O is for Origin

Darwin’s diary, speculating about species development. Wikipedia.

I hope this doesn’t burst anyone’s bubble, but Charles Darwin did not entirely invent the theory of evolution. Many biologists–or naturalists as they called them then–had an idea that life had changed over time. Darwin added his own special sauce, in his argument On the Origin of Species, but it was part of a chain of scientific proposals. Some of these proposals preceded or ignored the fossil findings. Others tried to fit them within grander narratives, despite evidence that said differently.

The origin of the dinosaurs can be considered from two frameworks. One is about the history of those who found fossils, a topic that has been brushed lightly before. The other is about the first dinosaur itself, a truth that is at the mercy of the fossils themselves. Then, there is the question of what came after, what animal origins emerged once the ruling dinosaurs were forced to bow before E.T. and his Merry Asteroid. Different kinds of origin stories.

Cuvier drawing of elephant parts, wikpedia.

The Origin of Evolution

Evolution and the resistance to evolution was not just about monkeys. The radical notion about change in general was that there had been change to live creatures, and it had lasted millions of years. The Bible had dictated different terms. Seven days. All the creatures, flora and fauna, created in just a part of that time span. As naturalists started digging up things, the idea that million of years had past didn’t fit the religious narrative.

Even so, Darwin didn’t originate the idea of change or even long change. Our friend George Cuvier, who keeps appearing in my posts like it or not, had been venerated in part because he was one of the first to use fossils to make such connections. Cuvier had gotten ahold of mastodon bones–teeth in particular. He noted their similarity to Indian elephant teeth. He ended up writing a key reference guide on mammals which described how the animals might be related and how they might have changed over time.

Mary Anning and her thousand fossils added more to the story in two ways. First, she found those giant forms of fish-reptiles. Like the giant mastodon teeth, they suggested animals of the sea were huge once, though not anymore. Secondly, she also found fossils that came from different parts of the cliff. She, along with the many scientists who came to see her fossils, speculated about how geology worked. It’s not that hard to understand that ammonites near the bottom of the cliff must have been older than those near the top of the cliff.

Some, like William Buckland, one of the first to also diagram early dinosaurs, still tried to fit the fossils and skeletons within a biblical narrative. Others, like Charles Lyell, took a different approach to the idea of a deity in charge. Lyell (among others) proposed that evolution was progressive. It was called orthogenesis, the idea that change was always about better.

That was another solution to the problem. One solution was that God created it all at once, and you can still find arguments that the dinosaurs were on the ark. (just Google it) But the other way to put a creator in the mix is through that idea of design. God started out with amoeba and then made them better. The design is in the improvement, until it reached Adam and humanity.

Lyell’s evolution was a progressive tree, wikipedia.

Darwin’s Big Idea

Darwin was not looking for progress. It kind of cheeses me when people–especially economists or capitalistic economists–claim that Darwin was about “survival of the fittest” meaning the best gets to “win.” At least in the biology recaps I’ve heard, the Darwinists focus on natural selection. Natural selection isn’t reductive to the fittest meaning the best. Fittests means best adapted at the time.

Darwin drawing of pigeon skull variation. wikipedia.

Darwin, like others, observed animals changing. The trip to the Galapagos allowed him to see how animals had specifically adapted to a unique environment. As Darwin looked at the birds, mammals, and even barnacles, he saw constant change. Part of natural selection was about “exploitation” of ecological niches. And it was continuous. It was not as much that animals changed to get better. They changed to get better to the circumstances around them.

But the geologists and the biologists both began to note that habitats change and change again. Volcanoes and earthquakes crop up. Or, plants might themselves change to compete with other plants. If the plants change, the animals change. Change was continuous, and it produced opportunity. A beak could get longer to get a new type of food, but if the food source changed, the beak could get shorter again.

The First Dinosaur…Officially Found

While the evolutionists were concocting their theory, other types of origins were going on. The very first dinosaur discovered was based on a tooth found in 1699 by Edward Lhuyd.

I should point out –it’s the first tooth found by someone scientific enough to draw it and categorize it and share with other scientists whose writings became the official history. That means they’re European men. It might be worth pointing out that I have no information about dinosaur tooth discoveries in China, India, Asia, Africa, or South America. There were Chinese scientists in 1699; wikipedia doesn’t mention them.

Megalosaurus fights Iguanodon!

Anyway, we’ll give Lhuyd credit for what became called megalosaurus, officially the first discovered dinosaur. It meant big-assed lizard. One funny side note here. Megalosaurus was common enough that they found a few different examples of entire statues. One of them included a piece of a femur, i.e. thighbone.

If you’ve ever seen the bottom of a bone, you know that it’s curved and grooved, with ligaments surrounding it to move fluidly. The first piece of the bone was large and with a bulbous shape. When it appeared in a scientific journal, it had a specific scientific sounding name: scrotum humanum.

Drawing of scrotum humanum, dino femur bone, wikipedia.

Was it when giants walked the earth perhaps?

The Origin of the Species

But even if megalosaurus teeth and misnamed femurs were the ones that were in the limelight first, old mega was from the middle Jurassic, fairly late in the game. The earlier dinosaurs from the Triassic were smaller. The earliest reptiles were closer to crocodiles, so when the dinosaur styles first broke away, they were lithe and some even walked on all fours.

The differentiation of hips and holes in the head are evident in the silesaurids, a group of the most ancient of creatures. The antorbital fenestra is there and the raising of the hips, at least in some of the fossils. But they were not much bigger than humans, not giants, not yet.

There’s one other origin worth mentioning here, and it also surprised me. My origin story for mammals was that they “won” after the dinosaurs lost. It was recognized that the age of dinosaurs ended with the Cretaceous. It took a while to know that an asteroid was why. The earliest idea was that the mammals took over, and that they evolved out of small mammals similar to tree shrews.

Almost. Actually, there were mammals in the Triassic, too. This Morganucodon, which does look a bit like a tree shrew, was one of the earliest mammals. They walked on all fours and had only recently branched off from the group that created the lizards, so they had the claws and ate insects (presumably). But they had fur and other non-lizard characteristics, lactation and permanent teeth. Although it was a style called a monotreme. It laid eggs, like the lizards.

Morganucodon, moving from lizard to mammal. Britannica.

Our valiant little Morganucodon was nocturnal and lived in burrows. But it emerged 200 million years ago, when the sauropods were sprouting for the tops of trees and carnosaurs were flashing their biggest teeth. Lucky for all the later mammals, it stayed hidden. Biding its time and waiting for the big boom.

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