As you can well imagine, I’ve read a fair few dinosaur books from the latter half of the twentieth century, and while they are almost always dated in just about every respect, there are very few that stun me with their sheer strangeness. One can well understand outdated views on dinosaur evolutionary history, anatomy and biology, but it’s quite something else to encounter a book that’s such a culture shock that it might as well have emerged from a completely alien culture in a parallel universe. But it didn’t – it was (in this case) just from the 1970s.
Although I imagine that if one could time-travel back to the 1970s, it would be an extreme culture shock. With that in mind, it’s 1973. Dinner time. I’m ‘avin’ ‘oops.* And here’s Life Before Man (not that one).
This book was produced as part of The Emergence of Man series, “by the editors of Time-Life books”. The opening chapter title – “The Paragon of Animals” – provides the perfect idea of what to expect. Humans are the paragon, of course. Except, we aren’t referred to as humans – this is the 1970s, after all. No, we are MAN. Not humans, or humankind, or humanity, or even mankind. MAN. The chapter opens with a gloriously overblown celebration of everything that MAN is – “the hero of this story,” of course, but also “the most complex assemblage of molecules ever to appear on earth [sic], possibly in the universe,” representing “a quantum leap beyond all other organisms,” at least when considered as a collective. “For the moment, at least, he is in command of the spaceship Earth, perhaps in danger of wrecking it even before take-off, but equally able to steer for the stars.”
Oh yes – this whole affair is truly a celebration of MAN as The Ultimate Organism, the very apex of a metaphorical Creation. It’s all rather quasi-religious. So where do dinosaurs fit into all this? Why is there a Tyrannosaurus on the cover? Dinosaurs are hailed in the third chapter, entitled “Nature’s Grand Failures” – given the irresistible subtitle of “The Bellicose Life Style of the Dinosaurs”. (In fact, that one line prompted me to buy this book from eBay.)
But if dinosaurs were failures, why is Rexy on the cover? Well, we all know what sells. Besides, this book seems rather conflicted as to exactly what dinosaurs were like and how important they were in the grand history of life – and with good reason.
While jarringly old-fashioned in so many respects – not least its chauvinistic lauding of MAN as some sort of super-organism – this book counted John Ostrom and Bob Bakker among its consultants. As such, there is a collision between old-fashioned ideas of dinosaurs as evolution’s unproductive experimental phase and a more modern view of them as active, successful animals. This conflict seems to be reflected in the illustrations, all provided by Burt Silverman. According to Professor Wiki, Silverman is still alive – now in his 90s – and is counted as part of the Classical Realism movement. This grants the illustrations a similar style to the likes of Knight and especially Burian – they are painterly and works of art for art’s sake, rather than being more clinical, technical, post-Renaissance palaeoart as we now typically imagine it.
All the same, the dinosaurs in these illustrations are not Knight or Burian dinosaurs. They are more active and modern, with elevated tails, active postures and dynamic behaviours. The above depiction of Deinonychus is the perfect example – to the palaeoart enthusiast, the style evokes images of the other Life Before Man, but beneath those broad brushstrokes there is clearly a more Dino Renaissance-inspired approach to anatomy and behaviour.
Still, one could well argue that Deinonychus – purely due to the time in which it was discovered and its small size – has always been depicted as fleet-footed and active. However, one can’t make the same argument for giant tyrannosaurs. Silverman depicts them, too, as active creatures with quite well-developed muscles and an alert poise. They also certainly pay more attention to the real animals’ skeletal anatomy than ‘classical’ palaeoart, even if their heads are still rather fanciful. Again, the style alone makes these rather fascinating pieces – true to Classical Realism, they are painted as if the artist was sitting out in the field and observing the animals in life, with distant trees and cliffs rendered blobby and indistinct, and the creatures themselves having a fluid, organic quality.
Just ignore that caption. That caption ain’t makin’ no bleedin’ sense.
In the early 1970s, it was certainly rare to see sauropods charging over land with their tails held in the air – and yet here they are. They also appear muscular, and while a little vaguely-defined by modern standards, they certainly aren’t overly rotund or lethargic. The text describes Brontosaurus as “ponderous”, yet that isn’t really the impression one gets from this image. This is another marriage of an artistic style typically employed by ‘classic’ paleoartists with post-Renaissance thinking – the sort of work that could really only have been produced around this time.
Another sauropod – Camarasaurus this time – appears in an illustration depicting various denizens of Late Jurassic North America. Naturally, a modern viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to the bizarre-looking arrangement of the Stegosaurus‘ plates – flat on its back, which was still a pretty common, if rarely depicted, hypothesis at the time. (Bev Halstead also advocates it in The Evolution and Ecology of the Dinosaurs.) The Stegosaurus also has 8 tail spikes, a la classic Marshian depictions of Stegosaurus stenops. Take a look at that Camarasaurus, though – another saurpod with well-defined, muscular limbs, a tail held proudly up in the air, and masterfully painted highlights on its scaly skin. I do really rather like this style – so much is conveyed in so few brushstrokes. The trees in the background fade into dribbles of paint, and yet we’re somehow completely convinced. Detail: less is more. Possibly. Sometimes.
And on that note, drink in this wonderful illustration of Stegoceras (no, not Pachycephalosaurus) – it truly wouldn’t look out of place hanging on the walls of an art gallery. Unsurprising, given Silverman’s talents and, indeed, career. Once more, what might be regarded as an ‘old-school’ style of palaeoart disguises a much more modern approach in reconstructing the animals. No doubt the consultants can be given plenty of credit here. Apart from its lovely background, this piece is also notable in giving the animals a somewhat more exuberant, blue-and-yellow stripy colour scheme, as opposed to the more conventionally earthy tones we’ve seen so far (even if the palette remains muted).
Above all, just look at those perfectly executed skin folds, all done with the absolute minimum of fuss. Wonderful.
Even Protoceratops isn’t the squat, crawling thing that it was so often depicted as well into the 1990s. Nor are the desert backgrounds completely devoid of life or points of interest. Granted, that emerging hatchling is preposterously clean, and the heads of the adults seem a little on the small side. But just look at the wonderful, subtle patterning on their bodies and that beautiful shading. Given that they feature in an otherwise hopelessly outdated book about the supremacy of MAN, Silverman’s illustrations are really far better than they have any right to be.
Apart from Silverman’s work, we’re also treated to a fold-out family tree of the dinosaurs, featuring photographs of papercraft dinosaur silhouettes. These notably include a number of very Bakker-like creations (check out those ceratopsians), a sitting Daspletosaurus and a remarkably good Spinosaurus for the time. It helps that the latter is vague, of course, but given how utterly weird a lot of Spinosaurus reconstructions were back then, it’s quite an achievement. The “paper sculpture” was by Nicholas Fasciano – hats off, there.
And finally…the book features a number of photographs of paintings by the American “unassuming geologist” Arthur Lakes, who was caught up in the Bone Wars. They include paintings of men working in the field in addition to later life reconstructions of dinosaurs…that are all obviously copied from the work of Charles Knight. Nevertheless, the text (by freelance writer Dora Jane Hamblin) duly describes them as “enchanting, if occasionally erroneous,” and criticises various aspects of the animals’ anatomy, apparently oblivious to the fact that they are blatant copies. Of particular note is the description of Lakes’ imagination being ‘aflame’ when he painted a straight copy of Knight’s famous ‘leaping Laelaps‘ piece. Not very imaginative at all, if you ask me…
Thanks very much to Saliya Cooray who pointed me to this book! I owe you one.
*Award yourself 100 chasmo-points if you get this reference.