Tattersdill on Debus, 'Dinosaurs Ever Evolving: The Changing Face of Prehistoric Animals in Popular Culture'

Allen A. Debus
Will Tattersdill

Allen A. Debus. Dinosaurs Ever Evolving: The Changing Face of Prehistoric Animals in Popular Culture. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2016. 320 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9951-9.

Reviewed by Will Tattersdill (University of Birmingham) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (August, 2017) Commissioned by Darren N. Wagner

Decades before becoming chief architect of the “asteroid” theory of dinosaur extinction, Luis Alvarez flew over Hiroshima and Nagasaki as scientific observer on the mission that dropped the first atomic bombs used in warfare. The coincidence seems, at first, almost bizarre, but the more one thinks about it, the more a biographical connection between dinosaurs and nuclear holocaust comes to affirm links already visible in the science fiction of the period, fiction that abounds with images of fiery extinctions. The exact way in which these images function—the cultural entanglement of the dinosaurs’ last days with humanity’s potential for self-destruction—is far more complex, however, than their shared association with the life of a single physicist. Extricating some of the ways that writers and scientists ascribe meanings to these ancient deaths (and the lives that preceded them), in the nuclear age and across the last two centuries, is Allen A. Debus’s project in this book.

Debus (not to be confused with his father, the historian of science Allen G. Debus) is a geologist and dinosaur sculptor whose prodigious enthusiasm for imaginative riffs on his subject has led to a host of books, all published by McFarland: Paleoimagery, co-written with Diane E. Debus, (2002), Dinosaurs in Fantastic Fiction (2006), and Prehistoric Monsters (2010) all prefigure this volume in important ways. Although he offers a different emphasis in each, Debus refers to Dinosaurs Ever Evolving as “this go-round” in his introduction (p. 9); the book can certainly be read separately from the author’s other outputs, but Debus is constantly going back over material referred to elsewhere in his oeuvre, modifying and finessing points from his earlier work. In a similar fashion, individual chapters of this book alternate between feeling as if they are meant to stand alone and being almost circumlocutionary in the way that they cross and re-cross each other—an effect that clouds the overall structure of the text. The impression this creates in the reader—a sense of meandering that occasionally borders on the frustrating—is an understandable consequence of the intimidating scale both of the subject and of Debus’s knowledge of it. It is also, however, a consequence of the writing itself; while there is a huge amount of useful information and even bold theorizing in this work, there is no question that it badly needed some affirmative editing.

If you are interested in the history of dinosaurs in popular culture, Debus is an author you simply cannot ignore. He has written copiously on the “imaginative impact” of dinosaurs, and he is clearly on to something when he proposes to offer “an alternate history” of their evolution (pp. 265, 3)—a history written not across the geological ages of the Mesozoic (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous) but rather across the far thinner strata of time in which humanity has reassembled and named them. Dinosaurs were conceived of very differently a century ago than they are today, not just by scientists but by writers, artists, and filmmakers as well, and Debus’s acknowledgment of this difference, and of its ability to inform us about ourselves, is a central virtue of his book. I find myself less convinced by the specific, tripartite breakdown of history that it adopts; despite the disclaimer that “the three ages of the dinosaur as outlined here aren’t temporally exclusive” (pp. 8–9), the partitions between “didactic,” “doomsday,” and “humanoid” dinosaurs feel a little too clean and orderly (the latter two, in particular, share an unhelpfully large grey area in my estimation). My copy of the book contains an apparent misprint, which gives it the alternative title Three Ages of the Dinosaur. It is a logical working title for Debus’s manuscript, but the final one is far better: dinosaurs are indeed “ever evolving” in the public sphere, and the perpetual shifts in the way we tell stories about them ultimately frustrate any neat division into “eras,” however carefully considered.

In pointing out that the human reception of dinosaurs is in some respects as worthy of study as dinosaurs themselves, Debus does a huge service to those who work in the history of science; his service to literary critics is to be found in the inclusive breadth of his source material, which unpretentiously includes everything from Jules Verne to Toho film productions. Few indeed will be the readers who do not find out about some previously unheard of dino-text in this work. Toward the beginning, Debus differentiates himself from W. J. T. Mitchell’s pathfinding study The Last Dinosaur Book (1998) by expanding his range “beyond (strictly) the visual arts” (p. 5), and the easy familiarity with which he moves between print material as disparate as Henry Knipe’s Nebula to Man (an epic poem about evolutionary history published in 1905) and John C. McLoughlin’s Toolmaker Koan (a 1988 science fiction novel in which humanoid dinosaurs prompt the great extinction event) is enviable. Only occasionally does the range feel too great: the Japanese material, much of it clustered around Godzilla, feels like it comes from a slightly different history, one that Debus (a Godzilla authority in addition to his other credentials) has not had the space fully to explain or integrate.

Debus is at his best when he is being purely descriptive, as he is of numerous relevant and carefully selected historical episodes, or, perhaps most usefully, in his thorough review of extremely rare Gorgo comics (chapter 12). Once engaged in cultural criticism, though, he becomes more offhand—an impulse that threatens his precision and makes him less crowd pleasing for an academic audience (although an academic audience is not, I suspect, his primary market). When he writes of Ray Bradbury’s iconic dinosaur tales that “they’re just marvellous stories as is, without need of any interpretation” (p. 172), I have to reach for my smelling salts; his claim of “a new way of looking at H. P. Lovecraft” (p. 73), on the other hand, is followed by an analysis of that writer’s stories which does seem, to me, to be genuinely innovative. The reader of this review is probably getting a sense of my strained relationship with this text: it is a careful and deeply informed take on a rich and important subject, packed with ideas, negotiated somewhat gracelessly. Its insights into the histories of palaeontology, cinema, biology, science fiction, nuclear physics, and popular science are marred by their structure and presentation, but they are still of enormous potential benefit to scholars working in any or all of these areas. I earnestly hope that Debus will continue his series; I hope, too, that he will find a way of sharpening upon the page the insights that are the product of his vast knowledge.

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Citation: Will Tattersdill. Review of Debus, Allen A., Dinosaurs Ever Evolving: The Changing Face of Prehistoric Animals in Popular Culture. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. August, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49272

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