[Marxism] What Were Dinosaurs For?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Dec 1 12:44:39 MST 2019


NY Review of Books, DECEMBER 19, 2019 ISSUE
What Were Dinosaurs For?
Verlyn Klinkenbor

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
by Steve Brusatte
William Morrow, 404 pp., $29.99

Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution in Paleontology
by Michael J. Benton
Thames and Hudson, 320 pp., $34.95

The World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Tour
by Mark A. Norell
University of Chicago Press, 239 pp., $32.50

The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth's 
Ultimate Trophy
by Paige Williams
Hachette, 410 pp., $28.00

Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and the Making of a 
Spectacle
by Lukas Rieppel
Harvard University Press, 325 pp., $29.95

A few fossil bones in clay and limestone have opened a greater vista 
back into Time than the Indian imagination ventured upon for its Gods: 
and every day turns up something new.

—Edward FitzGerald to E.B. Cowell, January 28, 18451

In Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, God gathers the archangels and 
announces that He has made animals. Satan—who else?—asks, “What are they 
for?” Perhaps you can hear the strangeness, the dissonance in this 
question, which is the sort that marks the boundary between theology and 
science. Scientists have no trouble asking what the various parts of an 
organism are for or what function it has in a food web or an ecosystem. 
But they tend not to ask Satan’s question because it offers no 
hypotheses to be tested. What are animals for? Here is God’s chilly 
answer: “They are an experiment in Morals and Conduct. Observe them, and 
be instructed.” So Satan goes to Earth and soon concludes that “the 
people are all insane, the other animals are all insane, the earth is 
insane, Nature itself is insane.”

You might say of Twain, as Walter Benjamin said of Charles Baudelaire, 
that his “satanism must not be taken too seriously”—that speaking in the 
voice of a disillusioned archangel merely allowed Twain “to sustain a 
nonconformist position.” Yet Letters from the Earth was withheld from 
publication by Twain’s daughter until 1962, and it tends to come 
festooned with editorial disclaimers blaming its antireligious cynicism 
on the circumstances of his old age, as if the book were merely a late, 
funebral fugue, unrelated to the rest of his work. In fact, Satan is the 
Connecticut Yankee in extremis, a rational being in an irrational world.

Why do I mention all this? As I was reading some recent books on 
dinosaurs, I kept wondering, “What were dinosaurs for?” It’s a 
ridiculous question, and I wondered why I was wondering it. After all, 
dinosaurs were “for” exactly what we are “for,” what every organism has 
been “for” since life began. Every species that has ever lived is a 
successful experiment in the enterprise of living, and every species is 
closely kinned at the genetic level with all other species. This is 
harder to grasp than it seems, partly because the logic of that Satanic 
preposition—“for”—is so insidious, so woven through the problem of time. 
Teleology is the moralizing of chronology, and nowadays science tries to 
keep watch for even the slightest trace of it, any suggestion that 
evolution has a direction tending to culminate in us or in what we like 
to call intelligence or in any other presumably desirable end point.

But the obvious, quotidian logic of chronology is basically too much for 
the human mind: we’re constantly confusing sequence, causation, and 
purpose. Because we come after, it’s easy to suppose we must be the 
purpose of what came before. That’s what recent generations of humans 
have supposed and continue to suppose. Such is the nervous logic of 
living not only in the present but also at the constantly moving end 
point of the chronology of life on Earth.

There’s also another view: the belief that humans have, by our 
intelligence and adaptability, somehow won through to global dominance 
where dinosaurs failed thanks to their inadequacy. This assumption is 
parodied in the early stanzas of Wisława Szymborska’s ironic poem 
“Dinosaur Skeleton,” which might well have been called “Eleven Ways of 
Looking at a Fossil.” “Ladies, Gentlemen,” she writes in a docent-like 
voice, “a head this size does not have room for foresight,/and that is 
why its owner is extinct.” There’s a bland wonder in those words, a 
familiar mixture of surprise and easy contempt that was common, even 
among specialists, as late as the early twentieth century. It was put to 
rest only when it became apparent that dinosaurs, whose often 
astonishing heads were as suitable as ours, had nothing to do with their 
own demise. In 1980 a small team of scientists discovered that an 
asteroid had plunged into Earth some 66 million years ago, extinguishing 
most of the life on this planet, including all the non-avian 
dinosaurs2—the fifth of the five major prehistoric extinctions. As 
Marcia Bjornerud explains in Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist 
Can Help Save the World (2018):

The great mass extinctions challenge any conceit that we are the 
triumphant culmination of 3.5 billion years of evolution. Life is 
endlessly inventive, always tinkering and experimenting, but not with a 
particular notion of progress.

