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Academic & Professional Books  Palaeontology  Palaeontology: General

The Age of Mammals Nature, Development, & Paleontology in the Long Nineteenth Century

By: Chris Manias(Author)
473 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
The Age of Mammals shows that you cannot understand the history of palaeontology without considering mammals.
The Age of Mammals
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  • The Age of Mammals ISBN: 9780822947806 Hardback Aug 2023 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
Price: £57.50
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About this book

When people today hear "palaeontology", they immediately think of dinosaurs. But for much of the history of the discipline, dramatic demonstrations of the history of life focused on the developmental history of mammals. The Age of Mammals examines how nineteenth-century scholars, writers, artists, and public audiences understood the animals they regarded as being at the summit of life. For them, mammals were crucial for understanding the formation (and possibly the future) of the natural world. Yet, as Chris Manias reveals, this combined with more troubling notions: that seemingly promising creatures had been swept aside in the "struggle for life," or that modern biodiversity was impoverished compared to previous eras. Why some prehistoric creatures, such as the sabre-toothed cat and ground sloth, had become extinct, while others seemed to have been the ancestors of familiar animals like elephants and horses, was a question loaded with cultural assumptions, ambiguity, and trepidation. How humans related to deep developmental processes, and whether "the Age of Man" was qualitatively different from the Age of Mammals, led to reflections on humanity's place within the natural world. With this book, Manias considers the cultural resonance of mammal palaeontology from an international perspective – how reconstructions of the deep past of fossil mammals across the world conditioned new understandings of nature and the current environment.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A wide-ranging and serious intellectual history
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 Sep 2023 Written for Hardback

    In modern palaeontology, dinosaurs always hog the limelight. However, as science historian Chris Manias shows in The Age of Mammals, for a long time this was not the case. This scholarly book shows how palaeontology, from its inception in the 1700s until the 1910s, revolved around mammals. In a wide-ranging book that examines historical episodes around the world, Manias convincingly shows that you cannot understand the history of palaeontology without considering mammals.

    Rather than a book about fossil mammals or mammal evolution, this is about the history of palaeontology as a scientific discipline, showing how central the study of fossil mammals has been to its development. One thing to note is that this is not popular science and it took me a few chapters to get into the groove of Manias's academic writing style. Nothing here is impenetrable, but this is a serious intellectual history. The depth of scholarship is evident from the reference list as Manias has mined the peer-reviewed literature, archives of correspondence, and numerous newspapers and magazines. He has also dug up some remarkable period illustrations and photos that recreate the flavour of this bygone era. I noticed three major themes running through this book.

    First, fossil mammals were instrumental in revising our understanding of life's history and evolutionary patterns. We have long clung to the idea of a scala naturae that orders life from lowest to highest. Mammals were considered superior to all other animals with humans (of course) placed at the summit. Insights from mammal palaeontology started upending this idea in various ways. Fossil mammals revealed just how diverse life had been, making it increasingly hard to arrange them in any meaningful order. The discovery of Permian fossils of the mammal ancestor Dicynodon cast doubts on the idea that mammals evolved from reptiles. Maybe that was a too-literal reading of the scala naturae and both groups evolved from amphibians instead? (That starts sounding more modern, but is still not quite right; Beasts Before Us and The Rise and Reign of the Mammals explain our current understanding.) It became increasingly clear that "the history of life therefore was not an easy ladder of progress (even if some aspects could be made to fit this narrative)" (p. 207).

    Closely related to this was the idea that geological history was one of progress and improvement, an idea that has been almost impossible to shake. However, the discovery of Pleistocene ice ages upset the notion of a steady story of progress and scholars argued whether there had been one or many. "Linear and cyclical visions of development jostled and persisted" (p. 188). And then there were the poster children of linear evolution: horses. The images that show them progressively evolving into larger horses with longer legs and higher-crowned teeth are iconic. The actual story is more complicated and already in 1907 James W. Gidley and Henry Fairfield Osborn of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) wrote a taxonomic revision that concluded as much. Most groups in this sequence had become specialized and left no descendants, showing instead that "evolution had a disjunctive rather than a continuous pattern" (p. 261), though these insights did not necessarily filter through to museum displays.

