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Re: Darwin's "living fossils" and the 1856 pterodactyl hoax
Ben, this is incredible! A wonderful amount of research went into it.
On Mon, February 23, 2015 5:45 pm, Ben Creisler wrote:
> Ben Creisler
> Darwin Day was on February 12. This posting was intended for the
> occasion but was delayed. But since there are 12 days of Christmas, it
> seems okay to me to have 12 days of Darwin as well...
> In the 1859 first edition of The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
> used the term "living fossil" in the context of his new evolutionary
> Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of Species. John Murray, London pp.
> "And it is in fresh water that we find seven genera of Ganoid fishes,
> remnants of a once preponderant order; and in fresh water we find some
> of the most anomalous forms now known in the world, as the
> Ornithorhynchus and Lepidosiren, which, like fossils, connect to a
> certain extent orders now widely separated in the natural scale. These
> anomalous forms may almost be called LIVING FOSSILS; they have
> endured to the present day, from having inhabited a confined area, and
> from having thus been exposed to less severe competition." [pg. 107]
> "Species and groups of species, which are called aberrant, and which
> may fancifully be called LIVING FOSSILS, will aid us in forming a
> picture of the ancient forms of life." [pg 486]
> Darwin is credited with inventing the term "living fossil," which has
> been happily adopted by modern biology as an informal epithet to
> designate animals, plants, and other organisms that retain primitive
> features or in other ways seem to have remained little changed for
> extensive periods of geological time. The term "living fossil" may be
> handy, but it is also challenged sometimes as misleading or
> inaccurate. In fact, all organisms living today have an evolutionary
> history of fairly regular genetic change, even if humans may consider
> their modern appearance, anatomy, physiology, or behavior archaic
> compared to other forms of life.
> One point that seems to have been overlooked is that the phrase
> "living fossil" had an earlier history with a much less scientifically
> grounded meaning before Darwin's use of the term in the Origin.
> My current hunch is that Darwin, as a well read naturalist, would have
> known the term "living fossil" from earlier sources and, rather than
> inventing the term completely, simply repurposed "living fossil" with
> a revised meaning for his evolutionary biology. Moreover, his
> contemporaries would have recognized that his term "living fossil" was
> not original. In particular, some of Darwin's readers in 1859 may well
> have had the words "living fossil" still fresh in memory because of a
> notorious paleontological hoax in 1856--the "live" pterodactyl
> reportedly unearthed in Culmont, France.
> The pterodactyl hoax itself had many of the elements of long standing
> tales of so-called antediluvian toads or frogs (also called "toad in
> the hole," "embedded toads," "toads in stone," etc.) reportedly found
> buried deep in the Earth or in solid rock, typically by miners, quarry
> workers, or construction workers. The creatures were usually said to
> be in a suspended state when discovered, but then revived, apparently
> having survived for hundreds or thousands (or millions!) of years
> enclosed in rock underground. A common early claim was that they had
> survived from before the time of the Great Flood and thus were a
> living link to the world of Adam. Such toads were also sometimes
> reported to die shortly after being exposed to the light and air,
> although stories of healthy toads or frogs that survived were also
> recounted. Sometimes it was claimed that a perfect mold of the
> animal's body was left in the rock. Other times there was a rounded
> hollow in the rock where the animal had survived. Stories of such
> toads in stone dated back at least to the Middle Ages, but most
> written accounts came from the 1500s onward.
> For general info on "embedded toads":
> Jan Bondeson. "Toad in the Hole". Fortean Times. June 2007.
> Toads in the hole
> The toad in the hole
> Early scientific opinion was divided on the authenticity of such toad
> and frog finds, and their interpretation.
