Thursday, October 27, 2022

My Beloved Brontosaurus by Riley Black (Brian Switek)

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


Before I get into the book itself, let me just make my apologies for the necessity of using deadnames. This is the problem that unfortunately arises when an author publishes books under a deadname, leaving thousands of copies - to say nothing of small-town library catalog systems - with one name, even as the author transitions to another name. In some sense, this is like a pen name (See: Ellis Peters) except with a ton of transphobic cultural baggage attached. 


I have thought long and hard on how best to handle this issue in this particular case, and have settled on an unsatisfactory compromise that I believe is “less bad” than the alternatives. My decision is that I will, solely for the sake of enabling readers of this blog to find the author’s books, make a brief mention of the deadname. Everywhere else, I will refer to authors by their names and pronouns, just like I would in any other situation. 


As I mentioned in a previous post, if the particular author manages to stumble across my blog, and prefers that I make a change, I am happy to do so. 


So, you will find Riley Black’s earlier books, such as this one, written under the name of Brian Switek, particularly older library copies. Her newer books, and her numerous magazine articles at places like Slate, National Geographic, Scientific American, and Smithsonian, will usually have Riley Black as the byline. Also, you can visit her website here




My Favorite Brontosaurus has been on my “to-read” list for several years. The problem is, it was really popular at our local library for a long time, was never there when I looked for it, and I didn’t want to order it and have to return it before I finished. So I waited. 


I was never one of those kids who was really into dinosaurs. There were a few reasons for that. First, I have tended to gravitate more toward living creatures rather than extinct ones. Second, the fossils that were famous and local where I grew up were the mammals at the La Brea Tar Pits, so of the extinct creatures, I loved the Saber-tooth Cats best of all. (Yes, I am a cat person…) 


The other reason was that, like many who grew up in evangelicalism, I had a fraught relationship with paleontology. Living in a subculture that believed in a 6000 year old universe meant that you stood out - and not in a good way - for believing in anything that smacked of “millions of years” or “evolution.” 


That said, there were some wrinkles within my own family. For those not familiar with the subculture, here is how the whole dinosaur thing went:


My grandparents’ generation: “Dinosaurs didn’t exist or they would be mentioned in the Bible.”

My parents’ generation: “Okay, so they existed, and here is where Job mentions them, but they lived at the same time as humans.”


In my family in particular, my dad literally saw dinosaur bones sticking out of the earth near our distant relatives’ property in Montana. So, he couldn’t exactly go along with the “Dinosaurs are a hoax” thing. For similar reasons, he allowed for the possibility of an old earth. But, because of perceived theological needs, neither of my parents could get on board with evolution. As has been the case with a lot of evangelicals, this in turn led to a general belief that modern science is a conspiracy to hide the truth, and has been followed over time with an increasing distrust of science and medicine, and recently, accepting quack theories about Covid and vaccines. 


Meanwhile, I did well in science classes in high school, and, despite the Fundie curriculum, grew to realize that YEC (as well as alternative “medicine”) was a pile of shit. Like my dad, the problem was, the evidence was staring me in the face. Specifically, of course, the universe itself. You cannot learn astronomy without realizing that you are seeing light that originated millions of years ago. And, with the aid of telescopes, billions of years ago. Likewise, living and exploring the American southwest, you see the evidence of eons right there in the rock layers. And they can’t be explained with some sort of single flood event. Oh, and the layers seem to have specific fossils for their ages. Weird, huh? 


So, by the time I moved out, I was firmly in the pro-evolution camp, although I wasn’t “out” to my family. My wife and I raised our kids on mainstream science, which meant we have been using fully secular textbooks for a long time. I also did not realize just how “mainstream” anti-science is in conservative towns. Just as an example, at the homeschool enrichment program a couple of my kids attend, the instructor felt it necessary to disclose that some of the students’ parents may find some topics “controversial.” 


What was that topic? The Stone Age. 


I mean, I was raised Fundie and all, but what the heck is controversial about the Stone Age? Do these parents really believe that they had stainless steel knives in the Garden of Eden? (To be clear: the instructor was and is teaching facts, not religious fiction, and just wanted to defuse the situation. Also, Lillian has read the Gilgamesh stories, so…) 


Okay, maybe I should get on with the book itself. 


Black grew up as a dinosaur-obsessed kid, and unsurprisingly turned into a vertebrate paleontologist, science writer, and fossil hunter. This book is about dinosaurs, of course, but specifically about the new discoveries and revised beliefs about what they were like and how they lived. The book was written in 2013, so it isn’t cutting edge anymore, but it is far more up to date than most curriculum. And, crucially, far different from the popular culture versions of the Mesozoic. 


This starts with the Brontosaurus, which gets a chapter. As any kid will be happy to tell you, the Brontosaurus doesn’t exist anymore and never did. Okay, so they did exist, but you should call them “Apatosaurus” instead. 


So what happened? It’s actually pretty easy to understand. As more bones were found, and more complete skeletons uncovered, a wholesale revision of dinosaur classification took place. In many cases, it became clear that what had been considered two species was actually just one. Sometimes they were juvenile and adult versions, or perhaps just natural variation within a species. In each case, the first name given was the one that scientists used as the “correct” one. Since Apatosaurus was named first, “Brontosaurus” went the way of the…well, you know.


Except that it didn’t. 


