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What Were Dinosaurs For?

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

A life-size model of the early Cretaceous tyrannosaur
R. Mickens/American Museum of Natural History
A life-size model of the early Cretaceous tyrannosaur Yutyrannus huali; from Mark Norell’s The World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Tour. Originally part of the American Museum of Natural History’s 2016 exhibition ‘Dinosaurs Among Us,’ curated by Norell, it is twenty-three feet long and is now in the permanent collection of the Dinosaur Gallery at the Center of Science and Industry, Columbus, Ohio.

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.

The paleontologist Barnum Brown and the director of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Osborn, excavating a Diplodocus skeleton, Wyoming, 1897
American Museum of Natural History
The paleontologist Barnum Brown, left, and the director of the American Museum of Natural History, Henry Osborn, excavating a Diplodocus skeleton, Wyoming, 1897

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. 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. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

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