July 12, 2012
A few months back, I mentioned a comic-movie tie-in that sounds like a shameless cash grab – Dinosaurs vs Aliens. Sadly, the titular extraterrestrials are not the parasitic, acid-spitting ALIENS of horror movie fame – imagine what a Triceratops chestburster would have looked like! – but super-intelligent robo-squid who want to wrest control of the earth from the indigenous dinosaurs. Up until yesterday, I had only seen the promotional hype for this monstrous mash-up. Then Part 1 of the comic arrived at my door.
The front matter makes the origin and intent of the story crystal clear. Barry Sonnenfeld, director of the comic-book adaptation Men in Black and its sequels, wanted to organize a graphic novel as a dry run for a feature film. (Rumor has it that there are big plans to turn this story into a cgi-filled blockbuster.) The dinosaur-meets-alien idea came out of the director’s interest in manifest destiny and the atrocities visited on Native Americans by white settlers and explorers who took western North America for themselves. The equation is simple. Sonnenfeld’s aliens are the equivalent of white settlers, and the dinosaurs – daubed with war paint and feathers – are the Native Americans in this alternate history tale.
Scribe Grant Morrison fleshed out Sonnenfeld’s idea, and artist Mukesh Singh brought the tale to life. The result is a glossy detailed book that sets the stage for this prehistoric war of the worlds.
The first chapter is tight and well-executed. Morrison uses a recorded message from one of the alien explorers – discovered in the aftermath of the epic battle the comic describes – to simultaneously explain the alien plan and characterize the primary dinosaur cast. As the alien regretfully describes their plans and hopes for the new world, the dinosaurs act out their own drama according to the narrative. In this first part, the stories of the aliens and dinosaurs dovetail. Since the dinosaurs don’t speak, though, Singh is mostly responsible for telling their story. His scary, osteoderm-covered dinosaurs are further augmented by feathers, paint, and fancy headdresses, and while not totally accurate, each kind of dinosaur that appears is immediately recognizable. Big, sharp-toothed tyrannosaurs, spinosaurs, and allosauroids are the dinosaur leaders, but there are sauropods, ankylosaurs, pachycephalosaurs, and others in the background.
Singh maintains the sharp, beautiful contrast between our Mesozoic heroes and the technologically superior aliens in chapter two, but the narrative starts to slip. Morrison shifts from the taut, straightforward storytelling he established in the first chapter into a purple, flowery style. “When we sounded the arrival horns, it must have seemed as if the sky tore open and rained cathedral bells,” one panel gushes, and another describes how the invading aliens trailed “flags of rainbow vapor, on streamers of cloud.” It’s all a bit too much, especially when Singh beautifully illustrates the scenes on his own.
Even the art eventually falters. Singh’s illustrations in chapter 3 aren’t anywhere as crisp or details as in the first two sections, and here we start to meet awkward, poorly-drawn dinosaurs that look as if they were dashed off in a race to meet publication.
Despite these issues, Dinosaurs vs Aliens is not as corny as I expected. The ‘manifest destiny’ metaphor feels a little heavy-handed at times, but, so far, the parallel with human history keeps the story moving forward at a brisk pace. Since the Part 1 is primarily concerned with filling in background and setting the scene, though, the real test of the graphic novel will be when Sonnenfeld, Morrison and Singh do with the conflict they have created. The premise is in place, and both sides are poised to strike at each other, but the war is yet to come.
July 9, 2012
I grew up during one the best possible times for a dinosaur fan. During the late 80s and early 90s, when our country’s Dinomania was at its apex, dinosaurs were almost always on television in some form or another. There were movies, cartoons, and documentaries, and among the programs I regularly watched was Dinosaurs Dinosaurs Dinosaurs.
The show was part of a fun series that covered dinosaurs in science as well as pop culture, and now, almost thirty years after the program first aired, YouTube user DinosaurTheatre has shared part of an original interview with Natural History Museum paleontologist Angela Milner. We’ve featured Milner here before – in a short video about her work on the croc-snouted spinosaur Baryonyx. In this video, she talks about the Victorian anatomist Richard Owen, how our image of dinosaurs has changed, and the idea – hotly-debated in the 80s, but an evolutionary fact now – that birds are living dinosaurs.
June 5, 2012
“Brontosaurus” should have disappeared a long time ago. Paleontologist Elmer Riggs recognized that the famous “thunder lizard” was a synonym of Apatosaurus more than a century ago, and a 1936 monograph by Charles Gilmore strongly reinforced what Riggs had discovered. Brontosaurus was not a real dinosaur. But, thanks to museum displays and pop culture persistence, Brontosaurus hung on. Even now, we feel compelled to invoke Brontosaurus in the same breath as Apatosaurus—it seems that no one can use the name Apatosaurus without explaining to their audience that we used to call the dinosaur Brontosaurus. No surprise, then, that the word use tracker Google Ngrams charts Brontosaurus as slightly more popular than Apatosaurus. We can’t let the dinosaur go.
Thanks to a fictional conceit, Brontosaurus recently received some screen time. Everybody knows that the plot of King Kong hinges on a gargantuan gorilla, but dinosaurs—stalwart holdovers from the Mesozoic—also have a role to play. What better way to show the power of Skull Island’s monstrous gorilla than to have him pummel a Tyrannosaurus? And when director Peter Jackson revitalized the story in 2005, he included a new and varied menagerie of modern dinosaurs, including a stampeding herd of Brontosaurus.
