Quotes and poems

Palaeontology and Geology Quotes and Poems from Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Darwin, Charles Walcott, Henry Osborn, Baron Gorges Cuvier, May Kendall, Stephen Jay Gould, Sir David Attenborough, and many more you influenced the field.

The Lay of the Trilobite by May KendallPoem

24th January 1885

A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at case,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.

So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!

And then, quite natural and free
Out of his rocky bed,
That Trilobite he spoke to me,
And this is what he said:
” I don’t know how the thing was done,
Although I cannot doubt it;
But Huxley — he if anyone
Can tell you all about it;

” How all your faiths are ghosts and dreams,
How in the silent sea
Your ancestors were Monotremes —
Whatever these may be;
How you evolved your shining lights
Of wisdom and perfection
From Jelly-fish and Trilobites
By Natural Selection.

” You’ve Kant to make your brains go round,
Hegel you have to clear them,
You’ve Mr. Browning to confound,
And Mr. Punch to cheer them!
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!

” You’ve Politics to make you fight
As if you were possessed:
You’ve cannon and you’ve dynamite
To give the nations rest:
The side that makes the loudest din
Is surest to be right,
And oh, a pretty fix you’re in!”
Remarked the Trilobite.

” But gentle, stupid, free from woe
I lived among my nation,
I didn’t care — I didn’t know
That I was a Crustacean.
I didn’t grumble, didn’t steal,
I never rhyme:
Salt water was my frugal meal,
And carbonate of lime.”

Reluctantly I turned away,
No other word he said;
An ancient Trilobite, he lay
Within his rocky bed.
I did not answer him, for that
Would have annoyed my pride:
I merely bowed, and raised my hat,
But in my heart I cried: —

” I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!”

“Lay of the Trilobite,” is a satire of the popular English response to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. “Lay of the Trilobite” was originally published in Punch Magazine, to which Kendall contributed for ten years.


“I abide in a goodly Museum,
Frequented by sages profound:
‘Tis a kind of strange mausoleum,
Where the beasts that have vanished abound.
There’s a bird of the ages Triassic,
With his antediluvian beak,
And many a reptile Jurassic,
And many a monster antique.”

‘Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus’, Dreams to Sell (1887), 14.

May Kendall

“Kids like their fossils. I’ve taken my godson fossil-hunting and there’s nothing more magical than finding a shiny shell and knowing you’re the first person to have seen it for 150 million years.”

Sir David Attenborough

“The observer listens to nature: the experimenter questions and forces her to reveal herself.”

Baron Georges Cuvier

“Taxonomy is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as mere “stamp collecting” (a designation that this former philatelist deeply resents). If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both reflect and direct our thinking. The way we order represents the way we think. Historical changes in classification are the fossilized indicators of conceptual revolutions.”

In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983, 2010), 72

Stephen Jay Gould

Ode to a Trilobite by Timothy Abbott ConradPoem


Thou large-eyed mummy of the ancient rocks,
            The Niobe of ocean, couldst thou tell
Of thine own times, and of the earthquake shocks
            Which tore the ocean-bed where thou didst dwell;
What dream of wild Romance would then compare
            With the strange truths thy history might unfold?
How would Geologist confounded, stare
            To find their glittering theories were not gold?

Methinks I see thee gazing from the stone
            With those great eyes, and smiling as in scorn
Of notions and of systems which have grown
            From relics of the times when thou wert born.
Thou ne ‘er saw glittering fishes in the deep,
            Which now in multiform profusion play,
Nor giant shells, nor monsters such as sweep
            Along the surge and dash the ocean spray.

Yes, small in size were most created things
            And shells and corallines the chief of these;
No land but islets then, nor trees nor springs,
            And no tornado thundered o ‘er the seas.
But the wild earthquake did the work of death,
            And heaped the sand and tore the Naiad ‘s cave.
Race after race resigned their fleeting breath
            The rocks alone their curious annals save.

And since the trilobites have passed away
            The continent has been formed, the mountains grown,
In ocean ‘s deepened caves new beings play,
            And man now sits on Neptune ‘s ancient throne.
The race of man shall perish, but the eyes
            Of Trilobites eternal be in stone,
And seem to stare about with wild surprise
            At changes greater than they yet have known


“I am particularly fond of (Emmanuel Mendes da Costa’s) Natural History of Fossils because treatise, more than any other work written in English, records a short episode expressing one of the grand false starts in the history of natural science–and nothing can be quite so informative and instructive as a juicy mistake.”

