Remarkable Creatures
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Science & Religion

In the early 19th century, most people believed that the Earth was about 6000 years old. This figure was based on a calculation made 150 year earlier by Bishop James Ussher. He counted up the years in the Bible and concluded that God created the World on the night preceding the 23rd October 4004 BC. Such scholarship was widely accepted. Indeed, many science students at Oxford and Cambridge were also trained theologians; science and religion were not separated as they often are now.

In the late 18th century, fossils began being discovered and rock layers charted. This new information indicated that the World was in flux rather than static since Creation, and that it might be older than the accepted 6000 years. Scientists came up with various theories to explain what forces shaped the Earth, including Vulcanism (volcanoes), Neptunism (primordial sea), Catastrophism (catastrophic floods), and Uniformitarianism (gradual change over long period). Uniformitarianism eventually metamorphosed into Darwin’s theory of evolution that we know today.

When Mary Anning first discovered Ichthyosaurs, many assumed the animal must be a crocodile or a creature that lived somewhere remote and hadn’t been discovered alive. The concept of it no longer existing – extinction – was shocking to Christians, for the idea challenged the accepted belief that God did not make mistakes, and would never create an animal only to have it die out.

All of these new ideas were controversial. Indeed, when Darwin came up with his ideas about evolution and the origin of species, he kept quiet about it for 20 years in part because he knew this challenge to religious beliefs would cause an outcry – as they still do.

Mary Anning died 12 years before Darwin went public with his theories, but she was doubtless aware of these issues. She said little about them – she was struggling to make a living and had little time for debate. The closest she came to supporting a theory about how the past might link to the present was in a letter of 1844:

“I can only remark on it generally as truly believing from what little I have seen of the fossil world and Natural History I think the connection or analogy between the Creatures of the former and present world excepting as to size much greater than is generally supposed.”

In other words, creatures from the past were related in some way to those of the present. Perhaps she would not have been surprised by Darwin.