> For example, Ben Franklin discussed toads apparently found deep
> underground in 1782 while he was in France. He speculated such animals
> might survive underground for thousands of years:
> MCXV: AN ACCOUNT OF TOADS FOUND ENCLOSED IN SOLID STONE
> By the early 19th century, the term "living fossil" was occasionally
> applied to such alleged finds, contrasting with the normal "lifeless"
> fossil remains typically found in rocks--not only in English but in
> German ("lebendiges Fossil/lebendige Fossilien"), Italian ("fossile
> vivente/fossili viventi"), and French ("fossile vivant/fossiles
> vivants")--well before Charles Darwin made the terms "living fossil"
> and "living fossils" scientifically respectable with a new
> evolutionary meaning. As a rule, however, a term meaning "living
> fossil" was more likely to appear in general audience sources such as
> newspapers or popular magazines, not in scholarly or more serious
> Here are a few examples of the term "living fossil" associated with
> embedded toads and frogs.
> This article from a popular American publication in 1835 used the term
> "living fossils" for reports of clams found deep underground and of a
> toad found in stone that supposedly could have survived from before
> Noah's Flood (a common idea):
> Anonymous, 1835. Living Fossils. American Magazine of Useful and
> Entertaining Knowledge 1: 110
> The article was based on a paper by American geologist Amos Eaton
> (1776- 1842) in 1829, who did not refer to the finds as "living
> fossils" but did accept an antediluvian age. He also made this
> observation regarding the clams (note that "Darwin's hypothesis" here
> refers to Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather!):
> "At any rate, they prove the absurdity of Darwin's hypothesis â?? that
> all animals are perfected at every successive generation, and that man
> 'probably began his career as a fish.' For these fresh water clams of
> three thousand years old, precisely resemble the same species which
> now inhabit the fresh waters of that district..'" [pg. 249]
> Eaton, A. 1829. Art. III. â?? Gases, Acids, and Salts, of recent origin
> and now forming, on and near the Erie Canal, in the State of New-York;
> also living Antediluvial Animals. The American Journal of Science and
> Arts 15(2): 233- 249
> In 1818, the German artist and naturalist Carl Gustav Carus (1789 â??
> 1869) published a short paper entitled <<Beitrag zur Lehre von den
> lebendigen Fossilien>> [Contribution to the study of living fossils]
> on reports of amphibians found alive deep in the ground. He concluded
> that the creatures had gone into hiberation hundreds or even thousands
> of years ago, but, removed from seasonal changes deep underground and
> in a some favorable cases not destroyed by the enormous pressure of
> the surrounding rock, remained in a very reduced state of life until
> discovered, after which, exposed to warmth and light again, they
> quickly died.
> Carus, C. G. 1818. Beitrag zur Lehre von den lebendigen Fossilien. in
> Auswahl aus den Schriften der Gesellschaft fÃ¼r Mineralogie zu Desden.
> Bd. 1 1818. p. 143-147.
> The topic "lebendige Fossilien" [living fossils] was later mentioned
> in geology textbooks such as below, but the supposed survival of such
> buried creatures from distant geological time periods was dismissed
> as impossible.
> C. F. Naumann. 1849. Lehrbuch der Geognosie, Volume 1 page 825
> [NOTE: After Darwin's Origin was translated into German, the form
> "lebendes Fossil" ("lebende Fossilien") was more often used for
> "living fossil" in the Darwinian sense.]
> The Italian naturalist Alessandro Rizza (1817 â??1866) published a paper
> on the topic (although written shortly after publication of Darwin's
> Origin, "living fossil" is used in its older sense):
> Rizza, Alessandro (1863). 2. Fossili viventi ovvero -- Cenno sulla
> prodigiosa longevitÃ dÃ©lle rane e dei rospi trovati dentro le piÃ¨tre.
> [Living fossils or comment on the prodigious longevity of frogs and
> toads found inside rocks] La Corrispondenza scientifica in Roma per
> l'avanzamento delle scienze VI. 1863, pp. 217-221.
> (I can't find an online link to this text.)
> The term "fossile vivant" was also sometimes used in French in a
> similar way, as this passage from a novel by Alexander Dumas (1802 â??
