God’s design, or is there some other unknown order implicit in the suddenly vast history of an Earth ruled by cataclysm and change?

By giving each woman’s narrative voice to alternate chapters, Chevalier animates their intellectual and emotional lives, but she grounds the story firmly in their long and unusual friendship. Philpot was a spinster, living with her sisters in a cottage in the village of Lyme with the support of their brother, a London solicitor. Anning was both 20 years younger than Philpot and from a poor Lyme family. They meet on the beach searching for fossils. The 8-year-old Anning has an incredible knack for finding “curies” as she calls them (short for curiosities), and she sells them to add to the family’s meager income. Philpot, the more mature observer, mentors Anning in the basics of anatomy and geology, and each inspires a passion for knowledge in the other. Over time, despite their society’s rigid norms, they manage to find a few small ways to transcend the lines of class, age, and gender that separate them from one another and from the larger intellectual community, which is open only to men. Still, the story caries a tone of melancholy tragedy, of human potential frustrated by stultifying social norms. Both women would forever be marginalized, unable to openly contribute to discussion of their own discoveries, and they were dependent on men for even the most meager acknowledgement of their invaluable efforts.

Yet the book is not a fiery indictment of past social norms. While Chevalier has each woman struggling in her own way, she also shows us how hard it is for people to see the limits, whether intellectual or cultural, that they place on themselves. In their friendship and their work, the women demonstrate how change in the human condition, whether intellectual or social, comes when our questions and aspirations take us beyond the limits of our own habits of mind. I found it particularly resonant to read this novel in light of recent research suggesting that unconscious bias against women is still part of the culture of science (and even women are biased against women).

With their rich story beautifully rendered by Chevalier’s agile prose, Anning and Philpot are as remarkable as the creatures that they coaxed from stone. Here’s hoping that the film version doesn’t blow it. My vote is to put Jane Campion in the director’s chair.

Remarkable Creatures was published in 2010 by Plume.