Stephen Jay Gould

“In July [1837] opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts (especially latter), origin of all my views.”

In Francis Darwin (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, Including an Autobiographical Chapter (1888), Vol. 1, 276.

Charles Darwin

“In July [1837] opened first note-book on Transmutation of Species. Had been greatly struck from about the month of previous March on character of South American fossils, and species on Galapagos Archipelago. These facts (especially latter), origin of all my views.”

Discours sur les révolutions du globe, (Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe), originally the introduction to Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles des quadrupèdes (1812). Translated by Ian Johnston from the 1825 edition. Online at Vancouver Island University website.

Charles Darwin

“One must believe that every living thing whatsoever must change insensibly in its organization and in its form… One must therefore never expect to find among living species all those which are found in the fossil state, and yet one may not assume that any species has really been lost or rendered extinct.”

Système des Animaux sans Vertébres, (1801) trans. D. R. Newth, in Annals of Science (1952), 5, 253-4.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

“Nature has a habit of placing some of her most attractive treasures in places where it is difficult to locate and obtain them.”

Charles Doolittle Walcott

“Every great anthropologic and paleontologic discovery fits into its proper place, enabling us gradually to fill out, one after another, the great branching lines of human ascent and to connect with the branches definite phases of industry and art. This gives us a double means of interpretation, archaeological and anatomical. While many branches and links in the chain remain to be discovered, we are now in a position to predict with great confidence not only what the various branches will be like but where they are most like to be found.”

In Henry Fairfield Osborn, ‘Osborn States the Case For Evolution’, New York Times (12 Jul 1925), XX1

Henry Fairfield Osborn

“I shall collect plants and fossils, and with the best of instruments make astronomic observations. Yet this is not the main purpose of my journey. I shall endeavor to find out how nature’s forces act upon one another, and in what manner the geographic environment exerts its influence on animals and plants. In short, I must find out about the harmony in nature.”

Letter to Karl Freiesleben (Jun 1799). In Helmut de Terra, Humboldt: The Life and Times of Alexander van Humboldt 1769-1859 (1955), 87.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt

“In vertebrate paleontology, increasing knowledge leads to triumphant loss of clarity.”

Synapsid Evolution and Dentition, International Colloquium on the Evolution of Mammals, Brussels (1962.)

Alfred Sherwood Romer

“As an antiquary of a new order, I have been obliged to learn the art of deciphering and restoring these remains, of discovering and bringing together, in their primitive arrangement, the scattered and mutilated fragments of which they are composed, of reproducing in all their original proportions and characters, the animals to which these fragments formerly belonged, and then of comparing them with those animals which still live on the surface of the earth; an art which is almost unknown, and which presupposes, what had scarcely been obtained before, an acquaintance with those laws which regulate the coexistence of the forms by which the different parts of organized being are distinguished.”

‘Preliminary discourse’, to Recherches sur les Ossemens Fossiles (1812), trans. R. Kerr Essay on the Theory of the Earth

Baron Georges Cuvier

“Cuvier … brings the void to life again, without uttering abracadabras, he excavates a fragment of gypsum, spies a footprint and shouts: “Look!” And suddenly the marbles are teeming with creatures, the dead come to life again, the world turns!”
From ‘La Peau de Chagrin’ (1831). As translated as by Helen Constantine The Wild Ass’s Skin (2012), 19.
Honoré de Balzac

“How peacefully he sleep!
Yet may his ever-questing spirit, freed at length
from all the frettings of this little world,
Wander at will among the uncharted stars.
Fairfield his name. Perchance celestial fields
disclosing long sought secrets of the past
Spread ‘neath his enraptured gaze
And beasts and men that to his earthly sight
were merely bits of stone shall live again to
gladden those eager eyes.
o let us picture him—enthusiast—scientist—friend—
Seeker of truth and light through all eternity!”

New York Sun (13 Nov 1935). Reprinted in ‘Henry Fairfield Osborn’, Supplement to Natural History (Feb 1936), 37:2, 135. Bound in Kofoid Collection of Pamphlets on Biography, University of California.

Charles R. Knight

“I want to argue that the ‘sudden’ appearance of species in the fossil record and our failure to note subsequent evolutionary change within them is the proper prediction of evolutionary theory as we understand it … Evolutionary ‘sequences’ are not rungs on a ladder, but our retrospective reconstruction of a circuitous path running like a labyrinth, branch to branch, from the base of the bush to a lineage now surviving at its top.”

