This week’s exploration of Christians’ history in the sciences brings us to Mary Anning. Anning was a 19th century fossil collector whose work would form the foundation of paleontology. She found some of the first ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur skeletons.
Most striking to me is that she did so largely as an outsider. She had a passion for science and pursued her investigations without the kind of institutional support we associate with modern science. We may need more Mary Annings going forward as that kind of support is available to a smaller proportion of qualified scientists than in recent years.
I was hoping to find some quotes from Anning or other indication of how she thought about her scientific pursuits and her Christian faith, but I’ve come up empty so far. She was part of a Congregational community in England, a dissenting movement from the established Anglican church. In later life, she would join an Anglican congregation when her first church went into decline. Ironically, her fossil discoveries and others’ finds may have contributed to reduced church attendance more broadly, if not at that specific congregation. The natural history revealed by fossils raised questions about how to interpret Genesis and from there wider Christian theology. Mary Anning herself seems to have retained her Christian beliefs, although apparently without recording how she answered those questions.
Anning’s fossil finds like the ichthyosaur were some of the earliest-discovered evidence of organisms from the past that were clearly distinct from living organisms. This raised the possibility of species having gone extinct in the distant past, beyond human memory and record. Unfortunately, we have since had the opportunity to witness the extinction of species first hand, but the idea of extinction itself was relatively new in Anning’s day.
Fossils also provided some of the first indications that new species might diverge from existing ones. While the fossil record still has the most extensive examples of divergence, speciation is a also process we have been able to study more directly. For example, Harvard biologists are studying what may be divergence in process among lizards from the Bahamas. Last year, a new species of finch was reported as having developed in just two generations. There’s still a lot to learn about how, when and why two species diverge; even the definition of species as interbreeding populations may prove to be inadequate. Thus it is exciting to be able to follow it as it happens. And where there are lots of questions to answer and lots of observations to make, there are likely opportunities for citizen scientists to contribute.
Last week’s science communication chat went fairly well, I think. In some ways, we were just getting started when it was time to wrap up. Since there’s more to talk about, we’re going to do precisely that tonight. We’ll take up some of the questions that were asked last week, plus I want to hear from you what science excites you enough that you want to share it, and what ideas you have about doing so. We’ll get started tonight at 7:30pm Eastern via this Google Hangout.
Also, don’t forget that in two weeks (February 7), I’ll be starting another blog book club series on When Science and Christianity Meet in case you want to read the book along with me.