September 24, 2009
There is no shortage of dinosaur encyclopedias available today. Each is organized a little differently and is aimed at a different audience, but there is a lot of overlap among them. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, written by paleontologist Darren Naish, is a wonderful exception to this trend.
Rather than focus on the dinosaurs alone, Naish uses the history of science as a foil to illustrate how what we know about dinosaurs has changed over the past 200 years. The dinosaurs were are familiar with today would no doubt shock the Victorian naturalists who initially described them as enormous versions of lizards and crocodiles. This change did not come about instantaneously, and Naish’s book shows how scientific hypotheses intermingled with new discoveries to shape our present understanding of dinosaurs.
This approach has been taken before, as in Edwin Colbert’s Men and Dinosaurs, but Naish’s book is a unique contribution. Not only does it serve as a sorely-needed update to books about how dinosaur science has changed, but is is lavishly illustrated. It is a pleasure just to flip through the pages and look at the photographs and artistic restorations.
Yet The Great Dinosaur Discoveries is much more than a glossy coffee table book. It is packed with scientific and historical information that will no doubt please a wide variety of readers. I particularly enjoyed Naish’s strategy for mixing the dueling historical and scientific narratives. The great discoveries are organized in chronological order and include the details of the discovery along with what we know now. This allows Naish to contrast the image of the dinosaurs when they were first discovered to what we have learned since. The entry for Megalosaurus, for instance, shows an early 1854 restoration of the dinosaur as a kind of crocodile/dog hybrid with a bold modern restoration of the predatory dinosaur running after a hapless herbivore.
Naish gives the same attention to detail to new discoveries, as well. The final section of the book, which focuses on discoveries made in the last decade, is an excellent overview of what dinosaur science is like today. As some paleontologists have noted, we are presently in a “golden age” for dinosaur studies; our understanding of them and their evolution is growing at an astounding rate. Almost every month major new discoveries are heralded in academic journals and important new finds are coming out of the ground fast and furious. While Naish has done an superb job making his book as up-to-date as possible, I have little doubt that he could already start working on an addendum to include all the new finds that have been announced since his book went to press.
The Great Dinosaur Discoveries is an excellent book for dinosaur enthusiasts of any stripe. It is a beautifully-produced volume that is among the best summaries of dinosaur science presently available. It will no doubt be beloved by professional paleontologists and young dino-philes alike.
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