We’re now in the midst of another mass extinction, driven by the global 
proliferation of humans (7.7 billion and counting) and our frenzied 
economic activity. And we’re only now “arranging to get frightened” (as 
Twain wrote, recalling the 1906 earthquake) by the probable consequences 
of anthropogenic climate change. It has become impossible to think about 
extinction in the old ways, to regard the end-Cretaceous demise of some 
80 percent of life on earth as a remote, alien fact. “Distinguished 
Guests,” says Szymborska’s docent, “we’re in far better shape in this 
regard,/life is beautiful and the world is ours.” Life is indeed 
beautiful, and the world has surely been ours, for the smallest while. 
One begins to regard with a certain empathy the creatures who were there 
to witness the asteroid, to recognize in them—no matter how savagely 
they’ve been portrayed—the innocence present in all animals. The means 
of our fate, the potential extinction of Homo sapiens, will be 
different—not an asteroid, perhaps, but global ecological 
devastation—and it will be our fault. Szymborska: “So much 
responsibility in place of a vanished tail.”

There’s a long tradition of agonistic dinosaur portraiture, great beasts 
roaring and chomping with a special prehistoric savagery. Their size and 
the nature of their weaponry has stirred a primal terror in humans ever 
since they were first discovered. But it’s not just the creatures that 
cause this. It’s also the way they embody the shock of the Darwinian 
outlook on life. In Darwin’s Plots (1983), her classic study of 
evolutionary narrative, Gillian Beer notes that “the unused, or 
uncontrolled, elements in metaphors such as ‘the struggle for existence’ 
take on a life of their own” outside the particular scientific claims of 
Darwin’s theory, and those elements rampage across the pages of popular 
science writing about dinosaurs.

Take, for instance, Steve Brusatte’s recent book, The Rise and Fall of 
the Dinosaurs. Brusatte is a paleontologist at the University of 
Edinburgh, working at the forefront of phylogenetic research. The 
purpose of this book is to tell the tale of dinosaurs and what we now 
know about them, with special emphasis on the work of young researchers. 
But Brusatte is also a writer of what he calls “pop-science,” and we are 
its victims. Here he is on the life-span of Tyrannosaurus rex: “You 
could call T. rex the James Dean of dinosaurs: it lived fast and died 
young.” And when it matured, in Brusatte’s words, “the Rex was all man, 
all woman, and ready to claim its throne.” It’s enough to make you wish 
that Henry Osborn—the paleontologist and head of the American Museum of 
Natural History in the early twentieth century—had called the species 
Tyrannosaurus civis, if only to forestall the monarchical metaphors.3

This kind of writing isn’t merely exuberant nonsense, the metaphorical 
stumblings of an excitable scientist. It’s language that works against 
the grain of the science it’s trying to explain. To say, as Brusatte 
does, that acidifying oceans, capable of dissolving the shells of sea 
creatures, are “why we don’t bathe in vinegar” is ridiculous. So is 
calling the feather “nature’s ultimate Swiss Army knife.” But to write 
these words—“dinosaurs at the top of their game, doing as well or better 
than they had ever done, still in control”—is to violate something basic 
in our understanding of how life actually works. “Still in control” of 
what, exactly? Or consider this sentence, describing the effects of the 
asteroid strike: “The reign of the dinosaurs ended and a revolution 
followed, forcing them to cede their kingdom to other species.” Whatever 
forces were at work as that old world changed, they’re overwhelmed and 
obscured by the accidental forces unleashed in this terrible sentence, 
which sounds as though the histories of the Bourbons and the sauropods 
were somehow intertwined. However thoughtful he may be as a scientist, 
Steve Brusatte has created a lost world of his own, where metaphors war 
anachronistically in defiance of what scientists understand. He didn’t 
invent this kind of writing. He grew up on it, and sadly we’re 
surrounded by it.

