Cover detail of Steve Brusatte's "The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs" featuring art by Todd Marshall

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

Book Review

Any dinosaur book aimed at a popular audience has a few core responsibilities. It needs to impart the latest scientific consensus on its subjects, give a digestible explanation of how various branches of dinosauria evolved over time, explain their broader evolutionary context, and explain convincingly that the birds are The Dinosaurs Who Lived. I’m sure others could add must-haves I’d consider tacking on. Steve Brusatte’s recently-published The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World (The Untold Story of a Lost World in the UK edition) ticks all of these boxes with style, giving the public an updated look at the denizens of the Mesozoic and at the paleontologists putting the puzzle together. It’s a globe-trotting, swift-footed book, spanning the entire Mesozoic from the evolutionary origins of dinosauria to its near-extinction at the hand of cosmic cataclysm.

So what is Brusatte’s point-of-view? Well, for all of the time spanned over the book’s 400-odd pages, don’t come to it expecting the scope of, say, Scott Sampson’s 2010 Dinosaur Odyssey. The book may not be served well by its title. It’s a much more personal tale, as Brusatte uses his own scholarly journey and specific interests to shape Rise and Fall. It’s an approach that gave me the sense that I was accompanying him on his colorful adventures through deep time, and I appreciated it as a way to look at some of the notable fossil discoveries of last decade-or-so through the eye of a researcher working to solve paleontological puzzles.

Rise and Fall feels well-suited for a general audience, all the better if they’ve taken it upon themselves to keep up with science since leaving school. Brusatte wastes little time hacking through weedy jargon, using punchy, casual language. When a wider view is necessary, he deftly describes the geological forces that shaped the evolution of this most iconic family of archosaurs. In particular, his description of the titanic volcanism ending the Triassic is engrossing. His descriptions of faunal transitions between the periods and stages of the Mesozoic are likewise clear, even when not accompanied by spectacular disaster. When ecological context is needed, he provides wildlife-documentary style vignettes of prehistoric dramas, the keenest of which is a pack-hunting tyrannosaur scene from the Late Cretaceous. When historical context is necessary, he introduces readers to personalities like Barnum Brown and Baron Nopsca. Brusatte shifts between these passages skillfully. As icing on the cake, each chapter is graced by new, dynamic Todd Marshall paleoart, as is the North American edition’s cover.

Some elision is necessary when penning this type of book. Readers with keen interest in sauropod and theropod giants and bird evolution will feel well-served, but ornithischian-fanciers may be disappointed that ceratopsians and hadrosaurs mostly serve as T. rex chow, and thyreophora hardly makes an appearance. Contrast his tour through tyrannosauroid diversity with his brief remarks on ceratopsia. While Guanlong, Kileskus, and Yutyrannus shine in the lead up to sexy Rexy, one awkward sentence could lead lay readers to think that Leptoceratops is a remarkably long-lived ancestor of Triceratops. But I can’t fault Brusatte for keeping his focus where it is, using the most charismatic and recognizable of dinosaurs to deliver some surprising science to readers who don’t follow developments in the field on a weekly basis.

As an introduction to the multi-disciplinary field of paleontology, Rise and Fall excels at showing the audience a profession populated by colorful, impassioned characters. His gratitude to be doing this work in this community shows, and his enthusiasm is the engine that zips us across the Mesozoic. But Brusatte may also be unwittingly reinforcing certain stereotypes of the geosciences as the pursuit of ruggedly eccentric, beer-swilling men. Victoria Arbour makes a similar point in her review, and Phoebe Cohen’s open letter published on Medium is a must-read to get the larger context. By and large, male peers and mentors receive the most vivid descriptions, and drinking often plays a part in their introductions. Like all sciences, paleontology has a lot of work to do to in terms of equity and inclusion. I’m glad Brusatte has written this book, and I recommend it, but as I look at the names of people who are afforded the chance to write big, pop-sci titles dedicated to paleontology, it’s severely lopsided, gender-wise. We deserve to hear the stories of a more diverse spectrum of paleontologists. And they deserve to tell them.

Having covered the titular rise and fall, Brusatte ends with a brief epilogue in which he and his University of Edinburgh students explore Paleocene outcrops in New Mexico to fill out the story of what happened in the wake of the Chicxulub impact. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at where his curiosity is leading him, and I am crossing my fingers that it’s a harbinger of what he has planned for his next book.

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  • Reply
    Seth Brundle
    July 7, 2018 at 9:29 pm

    Do you really expect an semi-autobiographical approach to his experience in his field to conform to your political ideal of what you want the field to be? That seems like such a silly complaint. Must politics infect everything? Should people like Mary Anning be given more of the spotlight in the history of paleontology? Sure. But from what I can tell (I’m only about halfway though) that’s not what this book is about. He mentions the people he mentions for very specific reasons-to interweave his experiences with certain individuals in his career with certain points he’s trying to make about dinos. And it sounds like he spent a lot of time with male colleagues. You can say that’s NOT OKAY but that was his experience. Not everyone is going through life with a politically motivated spreadsheet to make sure everything is diverse. IMO, I don’t think their work should lose points for not doing so.

    • Reply
      David Orr
      July 8, 2018 at 8:07 pm

      Thanks for your comment. As I gathered my thoughts for this review, I did consider the fact that Brusatte is telling *his* story. His story naturally is populated by the people who he has happened to work with and who have happened to be his mentors. We don’t have much control over the people who guide us through the institutions we enter. His path entailed a lot of time spent with male colleagues. This wasn’t his fault and I didn’t suggest it was.

      What I would suggest is that this experience was at least partly because he, like all other scientists, are working in a profession which is dealing with systemic issues of access and inclusion.

      As I wrote, I’m glad he wrote this book. I liked the book. I learned from it. I think other people will. I recommend it. Does Brusatte have internal, unexamined biases? Of course he does. We all do. Experimental science is concerned at its core with trying to eliminate their influence. So he can do better. We all can do better.

      Every word, sentence, and paragraph is a choice a writer makes to achieve their goal. Due to the zippy, casual, enthusiastic feel of “Rise and Fall,” it’s clear to me that one of Brusatte’s goals is to engage the public with his field, to portray it as a fun, exciting, relevant pursuit undertaken by clever and relatable people. It’s clear to me that he wrote this book in this way to bring people in.

      So considering that, it’s absolutely relevant to look at how the field is portrayed, how his peers are described, and yes, how diverse the people are. Women are not left out of this narrative, which I did not suggest. The contributions of female scientists are brought into many chapters. I don’t think he’s left them out. But as I said in my review, I think he’s *unwittingly* played up the field as the domain of manly dudes with a beer in each hand. As a representative of his field, and someone who leads field teams and mentors younger scientists, I think this is something he’d like to consider. It’s not his job to fix systemic issues of access and inclusion on his own, but he’s part of the solution, just as we all are.

      I’m not saying this ruined the book, but it’s absolutely something I noticed as I read it and felt it was my responsibility to include in this review. I could have left that paragraph out, but I’m not wasting my time putting out press releases or uncritical puff pieces.

      I do not say this because I care about ticking boxes on the Political Correctness Checklist. It’s because I desperately want this and all other scientific fields more accessible to more people. That’s not because I feel that historically marginalized communities need to be coddled, appeased, or shoved into jobs. It’s because I believe that science itself is made stronger by considering more perspectives. Science is ultimately a way for us to find our own story in the cosmos, and I will continue to advocate for more voices to be part of its telling.

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