> 1870) set in the 1820s suggests with a list of marvels and
> curiosities (of dubious authenticity) on public view in a kind of
> "sideshow" for a fee of 2 sous. In addition to the spyglass that
> Christopher Columbus used to discover America and Voltaire's cane, the
> items included:
> <<... enfin un crapaud fossile vivant trouvÃ©, dans les couches
> antÃ©diluviennes de Montmartre par le cÃ©lÃ¨bre Cuvier.>> [... finally a
> living fossil toad found in the antediluvian strata of Montmartre by
> the celebrated Cuvier] (page 165)
> Alexander Dumas. 1854. Les Mohicans de Paris. [The Mohicans of Paris],
> Serialization in Le Mousquetaire:
> The term "fossile vivant" would presumably be known to the popular
> audience for the novel, as well as tales of antediluvian toads found
> in ancient rocks.
> Perhaps the most notorious use of "fossile vivant" before Darwin's
> Origin was the reported discovery of a pterodactyl (identified as the
> supposed species "Pterodactylus anas"), freed alive from a large rock
> by workers building a railway tunnel in northern France, which first
> appeared in French newspaper (La Presse grayloise) on January 12,
> 1856. The story was widely republished in other newspapers, sometimes
> without a skeptical disclaimer. The stories included this phrase:
> <<Cette Ã©trange crÃ©ature, Ã laquelle on peut donner le nom de fossile
> "This strange creature, to which can be given the name of living
> Another French version of the story used this title:
> DÃ©couverte au sein d'un rocher, d'un grand animal fossile vivant.
> [Discovery of a large living fossil animal in the middle of a boulder]
> December 1855 issue of Annales de philosophie chrÃ©tienne 72: 521
> Note that in French the word *canard* "duck" can also mean a hoax.
> Clearly, the supposed Pterodacylus species *anas* (Latin for "duck")
> was meant as a clue to the real nature of this news item (if the
> details themselves were not preposterous enough!).
> The story appeared shortly after in English in the February 4 , 1856
> issue of the British newspaper the Morning Chronicle (for which
> Charles Dickens wrote), using the term "living fossil," but with the
> added disclaimer: "...the whole story bears a strong indication of
> belonging to the genus Canard, as indeed is estimated by the Latin
> name assigned to the animal." The Illustrated London News reproduced
> the story in their February 9 issue (page 166) and fit the item in
> smaller print at the bottom of a page filled with news from the
> Crimean War, under the title "Very Like a Whale"--a phrase understood
> at the time to indicate a doubtful tale (taken from Polonius in
> Shakespeare's Hamlet, discussing shapes of clouds with Hamlet, who
> leads him on, feigning madness). But the lack of a clearer disclaimer
> (such as the Morning Chronicle provided) has made the ILN item fodder
> for the credulous ever since. (English versions also misprinted the
> original "Lancy" as "Nancy," a different city in France.)
> (My highlighting...)
> " 'Very Like a Whale'
> A discovery of great scientific importance has just been made at
> Culmont (Haute-Marne). Some men employed in cutting a tunnel which is
> to unite the St. Dizier and Nancy railways, had just thrown down an
> enormous block of stone by means of gunpowder, and were in the act of
> breaking it to pieces, when from a cavity in it they saw emerge a
> living being of monstrous form. This creature, which belongs to the
> class of animals hitherto considered to be extinct, has a very long
> neck, and a mouth filled with sharp teeth. It stands on four long
> legs, which are united together by two membranes, doubtless intended
> to support the animal in the air, and are armed with four claws
> terminated by long and crooked talons. Its general form resembles that
> of a bat, differing only in its size, which is that of a large goose.
> Its membranous wings, when spread out, measure from tip to tip 3
> metres 22 cm (nearly 10 ft 17 in). Its colour is livid black; its skin
> is naked, thick and oily; its intestines only contained a colourless
> liquid like clear water. On reaching the light this monster gave some
> signs of life, by shaking its wings, but soon after expired, uttering
> a hoarse cry. This strange creature, to which may be given the name of
> LIVING FOSSIL, has been brought to Gray, where a naturalist, well
> versed in the study of palaeontology, immediately recognized it as
> belonging to the genus *Pterodactylus anas*, many fossil remains of
> which have been found among the strata which geologists have
> designated by the name Lias. The rock in which the monster was
> discovered belongs precisely to that formation the deposit of which is
> so old that geologists date it more than a million years back. The
> cavity in which the animal was lodged forms an exact hollow mould of
> its body, which indicates that it was completely enveloped with the
> sedimentary deposit."
