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Show Me the Bone

Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

Show Me the Bone

Reconstructing Prehistoric Monsters in Nineteenth-Century Britain and America

Nineteenth-century paleontologists boasted that, shown a single bone, they could identify or even reconstruct the extinct creature it came from with infallible certainty—“Show me the bone, and I will describe the animal!” Paleontologists such as Georges Cuvier and Richard Owen were heralded as scientific virtuosos, sometimes even veritable wizards, capable of resurrecting the denizens of an ancient past from a mere glance at a fragmentary bone. Such extraordinary feats of predictive reasoning relied on the law of correlation, which proposed that each element of an animal corresponds mutually with each of the others, so that a carnivorous tooth must be accompanied by a certain kind of jawbone, neck, stomach, limbs, and feet.
Show Me the Bone tells the story of the rise and fall of this famous claim, tracing its fortunes from Europe to America and showing how it persisted in popular science and literature and shaped the practices of paleontologists long after the method on which it was based had been refuted. In so doing, Gowan Dawson reveals how decisively the practices of the scientific elite were—and still are—shaped by their interactions with the general public.

480 pages | 42 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

Biological Sciences: Paleobiology, Geology, and Paleontology

Earth Sciences: History of Earth Sciences

History: History of Ideas

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


"Dawson lucidly traces the afterlife of Cuvier's incorrect “law of correlation” in Victorian Britain and the United States. The idea seeped into science, irking biologist T. H. Huxley and, argues Dawson, subtly influencing Charles Darwin's thinking on natural variation.”


"You will be amply rewarded by Dawson’s meticulous evocation of a colourful cast of characters and their equally colourful times."

New Scientist

"An elegant dissection of the history of an idea. . . . A fascinating history of an eighteenth-century French idea in Victorian hands."

Times Literary Supplement

"[A] pleasure to read, thanks to Dawson’s lively style and his tight grip over his argument as it leads us between Paris, London, New Zealand, New England, the Crimea and elsewhere. This book deserves to be read well beyond the domain of ‘earth science history’. In its distinctive blend of methodologies, its integration of remarkably diverse source materials, its bridging of the gap between histories of scientific controversy and histories of ‘popular science’, and its combination of fine-grained local analysis with a transnational and longue durée narrative, Show Me the Bone merits the close attention of anyone interested in the making of science in the age of industrial print culture."

Ralph O’Connor | British Journal for the History of Science

“Dawson’s absorbing Show Me the Bone brilliantly traces the changing fortunes of Cuvier’s law of correlation in nineteenth century British paleontology from its arrival and triumph to its overthrow and lingering afterlife. Dawson explores how this law became a fundamental axiom of science, like the nebular hypothesis in astronomy or the theory of evolution in biology, often with surprising results. Show Me the Bone helps us to understand the circulation and appropriation of knowledge during this period, as well as the complexities of British print culture and the popularization of science, making it essential reading.”

Bernard Lightman, York University

Show Me the Bone is a bold, original, and convincing work. Taking Baron Cuvier’s famous and celebrated law of ‘necessary correlation’, Dawson argues that ‘undead science’ continues to circulate long beyond the point at which it seems to have been rejected by most practitioners of science—often in print, popular, and literary cultures—and, crucially, that in doing so it has the power to continue to shape and transform elite science. With brilliant detective work and magisterial storytelling, Dawson constructs a twists-and-turns tale full of surprises about the many directions Cuvierian science took across the course of the nineteenth century and beyond. Show Me the Bone is an exciting new work in the history of science, and a game-changing study in literary criticism and the histories of popular and print culture. It is a joy to read, and a testament to the kinds of thrilling stories made possible by rigorous, scholarly research.”

Adelene Buckland, King's College London

“With Show Me the Bone, Dawson has written an interesting—at times brilliant!—book that presents a truly impressive wealth of research, makes a cogent argument, and features refreshingly straight-forward, lucid prose throughout. Show Me the Bone follows Cuvier’s famous principle of correlation as it traveled from continental Europe to the British Isles. Along the way, Dawson pays particular attention to how naturalists discussed and disseminated their ideas not just in scholarly meetings and specialist publications, but also popular lectures and the commercial press. Show Me the Bone will be sure to find an audience not only among historians of the earth sciences, but also among anyone interested in the nexus of science and literature or the history of science popularization.”

Lukas Rieppel, Brown University

Table of Contents

Introduction: Cuvier’s Law of Correlation

Part I Arrival, 1795–1839: Translations and Appropriations
1 Correlation Crosses the Channel
2 Fragments of Design

Part II Triumph, 1839–54: Bones, Serials, and Models
3 Discovering the Dinornis
4 Paleontology in Parts
5 Correlation at the Crystal Palace

Part III Overthrow, 1854–62: Scientific Naturalists, Popularizers, and Cannibals
6 Correlation under Siege
7 The Problems of Popularization
8 Unfortunate Allies

Part IV Afterlife, 1862–1917: Missing Links and Hidden Clues
9 Evolutionary Modifications
10 Prophecies of the Past

Epilogue: Ghosts of Correlation


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