Title: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of intrepid fossil hunters and the wonders of evolution
Author: Donald R. Prothero
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Location of publisher: New York
Year of publication: 2015
Number of pages: 389 (including index)
Date I finished reading it: 31 January 2017
Have I read it before? No
Fiction or nonfiction: Nonfiction
Genres: science, palaeontology, history, fossils, biology, evolution
Personal reflections upon reading this text:
I wasn’t sure how to begin writing this post. I could fall back on a simple book review: ‘This book was about …, it was good because …, it fell short in …’ But I don’t want to do that. I want to engage with the text, to read it reflexively, and to allow myself to observe how the reading affects me and why and what preconceived notions it challenges and what it affirms in my own being. Anyone can write an okay book review; but personally, I find reflexive writing is a far more interesting, challenging and meaningful task.
I almost feel like I have to glance over my shoulder – are any of my creationist friends reading this? Are they going to be upset by my remarks? Are they going to accuse me of heresy and backsliding, or even feel a sense of betrayal at how far I’ve moved out of the creationist paradigm?
See, for me, reading a fantastic, understandable, enjoyable history of the study of palaeontology, as represented by 25 key fossils isn’t just a case of reading a good book. It is, and it isn’t.
I loved this book. It was a genuine page-turner. It introduced the human element to the story of palaeontology. It acknowledged the work of women palaeontologists from an era when women weren’t allowed to be scientists – especially Mary Anning, who discovered the first complete fossil plesiosaur (large aquatic reptile) in 1823 (2015:168-169). It discussed fossils across a wide array of prehistoric eras. One that particularly intrigued me was Charnia, a very early form of multicellular life. It is refreshing to read a layperson’s level palaeontology book that is aimed at adult readers, not children, and that draws on a wide array of fossils, not just the (presumably!) charismatic megafauna of the Mesozoic – dinosaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs. Don’t get me wrong, I love dinosaurs, and I don’t think I ever fully outgrew my geeky adolescent obsession with them, but it is interesting to read about other species on the great chain of being.
From evolution to creation and back again
I know that I said that this blog won’t deal with religion, per say, but as religion is fully interwoven into my own life, and as I want to read reflexively, rather than at a surface-level, I think that I need to actually go down this path.
You have to understand – it is a big deal for me to be able to read a book like this and not be thrown into a kind of existential despair. I am not sure I can fully convey that here, in a blog post that I intend to be short. Also, the reality is that I have friends and family and acquaintances who hold to all sorts of viewpoints and I genuinely don’t want to inadvertently offend them. To that end, I’m not going to talk about how stupid I think people are by holding a different viewpoint – because I don’t think they’re stupid. I think that they and I are doing the best we can in the lives we lead, with the information that was presented to us by authority figures, coupled with our own abilities and skillsets in critical thinking, our exposure to alternative perspectives, or our education levels, or our deeply held spiritual beliefs, or our understanding (or lack thereof) as to how science works. Not to mention that many of us are dealing with other priorities in their lives.
I don’t think it is worth trying to push someone to change their mind to suit my opinion on my own pet topics of interest, no matter how important it is to me, when (a) I’m aware that I personally don’t have it all worked out; and (b) they may be doing all they can to just get through every day, and they don’t need me treating them like a fool.
That said, let me compose a short autobiographical vignette that tries to highlight why I experienced reading this book to be a powerful symbolic moment in my life. It is incomplete – as all self-divulging narratives necessarily are – because I simply don’t have the word space nor vocabulary to condense my three-and-a-bit decades of existence into one blog. Not only is it an impossible task, it would mostly be a rambling, boring stream-of-consciousness, with intellectual expositions interspersed by frequent references to craving potato chips for dinner.
It all began … well, I don’t know. Somewhere in the 1980s or 1990s, I guess. I was a school kid. I was a “gifted” kid – you know, the sort that is so deeply geeky that she can out-argue the teachers on the finer points of science, philosophy and literature, all while being a social ‘pariah.’ My talents included being able to teach myself multiple musical instruments, memorise huge amounts of information from the piles of books I read, write stories and draw pictures at an advanced level, get into arguments with my teachers about my disappointment at their low standards of literacy (to the extent that once, as a 16 year old, my English teacher told me to try teaching the class myself… so I did – it was a fine lesson on contracted words… my goodness, I would be annoyed with my children if they treated their teachers the way I treated some of mine!), and other standard geek abilities, like wearing glasses, and suffering from myriad allergies. My schools put me into the advanced student programmes. I have predominantly happy memories of my school years, and I had some wonderful teachers who were a positive influence on my life.
