Initial thoughts on “The Last Dinosaur Book”

30 05 2007

Yesterday afternoon The Last Dinosaur Book by W.J.T. Mitchell and a reprint of Charles H. Sternberg’s 1909 autobiographyThe Life of a Fossil Hunter arrived in the mail. Not knowing where to start (it all looked so good), I picked up Mitchell’s book and as of last night I am a little more than halfway through. Before I get into my current criticisms/concerns about the book, I do have to say that it is perhaps one of the most enjoyable books (aesthetically speaking, at least) that I have read in a while. The book is chock-full of illustrations, from some of my favorite Mark Hallett and Jim Gurche works to various cartoons to medieval woodcuts; Mitchell’s book is certainly pleasing to the eye (although some of the video-captures from TV and films are a bit blurry, grainy, or otherwise of lower quality).

As beautiful as the book is, however, I think it was a mistake not to include any “dinophiles” or paleontologists in creating the book, a point that Mitchell points out in the beginning to instill an air of “objectivity.” The reactions of paleontologists to the book, given what is reproduced in the acknowledgments, didn’t seem to be especially favorable though, and perhaps Mitchell kept them out of the process in order to write the book he wanted to write instead of hitting a brick wall every page with a collaborator. While Mitchell’s central premise (at least so far) as dinosaurs as a totem seems to have some validity, in many parts of the book he seems to dig too deep in the wrong places to provide answers for why dinosaurs are portrayed the way they are in the media. Rather than dinosaurs appearing large, dumb, and drab being a product of their perceived connection with extant reptiles and differing views of evolution, Mitchell suggests that that new brightly-colored dinosaurs reflect the acceptance of multiculturalism, their drab appearance having more to do with racial tensions than science. While we certainly cannot ignore the cultural context in which dinosaurs find themselves in or regard dinosaurs as immune from cultural biases/preferences (we know this not to be true), it seems that Mitchell is trying to make dinosaurs a culturally monophyletic group, when in reality the dinosaurs of science and the dinosaurs of pop culture are different sorts of animals (even though they often take similar forms and do intersect).

The book is much stronger when Mitchell gets into the history of paleontology and what various fossil collectors thought about their finds. There still is a bit to be contentious about, but the history of paleontology seems to give Mitchell a more solid base from which to work and the chapters become more enjoyable. Obviously I still have a large portion of the book to go so I’ll do my best to reserve final judgment until I finish the last page, but overall I think Mitchell makes some good points along with some blunders that could have been avoided given a different reference point.

I have to say, however, that the book got me thinking about why I care so much about the extinct animals. Outside of the mythological archetype of the dragon (something big, fierce, and “safe” given its extinction) I think there is a bit of a “control” issue when it comes to dinosaurs. We know they are (were) real, but are long gone, so in order to encounter them we have to raise them from the dead, transport them to the present, or meet them on their own turf, all three common scenarios requiring human intelligence and ingenuity. Once the dinosaur is here, it can either be friend or foe (it depends on what story you want to tell, and there’s plenty of both kinds), but there is usually a “Frankenstein” type issue of trying to control a living creature that doesn’t always submit to being controlled (i.e. Jurassic Park). At best, they are our pets and companions (The Flintstones, Denver the Last Dinosaur, Theodore Rex, , etc.), and at worst they are mortal enemies that wish to devour us (Godzilla, King Kong, Jurassic Park, Dinosaurs Attack!, ), perhaps as some kind of payback. Indeed, we can’t talk about dinosaurs without talking about mammals, especially the idea that our ancestors were underfoot during the time when dinosaurs were the biggest and most fierce creatures, and there are often themes of maddened guilt/remorse (Carnosaur) or “What if?” scenarios thrown in to dino pop culture. It seems that we either feel somehow responsible for the dinosaurs demise or we want to “replay the tape” and see what would happen if they didn’t die out, both scenarios often ending up being tragic (exceptions include Dinotopia).

There is also a definite romanticism about paleontology and the study of dinosaurs in general. While various Roy Chapman Andrews wasn’t the actual inspiration for Indiana Jones, paleontologists often fit that archetype, as well as that of the cowboy, intellectual, and even wizard rolled up into one. Rather than seeking out the dragon to destroy it, the scientifically-adept paleontologist seeks to reconstruct it and bring it to life (you can even throw in a “mad scientist” interpretation if you like). While the reality might differ from the image, paleontologists are given a charismatic pop culture status often not awarded to lab scientists, perhaps because paleontologists resemble (in appearance and in the work they do) the last of the cowboys, and their lives are perceived to be full of adventure, discovery, and mystery. This popularity is a double-edged sword, however, and sometimes these popular scientists are seen more as big children indulging in fantasy than contributing “real” knowledge, especially since the explosion of biotech, genetics, and microbiology.

In any event, I am enjoying Mitchell’s book, not because I necessarily agree with him, but because it’s causing me to think. I love the science and the cultural appeal of dinosaurs, and the wax and wane of their popularity is certainly interesting. We are entering a new age of paleontological discovery (be it fossils found in the Montanta Badlands or in a dusty museum drawer), but I do have to wonder what will become of dinosaur as we inch closer to more accurate understandings about them. Part of what spurs dinosaur popularity, I think, is when there is an imagery shift, just like the “dinosaur renaissance” changed our perspective of how they looked and acted. How many more renaissances will we have? I know science will not provide all the answers we want about dinosaurs, but what will become of our dragons when most have been discovered, studied, and portrayed with as much accuracy as is possible? Will dinosaurs continue to be popular, or will they lose some of their status when they can’t be repackaged or repainted anymore?

Post Script: Mitchell also makes some stabs of sociobiology as pseudoscience and the secular religion of “scientism”, never fully explaining what he means (I guess we’re just supposed to nod our heads). I am not suggesting that there are no problems with sociobiology or that there are no people who look to science for ethical teachings (big mistake), but it would have been nice if Mitchell explained his stance instead of simply stating such ideas as a matter of fact before moving on. All I can do with such statements is point them out and say “What the heck?”


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3 responses

30 05 2007
RedMolly

Dang, that’s a pretty impressive set of “initial thoughts.” Can’t wait to see what you have to say after finishing the book!

Also: will you let me know if any truly excellent and preferably well-illustrated books on extinct/prehistoric mammals happen your way? The kids are just starting to understand my ongoing insistence that the mammals were even weirder than the dinosaurs, and I think we’ll be making a homeschool field trip or two to the Miocene fossil beds on the Oregon coast this summer… need to do some serious reading up first. Thanks!

30 05 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the compliment Molly! I should finish it tonight (sometime before or after seeing Pirates 3 again), and then I’m going to tear into Charles Sternberg’s autobiography.

As for fossil mammal books, I’ll have to look at my library, but off the top of my head I’d recommend “Evolving Eden” by Turner and Anton. It is beautifully illustrated and deals primarily with extinct African animals, but that might provide a good jumping off point being that your kids could relate them to living animals before getting into the really weird South American forms (and I know you mentioned you’ve covered some of the Permian/Triassic extinction, but you can’t talk fossil mammals without the gorgonopsids, cynodonts, or therapsids either). You might also want to check out the book “The Velvet Claw” by MacDonald; I don’t have it and it’s primarily about carnivores, but it looks promising. I’ll come up with a Pleistocene must-read list later on tonight or tomorrow and post it for you.

31 05 2007
Laelaps

[…] Initial thoughts on “The Last Dinosaur Book” […]

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