Dinosaur Deconstruction

How we understand life's past is more a consequence of art than of science.

By Stephen Jay Gould
Oct 1, 1993 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:38 AM


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If I ask, Who was the man most responsibIe for setting our conventionaI concept (untiI recent years) of dinosaurs as grand but cumbersome, most respondents wiII search for the name of a Ieading scientist who defended this notion in words. But the question has an undeniabIe and unambiguous answer--CharIes R. Knight (though many have never heard of him). Knight (1874-1953) was the great iconographer of dinosaurs at a time when his superb work formed a one-man show without credibIe competition anywhere in the worId. He painted aII the great muraIs done before WorId War II in American museums--New York, Chicago, Los AngeIes. His eIegant, anatomicaIIy accurate, ecoIogicaIIy detaiIed, and visuaIIy exciting paintings fiIIed books and magazines. In the absence of aIternative imagery, Knight created the canonicaI picture of dinosaurs for professionaIs and the pubIic aIike. I cannot think of a stronger infIuence ever wieIded by a singIe man in such a broad domain of paIeontoIogy.

Similarly, the most telling sign of our changing concept comes from the new generation of dinosaur artists who are finally superseding these grand conventions and providing alternative images for an astonishing range of products from kiddie books to cereal boxes to postage stamps to Jurassic Park. Just consider the contrast between Knight’s classic Brontosaurus, buoyed up in a swamp because even such elephantine legs could not support such a bulky body on land, and Mark Hallett’s corresponding sauropods, nimbly marching forward with head and tail outstretched. Was Confucius right in stating that one good picture is worth 10,000 words, or do you want another 20,000 words from me to explain the conceptual shift?

Iconography comes upon us like a thief in the night--powerful and remarkably efficacious, yet often so silent that we do not detect the influence. Pictorial imagery catches us unawares because, as intellectuals, we are trained to analyze text and to treat drawings or photographs as trifling adjuncts. Thus, while we may pore over our words and examine them closely for biases and hidden meanings, we often view our pictures as frills and afterthoughts, simple illustrations of a natural reality or crutches for those who need a visual guide. We are most revealed in what we do not scrutinize.

The social biases embedded in fossil iconography lie best exposed in the artistic conventions that create such an enormous departure between scenes as sketched and any conceivable counterpart in nature. (The point is obvious and easily grasped once presented, but I have often been surprised to discover how many people do not recognize the difference--and the need for such disparity--between nature and our conventions for painting her. Many of us have been looking at such paintings all our lives and have come to accept them as accurate snapshots of the natural world.) All artistic genres follow social conventions, but few also grapple with the assumption that finished products represent a natural reality. Consider just three conventions, all defensible, that distinguish painted fossil scenes from inferred actualities.

1. Number. At most natural moments in most places, nothing much is happening to rather few organisms. But illustrations of such reality would be empty and boring. Moreover, museums and books grant little space for painted scenes, so artists must make the most of limited opportunities. If I am allowed but one picture of a Mesozoic landscape, I will therefore try to wedge everything in--predator and prey, pond dweller and mountain climber. Consider the famous mural at Yale University by Rudolph Zallinger. We accept the necessary pedagogical theme and rarely consider that such scenes represent artistic convention rather than natural landscape.

2. Activity. An old quip states that the life of a soldier features long periods of boredom interspersed with rare moments of terror. We paint animals during their few incidents of interesting behavior, and our concept of interesting changes with time. The Victorians loved Tennyson’s description of Nature, red in tooth and claw, and, by social convention, shied away from scenes of mating. Their paintings of nature almost invariably feature predation as a centerpiece (usually sanitized in showing little blood and gore). Iconographies of the last 20 years, especially if done largely for children, tend to focus on themes that are more politically correct--maternal behavior, herding, and helping.

The prototype for scenes from deep time (to use Martin Rudwick’s felicitous phrase from the title of his recent book) is Henry De La Beche’s drawing Duria antiquior (An earlier Dorset), first lithographed in 1830 but reproduced endlessly (in both legitimate and pirated editions), and also serving as a model, often shamelessly copied, for almost all later artists. De La Beche, English to the core despite his francophonic name, was the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. To be sure, he designed this figure partly with humorous intent (and as a charitable act to benefit, through sales, the impoverished fossil collector Mary Anning, who had provided so much aid to British paleontologists). But De La Beche’s image became the canonical figure of ancient life at the inception of this genre. Note how he follows both conventions of unnatural crowding and pervasive predation. Almost every creature is either a feaster or a meal, and the centerpiece of an ichthyosaur biting into the neck of a plesiosaur became the image par excellence of early-nineteenth-century reconstruction. (We must also note De La Beche’s unconventionalities, particularly his depiction of feces descending from several of the larger beasts--a feature that most of his later plagiarists eliminated.)

