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Re: Darwin's "living fossils" and the 1856 pterodactyl hoax
A further clarification on the "living fossil muscles [mussels]"
mentioned by Lhwyd in 1699 in the 1710 Philosophical Transactions.
The find was made near Flint in Flintshire, Wales (not in Ireland,
although the rest of the letter cited before was about Ireland). The
mention was evidently a follow up to this earlier letter.
Letter to Martin Lister, 26 June 1699
"I am told of some Muscles very lately found in this nieghbour by some
Labourers digging [–for] the Foundation of a House which containd living
Animals. The place is five or six miles from Sea: and I belive much farther from
any Muscles; but I must enquire further into the matter and shall dig about the
same place my self."
On Wed, Feb 25, 2015 at 12:41 PM, Ben Creisler <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
> Ben Creisler
> It appears the pre-Darwinian use of "living fossil" is much older than
> I thought.
> Welsh polymath and proto-paleontologist Edward Lhwyd [Lhuyd]
> (1660-1709) -- famous for applying a descriptive Latin designation to
> a sauropod tooth: *Rutellum impicatum* " "little shovel covered in
> pitch" (NOT "implicatum"! as now wrongly spelled in many sources) --
> mentioned "living fossil" mussels in a letter published in 1710 about
> his travels in Ireland in 1699 and 1700.
> He wrote this in a letter in 1699, later published in Philosophical
> Transactions of the Royal Society:
> "I have the account of the living fossil muscles [mussels] attested,
> and signed, by the four persons present at the finding them; so that
> nothing but its being a singular instance makes me scruple the
> relation: but the labourers have such a character for veracity, that I
> rather incline to believe it." 
> Edward Lhwyd (1710)
> Several Observations Relating to the Antiquities and Natural History
> of Ireland, Made by Mr. Edw. Lhwyd, in His Travels thro' That Kingdom.
> In a Letter to Dr. Tancred Robinson, Fellow of the College of
> Physicians and Royal Society.
> Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1710-1711 27: 503-506
> (January 1, 1710)
> This passage suggests that the term "living fossil" predates a full
> understanding of the real nature of fossils as remains of ancient
> living creatures, and also that more educated people were already
> skeptical of such alleged finds of "living fossils." Lhwyd still
> thought that regular fossils were "formed stones" that were germinated
> in the Earth and could take the form of parts of animals such as
> shells, teeth, and vertebrae.
> Trying to track down discussions of "living fossils" in 17th or 18th
> century literature online will be challenging because of the old type
> face that made "s" look like "f" internal to words. I'm running
> queries on "foffil" as well as "fossil"...
> NOTE: I've made a number of typographical fixes to the text of the
> original post below (Alexandre for Alexander, hibernation, phenomenon,
> verses, etc.). Sorry I didn't catch these before, even though I ran a
> spell check...
> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
> From: Ben Creisler <email@example.com>
> Date: Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 2:45 PM
> Subject: Darwin's "living fossils" and the 1856 pterodactyl hoax
> To: firstname.lastname@example.org, VRTPALEO@usc.edu
> 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 — 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. — 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 –
> 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 hibernation hundreds or even thousands
> of years ago, but, removed from seasonal changes deep underground and
> in 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 für 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 –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 longevità délle rane e dei rospi trovati dentro le piètre.
> [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 Alexandre Dumas (1802 –
> 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 trouvé, dans les couches
> antédiluviennes de Montmartre par le célèbre Cuvier.>> [... finally a
> living fossil toad found in the antediluvian strata of Montmartre by
> the celebrated Cuvier] (page 165)
> Alexandre 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 a 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 étrange créature, à laquelle on peut donner le nom de fossile
> "This strange creature, to which can be given the name of living fossil..."
> Another French version of the story used this title:
> Découverte 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 chrétienne 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"
> phenomenon (see general refs above), but a few vert-paleo connections
> bear mentioning. The term "living fossil" was not used, however.
> Georges Cuvier (1769 – 1832) included reports of toads found in trees
> or stones without air or food as early as his Tableau élémentaire de
> l'histoire naturelle des animaux from 1798:
> The paleontologist William Buckland (1784 – 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)—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 verses 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.