A far better book is Dinosaurs Rediscovered: The Scientific Revolution 
in Paleontology by Michael J. Benton, a paleontologist at the University 
of Bristol and the author of several superb books on his field. Benton’s 
prose is a model of science writing—energetic without being hyperactive, 
illustrative without loosing a swarm of irritating metaphors, alive to 
the reader’s curiosity without pandering to the reader’s ignorance. To 
Benton, the story of what we know about dinosaurs is also the story of 
how we know it. (This is a subtext of Brusatte’s book, too, and of Mark 
Norell’s.) It’s a tale that’s been repeated in recent decades all across 
the biological sciences—how a modest branch of natural history became “a 
highly technical, computational, and thoroughly scientific field today.”

Dinosaur fossils are still unearthed from rock of appropriate ages in 
remote places, and they’re still discovered by private collectors and 
official expeditions using techniques (and often attitudes) that hark 
back to the late nineteenth century. But they’re found all over the 
planet now.4 And in the lab, they’re subjected to probing new methods of 
examination, including CT scans (depicting brain and sinus cavities), 
synchrotron light sources (detecting color), cladistic analysis 
(discerning relationships), and sophisticated modeling by engineers 
(revealing how dinosaurs walked and bit). The fossils flood in, and 
“every day turns up something new,” as Edward FitzGerald put it in 
1845—new species, new relationships among species, new understanding of 
how dinosaurs lived, what they ate, what they looked like, how they 
reproduced, and how their bodies worked. The transformation in what we 
know about them is astonishing. And all of it from fossilized bones.

Perhaps the easiest way to glimpse the effect of all this new knowledge 
is to leaf through Mark Norell’s The World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated 
Tour. Norell is one of the principal paleontologists of our time and a 
major figure at the American Museum of Natural History. In this book, he 
reveals the extraordinary distance between the look of actual 
fossils—nearly monochromatic tangles of bones—and the appearance and 
behavior of the creatures who left them, as reconstructed by recent 
research. The latest reconstruction of Styracosaurus albertensis, a 
herbivorous dinosaur from the late Cretaceous found in western North 
America, wears a brightly colored frontispiece (a “fenestrated frill”) 
that resembles Native American beadwork and may have been what Norell 
calls a “display structure.” Mononykus olecranus, a Mongolian dinosaur 
also from the late Cretaceous, is adorned with feathers in the colors of 
dozens of bird species, from indigo bunting to red-tailed hawk, and has 
single-clawed arms as strange as those on T. rex, though perhaps more 
functional. The World of Dinosaurs—which comes, shamefully enough, 
without notes or references of any kind—is a reminder that our 
imaginations tend to normalize the strangeness of nature, and that one 
of the immense virtues of science is its unceasing ability to 
defamiliarize what we thought we knew.

In a sense, paleontology is recovering from the sobriety of its earliest 
speculations. Studying its history is like watching the Iguanodon in a 
mid-nineteenth-century black-and-white illustration slowly assume its 
proper shape and dimensions and then, suddenly, pop with color and 
behavior. It’s now widely accepted that birds are in fact dinosaurs. But 
until recently this seemed to say more about birds than about dinosaurs. 
Only in the last few years have scientists begun to explore the idea 
that dinosaurs resembled birds in all sorts of ways—bearing colored 
feathers and laying colored eggs and enjoying ultra-efficient 
respiration. As the number of known dinosaur species grows (seven 
hundred and counting), the complexity of the background picture 
increases. What’s emerging is something vastly richer than the 
parade-ground view of dinosaurs, lined up by era or height, or the 
diorama view (fixed or cinematic) depicting prehistoric creatures in 
characteristic poses in a characteristic landscape.

Yet it’s still far easier for us to imagine a dinosaur somehow visiting 
the world we inhabit today—like the T. rex model newly on display at the 
American Museum of Natural History, fleshed and feathered and with eyes 
wet and baleful—than it is to imagine the many worlds that the many 
species of dinosaurs inhabited over their roughly 180 million years on 
Earth. We can marvel at the size of one of the giant sauropods, but can 
we imagine the air it breathed or the plants it ate or the soil they 
grew in? Can we picture its moon circling nearer than ours to an earth 
spinning faster than ours? Can we really grasp how differently the land 
masses were arranged and the effects that would have had on climate? Or 
the consequences of extensive volcanism or the flipping of magnetic poles?

