BOOK REVIEW: Prehistoric Predators & thoughts about Jurassic World

Last weekend my nine-year-old son and I went to the movies and saw Jurassic World, the fourth film in the Jurassic Park series (but really, a direct sequel to the original film). I was fifteen when I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, and became dino-obsessed. I devoured books and articles about paleontology. Reading about dinosaurs led to reading about evolution in general, and then to Darwin (and the rest is history, as they say). So while my son has seen the other films, I was excited to take him to see this new offering on the big screen. We loved it! The film was exactly what big movie theaters are for: suspenseful action in imagined worlds.


We enjoyed the film immensely despite its major drawback. As many paleontologists have shared since the movie’s trailers started appearing, Jurassic World does not do what Jurassic Park did in 1993: to share with the public the latest vision of what dinosaurs looked like (click here for a bunch of links to posts/articles from paleontologists on JW). In the twenty years since, a lot has changed; most notably, that many dinosaurs had feathers or feather-like structures. Not in Jurassic World. Even some representations of dinosaurs in the new film ignore how the other films got it right (the posture of Stegosaurus, for example). The new film also does not introduce film-goers to the wide variety of new species discovered in the last couple of decades, instead sticking with the familiar: Tyrannosaurus rex, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor.

The amazing David Orr and I worked together on this comic (check out his site for more great paleo design). As the owner of two feisty parrots, I feel like feathered raptors are just as exciting as those scaly ones we grew up with.

We are introduced to a new dinosaur, however. Not a real species that paleontologists have found the bones of, but a genetically-engineered monstrosity that comprises the DNA of several dinosaurs and other critters. The carnivorous and unstoppable Indominus rex is the film’s antagonist. While her presence on screen is exciting, it’s disappointing that the film’s creators felt the need to invent a new dinosaur – “probably not a good idea” – when the annals of paleontology are full of awesome theropods that could have been amazing on-screen additions to the story.

I hope the new film will inspire a new generation of dinosaur fans, and that many of these young paleontologists will seek out reading material to satiate their curiosity, and in the process, learn a little about what dinosaurs really looked like and how they behaved. For those interested in carnivorous dinosaurs (theropods), I recommend a new book by dinosaur writer Brian Switek and beautifully illustrated by paleoartist Julius Csotonyi. In Prehistoric Predators (Kennebunkport, ME: Cider Mill Press, 2015, 104 pp.), Switek profiles and Csotonyi brings to life over 40 dinosaurs and other animals from the past that dined on the flesh of other creatures. Old favorites are here, such as Allosaurus, but the book offers a look at a variety of lesser-known or more recently discovered species, including many with feathers or feather-like structures and some flying reptiles. There is Cryolophosaurus, the Antarctic theropod with an Elvis-like head crest, and the early tyrannosaur Guanlong. Ever heard of Eocarcharia? How about Deltadromeus? Why create a fictional dinosaur when nature had so many to choose from?

The profiles are arranged chronologically, starting with the Permian Period (and thus predators that pre-date dinosaurs) and into the Mesozoic Era and its trio of periods, Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous, as well some marine reptiles and land mammals in the Cenozoic. The book lacks, however, some of the diversity of marine reptiles during the age of dinosaurs (there are no species of mosasaur or plesiosaur, for example). But for each entry, nothing is better than Csotonyi’s realistic renderings full of color, behavior, and feathers. The book also features a textured cover, with the sensation of touching dinosaur skin. The Jurassic Park series will never likely yield dinosaur depictions with feathers, but let’s hope in the near future that a studio green lights a dinosaur film that will. For now, enjoy Jurassic World for what it is, a science fiction movie, and check out some books, like Prehistoric Predators, and visit a local natural history museum, to learn more about the actual science.

Want more dinosaurs? The publisher of Prehistoric Predators has another book worth checking out. The whole dinosaur kingdom is featured in Discovering Dinosaurs (2014), by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger. More encyclopedic, this volume is chock full of dino diversity. Great information and great art from a classic dinosaur artist.

BOOK: The Griffin and the Dinosaur

In 2000, historian Adrienne Mayor published a book that changed the way people think about humanity’s relationship to fossils. In The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, Mayor described how the fossils of dinosaurs and other extinct creatures influenced the creation of mythical creatures in classical antiquity. She has likewise written a book about Fossil Legends of the First Americans in North America.

