Don't leave your planet without this

The Last Dinosaur Book

November 6, 1998

What a preposterous title. I suppose that it, along with the bizarre dust-jacket illustration of two cowboys "roundin' up" a rearing brontosaur ("The last thunder horse west of the Mississippi"), might make it irresistible to some species of browser in book shops. Despite this apparent silliness, the author has some serious credentials: W. J. T. Mitchell is a distinguished English professor at the University of Chicago, who specialises particularly in art history.

Mitchell has chosen the subject of dinosaurs because he is intrigued by the pervasive, and in some instances obsessive, hold that dinosaurs seem to have on the psyche of humans. His intention is to use this book to explore the literal, psychological and historical aspects of dinosaurs and their resonance with modern desires and aspirations, and thereby define more clearly their place in our lives. What he claims to intend by the title of this book is that this will become, in the far far distant future when the human species is extinct, a document that can be referred to by intergalactic visitors (who might, he supposes, just happen to be intelligent reptilian bipeds) as a means of explaining the widespread use of dinosaur images in present-day human societies (by which, of course, he means the United States).

This book is clearly simultaneously frivolous in the extreme and relatively serious in narrative and intent, and one that I must say I found exceedingly irritating to read; mind you Mitchell glories in this - he knows that it will upset some. There are a number of obvious reasons for my irritation: I am English (this is an obsessively American book, almost every allusion or aside is American); I work on dinosaurs (I find that his understanding of the subject is gleaned heavily from the literature and is in places quite misleading when he refers to scientific research); I know something of the history of the subject and object to the way in which the history is used by the author; and finally the book, presentationally speaking, is grotesquely punctuated (each "chapter" is quite literally just a few pages long), which gives me the impression that the reader is regarded as unable to cope with any narrative flow and has to have frequent breaks to allow for refreshment. The whole thing reads like a parody of the style of American TV. I know that this, on paper, looks horribly anti-American and I am sorry for this. I am not at heart anti-American (I have many good friends in the US) but being exposed to such an intensely "American" package as this does grate on my perhaps rather parochial nerves.

The book is broken into three main parts. "Traces, tales and theories" explores various past explanations for the interest in dinosaurs, notably through the writings of Stephen Jay Gould. These latter revolve around the big, scary and dead scenarios - big and scary can be very imaginatively stimulating, and dead means that they are non-threatening, through some absurd dinosaur story-telling and the use of dinosaur images in corporate advertising. It concludes with the assertion that "the dinosaur is the totem animal of modernity".

I can do no better than quote directly from the author: "It is not just a totem animal of modernity, but the animal image that has, by a complex process of cultural selection, emerged as the global symbol of modern humanity's relation to nature." I leave it to the reader to ponder and digest this sentence - I admit that it is out of context with the totality of his argument, but methinks the author lives on another planet, solar system or possibly universe to mine - and dammit, I actually work on dinosaurs!

"Histories" deals with certain historical aspects of dinosaur discovery and description and related issues to do with biblical interpretation, mythologies and the cultural iconography of the dinosaurian image with the help of Darwin, Marx and Freud, various illustrators, model-makers and animators, and naturally with a liberal sprinkling from the Spielberg dinosaur movies. These are interwoven with some of the historical accounts of dinosaur discovery and interpretation (better covered in accounts by Edwin Colbert, Martin Rudwick and Adrian Desmond).

"Lessons" deals in part at least with the pedagogical side of dinosaurs: their use by teachers as a means of conveying to at least a few youngsters a surprising range of life skills (dinosaurs are not the only means of doing this of course - a gifted teacher can achieve this with practically anything).

Finally Mitchell makes a plea, via dinosaurs naturally enough, for scientists and humanists to cease pillorying one another - the perpetuation of the "two cultures" divide so deplored by the scientific humanist C. P. Snow. Mitchell notes that dinosaurs are one of the few subject areas that contain both scientific and societal threads, which allow us to combine rational scientific inquiry (eg anatomy and systematics) and flights of speculation that combine science with intuition and imagination (eg life-like restorations of dinosaurs as pictures, sculptures or as virtual animations). With this aspiration I have some sympathy. I work in a strongly mathematics and physical sciences-oriented department. Palaeontology is perceived, to my mind incorrectly, as sitting decidedly on the "intellectually soft" periphery of the earth sciences.

So, what to make of this book? I did not like its presentational style. I did not like its exclusivity (for US citizens alone). I did not like the way that dinosaur research is portrayed. I was irritated by the ease with which sweeping, shallow statements are made about all dinosaurs, as though they are all more or less the same. I felt that far too much was made of the deep psychology of the dinosaur as a "totem" and cultural icon.

To my mind dinosaurs are a fascinating and very diverse group of organisms that lived on earth in one form or another for over 170 million years. Their scientific study can reveal some interesting tales in the context of the complex nature of the much larger tapestry that is the evolution of life on earth. They have been mercilessly trivialised by the media and entrepreneurs since the 1850s, and public consciousness of them has waxed and waned over time - it is waxing at present largely because of the Spielberg films. But is the public driving this interest, or are we being fed a very restricted diet by publishing houses and the media? I would claim that it is they who in effect decide what, at any time, "we desire", simply by controlling its availability. If gift shops, book shops and stores generally offer rack upon rack of dinosaur-packaged items, what is the consumer to do?

Despite its gaudy cover, the book is clearly intended for educated adults, and has a scholarly air. But I simply do not know who will buy it, even in the United States. Having finished it I was struck by one particular thought. I would really like to have seen the author explain why certain countries, notably the US and Japan (conspicuous consumers) suffer a particularly acute form of dinomania, whereas other parts of the world are not nearly so heavily affected.

David Norman is director, Sedgwick Museum, University of Cambridge.

The Last Dinosaur Book

Author - W. J. T. Mitchell
ISBN - 0 226 53204 6
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 321

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