More thoughts on “The Last Dinosaur Book”

31 05 2007

Late last night I was able to polish off the concluding chapters of W.J.T. Mitchell’s The Last Dinosaur Book (see some of my initial thoughts from yesterday), and overall I can’t say I loved it or hated it. Mitchell does make some good points about dinosaurs as totems, but it takes a lot to pull the good ideas out from the surrounding mire of prose, at times. Indeed, I feel that in Mitchell’s quest to obtain objectivity in the work (he never particularly cared for dinosaurs and called upon paleontologists primarily to make sure he got his science right [which he doesn’t always, anyway]) may have undermined his purpose; divorcing “dinomania” from any personal feelings probably makes it more cryptic and prone to mistakes in analysis.

In fact, part of the problem is that outside of the most famous dinosaur images or ones that he has come across reading the Sunday funnies or The New Yorker, much of “dinomania” is left out. The most glaring omission (and one that should have been fairly intuitive to include) is the dinosaur as our reptilian analog. Yes, at the beginning of the book Mitchell wonders if some reptilian race will one day look upon the dino-fascination of the 1990’s, but dinosaurian “people” have shown up in popular culture, most notably in the series V, both incarnations of the show Land of the Lost, as well as the recent Lost World series. Likewise, the “cultural evolution” of dinosaurs in film is largely ignored, and I can’t help but think that their appearance in the early days of film had a substantial impact on their cultural image.

I also have to wonder why Mitchell doesn’t make the big connection between dinosaurs and people; even though we know we lived in entirely different times, the two are almost always together. What is a dinosaur narrative without people? At least in terms of visual media and books, if people are not involved then it doesn’t seem to be quite as interesting. Some way or another dinosaurs need to be suppressing our evolution, stalking us, helping us, be stalked by us, etc.; if there is no human connection it doesn’t seem to work. Take, for example, a series of beautiful comics Dark Horse Comics put out a number of years ago. Entitled The Age of Reptiles, two series were published (entitled The Hunt and Tribal Warfare), and I have yet to run into anyone else who has even heard of the books. While the stories feature human themes of revenge, I can’t help but wonder if the disconnect between human and dinosaur (to the best of my knowledge there’s no “dialog” and we are not put into the mind of the dinosaur as in Robert Bakker’s Raptor Red).

Mitchell also spends a fair amount of time going over the destruction/resurrection of the nuclear family in Jurassic Park and the sexual latency undertones in Bringing Up Baby. To tell you the truth, I could see how Mitchell could make these connections but I didn’t really feel they rang true, and it seemed more to be grasping at what dinosaurs were supposed to represent in these films rather than why we are making films about them in the first place. The subject is in the scope of the book, of course, but I just felt it was reaching a bit too far, especially in the case of Jurassic Park.

Mitchell takes more potshots at science and sociobiology throughout the second half of the book as well, and I can’t help but wonder if he is a bit threatened by the science. Personally, I think some ideas in sociobiology have some merit while at the same time I don’t consider animals (or ourselves) to merely be the larger manifestation of selfish genes wandering about shooting genetic material at each other, either. Even so, I can’t imagine why Mitchell is so threatened by the idea that some of our cultural practices might have a biological basis due to past evolution; we didn’t show up, fully formed, ready to paint the Sistine Chapel. We are animals, but we are not “just” animals either, and to ignore either point is a mistake.

I also have to wonder about when dinosaurs are divorced from their scientific meaning. When you visit a museum, the bones of the dinosaurs are (or are supposed to represent) the real animal, something that lived and died millions of years ago. When you go home with a fuzzy raptor plush from the museum shop, however, does the dinosaur still represent science? In many (if not most) cases like this, the dinosaur has been transferred from its natural history heritage to one of playmate, companion, protector, or dragon; if the dinosaur is not an “imaginary friend” of a child it is usually manipulated in play to attack or defend itself from hordes of little green army men or other dinosaurs. At least that’s what I suspect. Mitchell gets close to this idea a few times (the transfer of natural history object to monster), but doesn’t seem to quite jump the barrier.

The dinosaur transition also fits into the idea of the dinosaur as a transitional object; it is (as Mitchell notes) a totem, especially for children, and imbues children with a certain amount of perceived power. A dinosaur as an imaginary friend can come in quite handy, and even though dinosaurs may crop up in nightmares they don’t exist today and so are “weakened” to an extent. I can’t help but remember one interview with a young boy in one documentary who said who would run down a predatory dinosaur with a cannon if he came across one, and the ability for a child to be the hero-soldier slaying the dragon is a powerful image when everyone (even the dinosaur) seems bigger than you are. Even outside of imaginary context, children take much pleasure in being able to stump/correct parents and teachers when it comes to dinosaurs, and if you need evidence of this just try using the word “Brontosaurus” in the company of some enthusiastic young dinophiles and see what happens. Sure, mom, dad, teacher, and pastor might be “in charge” of them, but any youngster can be an “expert” in an area unfamiliar to adults. It doesn’t matter if what they dig up in the backyard are only dirt clumps; to them (as it was for me at that time) it’s a matter of making a big discovery that will award fame & fortune.