3. Emphasis. We switch now from necessary artistic conventions (though still distorting reality and promoting false impressions) to the primary social influence (for sales and acceptability) that makes these tableaux such a biased representation of the fossil world. Consider life’s full history, at least from the beginning of modern multicellular animals (already a biased emphasis) more than 500 million years ago. Taxonomists have described more than a million animal species (most of which are insects), divided into more than 20 phyla. Of this plethora, vertebrates represent only part of one phylum, and a mere 45,000 species or so. We are but one branch of life’s more copious tree (albeit an unusually successful limb that has spawned the largest organisms).

I don’t object to a primary emphasis on vertebrates, for we have a legitimately parochial interest in ourselves and our immediate ancestry. But consider two ways in which the conventional depiction of life’s history as a parade of scenes from invertebrates to humans distorts the major pattern of our fossil record.

First, more recent geologic periods may add new kinds of vertebrates, but the invertebrates (and the earlier vertebrates) don’t go away; they persist and continue to dominate in most habitats. Thus the conventional tableau of the Cambrian is a sea bottom filled with trilobites and brachiopods, while the standard snapshot of the much later Tertiary is a landscape studded with mammals. But oceans never disappeared. They still dominate our planet and cover some 70 percent of Earth’s surface; they still teem with invertebrate life, different in fascinating ways from the Cambrian faunas. Yet no conventional set of tableaux for life’s history ever includes an invertebrate marine scene from any time following the rise of terrestrial vertebrates.

Even when people realize that invertebrates and lower vertebrates persisted, this biased iconographic tradition encourages a belief that such primitive forms stopped at their early plateau (and can therefore be subsequently ignored), as the torch of novelty passed to higher vertebrates (who must therefore be chronicled). No such thing. All major forms of life continue to diversify and adapt, continue their fascinating roles in life’s endless ebb and flow of extinction and origination. We foster a seriously skewed account when we abandon the later history of animals that arose early and pretend that the twig of vertebrates can act as a surrogate for a later history. Moreover, the bias thus introduced is the worst and most harmful of all our conventional mistakes about the history of our planet--the arrogant notion that evolution has a predictable direction leading toward human life.

Second, even when artists deign to give some early space to invertebrates, the amount allotted is never commensurate with true importance or time elapsed. Most of life’s history gets scrunched into an introductory picture or two.

The iconography of fossils achieved its canonical status when Knight managed to render extinct animals as vibrant, vital, and exciting creatures. Knight was born and raised in New York City, where he became a commercial artist employed by the church-decorating firm of J. & R. Lamb in 1890. But Knight had always loved natural history most of all, and he soon won the job of drawing all plants and animals for the firm’s stained-glass windows. Knight slowly built his skills by spending several mornings each week sketching animals at the Central Park Zoo. He eventually decided to devote his career to zoological art, and he began to build a reputation both for fossil reconstructions and for paintings of living organisms. The superiority of his prehistoric paintings rested squarely on his unparalleled expertise in the musculature and motions of modern organisms. No previous artist of ancient life had ever understood the universal principles of animal design so intimately.

When Knight finally teamed up with the brilliant and politically powerful Henry Fairfield Osborn, leading vertebrate paleontologist and president of the American Museum of Natural History, his future as the official painter of ancient life seemed assured. Osborn stated, for once without hype, Charles R. Knight is the greatest genius in the line of prehistoric restoration of human and animal life that the science of paleontology has ever known. His work in the American Museum will endure for all time. When I was a child, I used to visit the museum monthly. I always stopped before the bust of Osborn, and I learned the inscription on its pedestal by heart. I can still recite the words, but I now think that they apply best to Charles R. Knight: For him the dry bones came to life, and giant forms of ages past rejoined the pageant of the living.

When we look at Knight’s dinosaurs today, we feel a whiff of archaism because changing opinion during the last two decades has substituted sleek, motile, highly efficient, and reasonably intelligent (even potentially warm-blooded) beasts for the slow, lumbering, dim-witted primitives often depicted by Knight. But in drawing these heavy and encumbered beasts, Knight was only translating the ideas of leading paleontologists, not expressing an artistic limitation. He could paint animals as active and as sleek as any depicted by the most radical revisionists of our current schools--as in his insufficiently known but brilliant painting, completed in 1897, of the small carnivorous dinosaur Dryptosaurus, or his more famous image of a mosasaur pursuing Cretaceous fish.

