Germany, 5 April 1877
Anna Bella Nor was dreaming she had unearthed Archaeopteryx, the earliest and most primitive bird known. The excavation was in its sixth week, a fine layer of soil had long since embedded itself into everyone's faces and the mood had hit rock bottom. Friedemann von Molsen, the leader of the excavation, was the only one still in high spirits. Every morning when Anna staggered out of her tent, sleepy and shivering in the cold, von Molsen would be sitting by the fire, drinking coffee; the congealed oatmeal in the pot proving he had cooked and eaten his breakfast long ago. Anna was fed up with oatmeal, fed up with dirt, fed up with kneeling on the ground that only revealed bones that were, of course, interesting in their own right, but were too young to be the reason she studied biology, and most definitely not the reason she was spending six weeks of her precious summer vacation living in such miserable conditions. The year was 1877 and, at this point in her dream, Anna got the distinct feeling something didn't add up. She was wearing her quilted army jacket and thick furry boots with rubber soles, but Friedemann von Molsen didn't seem the least bit surprised, even though he had a pipe in his mouth and was wearing a three-piece corduroy suit with a pocketwatch and a wool cap that rested on his ears.
They were in Solnhofen, north of Munich, and in addition to Anna and von Molsen, the group consisted of two local porters, two other postgraduate students, and von Molsen's brandy-colored retriever bitch, whose name also happened to be Anna Bella; a truly irritating detail in the dream. While they plodded across the same ridge as yesterday, von Molsen told anecdotes. His stories weren't particularly amusing and, by now, Anna had heard them so many times that she no longer derived any pleasure from having been dropped into a time in history in which any natural scientist would give their right arm to experience. Whenever von Molsen was about to speak, he would snatch his pipe from his mouth and point it in the direction of England. It was Darwin who had upset his sense of order.
In the 1870s Darwin's theory of evolution was starting to gain a foothold, but the mechanism that caused species to evolve was a matter of huge controversy, and though it fascinated von Molsen, he categorically dismissed Darwin's theory that evolution was driven by natural selection. When his feelings ran high, von Molsen would call Darwin a "stickleback." Anna failed to see how a stickleback could be the worst term of abuse von Molsen could imagine.
At the start of the expedition Anna had challenged von Molsen's argument, and this was how his interest in her had originated. Von Molsen was a man who encouraged curiosity toward the phenomena of natural science, and it was perfectly reasonable, he declared, to play devil's advocate in order to provoke a stimulating debate. This, on the proviso that one didn't seriously believe that in a few decades the stickleback's hypothesis would be accepted as common sense; that all living organisms, mice and men, birds and beetles, had evolved from the same starting point and that differences in their individual morphology, physiology, and behavior were entirely the result of adaptation and competition. "What would be the consequence of that?" von Molsen had demanded and pointed abruptly at Anna with his pipe, but before she had time to reply, he answered his own question.
"The conclusion," he declared, cheerfully, "would be that the genome wasn't a constant. It could be changed and no one would be able to predict what would cause it to change. As if everything, life and nature, was entirely random and unplanned. The whole business is insane!"
During an already notorious lecture at Oxford University, Darwin had recently argued that the vast gaps in fossil evidence for birds existed solely because such fossils had yet to be discovered. Once they were found, and this was purely a matter of time, the evolutionary game of patience would come out and it would be obvious to everyone, as it already was to Darwin and his supporters, that the driving force behind evolution was the process of natural selection. The man must be mad, von Molsen had exclaimed, and looked sharply at Anna.
Excerpted from The Dinosaur Feather by S J Gazan. Copyright © 2013 by S J Gazan. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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