Adding Mary Anning: Reflections on Confederate Nostalgia, Counterfactual History, and the History of Paleontology

Derek Turner writes . . .

Mary Anning (1799-1847), with her dog. The dog was tragically killed in a mudslide while Mary was doing fieldwork. 

Mary Anning (1799-1847), with her dog. The dog was tragically killed in a mudslide while Mary was doing fieldwork. 

Counterfactual History and Confederate Nostalgia

Recently we all learned that the makers of Game of Thrones are working on a new series for HBO called Confederate. The premise of the show is that secession somehow succeeded, and that slavery persisted in the breakaway Confederate States. This is a familiar exercise in counterfactual history, and you probably know the drill: What if Joshua Chamberlain hadn’t ordered that bayonet charge at the end of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg? The left flank of the Army of the Potomac collapses, and Lee’s successful invasion of Pennsylvania wins foreign support for the Confederacy. This minimal rewrite of one of history’s close calls plays into the messed up political nostalgia of white supremacists, like those who brought domestic terrorism to Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend.

The very idea of a show that explores such an alternative history has appropriately come under harsh criticism—for example, by Roxane Gay (here) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (here). The nature of that critique suggests that some of us philosophers who’ve been writing about historical counterfactuals have missed something very important. One central ethical argument advanced by Gay and Coates also contains insights that go well beyond this particular case, insights that apply to counterfactual thinking about the history of science.

In our previous reflections on historical counterfactuals, Helen Zhao, Adrian Currie, and I have all zeroed in on epistemological questions that are bread and butter for us philosophers of science. What accounts for the difference between historical counterfactuals that seem well supported by the evidence, and those that are less credible? In their recent posts, Helen and Adrian explore the proposal that historical counterfactuals are more believable when they involve minimal rewrites of what happened upstream.

The critics of HBO’s proposed show, Confederate, are not, however, raising epistemological objections. Nobody is arguing that the show’s alternative history is not well supported by the evidence, or that it violates the minimal rewrite rule. The objections, rather, are ethical.

Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates both observe that counterfactual history always involves an imaginative intervention in the past, a tweaking of one or more variables while holding others fixed. But there are indefinitely many ways of doing this—even, one might add, indefinitely many that would involve minimal rewrites of what happened earlier. So why, they ask with understandable exasperation, would HBO construct a counterfactual history involving the persistence of slavery? Why is it, Gay wonders, that no one creates a show in which Mexico wins its war with the US in the 1840s? Or why, Coates asks, doesn’t somebody write a show in which the Haitian Revolution spreads to the young United States? The space of imaginable interventions in the past is almost absurdly vast. You have to make decisions about when to intervene, and about which variables to tweak, and how to change them. Those decisions reflect our values in complex ways. The construction of counterfactual history is one way in which we relate to, appropriate, come to terms with, or evade the past. 

It might be tempting to try to compartmentalize Gay’s and Coates’s critique of the proposed HBO show, to see them as making a narrower point about white supremacy and American popular culture. But I think their argument contains profound insights that apply more broadly. There’s some risk that in trying to transfer those insights to other contexts one is drawing attention away from issues of race, which is where our attention belongs. Hopefully, though, a brief look at a related issue in the history of science can help reinforce their diagnosis of Confederate, while also underscoring the broader implications of the argument that Gay and Coates are making about counterfactual history.


Deleting Darwin, Adding Anning

In her excellent recent post on counterfactual history, Helen discusses Peter Bowler’s book, Darwin Deleted: Imagining A World Without Darwin. Bowler’s basic project is to try to imagine the history of biology without Darwin—How might things have unfolded differently? Helen, like most of us philosophers of science, approaches Bowler’s project with epistemological issues in mind. She focuses on the issue of how to assess counterfactual claims that Bowler makes (e.g., that without Darwin, there would have been less tension between biology and religion), and she suggests that Bowler might run afoul of the minimal rewrite rule. Helen’s assessment of Bowler’s project seems entirely reasonable. What I want to suggest here is that there is another direction from which to look at Bowler’s project, a direction inspired by Gay and Coates.

Of all the possible changes you could make to the history of science, of all the possible variables you could tweak, why delete Darwin? What does that decision about where and how to intervene in the history of science say about us and our interests? The framing of Bowler’s project reflects a privileging of questions about scientific theory. The guiding question of the book is how evolutionary theory might have developed differently, had Darwin never returned from the voyage of the Beagle. In recent years, though, quite a number of philosophers of science have begun to challenge the traditional emphasis on theory, arguing that new and interesting questions open up when we shift our focus to the practice of science. So why not construct a counterfactual history of science that foregrounds practice?

Instead of deleting Darwin, what if we added Mary Anning to the high status scientific community of her day?

What if the Geological Society of London had admitted her as a member? And what if the gentleman naturalists who purchased her fossils and published papers on her amazing finds from the cliffs near her home in Lyme Regis, on the south coast of England—papers on ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and pterosaurs—had included her as a co-equal collaborator? If she had gotten the credit she deserved, how would the subsequent history of paleontology have been different?

For a little more context, Anning’s father Richard, who was an impoverished carpenter, took Mary fossil hunting when she was a child. But Richard died when Mary was only eleven, probably due in part to injuries suffered during a fall while fossil hunting. Mary, still only a tween, continued collecting, along with her mother and brother, selling fossils to tourists from a table they set up outside their house. ("She sells sea shells by the sea shore ...")  Richard’s death had left the family with crippling debt, and with bread prices soaring, the family didn’t have enough money to buy food. Out of necessity, Mary kept exploring the coastal landscape, collecting ammonites and belemnites, as well as some vertebrates. She found the complete postcranial skeleton of an ichthyosaur after her brother Joseph found the skull—when she was only twelve or thirteen years old. Her field skills and knowledge of local geology became legendary, and distinguished naturalists—Buckland, Conybeare, De la Beche—joined her in the field. Crucially, though, she was the one showing them how fossil hunting is done. She eked out a living by fossil collecting for many years, staying in frequent contact with the scientific community but never being included in it, barred from participation by her sex and her social class, as well as her family background of religious dissent from the Church of England. As it happens, she was doing the scientific “dirty work,” the work that came with some risk to life and limb, as was brought home by the death of her beloved dog in a mudslide. It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that she contributed more than anyone else to the early development of the practice of paleontological fieldwork.

So what if Anning hadn’t been shut out of the scientific community?  What if Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare had put her name at the top of the paper they published in 1821—what was then the definitive analysis of Anning’s Ichthyosaurus? What if they had worked with her as a genuine partner? What theoretical contributions might she have made? And how might our popular images of the fossil hunter have developed differently? Would we think differently about commercial fossil collecting? Would women be better represented and more visible in paleontology today? I’ll leave it to others to imagine how this counterfactual history of science might have unspooled.

Of course, this particular counterfactual history would involve more than a minimal rewrite, because it would entail rewriting some of the history of patriarchy and class stratification, and that brings us back full circle to the analysis offered by Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates: Minimal rewrites of historical close calls, like that of the Confederate show, will typically leave oppressive social structures in place. Counterfactual histories of liberation and empowerment might require bigger upstream changes.

The larger point is that our “What if” questions reflect our interests and values. Fixating on certain “what if” questions rather than others is a way of relating to the past, and that’s true whether we’re talking about confederate nostalgia or the history of science.



A good source on Mary Anning that provides some historical context is Deborah Cadbury's book, Terrible Lizard: The First Dinosaur Hunters and the Birth of a New Science. Holt, 2002.