Eozoön canadense



Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

The Prelude
A marble green one sees
A little like sage cheese,
With metamorphic rocks at rest,
In Connemara, Ireland’s west,
And “Serpentine,” it will be the be best
To name it, if you please.
In Canada they’ve got
Of stones like this a lot,
And scientific writers bold
Wrangle anent these marbles old
Whether the structure they unfold
Be animal or not. 
Full hot the wordy fight
Has seemed to ears polite;
But men of science nothing shocks,
And that the oldest, toughest rocks,
Should come in for hardest knocks,
Appears to them quite right.
 Lacking a Laureate, he
Whose duty ought to be
To chronicle in tuneful lays
The science-fights of modern days,
A neophyte may win the bays,
In modest poetry. 
The Conflict
With harness free from stain and speck,
Canadian Dawson takes the field,
Armed cap-a-pie by Beck & Beck,
Crossed hammers blazoned on his shield 
And foremost in his train we see,
Unmatched in Protozoan lore,
Great Carpenter, whose chivalry
Has oftentimes been proved before.
And through the lists the cry has flown –
A daring challenge for a fight –
Eozoön, be it known,
Has structure like the nummulite.” 
And on brave Dawson’s gauntlet warm
Is dimly traced in mystic line,
“Outline of film asbestiform,
And chambers all acervuline.” 
Geologists in silence stand,
Astonished by the challenge bold.
For Dawson’s calm and steady hand
Is known feared by young and old. 
But hark! a loud defiant shout
Resounds from Connaught’s distant strand,
The “King” of Galway has set out
All mailed in ophite, pen in hand.
And to the field he hies him straight,
With gentle Rowney, knight renowned,
Whose prowess none will underrate,
On Chemistry’s broad fighting ground.
Full haughtily they ride abreast,
And as they near the English throng,
Their stern defiance is expressed
On this, the burden of their song:
“Whether from Connemara borne,
Or Canada, ‘tis all the same,
For metamorphosed mineral worn,
Is Eozoön but a name.” 
Lo, they have taken up the gage,
And now the chiefs on either side,
Stand armed and eager to engage,
While each his hobby sits astride. 
Hot grows the fray, and party cries
Begin to make the welkin ring;
“Strike for our fossil, Dawson’s prize”–
“Fight for the doctrine of our King.” 
Now yield ye, chiefs of Galway bold,
Whilst yet ye are deserving grace,
For scores of Dawson’s men untold
Are crowding in the lists apace. 
See Burgomaster Gumbel, first
Of Munich’s citizens so rich,
And Rupert Jones of Sandyhurst,
And gallant Dr. Anton Fritsch, 
Ramsay the great of Jermyn street,
And Sterry Hunt from distant lands,
And many another whom to beat
Ye stand in need of keener brands. 
Their harness still is clean and bright
And free from ugly dint and tear,
Whilst yours, with blows from left and right,
Is certainly the worse for wear. 
At bugle’s sound the knights retreat,
Each to enjoy a breathing space,
But neither side admits defeat,
So we will not prejudice the case, 
We merely note that Galway’s King
Still chants his hold defiant song,
No fact that Carpenter can bring
Will prove to him he’s in the wrong.

Anonymous - 1869

A photo of a knit neckwarmer in ecru (undyed off-white) with raised grey-blue parallel lines artistically positioned to resemble the folds of the pseudofossil Eozoon. The piece is longer than it is tall, and looks soft but sturdy. It rests on a background of dark columnar basalt, which mostly looks like a mottled smooth background but at the bottom you can see hints that there are more columns sitting near this one.
Guest art by Dr. Jade Atkins (@JadeInJoggins on Instagram and Twitter)

Eozoön canadense was a controversial specimen in the mid 1800s. Then principal of McGill University in Montreal, Sir John William Dawson, believed it to be "Canada's dawn-fossil," while his contemporaries (Irish geologists William King and Thomas H. Rowney, both mentioned in the poem) assured him it was inorganic. Professor Robert Harkness of Queen's College, Cork, gave the presidential address at the British Association meeting in 1869, where he apparently "eulogized" Irish geologists as a not-so-subtle attack on Dawson. This poem was written to commemorate the dramatic event.