My schools were Roman Catholic. I was raised Catholic – a kind of Scots-Irish-influenced, socially aware, rural Australian Catholicism. I noticed recently that the kind of Catholicism I usually see dominating the internet (conservative, USA-centric) is profoundly different to the Catholicism of my own childhood. At the same time, many in my family self-identified as Atheists and Agnostics, and were very literate in science. I was exposed to many positive expressions of religion and Atheism as a child, and I am grateful for this broad, diverse upbringing.
Our parish’s priests and sisters emphasised social action, creativity and thoughtfulness. We were taught (implicitly, if not explicitly) that seeing the imago Dei in all people means that all people – no matter the labels we apply to them – are humans worthy of kindness and compassion. We were raised with this assumption that that the natural world needs careful stewardship. Environmentalism matters when you’re in a farming community, when you’re at the front line of growing and harvesting food, knowing that a shift in weather patterns could result in the ruin of that year’s production. I won’t pretend that it was a perfect environmentalism, but things like restricting water usage and planting trees to reduce erosion come naturally there in a way that my suburban cohorts tend to not take for granted as they wail over not being allowed to water their lawns more than 3 times a week under current water restriction laws. Back there, in the country, frogs in the water meant the water was healthy; here in the suburbs, too many would think a frog in the pond is a noisy nuisance, or that Australia’s noisy native parrots flying overhead are a squawking distraction from the television. (If you detect a note of bitterness from me towards the culture of suburbia as I experience it, you’d be correct.)
My school also taught us evolution as fact. This is normal in Australia, as far as I know. Population statistics here suggest that Catholicism, Atheism and Anglicanism are the largest religious worldviews here (1). And it’s normal (albeit not mandatory) to accept evolution in Catholicism. It surprises me when I see progressive evangelicals excited when they hear a Catholic clergyperson affirm evolution as acceptable; I mean, I get it, it’s actually a big deal when you don’t realise that the world’s major Christian denominations are comfortable with science. But the thing that baffles me is that it’s not particularly recent news. Early theorists in the areas of evolution and astronomy included Catholics. Pope Pius XII stated in Humani Generis (1950) that researching and examining evolution is acceptable for Catholics, with the caveat that they examine it thoroughly and adhere to the creation of the immaterial soul as being the work of God. (2)
I guess, in summary, we were taught theistic evolution – but I had never heard this ontological framework labelled as such until my 20s. All I knew was that I accepted evolution as fact, just as I accepted gravity as real. In my upbringing, the science of evolution was taught by science teachers and religious teachers alike. The spiritual mysteries of our faith did not rely on a literalist reading of the Biblical texts to be considered valid. Now, I know – I KNOW – the creationist arguments as to why this could be taken as further proof that Catholicism is inherently flawed and insincere; and I am also familiar with Atheist arguments as to why God intervening and giving people souls is a cop-out. I get it. I’m not actually saying what I currently believe or understand, and I refuse to get drawn into apologetics on the issue. I wasted my entire 20s chasing Christian apologetics, trying to prove my faith as fact (and disprove other people’s faith), selectively drawing on bits of science to try to affirm my viewpoint.
What happened? What was it that changed me from a kid who lived in the happy balance between deep spiritual faith connecting to an awe-filled love and appreciation for the immense, ancient, material mechanisms by which life progresses and diversifies; to an angry young adult tubthumping Biblical literalist who tried to take it word-for-word while explaining away apparent contradictions?
I got married to a creationist. That’s what. Now let me state this clearly: this is not an attack on The Husband. He and I just recently celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We’ve been happily together since we first started dating back in our university days. And as I wrote earlier, I don’t consider people stupid because they take, on good faith, the beliefs and ideas of authority figures and teachers in their life. For The Husband, his upbringing was strictly within the confines of the church community, his school located in the church’s grounds, multiple church services per week, his immediate family upholding the tenets of the church, and harsh punitive ‘discipline’ for children who questioned authority. Having had the Gospel literally beaten into him by a school principal armed with a wooden paddle, back when such things were still legal – though by that time definitely frowned upon by the wider community – is it any wonder that he was reluctant to question what he’d been taught? [Later on, on this blog, I will probably refer to books on this type of topic.]
