Laelaps, Charles R. Knight, 1897.
American Musuem of Natural History/Taschen
comment / science

The Surprising History (and Future) of Dinosaurs

For well over a hundred years, paleontology has done double duty as mass entertainment.
In Paleoart (an XL book by TASCHEN), Zoë Lescaze assembles depictions of dinosaurs from 1830 up to 1990, before the digital age changed how they were conceived of and rendered. It includes murals, paintings, engravings, frescos, lithographs, and sculptures, like those made for Crystal Palace Park. When I showed the Dinosaurs by Design illustration to Lescaze, she recalled parallels mapped by the art historian W. J. T. Mitchell between dinosaurs and cowboys: “icons,” “big and strong, but doomed to disappear, embodying both outsize power and obsolescence.” She went on: “Their convergence, he believes, has to do with the history of paleontology in the United States, where the very mechanisms of westward expansion that rendered lawless frontier life a thing of the past were also what enabled the excavation and transport of fossils.” The scene oozes fin-de-race anxiety,  in my opinion. “If prehistoric reptiles symbolize extinction,” she reasoned, “then to lasso a pterosaur on horseback is to be the master of death.” She considers such images “oddly touching.”

Taken together, the Williams, Brusatte, and Lescaze titles—all published within the last year—form the ultimate survey: an education consumable as entertainment. T. rex skeletons have always been articulated for audiences with that sense of double duty, and today the tradition is advanced by Sue’s Twitter account. Nearly forty-three thousand follow Sue for such bon mots as “I’m ‘Tropical South Dakota’ years old.” She slavers over Jeff Goldblum, kvetches about the social-media grind, and edifies the masses—as one devotee had it, “sue woke af yo.” But she also relentlessly picks fights. (Specimen FMNH PR 2081 has been called an “apex troll.”) “THIS JUST IN,” she tweeted at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in August, “SEA OTTERS ARE ADORABLE AND IMPOSSIBLY PHOTOGENIC AND YOU STILL CAN’T LEVERAGE THAT AGAINST A DEAD (BUT SASSY) OSTRICH MONSTER.” The aquarium fired back: “just in: the bones of a pre-extinct organism are more popular than a mission to inspire conservation of the Ocean, prolly bc big skulls with sharp teeth are less scary than introspection and fundamental changes in our society to prevent going the way of the murderchickens.”

The sentiment is catching.
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