Children do fear dinosaurs, however; I remember visiting a “Dino-Mation” exhibit at a local museum when I was young and seeing my favorite animals made flesh scared the daylights out of me. “Yes dad, I can see the T. rex just fine from around this corner.” My father even walked up to touch the Triceratops to show me there was nothing to fear, but there seemed to be something counterintuitive about walking up to what appeared to be a towering Tyrannosaurus when at any moment if might dip down and bite my head off. I can’t remember if I got closer or not, but even though I loved dinosaurs they are also nightmare creatures; their bones are safe, but when they are fleshed out they can be exceedingly scary. When we can control dinosaurs in our imagination or media, however, it’s a different story; be it Dino Riders or The Flintstones control over dinosaurs makes us more comfortable with them, unless (like in Jurassic Park) we lose that control and become prey again.

The image of dinosaur studies in the media vs reality probably helps the image of the famous paleontologist along. Paleontologists are called in on TV and elsewhere to make sense of the fascinating bones in the ground, and often the bones seem to willingly give themselves up to the scientists. I can’t recall any documentary where a field crew went out and found nothing at all; we always seem to arrive on the scene just as the skull or biggest bone is being uncovered. The geology of the job, the prospecting, the sickness, the long days, etc. often get left out, giving the public the image of unbridled discovery. Likewise, dinosaurs must have a name, and while (in reality) you can spend your entire career on just one dinosaur, paleontologists still seem to carry the mantle of Cope and Marsh in pop culture, digging up and naming as many dinosaurs as they can, the rest being self-evident. Indeed, it seems to be the mystery and excitement of discovery that is most interesting, not the prep of the bone, cladistic analysis, or science that takes place between shipping the bone to a lab and its appearance in a museum (or of the dinosaur in a piece of paleo-art).

As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is this adventure mystique (again, note the connection dinosaurs have with people) that reminds us of big game hunters, cowboys, and Teddy Roosevelt with a different twist. As Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote in the introduction to Charles H. Sternberg’s autobiography The Life of a Fossil Hunter;

The one is as full of adventure, excitement, depression, hope and failure, as the other, yet there is ever the great difference that the hunter of live game, thorough sportsman though he may be, is always bringing live animals nearer to death and extinction, whereas the fossil hunter is always seeking to bring extinct animals back to life.

Dinosaurs, as we know them, could not exist without us. Whether it be in fiction or in science, we “bring them back to life” in one way or another. Paleontology is not merely stamp collection, merely laying out bones in a jumble; if we can’t piece together the animal or tell something about its lifestyle, then we’re merely gathering funny bits of rock. The entire enterprise requires as much creativity and imagination as any of the arts (although, as Mitchell notes, dinosaurs are banned from the art museum), and so the jump from scientific restoration to tales of time-traveling hunters looking for a Tyrannosaurus is not a stretch. Sure, come up with any method you like of getting dinosaurs and man together, but it is interesting that once together stories seem to keep the dinosaurs as science deems them to be. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, (Godzilla, for one), but the creatures seem fantastic enough in of themselves that they don’t require much embellishment once they are found together with man; why reinvent the dragon when science has already provided a menagerie of real ones?

I’m not an iconologist, nor do I carry any other title that would make me an authority on dinosaurs and culture, but I think there is far more to the story of dinosaurs as cultural icons than Mitchell takes time to note. There is a definite transition and mixing of the scientific dinosaur, the dinosaur of our nightmares, the dinosaur under our control, the playmate, the protector, the dragon, etc. Maybe it’s because the scientific object moves from something real to an imaginary friend or pop icon that it later gets abandoned, treated with indifference by many adults. Sure, it’s interesting, but aren’t dinosaurs just kid’s stuff? Paleontologists are often said to be boys who never grew up, but while paleontologists are living out the dreams of many a 7-year-old, they are also writing technical papers about their finds that would utterly confuse plenty of those who think the field childish. Maybe it’s our own concept of dino-mania that drives us to later give up learning about the animals; we become over-saturated and associate everything involving the animals with being immature, relegating dinosaurs to the intellectual dust bin. While dinosaurs may face some amount of mental extinction because they are not “proper” objects of study and time, it’s hard to ignore a dinosaur, and I have the feeling that they’ll still be stomping across screens and having their stuffed effigies showing up in toy shops for some time to come.


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