Science, Religion, and Bad Poetry

Derek Turner writes …

For reasons known only to themselves, fossil collectors such as Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) and Charles H. Sternberg (1850-1943)—both persons of deep religious conviction—have sometimes turned to poetry to help articulate their views about science and religion. Their poetry is not high art, but it contains, at times, some surprisingly rich philosophy. I want to give some attention here to their efforts to reconcile science and religion in their own lives. These examples, along with one other that’s less conciliatory, undermine the popular idea that science and religion, properly understood, belong to non-overlapping domains.


Some of the ablest defenders of the idea that science and religion belong to separate realms have been paleontologists. Most famously, Stephen Jay Gould defends it in his book, Rocks of Ages.[i] And more recently, Robert Asher defends a version of the separate realms view in Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist.[ii] (I reviewed the book here.)

Readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of Stephen Jay Gould. I admire his humanism, his systematic thinking, his attention to philosophy of science, his evolutionary theorizing, and even his leftist politics. But Gould also had one idea that I simply don’t get: his claim that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria.” Even when properly understood, science and religion interact, intermingle and abrade in all sorts of fascinating and occasionally fruitful ways. Lots of other people have criticized Gould's view, but a little paleo poetry will help to bring the problems into stark relief.

R.F. Burton

R.F. Burton

“Hideous Theria of the Wild”

Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was a Victorian era imperialist adventurer, geographer, and diplomat of many talents.[iii] He wrote a book about fencing. He produced the first translation of One Thousand and One Nights from Arabic into English. Together with John Hanning Speke, he organized an ill-fated expedition in East Africa to look for the headwaters of the Nile. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca. At times, one could not quite tell whether he was a nefarious agent of the British empire or a sympathetic anthropologist and linguist. He is even the subject of a mostly forgotten biopic, Mountains of the Moon. Late in his career, in 1880, he published a fascinating poem, in Sufi quatrains, called the Kasidah.[iv] It was supposedly written much earlier, in the 1850s. He claimed to have translated it from another author, the Haji Abdu el Yezdi, who wrote the original in Farsi. But of course, there never was any other author or any original Farsi version. From our perspective today, the work is a problematic exercise in cultural appropriation. Yet the poem is meant to convey a sort of philosophy of life, vaguely related to Sufism, but with lots of references to western philosophy and an emphasis on self-improvement. Some of it reads like self-help, but the strangest thing of all is that Burton writes about dinosaurs.

“Man’s natural state is God’s design;”
such is the silly Sage’s theme;
“Man’s primal Age was Age of Gold;”
such is the poet’s waking dream:

Delusion, Ingorance! Long ere Man
drew upon Earth his earliest breath;
The world was one continuous scene,
of anguish, torture, prey, and death;

Where hideous Theria of the wild
rended their fellows limb by limb;
Where horrid Saurians of the sea
in waves of blood were wont to swim.

These might just be my favorite lines of poetry in the English language, because of the way they spoke to me when I first discovered them, as a teenage dinosaur geek who had just become an atheist.

"The Great Cretaceous Ocean," by J. Carter Beard. From "The Serpentlike Sea Saurians," by W.H. Balou, Popular Science Monthly 53(1898): 209-225.

"The Great Cretaceous Ocean," by J. Carter Beard. From "The Serpentlike Sea Saurians," by W.H. Balou, Popular Science Monthly 53(1898): 209-225.

You get the idea: Burton is well aware of the ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs—the “horrid saurians of the sea”—as well as some of the early British dinosaur finds, such as Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. He clearly sees these paleontological discoveries as posing some threat to religious belief. Burton was very much a student of Islam, but he is surely also thinking of Christianity here. Forget about the Garden of Eden: The prehistoric world revealed by fossils was rather gruesome. Its harshness leaves little room for nostalgia. Burton is thinking about prehistoric natural evil as posing a theological problem. Why would a beneficent God ever give free reign, for so long, to monsters designed for horrific violence?

“Bird of sandstone era, wake!”

The Reverend Edward Hitchcock was the first great paleontologist in North America. (I wrote about him here. Ted Davis also offers more biographical detail, with an eye toward Hitchcock's views about science and religion, in this essay.) He collected and described the fossil dinosaur footprints of the Connecticut River Valley in the 1830s and 1840s. Amazingly, he got things fundamentally right: While scientists in Britain looking at skeletal remains conceived of dinosaurs as big lizards, Hitchcock saw birds. And he wrote a poem about them. (Brian Switek writes a bit about the poem here. You can also find the full text here.) Emily Dickinson probably attended his lectures at Amherst College, though her poetry, by most accounts, surpasses that of her geology teacher. Hitchcock published his poem in 1836, in a literary magazine called The Knickerbocker--a few years before Richard Owen invented the word 'dinosaur'.

