Soon after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, a claim was made by two Canadian geologists that they had found the first signs of life on Earth: Eozoon canadense or the "Dawn animal of Canada". They announced the find at a meeting of the British Association of the Advancement of Science in 1864. The president of the BAAA, Sir Charles Lyell, referred to Eozoon as "one of the greatest geological discoveries of his time". The two Canadians and "their primary London-based ally, William Benjamin Carpenter, pursued the support of an elite community of geologists by presenting to scientific societies and publishing papers in prestigious scientific journals." So, for example, Carpenter's paper appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1864. Charles Darwin welcomed the find and brought it into the 4th edition of the Origin in 1866. He wrote: "After reading Dr Carpenter's description of this remarkable fossil, it is impossible to feel any doubt regarding its organic nature". The problem for Darwin was that the earliest known fossils were complex, and his theory required something much simpler to precede the forms of the Cambrian Explosion. It was a relief when Eozoon appeared to provide evidence supporting gradualism.
In the 6th edition, Darwin modified the text to read: "The existence of the Eozoon in the Laurentian formation of Canada is generally admitted". This perhaps recognises that there were some dissenting voices: Professor William King (a geologist) and Thomas Rowney (a chemist) at Queen's College, Galway. The characteristics of the ensuing controversy are the subject of an interesting paper by Adelman. She points out that the Canadian geologists adopted a "diffusion" model of communication: "scientific facts were confirmed within the scientific community and then presented to the public." London was the focus of their attention, because the opinion-formers were located there. "The 'Eozoonists' felt that the fossil's credibility was established once the leaders of the scientific community in London had accepted it." The dissenters, however, chose not to play this game.
"King and Rowney, by contrast, did not accept that the prestige of Eozoonists had any bearing on the credibility of the finding. Instead of pursuing the support of scientific elites, they sought maximum publicity for their claims that Eozoon was not a fossil through a sensational letter in a popular journal."
The establishment figures, who had endorsed the authenticity of Eozoon, did not take kindly to the way dissent was being handled - it was outside their control. They cast doubt on the competence of the dissenters to contribute to the discussion about the fossils.
"Carpenter responded by parading his disdain for King, claiming that he awaited not proof of the inorganic nature of Eozoon, but 'proof of his competence to estimate the value of the evidence in this branch of scientific inquiry'. According to Carpenter, King's powers of observation were so poor that he ranked him 'in the same category with those sagacious persons who still maintain that the flint implements were shaped out by a fortuitous succession of accidental blows, and not by human handiwork'. In addition, he dismissed Rowney by saying that a chemist could not claim any authority on the subject of fossils."
There was also a 'provincial versus urban' agenda. Adelman thus documents an instructive case study, giving insight into the power struggles within science and the way science leaders have sought to establish their authority within the community of science and with the public at large.
"The manner in which the Eozoon controversy was conducted shows that the present tensions between scientists, the media and the public are nothing new."
In case it needs saying, Eozoon was not a fossil and the dissenters were correct to challenge the consensus. Clearly there are parallels with today: the role of scientific elites, the status of peer publication, the protocols required to be accepted as members of the scientific community, the way debated issues can be presented as fact to the public, the disdain shown to dissenters, the lobbying of editors to restrict access by critics of the Establishment, and the exploration of alternative ways of communicating minority views to peers and the public. This is the very human face of science. We are seeing these characteristics today in numerous areas where scientists have reached different conclusions. No prizes for identifying at least one example!
Eozoon: debunking the dawn animal
Endeavour, 31(3), September 2007, 94-98 | doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.07.002
Abstract: Discovered in the nineteenth century by the Canadian Geological Survey, the Eozoon canadense fossil, or 'dawn animal of Canada', created a sensation in the geological community. Only a few initially challenged its status as a fossil organism, including two professors in the remote Irish town of Galway. These men claimed that Eozoon was nothing more than a mineral formation and did not represent the discovery of the primordial organism. Supporters of Eozoon closed ranks and a heated debate soon broke out in a range of periodicals. The story of Eozoon lays bare the construction of scientific credibility, a process that was threatened in the second half of the nineteenth century by the proliferation of popular science.
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