The thing is, he was raised in a particular branch of nondenominational Pentecostalism that taught a variant of Young Earth Creationism as unerring fact, while simultaneously teaching that scientists are part of a global conspiracy to thwart the plans of Jesus Christ on this Earth, lead people astray and send them running into the arms of that wily evolutionist Lucifer. Pentecostalism is an American branch of Christianity that constitutes a very tiny 1.1% of the religious affiliations reported in the 2011 Australian Census. (1)Pentecostals are a fairly diverse bunch, but if I could summarise their beliefs, it includes a major emphasis on the spiritual gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12, including prophesying, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and discernment of spirits (not to be confused with Catholic Ignatian discernment). Often Pentecostals look for signs of the end of the world as interpreted in world politics, and many literally believe in the Rapture – both things that were very foreign to me from my Australian Catholic standpoint. A lot of them require some kind of mandatory tithing, in which church members are expected to give a minimum of 10% of their pre-tax income to the church, along with dire warnings that God will punish them for not adhering to this. I have strong, angry thoughts about this latter point, and how it causes financial chaos in the lives of vulnerable and poor people (like I was at that time), and how the church, in my experience, displayed a profound lack of care towards the very people it exploited through fear, manipulation, and financial abuse. But I digress…
A very, very long story short, through the continual niceness and generosity of church members towards me (which continued until they were satisfied that I’d been thoroughly converted, at which point I was dropped like a hot potato), coupled with a number of serious personal struggles I was facing – with virtually no support from people outside the church – I was very quickly won over and assimilated into that church. They were so nice. And, quite frankly, I still love my friends who go there. They are good, faithful people who love God and believe that this community is where they can best serve God.
It wasn’t until years later that I realised the church itself didn’t push one particular view on origins (the blanket term for ideas about how creation occurred). It was the church’s school that was rigidly young Earth creationist, and its alumni, like The Husband, tended to be thoroughly accepting of creationism as fact. And yet, for people like The Husband, who subsequently went on to get a postgraduate applied science degree in the field of engineering, questions about science were inescapable. Working in science forced him to confront his prejudice against scientists. They weren’t conspiracy theorists with a hateful agenda against Jesus. They were highly trained and highly skilled researchers studying the material universe – some of whom were Atheist, some who held deeply to their faith, some who hadn’t ever bothered asking, “What is the purpose of existence?”
However, prior to his journey of trying to unlearn everything he’d been taught, The Husband managed to convince me that if I were to fully participate in the life of his home church, I had to accept young Earth creationism. I thought the idea was ludicrous – I couldn’t see why it mattered. But he was armed with books, lots of books, and I’m a sucker for books. Especially if the authors of those books have strings of academic initials after their names. Who was I, a 20-something year old arts/humanities student, to question the scientific credentials of highly qualified doctors and professors who believed in the literal word-for-word truth of the Biblical accounts of Genesis, Chapters 1-11? I didn’t understand the scientific method enough to know why creationism isn’t broadly accepted by professional scientists. And now they mentioned it, yes, I could see how fossils could be interpreted as remnants of an historical deluge that destroyed most of Earth’s life. I mean, I didn’t like the notion of a God that mercilessly killed living beings in their millions because He’d had a bad century, but one thing I was also learning was that if I didn’t accept that God gets angry and does crazy stuff, I was at risk for an eternity burning in torturous hellfire.
I could go on. The summary being that, despite my initial skepticism, through manipulation, fear, control of what books I was allowed to read, my own weakness as I struggled with major health problems that were met with prayer instead of sound medical advice – as crazy as it all seemed to my earlier-formed, rational mind, I found myself caught deeply in a system that taught me that my womanhood rendered me unfit to make decisions, that my intellect was a barrier to true faith, that my poverty was because of undealt-with sin (and not because I was being forced to give what little I had to the black hole that was the church’s bank account), that my health problems were just a bad attitude, and that even though I was highly educated, I was but a “babe in Christ” and was required to submit to the uneducated, largely untrained preaching of middle class pastors who didn’t know a thing about what it was like to go hungry, suffer mental illness, or be so poor to be unable to afford adequate healthcare.
In case it isn’t apparent, obviously I did eventually get out of that community, with the support of a variety of different people. I returned to university after a long hiatus and my tutors challenged me to read far more broadly, across different perspectives. It took me a long time to realise that I could, in fact, read opinions different to mine and still be myself by the end of the book.
