By Ilja Nieuwland
From: Edward Newman (1843), “Note on the Pterodactyle Tribe considered as Marsupial Bats”. The Zoologist 1, p. 129. Comment: “The upper figure represents Pterodactylus crassirostris, the lower, Pter. brevirostris”.
Edward Newman (1801-1876) was interesting figure, beginning as a naturalist (particularly in entomology) early in life and later manifesting himself as a publisher of, among others, The Zoologist. Although not a specialist in pterosaurs (it needs to be said, however, that at the time no-one could rightly be called so) he published an article in that journal’s first year, 1843. In it, he took the observation of tufts of hair in pterosaurs to the logical conclusion that the animals could not possibly have been ‘naked’ reptiles. The similarities between bats and pterosaurs had already been noted by the German Samuel Thomas von Soemmering*, but the leading authority on vertebrate anatomy, Georges Cuvier, had discredited that interpretation. Interestingly, Newman sounds somewhat exasperated when he decides to counter Cuvier’s views, and the article gives us some insight into the power of authority in 19th-century science:
“I have often spoken of these same pterodactyles with men of good repute as comparative anatomists, but I never could get them beyond the words, – “Cuvier has said it; Buckland has declared it; ” – and thus the question of the highest interest depends not on fact, but on the infallibility of Cuvier and Buckland. Now I believe it within the range of possibility that Cuvier and Buckland should be in error. I confess that this is highly improbable, but I contend that it is possible. Regard them as we may, there is still that evidence of humanity about them that induces us to suppose them capable of error.”
* It is quite easy to be derogatory about these early attempts at identifying pterosaurs, but one should remember that at this time there was virtually no point of reference for their study. Some scholars (e.g. David Unwin 2006, The Pterosaurs from Deep Time (New York: Pi Books)) withouth much a sense of historicity all too easily put Soemmering (and others!) into the ‘wrong’ category without apparently realising that there wasn’t a ‘right’. Also, it would be interesting to see in, ow, ten year’s time, where on the ‘wrong/right’ balance they will stand.
** I have taken the four relevant pages out of the 410-page first volume.