Mayor was kind enough to send my kids and I a copy of a new book that looks at her decades of research and difficulties having her work accepted by academia: The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2014, 48 pp). Geared toward younger readers (upper elementary to middle school), author Marc Aronson (with Mayor) describes her travels and research to show how people in ancient times took seriously the bones they discovered in the ground. Protoceratops skeletons become the griffin, and the skulls of mammoths become the head of Cyclops. After my son (age 9) read the book, he commented how he thought it was interesting that people in another time looked at fossils differently than we do today. He said that how people think about nature is always changing. “Wasn’t what paleontologists think dinosaurs looked like when you were a kid different from today?” he asked. Indeed.

This is a great book mixing science, history, and myth into a mystery that readers will love to follow along. The book features color photographs and nice paintings from Chris Muller throughout. I highly recommend The Griffin and the Dinosaur for parents to check out or buy for their curious kids. Better yet, request your local library purchase a copy if they don’t already have one in their catalog.

Thank you, Adrienne!

ARTICLE: Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

In the journal Historical Biology (online first):

Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

Warren D. Allmon

Abstract Charles Darwin’s empirical research in palaeontology, especially on fossil invertebrates, has been relatively neglected as a source of insight into his thinking, other than to note that he viewed the fossil record as very incomplete. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin gained extensive experience with a wide diversity of fossil taxa, and he thought deeply about the nature of the fossil record. That record was, for him, a major source of evidence for large-scale transmutation, but much less so for natural selection or single lineages. Darwin’s interpretation of the fossil record has been criticised for its focus on incompleteness, but the record as he knew it was extremely incomplete. He was compelled to address this in arguing for descent with modification, which was likely his primary goal. Darwin’s gradualism has been both misrepresented and exaggerated, and has distracted us from the importance of the fossil record in his thinking, which should be viewed in the context of the multiple, sometimes competing demands of the multifaceted argument he presented in the Origin of Species.

Special issue of Endeavour journal on Charles Darwin and Scientific Revolutions

The September-December 2014 issue of the history of science journal Endeavour was devoted to “Charles Darwin and Scientific Revolutions,” and included the following articles:


Can a revolution hide another one? Charles Darwin and the Scientific Revolution – Richard G. Delisle

The Scientific Revolution and the Darwinian Revolution

Was there a Darwinian Revolution? Yes, no, and maybe! – Michael Ruse

On Darwin’s science and its contexts – M.J.S. Hodge

A brief, but imperfect, historical sketch of a ‘considerable revolution’ – Barbara Continenza

Tensions in Darwin: Sitting Between Two Revolutions

Darwin and the geological controversies over the steady-state worldview in the 1830s – Gabriel Gohau

Evolution in a fully constituted world: Charles Darwin’s debts towards a static world in the Origin of Species (1859) – Richard G. Delisle

Laws of variation: Darwin’s failed Newtonian program? – Thierry Hoquet

Emulating Newton in the Victorian Age

There is grandeur in this view of Newton: Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Victorian conceptions of scientific virtue – Richard Bellon

Experimentalism and the Nature/Artifice Relationship

Darwin’s experimentalism – Richard A. Richards

‘The art itself is nature’: Darwin, domestic varieties and the scientific revolution – S. Andrew Inkpen

Darwinism: A Moving Target

Charles Darwin’s reputation: how it changed during the twentieth-century and how it may change again – Ron Amundson

The Darwinian revolution in Germany: from evolutionary morphology to the modern synthesis – Georgy S. Levit, Uwe Hossfeld, Lennart Olsson

ARTICLE: Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

A new article in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (in press and free to download):

Going the whole orang: Darwin, Wallace and the natural history of orangutans

John van Wyhe and Peter C. Kjærgaard

Abstract This article surveys the European discovery and early ideas about orangutans followed by the contrasting experiences with these animals of the co-founders of evolution by natural selection, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The first non-human great ape that both of them interacted with was the orangutan. They were both profoundly influenced by what they saw, but the contexts of their observations could hardly be more different. Darwin met orangutans in the Zoological Gardens in London while Wallace saw them in the wild in Borneo. In different ways these observations helped shape their views of human evolution and humanity’s place in nature. Their findings played a major role in shaping some of the key questions that were pursued in human evolutionary studies during the rest of the nineteenth century.