My health problems got severe enough that I finally saw a doctor and within a week had clear answers that a whole decade of prophesy and prayer had failed to yield. I got referrals to specialists who could help me. I started getting regular treatment and felt like the sun was shining again. For the first time in over a decade I had real hope that life could get better. I started to pull back from the toxic, dysfunctional dynamics of the church. I lost a lot of friends along the way, only to find that my old friends were still there, waiting for me this whole time. It’s complicated, though. My teenage children still attend the church, and I support that decision – but all the while I am asking them questions. Encouraging their questions. I pulled them out of the church’s school and homeschooled them for a year, showing them evolutionary documentaries by David Attenborough and Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. I started being open with them about the reasons why I had accepted creationism for their whole lives thus far, and why I was now questioning it.
Fast forward a few years and my kids are back in mainstream public (government) schooling. Their classmates come from a heap of different ethnic and religious and nonreligious backgrounds, representing a more realistic cross-section of Australian multicultural society. They are learning science. Their school is fine with kids and staff having their own religious beliefs, but it’s in a spirit of respect and acceptance of differences. I mean, sure my eldest child did try to argue against his science teacher’s presentation on evolution: a 12 year old (at the time) trying to tell a former research microbiologist and geneticist that he’s wrong is a pretty bold move, and no less would be considered acceptable for the type of Pentecostalism in which we initially raised our children. However, I realised then, that a 12 year old trying to argue such things with a qualified adult represents a major problem (to me). I mean, sure, critically reason and ask questions, but the problem was that he wasn’t open to learning anything new. The Christian school had so carefully brainwashed them that by adolescence he wasn’t willing to take in new information. I have since discussed with my kids my opinion that they are welcome to believe whatever religious propositions they want, as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights, freedoms and safety of others, and I have repeatedly told them that I expect them to ask questions and be open minded critical thinkers. I have had to work very hard to deprogramme them from what they learned in a creationist school.
And that’s where reading books on palaeontology comes into it, for me:
- I find it interesting on a personal level. I love to do palaeoart – that is, art that imagines what prehistoric beings and landscapes may have looked like. I share some of that art at my Instagram.
- I like to be informed on current issues in science. I eventually attained an Honours degree specialising in environmental sociology, especially as it pertains to the intersections between climate change, agricultural systems, animal welfare, and varying philosophical and political perspectives on climate science. As I journeyed through that course (to the vocal disappointment of my climate change-denying acquaintances among my church peers at the time), I realised that scientific literacy is profoundly important to the health of the planet. That doesn’t mean adopting a mindless acceptance of science, nor does it mean refusing to engage science in questions of ethics; what it does mean, to me, is that a lot of people have bought into conspiracy theories that place them in the comfortable position of not having to do anything about their own impact on the health of the planet. (And when you expect that Jesus is going to come back and transform planet Earth into hell any moment now, why bother caring for the environment, right?!)
- My kids and The Husband get to see mainstream perspectives on science and evolution for the first time in their lives.
- It helps me in the long healing process of what some people have dubbed “religious trauma syndrome,” (3) the unique set of psychological conditions that can affect people who’ve escaped cultish, fundamentalist religious groups. By challenging the Christian apologetics that I memorised as a 20-something, it helps me to readdress my own personal faith journey. Rather than a stresssful, unyielding, fundamentalist kind of faith, as I experienced it, with all its angst about politics and control, I can work on developing a deeper, more nuanced, more grace-filled faith, one that upholds the essential imago Dei of my fellow living beings, while seeing the beauty in different philosophical and religious systems, yet also being free to critique that which is unhealthy and dysfunctional.
You see, reading this book wasn’t just about reading a great, accessible, page-turning book on the history of palaeontology that helped me get up-to-date on current ideas in evolution. It was about standing on the newfound freedom I have, that finally – after so many years – I can pick up a book like this, and read it, and not have to worry that I’ll be run out of the building by pitchfork-wielding folks, putting the “fun” back into “fundamentalist dogma.”
(1) Australian Bureau of Statistics website, accessed 3 Feb 2017.
(2) Humani Generis (1950), Pope Pius XII, published by The Vatican. Section 36.
(3) ‘Religious trauma syndrome: how some organized religion leads to mental health problems.’ RawStory.Com. Accessed 3 Feb 2017.