She Discovered Jurassic Dinosaur Fossils that Challenged Bible-Based Creationism

Mary Anning was a British fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist who challenged the bible-based view of creation; her gender and status challenged what a scientists should be.


Big Think is proud to partner with the 92nd Street Y to bring you this series on female genius as part of its 7 Days of Genius Festival.

Mary Anning was a British fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist (before there was paleontology). Her studies challenged the bible-based view of creation, and her gender and status challenged what a scientists should be. The fossils she found proved that there was something before man, which upset the established narrative of the history of life on Earth. The British Journal for the History of Science describes her as “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew.”

Anning would roam the limestone cliffs in Dorset. This is where she made many fossil discoveries, including the first ichthyosaur skeleton. This creature must have looked quite strange, its skull was four feet long and its jaw was the shape of a pair of needle-nose pliers.

Her discoveries would introduce a world of firsts to the scientific community, including the first two plesiosaur skeletons ever found, the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany, and fish fossils. She would collect fossils that became dislodged after mudslides and retrieve them before they were swallowed by the sea's tides. This work could be quite dangerous. In 1833, the landslide that took her dog's life nearly took her own.

It's important to note that during the early 1800s, most people in Britain maintained a literal interpretation of the creation story, believing the Earth was only a few thousand years old. But these new creatures buried beneath our feet made scientists consider there may have been an entirely different world before our own.

Her fossils became the evidence of a new idea in science: extinction. French anatomist Georges Cuvier had argued this after analyzing mammoth fossils, but many explained his idea away, saying these creatures still existed somewhere else on Earth. Extinction would imply God's creation was imperfect. However, Anning's findings were evidence towards Cuvier's hypothesis—that whole species have disappeared in Earth's history.

Duria Antiquior is a watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche depicting what life could have looked like in ancient Dorset. This representation of prehistoric life was influenced by the fossils Anning found, and proceeds from the sale of the painting were donated to her efforts.

During her life, Anning received little recognition for her work. She lived in a time when women couldn't vote or attend university. As a woman of low social status, she had trouble receiving the respect of her peers and even getting credit for her finds in the scientific community.

Lady Harriet Sivester, the widow of the former Recorder of the City of London, thought it was "divine favour" that such a young woman could posses such knowledge in the sciences, indeed, even more than "anyone else in this kingdom."

"She says the world has used her ill ... these men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal of publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages," wrote Anna Pinney, a woman who accompanied Anning when she would go in search for fossils along the cliffs.

However, history has not forgotten Mary Anning, and we remember her legacy of field research and the impact it's had on understanding life on our planet.

***

Photo Credit:

Portrait of Mary Anning/Wikipedia

ichthyosaur skull by Everard Home/ Wikipedia

Natalie has been writing professionally for about 6 years. After graduating from Ithaca College with a degree in Feature Writing, she snagged a job at PCMag.com where she had the opportunity to review all the latest consumer gadgets. Since then she has become a writer for hire, freelancing for various websites. In her spare time, you may find her riding her motorcycle, reading YA novels, hiking, or playing video games. Follow her on Twitter: @nat_schumaker

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

Radical theory says our universe sits on an inflating bubble in an extra dimension

Cosmologists propose a groundbreaking model of the universe using string theory.

Getty Images/Suvendu Giri
Surprising Science
  • A new paper uses string theory to propose a new model of the universe.
  • The researchers think our universe may be riding a bubble expanded by dark energy.
  • All matter in the universe may exist in strings that reach into another dimension.
Keep reading Show less

Your body’s full of stuff you no longer need. Here's a list.

Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.

Image source: Ernst Haeckel
Surprising Science
  • An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
  • Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
  • Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
Keep reading Show less

Why I wear my life on my skin

For Damien Echols, tattoos are part of his existential armor.

Top Video Splash
  • In prison Damien Echols was known by his number SK931, not his name, and had his hair sheared off. Stripped of his identity, the only thing he had left was his skin.
  • This is why he began tattooing things that are meaningful to him — to carry a "suit of armor" made up the images of the people and things that have significance to him, from his friends to talismans.
  • Echols believes that all places are imbued with divinity: "If you interact with New York City as if there's an intelligence behind... then it will behave towards you the same way.".