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'Reimagining Dinosaurs' looks at pop culture depictions through history

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‘Reimagining Dinosaurs’ looks at pop culture depictions through history

‘Jurassic World’ wasn’t the first thing to give people weird ideas about dinosaurs.

With Jurassic World: Dominion poised to become one of the highest grossing films of this summer, and the new documentary Prehistoric Planet reportedly boosting the number of subscribers for Apple’s struggling streaming service, there’s no doubt that dinosaurs continue to exert a powerful grip on the human imagination. But why should these prehistoric animals, which no person has ever seen, prove so perpetually fascinating?

This is the question that Richard Fallon, professor of English literature at the University of Birmingham, has set out to answer in his debut monograph Reimagining Dinosaurs in Late Victorian and Edwardian Literature: How the ‘Terrible Lizard’ Became a Transatlantic Cultural Icon (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

'Reimagining Dinosaurs' looks at pop culture depictions through history

A “grotesque” triceratops from Rev. H.N. Hutchinson’s “Extinct Monsters”

Fallon argues that previous works tackling the riddle of the dinosaurs’ popularity have tended to privilege the dinosaur popular culture of the late 20th century, as in blockbuster films like Jurassic Park. Reimagining Dinosaurs instead aims to shine a light on the portrayal of dinosaurs in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras, via an examination of the popular science books, newspaper accounts, and science fiction novels of the time.

Reimagining Dinosaurs is divided into four chapters, each corresponding to a specific case study, beginning with a look at science popularizer Henry Neville Hutchinson. While most dinosaur aficionados can tell you that the word “Dinosauria” was coined in 1841 by Sir Richard Owen, fewer probably know it was Hutchinson who introduced this otherwise obscure bit of paleontological jargon to the literate public with his children’s book Extinct Monsters (1892). However, as Fallon explains, Hutchinson’s popularizing of the term “dinosaur” wasn’t uniformly appreciated by scientists in the field. Paleontologist Harry Govier Seeley had serious reservations regarding Owen’s proposed taxonomical category, and considered the matter one of unsettled contestation.

Hutchinson, by liberating the term dinosaur from the confines of scientific discourse, effectively removed the issue from the purview of experts, handing it over to a general public who readily took to Owen’s designation, regardless of whatever objections Seeley may have had. While this populist approach to science infuriated experts, it suited Hutchinson just fine. An Anglican clergyman by training, Hutchinson was a great admirer of science but had little use for actual scientists who he found to be pompous, incomprehensible, and overly secular in their writings. In penning books like Extinct Monsters, Hutchinson likened his job to skimming the cream off a bowl of milk, offering only the best (i.e. most entertaining) parts of what science had to offer.

It was also Hutchinson’s works, rather than the technical journal articles of paleontologists, which were reviewed by newspaper columnists and read by science fiction writers. In Chapter 2 of Reimagining Dinosaurs, Fallon looks at how journalists from this period wrote about the animals, and how they favored stories which were deemed exciting, this being the age of Yellow Journalism in which facts frequently took a backseat to sensationalism. Journalists reporting on the so-called Bone Wars of rival paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh tended to highlight the “grotesqueness” of the dinosaurs being uncovered in the American badlands, with the horned Triceratops and the heavily armored Stegosaurus being seen as the most alarming.

In particular, Fallon notes the tendency among reporters to refer to such dinosaurs via circumlocutions appropriated from the nonsense poetry of Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll. References to real prehistoric creatures appeared side-by-side with Carroll’s borogoves, bandersnatches, snarks, and of course, jabberwocks. Fallon interprets this confabulation as a sly commentary on paleontologist’s overreliance on polysyllabic dinosaur nomenclature which, to the average reader, sounded as utterly nonsensical as any of Carroll’s imaginary monsters.

With Chapter 3, Reimagining Dinosaurs begins its examination of early science fiction involving dinosaurs via a sampling of obscure novels, nearly all of which fall into the subgenre of the lost world adventure. Frank Savile’s tale of polar exploration, Beyond the Great South Wall (1899), is a representative example in which treasure hunters discover a lost Mayan city guarded by a kaijū-like Brontosaurus. Fallon’s final chapter however concerns what is undoubtedly the most popular early dinosaur novel still in print: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912).

Combining clues first uncovered in Roy Pilot and Alvin Rodin’s The Annotated Lost World (1996) with the methodology developed by historian Michael Saler in his compelling study of early genre fiction, As If (2012), Reimagining Dinosaurs manages to bring fresh and fascinating insights to this 110-year-old paleofiction classic. Chief among Fallon’s observations is the way in which Doyle constructed The Lost World as not merely fiction, but as an ostensibly real account, with a journalistic prose style, the presence of a detailed map, doctored photographs, and tantalizing illustrations. While never intending to legitimately deceive anyone, Fallon demonstrates Doyle’s desire was to get as close as conceivably possible to a hoax in his presentation of a story about living dinosaurs in South America.

Provocatively, Reimagining Dinosaurs juxtaposes Doyle’s hoax-like construction of The Lost World with the author’s belief in the truly hoaxed Cottingley Fairy photographs, noting that in both cases Doyle seemed less concerned with the authenticity of the pictures than with the romantic possibilities they suggested. Moreover, Fallon demonstrates that in addition to his well-known belief in Spiritualism, Doyle was also an early adopter of cryptozoology, having claimed to have sighted a living plesiosaur while on his honeymoon. Like Hutchinson, Fallon portrays Doyle as someone who admired science while being openly hostile to actual scientists who he feared were actively disenchanting the world.

Yellow journalism talked about in Reimagining Dinosaurs

A sensational 1898 article in “New York Journal”

In the conclusion to Reimagining Dinosaurs, Fallon observes that the controversies which typified early dinosaur popular culture are still with us today, fittingly citing the Jurassic World films as an example. With their monstrous, antiquated dinosaurs, these movies have thrilled audiences and generated billions of dollars at the box office, while receiving scorn and ridicule from paleontologists for abandoning scientific accuracy in the name of sci-fi sensationalism. The reason why dinosaurs continue to haunt the public’s imagination may have less to do with science and more with a desire to see our fantasies made real.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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