We’re a long way from understanding those ancient worlds as ecosystems. 
And humans are perhaps an even longer way from acknowledging that we as 
a species are descended not only from the tiny mammals alive at the 
time, scurrying nocturnally among the dinosaurs, but from their 
ecosystem as a whole, which shaped both dinosaurs and mammals together.5 
This, too, is hard to imagine—the tangled web of lineages leading from 
ecosystem to ecosystem. But the more clearly you picture the history of 
life as an unbroken series of ecosystems, and not just a line of related 
species, the more clearly you understand the tragedy of what we’re doing 
to Earth, the consequences of depleting the planet we like to claim 
we’ve inherited.

In a sense, there’s something archaic about the popular obsession with 
dinosaurs as species. We see them almost as we see ourselves, 
foreshortened, detached from their ecosystem and unanchored from the 
deep temporal lineages that produced them. It’s our habit to imagine 
dinosaurs as if they were frozen in time the way their bones have been, 
forgetting that they’re the avatars of ancient processes, like the 
basaltic columns on the edge of the New Jersey Palisades. In part, 
that’s because thinking about dinosaurs means trying to look into deep 
time, which is simply inconceivable. We can’t feel it in our bones, nor 
do the fossilized bones of dinosaurs, surfacing in the present, really 
convey it. Most of the analogies used to illustrate it fail because 
they’re spatial analogies, like John McPhee’s English yard, in which all 
of Earth’s history is “the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of 
his outstretched hand” and all of human history could be extinguished 
with “one stroke of a nail file.” We can’t feel the depth of time 
because we believe it has been erased, even though every life-form on 
the planet (including ourselves) is floating in a bubble of space-time 
on the surface of an ocean of deep time.

Imagine a sixty-seven-year- old human, like me, the author of this 
essay. The asteroid that extinguished the dinosaurs fell roughly a 
million times longer ago than the number of years I’ve been alive. 
That’s astounding, but it leaves almost no psychological impression. And 
that’s merely the temporal distance to the near threshold of the age of 
dinosaurs, which began roughly 245 million years ago. Our imaginations 
are essentially atemporal. To human minds, time isn’t transparent. It’s 
invisible.

What are dinosaur fossils for? That’s the question behind The Dinosaur 
Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy by 
Paige Williams and Assembling the Dinosaur: Fossil Hunters, Tycoons, and 
the Making of a Spectacle by Lukas Rieppel. Scientific uses apart, it 
turns out that dinosaur fossils are for making and losing scads of money 
and for converting scads of money into symbolic capital rooted in acts 
of cultural prestige, like funding expeditions and building museums big 
enough to hold dinosaur skeletons. Using very different focal lengths, 
both The Dinosaur Artist and Assembling the Dinosaur remind the reader 
that fossils enter a cultural matrix the moment they emerge from the 
geological matrix in which they’ve been bound. “Because dinosaurs are in 
part creatures of the imagination,” Rieppel writes, “they reveal a great 
deal about the time and place in which they were found, studied, and put 
on display.” For Rieppel, who teaches history at Brown University, the 
time and place is America “from the end of Reconstruction to the start 
of the Great Depression.” For Williams, a staff writer at The New 
Yorker, the place is Florida and the time just a few years ago, when a 
man named Eric Prokopi went to prison for importing a Mongolian dinosaur 
skeleton and trying to sell it at auction.

One of the pleasures of The Dinosaur Artist is learning so much more 
than you thought you wanted to know about almost anything that wanders 
over the book’s horizon—such as the art of wading for sunken cypress 
logs or the intricacies of do-it-yourself fossil preparation or the 
recent history of Mongolian politics and its ties to American 
conservatives. Another is Williams’s prose: playful, allusive, and truly 
alive to the joy of trekking through a landscape full of quirks and 
quarries and sunken logs. Paige Williams is a reader’s ideal companion. 
“If you, yourself, would like to become a fossil,” she begins in the 
introduction, and then tells you how to go about it. (Quick burial in 
sedimentary rock is her main tip.)

