(Pictures screenshotted from the kindle version–how great is that manatee?)
Watching the trailer for the rather abysmal-looking Jurassic World we all agreed that the only thing that might have redeemed it for us was for the dinosaurs to have had feathers. Naturally they did not.
I have let my knowledge of dinosaurs slip over the last couple of decades—at eight or nine I knew about as much as popular science would let me. I’d heard the theory that they might have had feathers, though I suspect my interest had waned before more concrete evidence was found. (I think I had also heard that Brontosauruses weren’t real, but can’t have been very convinced; when they were reinstated this year I was genuinely happy for them).
Part of the appeal of dinosaurs is that our knowledge about them has changed so much over time—even just over my own lifetime. I’m not sure it’s possible any longer to capture the sheer mystery and wonder of that first revelation a couple of centuries ago that at some point giant beasts had walked (or swum) the world, but we’ve had something else: we’ve seen our knowledge growing and changing, old mysteries solved (or at least provided with believable solutions) and new ones arriving to take their place.
In culture, however, dinosaurs have remained oddly static.
It’s at the level of popular culture that John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish’s All Yesterdays (featuring skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman) is particularly fascinating. The authors’ point (Conway and Kosemen are paleoartists) is simple enough: that there is a certain amount of knowledge that we can gather from fossils, and that knowledge is mainly concerned with the musculoskeletal system—what goes on top of it—the integument—is not always as obvious, even as we continue to learn more about it. Popular images of dinosaurs tend to be the shapes of their skeletons with skin over the top. But as we know from the animals that we study in the present, nature isn’t always that obvious. All Yesterdays concerns itself not with what we know, but with the range of possibilities that might fit within the facts that we have. And so we have Plesiosaurs that camouflage themselves among coral, Leaellynasaura adorably covered with fluff and given a flagpole-like tail, semaphoring Carnotaurus, Protoceratops climbing trees because in our world lots of animals that are not specifically adapted for particular behaviours indulge in them anyway. This is also the reason that the authors are able to imagine dinosaurs playing, resting, coexisting with hostile species, having interspecies sex (the book is meticulously illustrated).
This project (speculating about the possibilities of bodies within certain fixed parameters) is one that is familiar to science fiction fans, though it’s usually directed at the future, rather than the past. In a later section, titled “All Todays”, the book does take us into the future. It imagines far-future scientists, studying the remains of what is our present and coming to conclusions of their own that are a little bit off—car crushing, predatory hippos, graceful, antelope-like cows, bipedal toads and vicious cats that crept into human homes before finishing off their inhabitants.
As convinced as I am of Kosemen and Conway’s points (and as approving as I am of fluffy dinosaurs) I can’t imagine real scientists adopting these images—an openness to possibility is probably a good thing for a scientist, but so is sticking to relatively solid fact. But it’s not to scientists that the authors are addressing themselves—they’re responding to popular imagery. This is clearest when they depict a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus or a Tenontosaurus which is, incredibly, not being torn apart by predators.
And if this book is addressing popular images of dinosaurs, it’s also addressing those of us who produce and consume those images. It’s okay to demand feathered dinosaurs from our terrible blockbuster movies. In fiction at least we can build ourselves a fluffier, less gray-green past.