TITLE: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World
AUTHOR: Steve Brusatte
GENRE: Nonfiction, History, Science,
PUBLISHED: April 24, 2018
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
I think almost every person undergoes a dinosaur phase as a child. I don’t recall when my own phase started, but I’m almost certain that it was before I first saw Jurassic Park in the theatre when I was around eight or so. Because of this interest, I’ve always tried my best to keep abreast of the latest palaeontological news and discoveries throughout the world - a task lately made much easier by the Internet. Where I used to have to keep a weather eye out for books about palaeontology, now all I have to do is google the term itself, and I can find an embarrassment of riches in terms of information. Of course, sifting through all that information is another thing entirely (as is getting around paywalls), but in general, as long as I stick to known reputable sources, the news and information I get is equally reputable.
Of course, this means that in terms of books, there are plenty out there for the reader to enjoy should he or she be of a mind to do so. The problem is, most of these books are geared towards children. I suppose this is a marketing thing, because most children, as I said, go through a dinosaur phase, but books meant for a more grown-up audience can still be a little difficult to find - especially those in the popular science vein, meant more for laypeople than university students or experts.
Hence I was pleased to discover The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Steve Brusatte. In it, Brusatte aims to describe, in broad but informative strokes, exactly what the title says: the rise and eventual fall of those magnificent creatures called dinosaurs over the course of a prologue, nine chapters, and an epilogue.
Starting in the Triassic, when dinosaurs were nothing more than small creatures that lived in the shadow of titanic amphibians and crocodilians; moving through the Jurassic, when the famous sauropods like Brachiosaurus came onto the stage; and then finally to the Cretaceous, when Tyrannosaurus rex roamed the land, Brusatte describes how the dinosaurs we know and love today came into being, and then fell from grace 66 million years ago when a comet or asteroid slammed into the Earth and created what is now called the Chixculub crater, in the Yucatan peninsula. Along the way, Brusatte introduces the reader to the other paleontologists he has met and worked with over the course of his career, as well as a few historical notables whose influence on the field continues to this day. He concludes by saying that, had the dinosaurs not been wiped out, humanity would not stand where it is today - but that what happened to them could very easily happen to us.
The first thing readers will note is Brusatte’s narrative tone: light, casual, jocular in places - rather like a friend telling a story over a good meal and a few drinks. This gives the book an ease of reading that encourages the reader to really sit down and go through it in one sitting, instead of taking it in small chunks as might be the case with other nonfiction books. Here is an example:
T. rex is a celebrity character—the nightmare haunter—but it is also a real animal. Paleontologists know quite a lot about it… In part, that’s because we have a lot of fossils… But more than anything it’s because so many scientists are impulsively drawn to the majesty that is the King, the way so many people are obsessed with movie stars and athletes. When scientists get infatuated with something, we start playing around with every instrument, experiment, or other type of analysis at our disposal. We’ve thrown the whole toolbox at T. rex… As a result, we know more about this Cretaceous dinosaur than we do about many living animals.
The above excerpt exudes a certain excitable enthusiasm: note the words “ infatuation” to describe the intense interest scientists are capable of when they are drawn to a particular subject, conveying an intensity of emotion not a lot of readers would associate with the cold practicality and logic of scientists. Note, too, the phrases “playing around with” and “thrown the whole toolbox”, which, again, hint at an enthusiasm that does not necessarily align with the strict, sober practice of science as a discipline. It is, however, the kind of language the reader might expect from someone almost giddily in love with what they do - and that is clearly what Brusatte is.
This enthusiastic, excitable tone extends to the more memoiristic aspects of this book; in particular, the way Brusatte describes his colleagues and even important figures in palaeontological history. Below is his description of Romanian palaeontologist Mátyás Vremir:
… Mátyás Vremir is also a polymath, a man of many languages, a traveler who sets out for strange lands with little more than his rucksack. He’s never been a spy—as far as I know—but for many hears he hopscotch around Africa, working on oil rigs and scouting new drill sites. … He’s also into many other things: skiing and exploring caves in the Carpathians, canoeing the Danube Delta, and rock climbing, often bringing along his wife and two young sons… Tall and wiry, with the long hair of a rocker and the piercing eyes of a wolf, he has an intense personal code of honor and does not suffer fools gladly—or really, at all—but if he likes and respects you, he will go to war with you. He’s one of my favorite people in the world. If I ever found myself in any real danger, in any godforsaken corner of the planet, he’s the one person whom I would want by my side, a man I know I could trust with my life.