Stephen Jay Gould

“In my work on Fossil Bones, I set myself the task of recognizing to which animals the fossilized remains which fill the surface strata of the earth belong. … As a new sort of antiquarian, I had to learn to restore these memorials to past upheavals and, at the same time, to decipher their meaning. I had to collect and put together in their original order the fragments which made up these animals, to reconstruct the ancient creatures to which these fragments belonged, to create them once more with their proportions and characteristics, and finally to compare them to those alive today on the surface of the earth. This was an almost unknown art, which assumed a science hardly touched upon up until now, that of the laws which govern the coexistence of forms of the various parts in organic beings.”
Discours sur les révolutions du globe, (Discourse on the Revolutions of the Surface of the Globe), originally the introduction to Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles des quadrupèdes (1812). Translated by Ian Johnston from the 1825 edition. Online at Vancouver Island University website.
Baron Georges Cuvier

“In the case of those solids, whether of earth, or rock, which enclose on all sides and contain crystals, selenites, marcasites, plants and their parts, bones and the shells of animals, and other bodies of this kind which are possessed of a smooth surface, these same bodies had already become hard at the time when the matter of the earth and rock containing them was still fluid. And not only did the earth and rock not produce the bodies contained in them, but they did not even exist as such when those bodies were produced in them.”

The Prodromus of Nicolaus Steno’s Dissertation Concerning a Solid Body enclosed by Process of Nature within a Solid (1669), trans. J. G. Winter (1916), 218.

Nicolaus Steno

“In the mountains of Parma and Piacenza, multitudes of shells and corals filled with worm-holes may be seen still adhering to the rocks, and when I was making the great horse at Milan a large sack of those which had been found in these parts was brought to my workshop by some peasants… The red stone of the mountains of Verona is found with shells all intermingled, which have become part of this stone… And if you should say that these shells have been and still constantly are being created in such places as these by the nature of the locality or by potency of the heavens in these spots, such an opinion cannot exist in brains possessed of any extensive powers of reasoning because the years of their growth are numbered upon the outer coverings of their shells; and both small and large ones may be seen; and these would not have grown without feeding, or fed without movement, and here [embedded in rock] they would not have been able to move… The peaks of the Apennines once stood up in a sea, in the form of islands surrounded by salt water… and above the plains of Italy where flocks of birds are flying today, fishes were once moving in large shoals.”

‘Physical Geography’, in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, trans. E. MacCurdy (1938), Vol. 1, 355-6, 359.

Leonardo da Vinci

“It… [can] be easily shown:
1. That all present mountains did not exist from the beginning of things.
2. That there is no growing of mountains.
3. That the rocks or mountains have nothing in common with the bones of animals except a certain resemblance in hardness, since they agree in neither matter nor manner of production, nor in composition, nor in function, if one may be permitted to affirm aught about a subject otherwise so little known as are the functions of things.
4. That the extension of crests of mountains, or chains, as some prefer to call them, along the lines of certain definite zones of the earth, accords with neither reason nor experience.
5. That mountains can be overthrown, and fields carried over from one side of a high road across to the other; that peaks of mountains can be raised and lowered, that the earth can be opened and closed again, and that other things of this kind occur which those who in their reading of history wish to escape the name of credulous, consider myths.”

The Prodromus of Nicolaus Steno’s Dissertation Concerning a Solid Body enclosed by Process of Nature within a Solid (1669), trans. J. G. Winter (1916), 232-4.

Nicolaus Steno

“We might expect … in the summer of the “great year,” which we are now considering, that there would be a great predominance of tree-ferns and plants allied to the palms and arborescent grasses in the isles of the wide ocean, while the dicotyledenous plants and other forms now most common in temperate regions would almost disappear from the earth. Then might these genera of animals return, of which the memorials are preserved in the ancient rocks of our continents. The huge iguanodon might reappear in the woods, and the ichthyosaur in the sea, while the pterodactyle might flit again through umbrageous groves of tree-ferns. Coral reefs might be prolonged beyond the arctic circle, where the whale and narwal [sic] now abound. Turtles might deposit their eggs in the sand of the sea beach, where now the walrus sleeps, and where the seal is drifted on the ice-floe.”

In Principles of Geology (1830-3), Vol. 1, 123.

Sir Charles Lyell


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