A key event in the 18th century was the discovery of the prehuman past, in the form of fossils; here is a look at its impact on the thought of the era.
At first, the huge bones and teeth that weathered out of farmers’ fields were described by such Puritan divines as Cotton Mather as giants drowned in Noah’s flood. Others argued that the bones had more in common with those of elephants than those of human beings, and the issue came to a boil when closer study found differences between living elephants and the American fossils—different in turn from the fossil mammoths discovered in Siberia. Reasonable men had to abandon the doctrine of an unbroken chain of divinely created life forms in favor of Buffon’s verdict that whole races of animals had become extinct. (Jefferson held out hope that the Lewis and Clark expedition might find living mastodons in the American West.) Semonin (History/Oregon State Univ.) traces a fascinating story in the discovery of the fossils, their display to the public, their interpretation by scientists, and their use to support various agendas in Europe and America. But he shows an annoying lack of interest in chronology, at one point citing as an instance of Darwin’s influence an event that took place more than a decade before The Origin of Species was published. His contention that the mastodon became a national icon rests primarily on a few paintings by Charles Willson Peale and his sons, who were active in the commercial exploitation of the fossils. In the end, his thesis that the idea of a prehistoric wilderness inhabited by savage monsters was (and is) a covert justification for European racist and imperialist agendas seems inadequately supported by the facts he brings to the table.
Full of provocative ideas, but ultimately fails to make its larger point.