> Illustrated London News (Feb. 9, 1856) page 166:
> Note the various details often attributed to "living fossil" embedded
> toads--signs of life on exposure to light, then death shortly
> thereafter, and an impression of the animal's body left in the rock.
> The story was taken seriously and repeated in edited form as a
> footnote later that year in the Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine Ser. 5, v.
> 2 (July - Dec. 1856) page 1113, cited as evidence of sudden geological
> upheavals in the history of Earth.
> For a discussion of the original French text and Morning Chronicle
> English translation version of the "living fossil" pterosaur news
> story see (in French):
> Versions of the story in French newspapers:
> Darren Naish on the DML back in 1995:
> "Very like a whale: A phrase applied to anything very improbable, and
> denoting disbelief in what is stated. (Shakespeare Hamlet, iii, 2)"
> The Encyclopaedic Dictionary: 7: 533
> Hamlet Act 2, Scene 3
> It seems difficult to image that Charles Darwin was not familiar with
> the 1856 pterodactyl hoax story and the associated use of the term
> "living fossil," as well as the earlier occasional use of the term
> "living fossil" for reports of ancient toads embedded in stone.
> His wording in the Origin might suggest that he recognized, with a
> touch of humor, a parallel with stories of apocryphal "living fossil"
> toads or pterodactyls: "These anomalous forms MAY ALMOST BE CALLED
> living fossils; they have endured to the present day, from having
> inhabited A CONFINED AREA, and from having thus been exposed to less
> severe competition."
> "...aberrant forms, which may FANCIFULLY be called living fossils..."
> Very likely Darwin deliberately repurposed the evocative (but
> pseudoscientific) existing term "living fossil" (associated with
> supposed antediluvian toads, frogs, and other animals) for a more
> scientific cause. For Darwin, the informal designation "living fossil"
> applied to a surviving species whose ancestors had followed the normal
> course of survival, reproduction, life span, and death for millions of
> years in a line of descent, but without major
> modifications--contrasting with the earlier application of the term to
> an individual animal that had somehow remained unchanged and alive in
> a suspended state for hundreds or thousands (or even millions) of
> years embedded in solid rock, only to be accidentally brought back to
> the light of day by amazed modern humans.
> In crediting Darwin with the term "living fossil," it would seem more
> accurate to say that Darwin redefined "living fossil" for the purposes
> of evolutionary biology as a way to highlight surviving species that
> appeared unusually primitive compared to most modern forms, providing
> insights in extinct ancient organisms and transitional forms in
> evolution. Prior to Darwin, the term "living fossil" was found more
> often in general popular sources and not in serious scientific
> discussions, which came to view reports of surviving antediluvian
> animals found in ancient rocks as absurd, mistaken, or fraudulent.
> The scope of organisms referred to as "living fossils" also has been
> greatly enlarged since Darwin's limited examples of animals associated
> with fresh water and confined areas (ganoid fish, lungfish, platypus)
> to now include a wide range of animals and plants.
> The earlier usage of "living fossil" was still understood well after
> Darwin's revised meaning, as with these comments from 1889 about frogs
> found in a coal mine in Scotland some years earlier:
> "EMBEDDED BATRACHIANS.....The depth at, which this frog-bearing block
> was found was 330 feet below the surface. Now, if this be a fact, we
> must conclude that these frogs were living in the water in which the
> sandstone was originally deposited (probably during the Carboniferous
> Period), and furthermore, that they were able effectually to survive
> the pressure and chemical changes which subsequently hardened the
> sediment into sandstone! Poor creatures! how unhappy they must have
> been for some thousands of years! It would be only reasonable of those
> who believe so far in the vitality of these batrachians to expect some
> day to unearth a LIVING FOSSIL in the shape of an Archegosaurus or
> other amphibian of the past!..."
