Gowan Dawson, Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

Gowan Dawson, Show Me the Bone: Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2016) 480pp. $50.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780226332734

‘“Give me the bone, and I will describe the animal”’ (1), Cuvier is supposed to have declared. Dawson’s monograph examines the rise and fall of Cuvier’s law of correlation, which proposed that ‘even the merest fragment of fossilized bone, necessarily indicates the configuration of the whole’ (3), tracking correlation from Europe to the United Kingdom to America, and across the nineteenth century. As with his previous monograph, Darwin, Literature, and Victorian Respectability (2007), Show Me the Bone pushes new critical frontiers. Engaging with the role of correlation as ‘one of the fundamental axioms of nineteenth-century science’ (3), Dawson reconstructs how Cuvier’s law became integral to the work of anatomists such as Richard Owen, was refuted by a new guard led by Thomas Huxley, and how its persistence in popular science and literature continued to influence palaeontology. To do so, Show Me the Bone is divided into four main sections: firstly, the arrival, translations and appropriations of Cuvier’s law of correlation, which Dawson analyses from 1795-1839; secondly, the success of this method from 1839-54; to the overthrow of correlation between 1854-62; and finally, the afterlife of Cuverian correlation in the years 1862-1917.

Show Me the Bone opens by considering how the Anglicization of Cuvier’s law actually constituted a number of different (and often competing) interpretations of both Cuvier and his theory, demonstrating that as well as oft-rehearsed criticism of orthodox appropriations, Cuvier’s works could be repackaged to support a range of divergent meanings, from the conservative to the radical. Dawson’s exploration of materialist John Allen’s translation of Leçons d’anatomie comparée (1800) into an inexpensive two-shilling edition, convincingly evidences a readership to whom the Cuverian ‘“idea of the body as an interdependent whole in which there was no predominant centre”’ (36) could be appropriated by a politically and medically radical audience at the opening of the nineteenth century. Successive translations of Cuvier for a British audience, such as Robert Jameson’s Essay on the Theory of the Earth, which drew on Cuvier’s use of the biblical account of the flood, garnered endorsements from English proponents of natural theology, allowing Dawson fruitfully to demonstrate how scientific principles were influenced through translated editions.

Dawson’s ability convincingly to draw together diverse material spanning the nineteenth-century is one of the great strengths of Show Me the Bone, and leads to some ground-breaking scholarship, including a chapter detailing Owen’s famous discovery of the Dinornis. Dawson convincingly demonstrates that the first fragment of Moa bone was presented to Owen by one ‘Dr Rule’, who originally championed its avian nature to Owen. While ‘historians have previously noted that the alleged reconstruction […] assumed a mythological status in the nineteenth century’ (98), Dawson demonstrates the lengths to which Owen and his allies went to ensure this status was sustained in scientific literature and popular periodicals, effectively rewriting Rule’s part in the discovery. This manipulation of press coverage to bolster the reputation of Cuverian correlation is connected by Dawson with another Victorian innovation that, like palaeontology, collected and articulated smaller parts to form a larger whole: serial publication. Cuverian methods of reconstruction were further popularized through accounts of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s dinosaur models at the Crystal Palace, and given a gloss of scientific respectability through the ostensible involvement of Owen, whose guidance Dawson demonstrates was entirely absent.

The success of the law of correlation was not to remain unchallenged. In the 1850s, a young Thomas Huxley took issue with the reconstructive feats of Cuvier and the ‘British Cuvier’, Owen. The third section of Dawson’s monograph tracks the overthrow of Cuvier’s method, from Huxley’s early assertions that the method was upheld on scientific and religious authority, rather than reason or logic, to the challenges he and other naturalists faced in denouncing the popular acceptance of correlation long after it was challenged in the scientific community. Dawson’s attention to the popular as well as the scientific opens new critical avenues here, as in the final chapter of the book, he considers the ‘continuing currency’ (336) of the law of correlation with groups on the fringes or outside the scientific community. By examining the ‘interest in the predictive powers of palaeontologists among both popularizers of science and writers of detective fiction’ (336), Dawson demonstrates that Huxley’s continued comparison of the Cuverian method to the rational and empirical methods of the police was problematized by the fin-de-siècle emergence of detective fiction, whose protagonists displayed infallible reconstructive powers akin to the Cuverian savant. Such representations in popular science and literature prolonged a general public belief in Cuverian correlation, despite new fossil discoveries in America’s western territories that proved Cuvier’s law was ‘not only increasingly irrelevant but demonstrably erroneous’ (366).

It is worth noting that the majority of texts approached by Dawson in Show Me the Bone are not literary in the sense of being fiction; anyone primarily looking for an analysis of Cuvier’s law in novels or poetry rather than print culture more generally may be advised of the book’s wider scope. Chapter Four comparing Owen’s anatomical reconstructions and Dickens’s serial publication, and Chapter Ten, which considers the problematic similarities between the Cuverian savant and the image of the fictional fin-de-siècle detective, involve the most literary sources, but the work as a whole performs the larger job of analysing Cuverian correlation across scientific and popular culture. Dawson’s interpretation of such a wide range of texts is to be applauded, constituting a major contribution to the study of nineteenth-century palaeontology, and highlighting new avenues for scholarship in nineteenth-century science, literature and culture.

Verity Burke, University of Reading