Behind the Prokopi tale—fanatical fossil-hound runs afoul of feds—is a 
grim boom-and-bust story of modern America. Prokopi begins by collecting 
shark’s teeth as a child under the guidance of his mother. By the time 
he’s arrested, he and his wife have leveraged everything, including 
their marriage, many times over. It was a “feast-to-famine life,” 
Williams writes, and the only thing that made it unusual was the fact 
that it was based on finding, buying, preparing, and selling dinosaur 
fossils. If there’s a moral to this story, it has something to do with 
the interesting ways in which Americans go bankrupt. But it really 
concerns the fate of fossils: whether they remain in the realm of 
science—carefully monitored from the moment they’re detected in a rocky 
outcrop somewhere—or whether they vanish, shedding their scientific 
value, into a shadowy world of commerce and private ownership.

And this is where Lukas Rieppel comes in. Assembling the Dinosaur is a 
penetrating study of legitimacy and capitalism in the realm of fossils. 
It traces the parallel growth of paleontology and the public museums in 
which dinosaur fossils often end up being housed and studied and 
displayed. Rieppel’s questions are pointed and his answers eye-opening. 
How did it happen that museums began pursuing vertical 
integration—controlling the fate of fossils from their first 
discovery—just when American corporations were beginning to do so? Is it 
possible to create symbolic value and legitimize “status and wealth” by 
removing objects like dinosaur bones from the market? Are dinosaurs “a 
fitting emblem for modern capitalism” or do they depict “the poverty of 
an older, laissez-faire model of social organization that much of the 
economic elite had already come to regard as obsolete”? And, finally, 
how did a “progressivist narrative” come to prevail, “in which the 
extinction of dinosaurs made space for the evolution of more intelligent 
mammals”?

Reading Rieppel is a little like watching the sudden, recent feathering 
of dinosaurs. Once-familiar creatures take on a completely new look, and 
so do the institutions that house them. Perhaps what Rieppel is 
studying, really, is the way museums distinguish themselves, 
intellectually and economically, from the Barnum-like hustle of their 
dime-museum predecessors. It’s a more tenuous process than you’d think, 
especially when you watch an institution like the American Museum of 
Natural History passing, in Rieppel’s pages, through the ideological 
bottleneck of Henry Osborn’s leadership in the 1920s and 1930s—a time 
marked by intellectualized racism, fascination with eugenics, and blithe 
approval of Hitler’s Germany. “Care for the race, even if the individual 
must suffer,” Osborn wrote. The museum seems now to be a more purified 
place. And yet it’s worth reading Rieppel on the work of 
legacy-laundering before you stop by to see the newest T. rex in its 
David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing.

Inevitably, Assembling the Dinosaur complicates the familiar narrative 
of scientific progress. Rieppel argues that “a scientific practice like 
vertebrate paleontology is not fundamentally different from other 
products of human culture.” This means, of course, that it’s subject to 
the economic and ideological distortions that can affect any product of 
human culture. I felt a disturbing reluctance to follow Rieppel down the 
path of this very sensible argument. And now I understand why. All my 
life, I’ve known the answer to the question, What is science for? 
Rieppel reminds me that there are other answers too, rooted not in the 
pursuit of knowledge but in the economic interplay of human needs and 
desires. When I finished reading Assembling the Dinosaur, I found myself 
going back—for solace, I admit—to Michael Benton’s book, where he quotes 
these remarkable words from John Hutchinson, a professor of evolutionary 
biomechanics: “The ground we walk on is that of science itself: clear, 
reproducible data and tools, a spirit of sharing and professionalism, 
and open-mindedness.” This is the ground that must be kept open—against 
the repeated narrowing of the human mind.

1
FitzGerald—the translator of Omar Khayyam—was writing just four years 
after Richard Owen introduced the word “dinosaur” in his 1841 “Report on 
British Fossil Reptiles.”  ↩

2
As The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs says, “birds are dinosaurs in 
the same way that bats are mammals.” ↩

3
Not likely from a man who believed in “aristogenesis.” ↩

4
If you’d like to know where, follow this link: 
www.paleobiodb.org/navigator/. ↩

5
We are descended genetically from those early mammals, of course. But 
they were defined in part by their ecosystem, just as we are.  ↩




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