> Carus-Wilson, Cecil. 1889. Embedded Batrachians. Science-gossip: An
> Illustrated Monthly Record of Nature, Country Lore & Applied Science
> 25: 142
> I won't review the whole history of the " toads embedded in stone"
> phenonemon (see general refs above), but a few vert-paleo connections
> bear mentioning. The term "living fossil" was not used, however.
> Georges Cuvier (1769 â?? 1832) included reports of toads found in trees
> or stones without air or food as early as his Tableau Ã©lÃ©mentaire de
> l'histoire naturelle des animaux from 1798:
> The paleontologist William Buckland (1784 â?? 1856) conducted his own
> experiments in 1825 to see how long toads could survive deprived of
> light, air, food, and water, reported in a paper in 1832. He concluded
> that claims of toad surviving hundreds or thousands of years were not
> Buckland, W. (1832)â??On the Vitality of Toads enclosed in Stone and
> Wood; by the Rev. W. Buckland, F. R. S., F. L. S., F. G. S., and
> Professor of Geology and Mineralogy in the University of Oxford.
> Communicated by the Author. Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal 13(1):
> Also in the Zoological Journal:
> As head of the natural history collections at the British Museum and
> the country's foremost paleontologist, Richard Owen (1804-1892)
> apparently could not avoid the topic of toads and frogs entombed in
> rocks, a particular fascination in Victorian Britain.
> The biography of Richard Owen by his grandson mentions the topic and
> an incident from November, 1849:
> "Another popular delusion which he set himself to dispel was the idea
> that a toad would live years, if not centuries, shut up without air or
> food in coal or rock. In defence of this it was urged that in breaking
> up lumps of rock, &c., which had never been disturbed before, toads
> occasionally emerged, not only alive, but in excellent health and
> condition. Mrs. Owen relates how she detected an ingenious fraud which
> was got up 'with intent to deceive' her husband". [pg 325]
> Owen, R. 1894. The Life of Richard Owen, by his grandson, Rev. Richard
> Owen. Vol. I, London.
> In 1862 Frank Buckland (1826-1880) (William Buckland's son) wrote a
> letter to the Times of London (September 16, 1862, page 7) to decry a
> particular item attracting much attention at the International
> Exhibition at South Kensington in London (future site of the Natural
> History Museum). The display in question included a frog in a bottle
> and the ancient block of coal with a hollow where the frog was
> supposedly discovered deep in a mine in Wales. The letter included a
> comment from Richard Owen offering a logical explanation for how an
> ordinary modern frog might end up in a mine. An ensuing exchange of
> letters included clergy who defended the discovery and a letter that
> pointed out that there were no frogs in the Carboniferous age when the
> coal formed. Punch magazine published satirical versus on the
> The idea of living antediluvian frogs and toads was not easily
> squelched. Here is a letter from Owen in 1873 to a woman who reported
> finding an entombed frog, offering another interpretation of events:
> Researching the pre-Darwinian use of "living fossil" in digitally
> scanned sources (online and offline) is, of course, limited by the
> types of material deemed worthy of scanning and archiving. It seems
> likely that a fair number of the less reliable newspapers and
> magazines that might have published sensational stories of
> antediluvian "living fossil" animals may have crumbled into deserved
> obscurity. Nevertheless, I think it's highly plausible that Darwin had
> seen the term "living fossil" before he found a new and redeeming
> scientific use for it in the Origin of Species.
> Perhaps someone who has read an extensive amount of biographical
> material on Darwin could provide additional information. I searched
> his letter archive online, but did not find any direct mention of the
> term before 1859.
Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Email: email@example.com Phone: 301-405-4084
Office: Centreville 1216
Senior Lecturer, Vertebrate Paleontology
Dept. of Geology, University of Maryland
Faculty Director, Science & Global Change Program, College Park Scholars
Mailing Address: Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Department of Geology
Building 237, Room 1117
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742 USA