Impossible Monsters: Dinosaurs, Darwin and the War between Science and Religion

Michael Taylor

From fossil-hunting to the end of faith, IMPOSSIBLE MONSTERS is a gripping narrative history of how the discovery of dinosaurs and the science of evolution transformed our understanding of the world, toppled religious authority and gave rise to our secular age.

In 1811, when the self-schooled daughter of a carpenter pulled some strange-looking bones from Britain’s southern shoreline, few people dared to question that the Bible told the accurate history of the world. But Mary Anning had discovered the ‘first’ dinosaur, and over the next seventy-five years – as the science of palaeontology developed, as Charles Darwin posited theories of evolutionary biology, and as religious scholars identified the internal inconsistencies of the Scriptures – everything changed.

By the 1850s, dinosaurs were a prominent feature of the second Crystal Palace exhibition. By the 1860s, when Matthew Arnold stood on Dover Beach and saw faith ebbing away, Britain had plunged into a crisis of religious belief. By the 1870s, T.H. Huxley – Darwin’s ‘bulldog’ – was preaching a new history of the world in which mankind was merely an accident of evolution. By 1886, following a six-year battle which had seen him beaten, imprisoned, and forcibly removed from Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh was able to take his seat in the House of Commons as the first openly atheist MP.

Told through the lives of the men and women who found these vital fossils and who fought about their meaning, some humble, some eccentric, some utterly brilliant, IMPOSSIBLE MONSTERS tells the story of the painful, complicated relationship between science and religion over these seventy-five years, of the growth of secularism, and of the role of dinosaurs and their discovery in changing perceptions about the Bible, history and mankind’s place in the world.

“As thrilling as it is sweeping, populated by a brilliantly drawn cast of characters, and vivid with a Mesozoic bestiary.”
Tom Holland
“Eminently readable and well-researched . . . He writes well, knows his subject and has a fine eye for detail.”
“This book confirms what I've suspected for a while, that Michael Taylor is the most talented young historian around. This book dazzles in its originality and there is something you want to commit to memory on every page. A triumph.”
Sathnam Sanghera
“Well-paced . . . fascinating . . . And it has a charming leitmotif, namely, the periodic discovery of yet another dinosaur, each seemingly larger and more monstrous than the last . . . Taylor movingly tells us of the agony inflicted by scientific discovery on the “honest doubters”
A N Wilson, The Times
“Excellent . . . Everything that popular scholarly history should be . . . written with clarity, zest, and wit”
Literary Review
“A sweeping account of the discovery of dinosaurs and the horrifying depths of time, and their impact on god-fearing Victorians. Taylor marches us with panache from Bishop Ussher's impossibly young world to today's incomprehensibly old planet. We feel the awe and fright across society as the vast reptilian empires are brought to light”
Adrian Desmond
“This is a book of surprises and revelations... a most engrossing account of science, history, religion, culture, and yes, dinosaurs, all woven together into an epic tale of how Britain modernised in the nineteenth century”
Steve Brusate
“Impossible Monsters captivatingly outlines how the unearthing of strange bones toppled traditional understanding of the origins of the world . . . The author handles his sources well, doesn’t lose sight of his arguments, and I enjoyed this book”