March 26, 1516

Illustration from "On Fossil Objects"

Illustration from “On Fossil Objects”

On this date, the Swiss naturalist and bibliographer Conrad Gessner was born. His five-volume Historiae animalium (1551-1558) is considered the beginning of modern zoology, and the flowering plant genus Gesneria (Gesneriaceae) is named after him. But he is notable here because of his contribution to our understanding of fossils.

Among early natural historians, the main problem impeding a proper view of the meaning of fossils was that resemblances of lithified objects to living organisms were not often obvious, and even when they were, there was no good reason for asserting that the resemblance was anything but fortuitous. There were, in other words, no sure criteria for recognizing and distinguishing fossils from inorganic objects, i.e., from objects that derived from inanimate things rather than from pre-existing organisms.

Conrad Gesner came as close to the correct view as any early natural historian.   In his 1565 book, On Fossil Objects, he found the physical similarity between the modern sea urchin (A) and a lithified heart urchin (B) so clear that the organic origin of the heart urchin could not be denied – that it was a fossil in the modern sense of the word.

The absence of a yardstick for assessing the organic nature of lithified objects; the misapprehension of the great age of the earth; and because the mechanism of fossil preservation was unclear (Gesner’s main difficulty), the arguments of visionaries like Da Vinci and Gesner, imperfect as they were, fell on deaf ears.

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