Hitchcock imagines a scene in which a geologist—presumably, himself—is contemplating some fossilized footprints. Out of nowhere, a “Sorceress” shows up. And somehow, she proceeds to conjure up the “Sandstone Bird” that made the tracks. This, as far as I know, was the first time a paleontologist fantasized openly about seeing real prehistoric animals. The basic premise of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is right there in Hitchcock’s poem: humans conjure up dinosaurs; dinosaurs teach humans a lesson in humility.

One more fun historical detail: Hitchcock, like Burton, preferred to use a nom-de-plume. He published "The Sandstone Bird" under the self-deprecating pen-name "Poetaster," an old-fashioned word for someone who writes bad poetry.

Here we go. The sorceress incants:

Bird of sandstone era, wake!
From thy deep dark prison break!
Spread thy wings upon our air—
Show thy huge strong talons here:
Let them print the muddy shore,
As they did in days of yore.
Preadamic bird, whose sway,
Ruled creation in thy day
Come: obedient to my word:
Stand before creation’s lord.

"Creation's lord," of course, refers to the human being. To skip ahead a bit, the sorceress conjures up what we would now call a dinosaur:

The bird of sandstone fame was truly come again;
And shaking his enormous plumes and wings,
And rolling his broad eye around amazed,
He gave a yell so loud and savage too—
Though to Iguanodons and kindred tribes,
Music it might have seemed—on human ear
It grated harshly

For the record, note that Hithcock was well aware of the Iguanodon fossils that had been found in England, but he was pretty sure that the trackways of western Massachusetts had not been made by any lizard-like creature.

What happens next? The sandstone bird looks around, and is unimpressed by the puny geologist:

His bitter taunting plaint he thus began.
“Creation’s Lord!” the magic of these words
My iron slumbers broke: for in my day
I stood acknowledged as creation’s head,
In stature and in mind surpassing all:
But now—O, strange degeneracy! —one,
Scarce six feet high, is styled creation’s lord!
If such the Lord, what must the servants be!
Oh how unlike Iguanodon next me
In dignity, yet moving at my nod.

One interesting detail here: Hitchcock imagines that the British Iguanodons were the servants of the American megabirds—quite patriotic. Another interesting detail: anticipating the clever Velociraptors in Jurassic Park, Hitchcock supposes that the sandstone bird surpasses all of its contemporaries “in mind.”

Then the sandstone bird, after much grousing, spurns nineteenth century Massachusetts:

Sure ‘tis a place for punishment designed;
And not the beauteous happy spot I loved;
These creatures here seem discontented, sad;
They hate each other, and they hate the world,
O who would live in such a dismal spot?
I freeze, I starve, I die! —with joy I sink,
To my sweet slumbers with the noble dead.

Notice how this inverts Burton’s picture. Burton imagines that prehistoric times were wild, hideous, and bloody. But there’s a profound nostalgia that comes through in Hitchcock’s poem: from the bird’s perspective, prehistory was vastly preferable to the nineteenth century, which seems like “a place for punishment designed.” The sandstone bird has no use for the Anthropocene.

Then, in the closing lines of the poem, we get a synthesis of paleontology and Christianity. The geologist despairs:

. . .Chagrinned,
That he could solve no geologic doubts,
Nor learn the history of sandstone days,
He poured out bitter words, ‘gainst sorcery’s arts:
Forgetting that the lesson taught his pride,
Was better than new knowledge of lost worlds.

Hitchcock sees a deep connection between paleontology and Christian humility. The creatures that made those footprints were far more impressive than we are. One of the main services that paleontology can provide is to cut our inflated human egos down to size, and this lesson is actually more important than paleontology’s epistemic successes.

Charles Hazelius Sternberg

Charles Hazelius Sternberg

“Ah! If I find those fossils rare”

Move forward a few decades once again, to the late nineteenth century fossil boom in western North America. Charles Sternberg was a fossil hunter for hire, a participant in the bone rush, and, as it happens, a devout Christian. His poetry exhibits neither the antireligious bite of Burton, nor the goofy imagination of Hitchcock. Instead, in A Story of the Past, or The Romance of Science, Sternberg does some poetical autobiography:[v]

I here profess my strong belief
In my revealed Lord;
I’ve found Him in the rocky leaf,
And his inspired word.