While the above is a glowing description of his friend, Brusatte is also capable of much less flattering descriptions; especially of the historical figures that were important to the development and advancement of palaeontology:
[Henry Fairfield Osborn] is not remembered very fondly today. He wasn’t a very nice man. He used his wealth and political connections to push pet ideas on eugenics and racial superiority. Immigrants, minorities, and the poor were seen as enemies. Once Osborn even organized a scientific expedition to Asia with the hope of finding the very oldest human fossils, to prove that his species couldn’t possibly have originated in Africa. He couldn’t fathom being the evolutionary descendant of an “inferior” race. No wonder he is often dismissed today as just another bygone bigot.
Osborn is probably not the type of guy I would want to have a beer—or more likely, a really fancy cocktail—with if I found myself in Gilded Age New York. (I speculate, but he might not have sat down with me anyway, leery of my very ethnic-sounding Italian name.) Nevertheless, there’s no denying that Osborn was a clever paleontologist and an even better scientific administrator. …
The above excerpts make it clear that Brusatte is a born storyteller, capable of sketching a portrait in words that generates interest in the subject being described. After the two above descriptions, who would not be intrigued by these people and what they do - even if, like Henry Fairfield Osborn, they are despicable as opposed to admirable?
What other readers have noted, however, is that Brusatte does not seem to give the same kind of attention to his female colleagues. Take, for example, his description of colleague and friend Sara Burch:
Sara Burch figured it out [the reason why T. rex still has arms]. Sara and I both trained in Paul Sereno’s lab at the University of Chicago where we became friends, but our paths diverged afterward: I went down the route of studying genealogy and evolution, and Sara became enthralled with bones and muscles. She did her PhD in an anatomy department, where she dissected a zoo’s worth of animals, and has since carved out a career that is common for paleontologists: teaching human anatomy to medical students. Sara knows more about the anatomical structure of dinosaurs than almost anyone alive—how their bones connected to each other, what kind of muscles they had. …
Or take this even briefer description of geologist Jessica Whiteside:
… Jessica Whiteside, who was also part of our excavation teams in Portugal. Jessica is a maestro at reading the rocks. Better than anyone I’ve ever known, she can look at a sequence of rocks and tell you how old they are, what the environments were like when they formed, how hot it was, even how much rain there was. Set her loose at a fossil site, and she’ll come back with a story from the distant past of changing climates, shifting weather, evolutionary explosions, and great extinctions.
This is a pattern that’s repeated throughout the book when Brusatte talks about his female colleagues - the only exception being Jingmai O’Connor, an expert on the very earliest birds, who receives the kind of descriptive treatment Brusatte seems to have reserved for his male colleagues:
A quick walk from Xu Xing’s office in Beijing is another room, brighter and less solemn but with fewer fossils. It’s where Jingmai O’Connor works… The reason there aren’t many fossils here is because Jingmai studies Liaoning birds…and most of these are crushed onto limestone slabs, so she can describe and measure them from photographs blown up on her computer screen. That means she can easily work from home, which is deep among the last remaining Beijing hutongs—traditional narrow-alleged neighborhoods of single-story stone buildings pasted together. Good thing too, because she spends a lot of her nonscience time hanging about in the hutongs, raving and even occasionally DJ-ing in the trendy clubs of China’s suddenly hip capital.
Jingmai calls herself a paleontologista—fitting, given her fashionista sense of leopard-print Lycra, piercings, and tattoos, all of which are at home in the club but stand out (in a good way) among the plaid-and-beard crowd that dominates academia. …Jingmai is a Roman candle of energy—delivering caustic one-liners one moment, speaking in eloquent paragraphs about politics the next, and then it’s on to music or art or her own unique personal brand of Buddhist philosophy. Oh yes, and she’s also the world’s number one expert on those first birds that broke the bounds of Earth to fly above their dinosaur ancestors.
