cover image TERRIBLE LIZARD: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science

TERRIBLE LIZARD: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science

Deborah Cadbury, . . Holt/Macrae, $27.50 (374pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-6772-9

In this comprehensive narrative, Cadbury (Altering Eden) tells the story of the first fossilists, whose discoveries challenged the religious convictions of their day as they struggled with the implications of new science. It begins with Mary Anning, who unearthed the skeleton of a monstrous creature beneath the cliffs of Dorset in 1812; Anning would earn the respect of her male peers, but not entry into their exclusive societies. Men like the eccentric Oxford don William Buckland sought to reconcile the biblical account of Noah's flood with the fossil record, while the brilliant Georges Cuvier posited a theory of "catastrophes" to explain the progression of life while still holding true to scripture. The ambitious Richard Owen, who coined the term dinosaur and claimed credit for the discovery of dinosaurs, used his prestige to discount early evolutionary theories in favor of his own backward-looking notions about a biblical past. Unlike his rival Gideon Mantell, whose studies in geology and paleontology laid the foundation for the new science, Owen rarely set foot in a quarry or dig, but he did, according to Cadbury, mine his share of fellow scientists' works for ideas he then claimed as his own. Cadbury makes much of the rivalry between the two men, and to good effect. Her focus on Owen's injustices against Mantell, Owen's corresponding rise to fame, and Mantell's ultimately tragic end lends momentum to her narrative, culminating in the advent of the evolutionary idea with Darwin's On the Origin of Species. This is a must-read book for dinosaur enthusiasts, and for anyone who has ever wondered about the source of our present-day assumptions—and unanswered questions—about human origins. (June 6)

Forecast:In its inevitable sales duel with Christopher McGowan's Dragon Seekers (see review p. 231), Cadbury's more three-dimensional account is sure to win hands down.