The Rise And Fall Of The Dinosaurs: A New History Of A Lost World, by Steve Brusatte
On the one hand, it is easy to see why this book won so many awards, as the author is chatty and knowledgeable about the latest research into dinosaurs, much of which he shares in this book of about 350 pages or so. Given my general fondness for reading about dinosaurs, I may have even picked up this book at some time to read had I not been prompted to do so by an online challenge to read books nominated for Goodreads awards, and this one won the 2018 award for Science & Technology. That said, there was a lot about this book I found worthy of criticism, including the author’s Lamarkian view of saltationist evolution which is frequently repeated throughout the volume as the author desperately tries to explain the rapid supposed evolution of dinosaurs from alleged small ancestors, or the massive and rapid changes that accompanied the entrance of birds onto the fossil record. Some readers may also criticize the self-insert aspects of the book wherein the author spends almost as much time talking about the history of researchers into dinosaurs as he does about the “history” (sans texts, mind you) of the dinosaurs themselves.
This book begins with a timeline of the age of dinosaurs, a putative dinosaur family tree, and world maps of the prehistoric earth. The prologue talks about the golden age of discovery and then the author gives a chronological story about dinosaurs beginning with their dawn (1) as one of a large group of diverse reptiles, amphibians, and early mammals. The author then discusses their rise from a regional phenomenon to a more widespread group of animals (2) and then discusses the period when they became dominant over creation (3). After that the author discusses the effects of continental drift on dinosaurs (4), and spends two chapters talking about tyrannosaurs in general (5) and then T-Rex in particular (6). This leads to a discussion of dinosaurs at the top of their game around 70 million years ago or so (7) and the common contemporary belief among scientists that birds are contemporary relics of dinosaurs (8) before discussing the fall of dinosaurs in a state of vulnerability due to a massive impact from space (9). The epilogue allows the author to engage in the rather typical fearmongering about climate change that is all too common in such works as well that try to draw a direct connection between the mass extinction that ended the age of dinosaurs and our own contemporary age.
Ultimately, this book is an enjoyable enough read for what it is. The author is engaging even if his handwaving accounts of dinosaur evolution lack a great deal of convincing insight or knowledge about processes. So long as one views this book as a sort of stealth memoir of a life spent researching dinosaur and an account of the fascinating and often deeply interesting people who spend their lives finding and seeking to understand dinosaurs, there is a lot to offer here. The book is, rather unsurprisingly, less of a history of dinosaurs themselves than a novelistic example of erudite fan fiction about dinosaurs and more historically and factually sound discussion of the importance of dinosaurs and the contemporary state of research about dinosaurs. The book is certainly worthy of awards as a book about scientists, although as a book about dinosaurs it, like all too many fanciful and speculative attempts at natural history, it ends up being more revealing about the imaginative capabilities of the author (which are immense) rather than about the actual age of the dinosaurs which it purports to tell. Still, it is a worthy book to read, not least because dinosaurs fire the imagination of children and adults alike.