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.