On the historical front, other readers have pointed out that there is not even a mention of Mary Anning, the woman who is in many ways the godmother of palaeontology and who made incredibly important discoveries of Jurassic marine fossils. This is a rather disappointing oversight, they claim, given how there is a push to give female scientists both in the past and in the present the recognition they deserve, and they feel that Brusatte missed out on an opportunity to introduce Anning to a wider set of readers - especially since she serves as a much better paragon than men like Henry Fairfield Osborn.
While the aforementioned readers are entirely justified in pointing out the distinct lack of historical female palaeontologists, as well as the brief, almost utilitarian descriptions of Brusatte’s female colleagues (again, with the exception of Jingmai O’Connor), I suspect there is a deeper reason for that. Given that Brusatte’s descriptions of his female colleagues focus more on their accomplishments and skills as opposed to their physical features, I suspect that Brusatte is attempting to avoid the sexist pitfall of identifying his female colleagues solely by their physical appearance - the kind of attention they themselves probably get more than enough of in their own field, without Brusatte repeating it in his book. If Jingmai O’Connor is the exception, then that might be because of O’Connor’s own personality, given how she appears as “eccentric” as the other men Brusatte describes. As for why Brusatte seems to work with more men than women, that is a problem of palaeontology itself, which is dominated by more men than women.
The above reasons also follow for why only male historical figures are mentioned in this book: the field has simply been dominated by men, with very few women figuring prominently in it. While I am certain there are other female palaeontologists who have simply not been identified yet, their identification and inclusion in the historical record is more the work of historians - or palaeontologists with an interest in the history of their own field, as the case may be. As for the lack of any mention of Mary Anning, Brusatte does not go into the topic of marine fossils in this book, focusing more on land-based creatures, which are his speciality. Had he been doing a book about marine fossils, then not including Mary Anning would be more reprehensible.
I do not mention this to excuse Brusatte of any misogyny, conscious or unconscious, that may have slipped into this book; I mention them because they are logical reasons why the above exclusions and exceptions were made. Still, there are indeed moments when Brusatte’s tone seems to ring a little too close to that of a fratboy than I might particularly like - such as when he describes a party he attended in Argentina as a “debauchery”, “fueled by an open bar with hundreds of bottles of vodka, whiskey, brandy, and a local firewater whose name I can’t remember.” That particular part of the book has more than a few uncomfortable echoes of Ernest Hemingway and his peers’ distinctive brand of machismo.
That is, however, a minor hitch in what is still an excellent book. I think Brusatte does try his best not to be misogynistic - or at the very least, worked with an editor or editors who helped catch those instances of misogyny and then helped him polish them out of his book. The information Brusatte provides appears to be solid, given the extent of his bibliography, which is in a chapter called “Notes on Sources”. Incidentally, those notes are written in the same tone as the rest of the book, and so are just as much a pleasure to read. The section is a little disorganised, seeing as the lists of sources are given in paragraph form as opposed to a more traditional format for bibliographies, but the informality is likely to be more interesting for non-academics, as opposed to a more academic-style bibliography.
Brusatte is also careful to note where what he is stating is his opinion as opposed to a proven fact, especially when he talks about certain debates currently underway in palaeontology and which he claims will eventually be resolved by the younger generation of palaeontologists coming into the field. This is especially prominent in the Notes on Sources section of the book - where, at the very end, he drops the name of a PhD student he and his colleague Tom Williamson are co-mentoring: Sarah Shelley, who is working on understanding the rise of mammals after the extinction of the dinosaurs. I am not sure how many readers will read this far into the book, but it is heartening to see an established palaeontologist name-drop a mentee’s name in his book, in the hopes of helping her further along in her career.
Overall, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is an engaging, interesting read that gives a broad overview of dinosaurs for the adult reader. Brusatte delivers personal anecdotes and the latest scientific information in a narrative tone that showcases his enthusiasm for and thorough enjoyment of his subject matter, punctuated by colourful descriptions of landscapes, colleagues, and historical figures.