Review: War of ideas

Review: War of ideas

Robert Shiels uncovers the story of how our everyday truths came to be.

This substantial and interesting book has a rather contrived title that suggests a military battle of sorts, although it narrates a crucial aspect of the history of ideas in the British context.

The aim of the book is to explain how and why discoveries led to a secular age. In particular, the discovery of the remains of dinosaurs, with the crucial development of geology and palaeontology.

Major intellectual challenges to ancient religious beliefs emerged slowly and incrementally with physical discoveries, and the application of inquiring minds.

Progress was hardly a single passive event, but rather many discoveries and publications, all of which gave an indication of the tensions amongst sources of moral and scientific authority.

The scholarly and popular literature on these subjects is vast and Michael Taylor has brought together the biographies of the leading figures of Victorian science, and their intellectual context, and how in Britain views as to origins of species changed.

Somewhat surprisingly, in a matter of such intense intellectual history, much turned on Mary Anning, a 12-year-old girl in 1811, uncovering some strange-looking bones on the shoreline near Lyne Regis, Dorset.

These bones could not be identified easily by others as belonging to any known creature and they had been buried beneath a hundred feet of rock. The Anning family had for some time been engaged in the search for ancient bones as part of their income and the work continued for many years after the great discovery.

The death of Mary Anning in 1847 brought an unequivocal acceptance by the professors and other professionals engaged in the search that she and her family were very knowledgeable about their findings.

This book covers, commendably, a very wide range of developments in theology, politics, science and the international movement of ideas in the nineteenth century all amounting to progress, the key object then for people of action.

Impossible Monsters: Dinosaurs, Darwin and the War Between Science and Religion by Michael Taylor. Published by Penguin, 444 pp.

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