Michael J. Benton, The Dinosaurs Rediscovered: How a Scientific Revolution is Rewriting History

Michael J. Benton, The Dinosaurs Rediscovered: How a Scientific Revolution is Rewriting History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019) 320 pp. £24.95 Hb. ISBN 9780500052006

We live in the aftermath of the Renaissance, in what Mark Witton has called the post-modern period of palaeoart. The Renaissance in question began not in medieval Florence but in Wyoming: in most accounts, it started with John Ostrom’s 1969 monograph on Deinonychus antirrhopus. In the early twentieth century, dinosaurs were widely regarded as sluggish, stupid marsh lizards – in fact, one of them had been named Elosaurus, which literally means ‘marsh lizard’, on its discovery in 1902. But when Ostrom excavated Deinonychus, which was to become the model for the Velociraptors of Jurassic Park (1993), a different picture emerged. Two things about Deinonychus, Michael J. Benton tells us, were particularly inescapable: ‘first, this dinosaur was built for speed and manoeuvrability as a hunter […] second, that the skeleton […] was pretty well indistinguishable from that of Archaeopteryx, the first bird’ (110).

The story is familiar to anyone who has dabbled in the history of palaeontology: Ostrom’s discovery inaugurated a reassessment of the dinosaur fossil record and numerous new finds, and the animals increasingly became seen in terms of their dynamism, their sociability – and their avian qualities. Following Spielberg’s intervention, most lay readers are now comfortable with the idea of dinosaurs who were quick, warm-blooded, and even intelligent. But as I began this review by mentioning, we live in the aftermath of this insight: while the general public has slowly been absorbing the lessons of Ostrom and colleagues, dinosaur science has been continuing apace. In 2018, Steve Brusatte observes, new species – species, not individual fossils – were being described at a rate of about one a week. This pace of new discoveries, combined with the development of new techniques for studying already-collected specimens, is once again reshaping our image of dinosaur life.

Here to update us, then, is Benton, whose affable and accessibly-written book carries as its chief advantage the fact that its author, a professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol, has had a ringside seat for all the big discoveries of the last four decades. Indeed, he was in the ring for some of them: the book opens with a description of his involvement in the 2008 discovery of melanosomes in the fossilised feathers of Sinosauropteryx – the first time that the colour of a dinosaur (ginger and white) has been definitely known. Over his nine chapters, Benton seeks to give us the latest view of all aspects of dinosaur palaeobiology: how they moved, what they ate, and – of course – how they went extinct. But palaeontology is an historical science, and Benton also understands the importance of the longer view. His description of Deinonychus, therefore, takes account of the Victorian assessment – surprising to some readers – which placed dinosaurs closer to birds than early twentieth century science (a renaissance, after all, is a rebirth).

A real selling point of this book is its 163 illustrations, many specially commissioned to depict the most up-to-date views of the animals. Those who haven’t checked in for a while will be taken aback by the feathered Deinonychus, the fluffy Tyrannosaurus, and the bumpy dwarf sauropod Magyarosaurus. I am not qualified to judge the accuracy of the illustrations, but they complement Benton’s discussion usefully and their abundance gives the book a consistent aesthetic style. It also helps distinguish the present-day images from the many historical interpretations which Benton reproduces, allowing the reader to appreciate the scale on which our view of dinosaurs has changed. Benton also augments his account with numerous maps and graphs, but these I found less useful: they have been simplified – a gesture I appreciate – but in a way that makes them feel cumbersome and unintuitive, less trustworthy than more technical figures but not much easier to read.

The challenge of writing dinosaur science for the general public, I imagine, is that the knowledge base of ‘the general public’ is wildly inconsistent. Benton’s target audience includes lay experts – to whom a lot of his revelations will be old news – as well as people who haven’t thought about dinosaurs since adolescences now decades past. The graphs are perhaps the most obvious examples of an attempt at compromise – Benton’s implied reader is alert enough to want them, but not so alert that they can handle more detailed versions. We see it also in the ‘little-known facts’ which accompany every modern dinosaur illustration: Benton speaks in places with the trappings of the scientific treatise, but here the visual language of the 1990s’ children’s ‘Funfax’ is ever-present.

This is no bad thing. Dinosaurs, from their sensational 1854 inauguration at the Crystal Palace onwards, have always served to blend the varied tones of scientific and public discourse. We see this repeatedly as Benton’s prose shifts between positivist description and personal anecdote – a blended language which, recent works by writers like Steve Brusatte, John R. Horner, and Riley Black suggest, is increasingly characteristic of the public-facing palaeontologist. Benton has other modes, too: he is good at historical description and occasionally allows himself to be riled by the ignorance of (for example) naysayers who reject the bird-dinosaur link. In these moments, which are rarer than the others, Benton speaks far beyond his book’s saurian remit and offers impassioned arguments for the experimental method more widely.

There is a cost. Benton never quite feels as if he’s in control of his tonal shifts, which in some places gives the book a pleasingly informal feel but in others makes the through-lines of chapters and sections difficult to follow. From a Literature and Science perspective (and it is worth emphasising that this is a popular science book intended for general readers, with no pretensions towards our field of study), he is only inconsistently attentive to the cultural ramifications of his discussion. ‘The dinosaur food web is a human construct’ (204), he tells us, without ever quite taking the next step and asking what it means – for humans and for dinosaurs – that so much of them is our creation. That question, of course, is not Benton’s project. His book will be very useful for those whose it is.

Will Tattersdill, University of Glasgow