For forty years I’ve lived with God,
Oft from the haunts of men.
I’ve thought upon His wondrous word
And scenes beyond our ken.

I’ve found the crust of our old earth
A mighty funeral urn-
Where countless forms of life had birth ;
Then others took their turn

And left in sepulchers of stone
The dead He buried there.
But they are not dry bones alone;
I see them as they were

(You can find an electronic version of the whole poem here.) There are strong hints of pre-Darwinian natural theology. (See also Brian Switek's comments here.) As he relates in his more widely read autobiography, The Life of a Fossil Hunter, Sternberg got his start in Kansas collecting plant fossils, and you can just see him staring in awe at a fossil leaf, supposing that he is somehow seeing God in the stone.[vi] But when Sternberg turns to describe the thrill of fossil hunting, Hitchcockian humility goes out the window:

Ah! if I find those fossils rare
Within the sandstone brown,
I walk, as if I tread on air;
’Tis glory and renown

Whereas Hitchcock imagines the sandstone bird dropping in for a visit, with Sternberg, we get something closer to the familiar time travel fantasy:

Presto change! We’re back once more
Upon an inland sea’s broad shore;
We walk along a sheltered cave,
And hear the white caps furious rave
A mosasaur at the Yale/Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

A mosasaur at the Yale/Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by the author.

And the prehistoric oceans of Kansas contain (of course) lots of saurians. We get many lines describing graceful, serene plesiosaurs. And then come the horrid mosasaurs, swimming in waves of blood:

The saurian’s [sic] stretch upon the wave,
Great crests of foam their bodies lave,
A whitened wake behind them glows,
With pointed head, aimed at their foes;

Their paddles now are moving fast.
In rapid undulations cast;
While tail’s vibrating force is spent.
To force the mass to battle bent:

And so we watch with bated breath.
Knowing that one must meet his death :
They come like engines end on end,
Each would the other’s vitals rend.

There was a lot of rending going on in the Mesozoic. Whereas Burton sees paleontological reconstruction as a challenge to traditional religious belief, with these “horrid saurians of the sea” more than hinting at the traditional problem of evil, Sternberg, puzzlingly, sees no issue at all. Instead, in another poem published in the same volume, he likens the study of fossils to the interpretation of God’s word:

So God engraves in mouldering land,
The works of His almighty hand.
Not Moses’ tablets graved by God,
Seem more wondrous than the word,
He left recorded in the earth,
When rocky strata had their birth.

Thus, for Sternberg, God is speaking to us through the fossil record. Scripture is not the only place where one can find God’s word. It is right there in the “Permian Beds of Texas” (the subject of this second poem.) And yep, Sternberg the fossil hunter is definitely comparing himself to Moses, though it’s far from clear what sort of moral message we are supposed to extract from the fossil record. Sternberg feels called upon by God to receive and interpret God’s word so that everyone else may understand. Paleontology itself is holy work.


Odes to Overlap

So we have three fun examples of mediocre nineteenth century paleo poetry, and three completely different views about the relationship between science and religion. Burton sees paleontology as undermining scriptural literalism and posing the problem of natural evil. Hitchcock is more nostalgic about prehistory, and he suggests that the study of fossils can teach us humility, a lesson with heavily Christian overtones. Sternberg sees the fossil record as the very word of God, and fancies himself a kind of paleontological Moses on a mission to share that message written in stone with the broader public. The diversity of views here points to the complexity of the relationship between science and religion. It also shows how different people’s views about that relationship can color their interpretations of the deep past.

In Gould’s famous formulation, science should concern itself only with “how the heavens go,” whereas the proper concern of religion is “how to go to heaven.” But it makes no sense to banish science and religion to separate rooms, just in case they should turn out not to play well together. These three paleo poets, in their different ways, all show how the life of the mind resists such compartmentalization. Pace Gould, the overlap is where the poetry is.


[i] S.J. Gould, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Ballantine Books, reprint edition, 2002.

[ii] R.A. Asher, Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist. Cambridge University Press, 2012

[iii] For an engaging biography of R.F. Burton, see Edward Rice, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: The Secret Agent who made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra, and Brought the Arabian Nights to the West. Scribner, 1990.

[iv] The Kasidah of Haji Abdu El Yezdi, Translated and annotated by Sir Richard F. Burton, The Citadel Press, 1965.

[v] C.H. Sternberg, A Story of the Past: or, The Romance of Science. Sherman, French, and Company, 1911.

[vi] C.H. Sternberg, The Life of A Fossil Hunter, Indiana University Press, 1990.