Book review – Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Support Shaped a Science

The Life of the Past series of Indiana University Press has got to be one of my favourite book series on palaeontology. Coming to think of it, it is probably also the only book series written for a wide audience on palaeontology that I can think of (cue the comments that will prove me wrong…). Jane P. Davidson has previously written A History of Paleontology Illustration in this series (Indiana UP, I like how you harked back to the cover design of that book with this book). With the current book, she takes a look at the financial supporters of this discipline, and how their support has shaped the science. Sounds like a fairly esoteric topic, yet my interest was piqued.

Patrons of Paleontology

Patrons of Paleontology: How Government Suptport Shaped a Science”, written by Jane P. Davidson, published by Indiana University Press in August 2017 (hardback, 232 pages)

Doing palaeontological research (like most research) is expensive. From the dig site and transportation to preparation of the fossils and description in publications, all of these steps require financial support. The book is laid out in chronological order, beginning with the late 1500s to early 1800s. This makes for interesting reading. Fossils have been dug up for a long time but for most of that time have been misunderstood, so it’s interesting to read what people tried to make of these petrified organic shapes. In The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Adrienne Mayor even made the case that Roman and Greek myths were fueled by fossil finds! The book then moves on to the 18th and early 19th Century and the rise of learned societies, such as the Royal Society of London and the Geological Society of London, which were financially supported, amongst others, by royalty and other well-to-do noblemen. A full third of the book is devoted to chapter 3, which looks at government support to geological surveys in the US between 1830-1880, while the next chapter devotes a mere 15 pages to developments in the rest of the world during this time. The penultimate chapter covers developments in the US and Canada from 1880-1940, and the continued support for geological surveys.

So, why did patrons support palaeontological research? In her introduction, Davidson asserts that, partially, this was done out of strategic interest: in order to find geological resources such as coal, an understanding of the local geology is important, and index fossils, used to date geological layers, are of great help. The geological surveys discussed in chapter 3 and later were primarily government-funded expeditions, aimed at exploring the hinterlands of the US to find out about its geological riches and find the best routes for planned railroads. Palaeontologists largely piggy-backed on the infrastructure and benefited from the military personnel sent into the field. A second reason is that funding cutting-edge science will send a message to the world. For some individuals the fame and prestige associated with being seen as a patron of these sciences will have played a role. Lastly, a large number of patrons were also genuinely fascinated by palaeontology. How can you not?

These are all very reasonable explanations, but, in the rest of her book, Davidson largely supports these ideas by deduction. In her introduction she admits a fondness for collecting old books, and she repeatedly waxes lyrically about the many famous monographs that were published, their production standards, and the cutting-edge illustrations that were included. Time and again her conclusion runs along the lines of “look at how lavish these books were, they must have been very expensive to produce, therefore there was money available”. Reasonable conclusion. However, apart from detailing the costs of a few expeditions, she rarely gives details how expensive, and what fraction of budgets was spent on this. Were these books a significant expenditure for governments and other patrons? How were they received? I admit that by the end of the book I was not much wiser about the motives of the patrons involved. Sure, several prominent palaeontologists ended up running geological surveys, and in that role could ensure further funding for research, but many people providing funds were not scientists. Did they discuss their motivations and decision-making in correspondence? Maybe, but from this book I cannot tell whether this information is absent, or simply hasn’t been looked into.

“[…] a large number of patrons were also genuinely fascinated by palaeontology. How can you not?”

The book is heavily focused on developments in the US and Canada, and I feel that motivations behind patronage in other parts of the world are given short shrift. To give just two examples, Georges Cuvier, whose work is considered the foundation of vertebrate palaeontology, is not even mentioned in the book. And what about Russia? Zoë Lescaze’s recent book Paleoart highlighted the fantastical gems of palaeontological artwork housed in the Orlov Museum of Paleontology in Moscow, which was founded in 1937 by the Paleontological Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, itself established in 1930. Perhaps these dates were beyond the scope of this book.

In her concluding chapter, Davidson writes she was half-tempted to include an illustrated timeline with government entities and important palaeontologists and their discoveries. How I wish she had! As I also remarked in my review of Discovering the Mammoth, for the average reader like myself it is easy to get lost in the flurry of names and dates. The book does have an alphabetical glossary of prominent patrons and palaeontologists in the appendix, although this contains some unfortunate typos: William More Gabb (1839-1787) supposedly died before he was born, Gideon Mantell (1709-1852) lived to the ripe old age of 143(!), and Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1735), with tenacious grip, managed to preside over the Royal Society from beyond the grave until 1741! And these are just the ones that catch the eye. Without verifying the other dates mentioned throughout the book, I wonder how many other mistakes I have missed. If anything, it reiterates the importance of proofreading dates and numbers extra carefully.

I would have also loved to see boxes on the side with some background information. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh feature prominently. Their infamous rivalry is known informally as the Bone Wars, and has been the subject of book-length treatments (e.g. David Rains Wallace’s The Bonehunters’ Revenge: Dinosaurs, Greed, and the Greatest Scientific Feud of the Gilded Age, or Mark Jaffe’s The Gilded Dinosaur: The Fossil War Between ED Cope and OC Marsh and the Rise of American Science), but is only mentioned in passing a few times here. A half or full-page box with some background information to introduce this historic episode would have drawn the reader in. Similarly, none of the scientists mentioned are shown, with the images reproducing title pages and illustrations from various historic works.

In the end, Patrons of Paleontology for me lacks an engaging narrative and reads more like a chronological catalogue of palaeontologists, their work, and their publications. Though studiously assembled, I feel that beyond historians of science and those with a hardcore interest in palaeontology, this book will be of limited interest to a more general audience.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Patrons of Paleontology hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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