Thesis ID: CBB294977558

Reawakening the Ammonites: A History of the Lost World, 1500-1900 (2023)


According to most historians, the idea of extinction was born when the French anatomist Georges Cuvier reconstructed a variety of lost megafauna in Ossemens fossiles (1812). Contrary to this origin myth, this dissertation unearths a longer, more exacting genealogy of this crucial concept, thereby challenging the widely held assumption that awareness of extinction is unique to modern history. Drawing on literary, visual, and material evidence that spans the domains of science, theology, poetry, and art, this dissertation recovers how the natural history of “lost species”—French espèces perdues, German verlorene Arten—already emerged across Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. It provides the first book-length study of how the lost world came into being several centuries before Victorian geologists turned dinosaurs into a global fascination. This dissertation unravels the story of how ammonites—creatures from the ancient marine world—came to widely symbolize the extinction of species. It begins in classical antiquity, when travelers and writers saw within many fossils the remains of former creatures. It progresses to Renaissance naturalists who began to debate ammonite shells as “lost species” as well as artisans who found in them proof of man-made extinction. It then moves on to the Royal Society of London, where natural philosophers turned these shells into memories of distant catastrophes, on to Enlightenment savants who turned them into the subject of belles-lettres as well as a science that pinpointed the layer beneath the earth at which they ceased to exist. The story ends with the “age of monsters,” when dinosaurs replaced the old shell-science with extinct beings previously only the stuff of fables. The key intervention of this dissertation is to provide a historical account that conceives extinction as a “problem of knowledge.” Although we now take the reality of extinction for granted, it was a natural fact that proved difficult to observe and almost impossible to verify. Yet the idea itself has been debated for nearly five centuries. By considering the historicity of this knowledge and its contentious circumstances, this dissertation rethinks the history of extinction in both chronology and method.

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Authors & Contributors
Bloch, D.
Grouw, H. Van
Anderson, Thomas J.
Beer, Gillian
Birkhead, Tim R.
Francis, Kevin James
Archives of Natural History
British Journal for the History of Science
Victorian Studies
Eighteenth-Century Life
University of Minnesota
University of Missouri
University of California, Berkeley
University of Washington Press
Yale University Press
The University of Chicago Press
Extinction (biology)
Natural history
Collectors and collecting
Darwin, Charles Robert
Austen, Jane
Baudin, Nicolas
Gould, John
Hunter, William
Lamotius, Isaac Johannes
Time Periods
19th century
20th century
20th century, early
21st century
17th century
18th century
New Zealand
Great Britain
United States

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