One of the best and most responsible things a scientist can do is to write for the popular press. It takes a lot of valuable time and it doesn’t get one grants or tenure. It doesn’t necessarily win the author the approval of his peers, since many scientists believe that publication should be confined to peer-reviewed scientific journals. It doesn’t even make the writer much money, since most works by scientists, however accomplished they may be in academic circles, don’t bring the big advances non-specialist writers regularly command.
But most of the scientists who, so to speak, go public usually aren’t in search of tenure or money. Usually they write for the rest of us because they know we don’t have time to monitor all the scientific journals and wouldn’t have an inkling of what’s happening in their fields if it weren’t for their efforts. They want to teach us something. A good many women scientists become writers and teachers in this spirit—Rachel Carson, Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas, Shirley Strum, and Cynthia Moss, to name a few. But many of the very best are men: George Schaller, Konrad Lorenz, Loren Eisley, Stephen Hawking, Douglas Chadwick, Frans De Waal.
A prominent scientist belonging to this group is the controversial Robert T. Bakker, once known as the enfant terrible of paleontology. Before publishing his present novel, Raptor Red, he published a very controversial non-fiction work, The Dinosaur Heresies (Morrow, 1986), in which he challenged the now antiquated view that, being Nature’s first attempt at large animals, dinosaurs were for the most part badly designed hulks. A case in point was brontosaurus (now known as apatasaurus). Because its body was thought to be slung between its legs in lizard fashion, not set squarely above its legs in elephant style, it supposedly had to stand in water to support its huge weight.
Dinosaurs were supposed to be cold-blooded reptiles, stupid and slow, in contrast, as we fatuously saw it, to our own ancestors, the clever little mammals who preyed on the eggs carelessly dropped behind the poor, dumb, wandering monsters. Being warm-blooded, our furry little predecessors would have had no problem with the cooling climate that theoretically exterminated their reptilian overlords. They fluffed out their fur, cuddled together in their burrows, and warmed one another up. The dinosaurs, in contrast, having been badly designed in the first place, wandered helplessly over the landscape, slowly getting colder and colder until they all fell down and died.
Much of this story was wrong. Mammals and dinosaurs diverged from a common ancestor about 260 million years ago. Dinosaurs subsequently evolved to fill every possible ecological niche, from which they ruled the earth for 160 million years and became the most successful vertebrates in the history of the planet. During all that time we mammals managed to evolve into nothing larger than a cat. When the dinosaurs vanished, the mammals finally took over, but they have not ruled nearly as long as the dinosaurs and,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.