To those who persist in viewing iconography as peripheral or subsidiary to text, I can only respond with a primal fact of our evolutionary biology. Primates are quintessentially visual animals, and have been so endowed since the first tree-dwellers of earliest Tertiary reconstructions had to move nimbly among the branches or fall to their deaths, away from further scrutiny by natural selection. Humans, as legatees of this heritage, learn by seeing and visualizing.

In this context, I have never understood why large-format volumes of illustrations are often contemptuously dismissed by academics and intellectuals (though usually by the posturers rather than the folks of substance) as coffee-table books. I do not despise my coffee table as a low form of furniture (except in the strictly literal sense), and I regard beautiful and informative books of pictures as among the most sublime products of the publishing industry.

We are now in the midst of the greatest vigor and upheaval in fossil iconography since the genre emerged. The reasons are many, and partly due to mammon--a morally ambiguous reality in our commercial world, but glitzy models and paintings now command big bucks in our era of theme parks and cereal boxes, where moving and roaring plastic models bring more people into museums than magnificent skeletons of real bone.

But better reasons inhere in the rush of new ideas that have reinvigorated the science of paleontology and forced us to recast murky old primitives as efficient and worthy creatures in their own terms. We no longer condemn prehistoric beasts to ineptitude for the irrelevant reason that they lived a long time ago, and we have finally granted them respect with the recognition that extinction is no shame in our largely random world--and that a creature, namely us, who has lived for so short a time can construct no rationale for casting aspersions on animals, like dinosaurs, who dominated the planet for 100 million years. Above all, interest in ancient life is now so widespread, and consumer demand for its iconography so great, that the field will not soon lapse again into the general desuetude that limited nearly all available work to one man--even to so great an artist as Charles Knight.

I am intrigued to note how closely the trends in prehistoric iconography match the winds of change labeled as postmodernism in so many other fields, from literature to architecture--so we are once again taking part in a general social movement, not merely following the local norms of science by responding to improvements in factual knowledge.

If postmodernism is diverse, nonhierarchical, playful, personal, pluralistic, iconoclastic, and multifarious in its points of view--whereas modernism sought a simplified and rule-bound canonical consensus--then the maddeningly varied modern art of fossils certainly qualifies for the label, with its garish dinosaurs and its literally new dimensions and perspectives (often down from a pterosaur’s eye view, or up from the vantage point of a baby dinosaur just hatched). As just one example, consider Gregory Paul’s What happens when Apatosaurus ajax seeks aquatic refuge from Allosaurus fragilis. Even the title is a satire, and a tweak of the old modernist consensus. You need to know the history of previous agreement to grasp the playfulness and the gotcha of Paul’s sardonic picture. For an old chestnut of dinosaurology proclaimed that sauropods retreated to the waters to avoid theropods, who would not venture after them. But no one ever really asked why not, and Paul shows us that a herd of allosaurs might well have pursued and nabbed its quarry after all.

I only wish that this iconoclastic attitude toward canonical views of individual creatures were matched by an equally critical reappraisal of the most pervasive and constraining convention of all--the tradition of depicting life’s history as a pageant leading from invertebrates up the vertebrate ladder to humans. We often imagine that Darwin and evolution represent the great watershed that forever changed everything in biology. But many theses sailed right through this greatest of barriers, emerging relatively unscathed on the other side--reclothed in an evolutionary explanation, but unaltered in basic content. The idea of an ascent to man (to use the old gender-biased language) ranks most prominently among these unaltered, but woefully flawed, Western certainties. Pre-Darwinian paleontologists attributed such a progressive pattern to God’s scheme of successive creations; but post-Darwinian evolutionists (like Knight) told the same story, with natural selection substituting for God.

We are still awaiting the real revolution--the recognition that all lineages owe the details of their history largely to contingent good fortune rather than to predictable development. Darwin’s revolutionary worldview actually implies such a pattern of sensible explanation after the fact, but no prediction beforehand--but we have resisted this implication in our unwillingness to abandon human centrality as the ordering principle of life’s history. Evolutionists do understand how historical constraint affects paleontological lineages, but we are oblivious to the same theme when it clamps a conceptual lock on our own mental schemes.

We do not even know how to conceptualize, much less to draw, the worldview that would place Homo sapiens into proper relationship with the history of life. We know the iconography of directional pageantry, for we have been drawing history according to this scheme for centuries, but what is the iconography of contingency? I love the work of Knight and other great illustrators of past life, but they have brought us the past as through a glass, darkly. Someday, perhaps, we shall meet our ancestors face-to-face.

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