The natural history of this poem

Eozoön canadense is the topic of this anonymously authored poem, and in the late 1800s was a topic of much scientific controversy. The debate centered on whether Eozoön canadense was an animal fossil or rock or mineral structure produced by geological forces (a pseudofossil). Upon its discovery and descriptions in the 1850s and 1860s, it was thought to be an animal based on its wavy, stacked layers that looked similar to the skeleton of single celled, ocean-living animals called Foraminifera. The rocks in Ontario and Quebec that Eozoön canadense were found in are nearly 4 billion years old (Archean Eon), however they didn’t know this in the 1800s since they had not yet developed absolute dating techniques. Still, geologists knew that Eozoön canadense was quite old through relative dating, so the discovery and description of Eozoön canadense would have been the oldest fossil evidence of animals.

Many scientists were not convinced that Eozoön canadense was an animal fossil, as microscopes and chemical techniques showed that it was made up alternating layers of the minerals calcite and serpentinite. These minerals are often formed from rocks being heating and compressed over time (metamorphic rocks), which can also bend and compress rocks to produce the wavy appearance of these layers. These observations combined with the discovery of the same structures in many different rocks of different ages, including in Ireland and in modern volcanic rocks from Italy, showed definitively that Eozoön canadense was not an animal fossil. However, even after being disproven as an animal, Eozoön canadense continued to appear as an example of one of the earliest animals in textbooks until the 1950s. Modern fossil evidence shows the earliest animal fossils are around 860 million years old, much younger than Eozoön canadense, but some fossils of single celled bacteria are nearly as old, around 3.5 billion years.

Sir John William Dawson

Though the author(s) of this poem is anonymous, we know that it commemorated a fierce debate about the “fossil” Eozoön canadense, which was staunchly defended by Sir John William Dawson (referred to as “William” in the rest of this biography). There are many characters featured in this poem, but we have chosen to talk about William since he was Eozoön’s biggest defender, and because he’s a Canadian favourite.

A black and white photograph of a middle-aged white man in formal Victorian clothing. He sports a big, bushy beard, thin mutton chops and sideburns, and combed hair with an extremely receded hairline. He resembles his son, George Dawson, and they have the same defined-looking eyelids that give them a sleepy look.
Sir John William Dawson , Photo credit: McGill University Archives, PR027190

William was born in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1820, and grew up scouring the beaches for fossils. In particular, he was interested in how coal formed, and would look through the many fossils that could be found in and along the Joggins cliffs. He was so knowledgeable on the geology there that he assisted famous Scottish geologist Sir Charles Lyell on his visit, and the two ended up finding and identifying the oldest known reptile Hylonomus lyelli. John was so appreciative of Charles’ encouragement that he dedicated his first book, Acadian Geology to him.

William attended Edinburgh University in Scotland (his parents’ homeland), where he graduated in 1842 as the first “British North American” to be trained as an exploration geologist. While in Edinburgh he met Margaret A. Y. Mercer, and the two married in 1847. They went on to have several children, including the geologist George Mercer Dawson, who would go on to become the director of the Geological Survey of Canada (and the author of a few palaeopoems!).

In 1855, William became the principal of McGill University in Montreal where he and his family lived in a grand house on campus. He lectured on natural history, and even had his daughter Mary paint prehistoric landscapes to go with his presentations. He always kept a love for Nova Scotia though, and returned as many summers as possible to conduct field work and collect specimens. William was the first director of the Redpath Museum (also on McGill campus), which was built to house his natural history collections. The Redpath Museum is a classical Victorian natural history museum; that is to say it is an ornate building with a mashup of biological, geological, and anthropological exhibits, many of which contain specimens or human remains not yet returned to their places and people of origin.

William had a long and published career, building his reputation on Nova Scotia geology, Eozoön, and his defense of creationism. William was knighted in 1884 in acknowledgement of his hard work advancing geological knowledge in the Dominion of Canada. He passed away in 1899, just two years before his son George would.