Because, for a variety of reasons, chief among which I think is the fact that “Bronto” sounds like “Bronco,” public consciousness latched on to Brontosaurus. In fact, Carl Sagan would eventually argue that scientists should loosen up a bit, and just change the name to the more popular one. He failed in this quest, alas, so we are stuck with two names for the same creature and a senseless rift between popular and scientific. 


That’s just the first chapter. Black examines new developments in our understanding of dinosaurs, from their close relationship to birds (birds are “avian dinosaurs,” while the others are “non-avian”), to their social lives as we can see them from fossils, to what they may have sounded like, to why they became extinct. Oh, and also the important question of how the heck they managed to have sex, with those bizarre anatomies. 


The fact of the matter is that there still is a lot we will never know, but it is fascinating to figure out what we can, given the discoveries we have made. Black does a great job of describing the how of these things - how we find evidence of particular characteristics or traits - linking the fossil evidence to the conclusions. 


For the most part, the book strikes a note of wonder and calm. But there are also times where Black gets pretty snarky on Young Earth Creationists. I wonder if she feels tired of having the same stupid arguments thrown at her, or perhaps if she had to deal with some of the same subculture I did. 


There are a few random bits from the book that I thought were worth putting in this post. First of all is the description of dino-kitsch that still lingers in our country. For example, the approach to Dinosaur National Monument (on my bucket list…)


You know you’re getting close to the park when goofy, tourist-trap dinosaurs start appearking along Highway 40 in Vernal, Utah. You can’t miss them. SOme of them snarl, others pose outside hotels, and my favorite - a rendition of the town’s long-necked mascot Dinah - wears a polka-dot bikini and stands above a sigh that reads: “Let’s swim!” Dinosaurs didn’t have mammary glands, so I’m not sure what good a bikini top would do. Maybe that’s just the Utah sense of modesty at work. 


One has to wonder about Black’s experience of living (as she presently does) in Salt Lake City as a transgender person. Utah can be…interesting. (Although at least in my experience and in the actual laws, not as hateful as Texas or Florida.) And yes, the “sense of modesty.”


I also found amusing the reference to the alvarezsaurs as the “Mesosoic equivalent of anteaters.” Ants, after all, go way back, and something had to eat them, right?


Bonus points to Black for quoting Terry Pratchett. 


I like to think of these major events as what fantasy satirist Terry Pratchett once characterized as bifurcations in the trousers of time. The history we knew when down one leg, but there was another possible outcome.


There are a few points at which Black indulges in some snark at creationism. The fact of the matter is that, contrary to the teaching I was given that every creature is “perfect” for its role in nature, actual life is full of inefficient kludges and bizarre adaptations that clearly show common ancestry, but make no sense as a design. One example given is the laryngeal nerve, which makes a U shape that gets longer with longer necks. Giraffes are already laughable with a sixteen-foot-long nerve. But certain dinos would have had nerves nearly 100 feet long. Black quotes another scientist as calling dinosaur necks as “monument[s] of inefficiency.”


Another is an observation I might have made traveling through the Southwest. 


The panorama doesn’t whisper the truth of Deep Time - it practically screams it. How anyone in this age can believe that all of this geologic grandeur was created in a matter of days is beyond me. The strata, deeply set in rainbow colors, highlight the almost incomprehensible depth of time and could never have been laid down by a mere flood. Ages are stacked upon ages, naked in the baking western sun. Time is evident everywhere. 


That’s the problem. While each generation has had its schisms, I have to think that for my generation, more people have left the Christian faith because of its insistence on science denial than any other reason. The hill that Fundies chose to die on shows their profoundly poor judgment. It is never good when you have to say, “who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” 


On a totally unrelated note, the section on the mystery of how dinosaurs ate enough to survive is fascinating. And also explains one reason why little boys seem to identify with dinosaurs.


Dinosaur jaws plucked, sliced, cleaved, ripped, and otherwise cropped food, but then they immediately horfed their meals down.


Perhaps Calvin had it right. 


I also learned about a number of dinosaur sites I was unaware of previously. My father-in-law grew up in Price, Utah, and apparently there is now a visitors center for the Cleveland-Lloyd site, which I may have to figure out how to visit someday. 


As a final chuckle, the chapter on the demise of the dinosaurs is interesting. I did not realize the amount of resistance among paleontologists to the idea of an asteroid as the cause. Although it makes sense that they would feel that astronomers were encroaching on their territory. Now, of course, we found the crater, and the iridium in the mud layers. And the time is perfect. But here is the amusing line:


As far as I know, no one has yet implicated the CIA, the KGB, or Fidel Castro in the ultimate demise of the dinosaurs. That said, there has never been a shortage of truly outrageous hypotheses, including the sci-fi idea that aliens hunted dinosaurs out of existence. The idea is bunk, regardless of what the buffoons on Ancient Aliens might tell you, but is popular enough that the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum goes out of its way to list alien extermination along with disease and an ice age as unsupported hypotheses. (“There is no evidence of aliens or their garbage in the fossil record,” the sign advises in deadpan lettering.) 


I can’t find it online, but Calvin also was ahead of this one with his “Time Traveling Big Game Hunters” theory. 


Obviously, I haven’t even gotten into all the science stuff, which is fascinating, but difficult to quote in a blog post adequately. Just get the book and read it. It’s well worth it. 


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