    Two further ideas in biology influenced by fossil mammals were extinction and biogeography. It was by studying fossil elephant remains that Cuvier conceived of the idea of extinction. The later realisation that so many large mammals had gone extinct in the Pleistocene raised questions about the role of humans. Were we the baddies, or did it involve many factors? That debate rumbles on even today. Meanwhile, the distribution of fossil mammals was used to divide the world into six biogeographic zones. Manias flags up a nice bit of subversion here: the realisation that the elephant, that most noble animal, had evolved in Africa suddenly made that continent appear less backward. "Biogeography could be an imperial science, but in doing so could also center modern colonized regions" (p. 333).

    The second major theme of The Age of Mammals is a healthy dose of museology. Manias describes the history of major institutes such as the MNHN, AMNH, NHM London, all of whom relied on fossil mammal exhibits for some of their fame. He delves into the new museum movement of the 19th century for which the AMNH was a poster child. These large, professionally organized and bureaucratic museums, sponsored by the state and philanthropists, contrasted with the lurid penny museums and travelling exhibits, aiming instead to educate and elevate their public. A well-stocked palaeontological display containing a "canon of fossil mammals" (p. 225) became mandatory. But these museums were not the only game in town. University-based institutions could hold their own by offering educational opportunities. Outside of Europe and North America, some countries successfully drew on their unique fossil mammal fauna. But even in the Western United States, small museums set themselves apart not by showcasing the whole history of life, but by building collections of local fossils.

    The third major theme is that Manias is finely attuned to all the cultural and historical baggage. Palaeontology virtually always followed in the wake of colonial expansion, piggybacking on economic activities. It inspired and was inspired by economic and political narratives of improvement, e.g. the idea that under enlightened colonial rule, certain areas could again be made as fruitful as fossil mammals suggested they had once been. Key scholars had horrible views by today's standards: Edward Drinker Cope was a racist while Osborn supported eugenics. The input of women was marginalized and only a few succeeded in building a professional career. And the contribution of local people and fieldworkers was often belittled or completely erased. However, some clever rereading of history by Manias shows they were not always without agency or power. He leaves no opportunity unused to highlight all of the above disturbing history, and the amount of ideological assumptions foisted on both animals and humans that he unearths is staggering. In my opinion, he is neither judgemental nor moralizing, instead striking the right tone by putting people and events in context.

    The Age of Mammals is a comprehensive and revelatory history that is full of fascinating stories from around the world. It is also an incredibly welcome addition to the literature as most books on the history of palaeontology all focus on a certain group of extinct reptiles. Thus, I warmly recommend this to readers interested in the history of palaeontology and, more generally, science history and museology.
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Chris Manias is a historian of science based at King’s College London, where he is a senior lecturer in history of science and technology. He is a member of the History of Science Society and the British Society for the History of Science, and is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

By: Chris Manias(Author)
473 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
The Age of Mammals shows that you cannot understand the history of palaeontology without considering mammals.
Media reviews

"Manias' work really excels in reclaiming and redescribing the practice of palaeontology in the nineteenth century in all of its expansionist, political, and cultural complexity."
Palaeontologia Electronica

"Dinosaurs get all the attention, from museum visitors as well as historians. But with this brilliant new book, Chris Manias sets the record straight and shows that mammalian paleontology is where it's at. Deeply researched and beautifully written, The Age of Mammals is brimming with fresh insights and novel interpretations. Scientists invested mammals with particular significance because their evolution presaged the development of our own species. This makes them an ideal site to examine how widespread ideas about evolutionary progress and biological hierarchy emerged from the entanglement between science and empire. This book is also a pleasure to read, taking readers on a wide-ranging tour through the history of the earth sciences that spans several centuries and covers the entire globe."
– Lukas Rieppel, author of Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a Spectacle

"The Age of Mammals is a wide-ranging, fascinating, and definitive account of how ancient mammals were discovered and given meaning through heated debates about lost life on earth. Stories of fossils and their finders, from famed scientists to erased local and Indigenous experts, and the sites in which fossils were give meanings, from fieldwork to exhibitions, are deftly woven together to show that the knowledge and world making of paleontology were tied to global fieldwork, capitalist resource extraction, museum collections, and ideas about the rightful place of humans in the modern world. This book establishes Chris Manias as a significant scholar of the history of life sciences and will be invaluable to anyone interested in the legacies of how life on earth has been imagined."
– Sadiah Qureshi, University of Birmingham

"This book is certainly fascinating."

"An extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paleontology."
H-Net Reviews

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