Jackson’s Brontosaurus looked just like the sauropods I encountered as a child. These computer-generated dinosaurs were drab, blunt-headed hulks that wallowed in swamps filled with soft plants. They were a throwback to a time when paleontologists thought of sauropods as dim-witted mountains of flesh. At the time the film’s fictional Skull Island expedition took place, this is exactly how good sauropods were thought to act.
The film’s official art book, The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island, added another quirk to the dinosaur’s story. The film’s fictional Brontosaurus baxteri is said to be capable of live birth. Instead of laying clutches of small eggs, gravid Brontosaurus females delivered between one and three large, live offspring at a time. This is not just an invention for the movie’s backstory, but something early 20th century paleontologists actually considered. Under the assumption that these dinosaurs spent most of their time in the water, where egg-laying would be impossible, paleontologist W.D. Matthew suggested that big sauropods may have given birth to live young. We now know this isn’t true, but at a time when huge sauropods were thought to have relied on swampy refuges, Matthew’s suggestion seemed to be a reasonable hypothesis.
Brontosaurus is here to stay. We love the dinosaur’s ghost too much to let it rest. And even though we won’t see digitally restored Brontosaurus stomping around in science documentaries, I’m glad King Kong used a bit of scientific license to bring my childhood favorite to life.
May 14, 2012
The Dinosaur Museum, tucked away a few blocks from Blanding, Utah’s main drag, is an unusual place. Intricately detailed sculptures stand next to casts of fossils, full-size paintings of skeletons and various bits of dinosauriana, mixed together to create rooms full of competing dinosaur images. But I didn’t expect to run into a minor dinosaur celebrity in the galleries. Displayed in a small glass case were the decaying remains of King Kong‘s “Brontosaurus.”
I had almost forgotten about the stop-motion dinosaur. In the original, 1933 King Kong, the sharp-toothed sauropod made a brief appearance as a terrifying, carnivorous swamp monster. Worst of all, the dinosaur was just as dangerous on land as in the water. After wrecking the expedition’s boats, the Brontosaurus shuffled after the fleeing humans and nabbed one crew member dumb enough to think you can escape a long-necked dinosaur by climbing a tree.
But that wasn’t the model’s only appearance. The same model was employed in Son of Kong, a hastily created sequel to the initial hit, released a scant nine months after the first film. And the Brontosaurus was made to do double duty. Not only did the Brontosaurus make a brief cameo at the end of the movie, but the film’s special effects creators refashioned the model into a gnarly sea monster.
Today, this piece of Hollywood memorabilia looks even more monstrous. Time has not been kind to the dinosaur. The fabricated flesh has decayed from around the model’s mouth, eyes and neck, making the dinosaur look even more angry than it ever appeared on film. The sauropod was always meant to be scary, but it looks even more intimidating as a tattered cinema zombie.
May 11, 2012
Until now, I have assiduously avoided Ancient Aliens. I had a feeling that if I watched the show—which popularizes far-fetched, evidence-free idiocy about how human history has been molded by extra-terrestrial visitors—my brain would jostle its way out of my skull and stalk the earth in search of a kinder host. Or, at the very least, watching the show would kill about as many brain cells as a weekend bender in Las Vegas. But then I heard the History Channel’s slurry of pseudoscience had taken on dinosaurs. I steeled myself for the pain and watched the mind-melting madness unfold.
I’m actually glad that my editors don’t allow me to cuss a blue streak on this blog. If they did, my entire review would be little more than a string of expletives. Given my restrictions, I have little choice but to try to encapsulate the shiny, documentary-format rubbish in a more coherent and reader-sensitive way.
The episode is what you would get if you dropped some creationist propaganda, Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and stock footage from Jurassic Fight Club into a blender. What results is a slimy and incomprehensible mixture of idle speculation and outright fabrications which pit the enthusiastic “ancient alien theorists,” as the narrator generously calls them, against “mainstream science.” I would say “You can’t make this stuff up,” but I have a feeling that that is exactly what most of the show’s personalities were doing.
There was so much wrong with the Ancient Aliens episode that I could spend all week trying to counteract every incorrect assertion. This is a common technique among cranks and self-appointed challengers of science; it is called Gish Gallop after young earth creationist Duane Gish. When giving public presentations about evolution and creationism, Gish rapidly spouted off a series of misinterpretations and falsehoods to bury his opponent under an avalanche of fictions and distortions. If Gish’s opponent tried to dig themselves out, they would never be able to make enough progress to free themselves to take on Gish directly. Ancient Aliens uses the same tactic—the fictions come fast and furious.
While the main point of the episode is that aliens exterminated dinosaurs to make way for our species—a sci-fi scenario accompanied by some hilarious, mashed-together footage of dinosaurs fleeing from strafing alien craft, perhaps a preview of Dinosaurs vs. Aliens the movie—the various ancient alien experts do little more than assert that such an event must have happened. Surprise, surprise, they provide no actual evidence for their claims. Instead, they borrow evidence for fundamentalist Christians, who are never actually identified as such. Creationist Michael Cremo is identified only as the author of Forbidden Archeology, and Willie E. Dye is credited as a biblical archaeologist without any mention of his young earth creationist views. Ancient Aliens producers clearly did not care about the credentials or expertise of the talking heads they employed—just so long as someone said the right things in front of the camera.
And the creationists didn’t disappoint. About halfway through the program, Cremo says, “Some researchers found human footprints alongside the footprints of dinosaurs.” The quote is a line out of context from Cremo’s interview, but is played in a section claiming that American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Roland T. Bird found human footprints associated with dinosaur trackways in the vicinity of Glen Rose, Texas.
Bird didn’t find any such thing. He found many dinosaur footprints and trackways—one of which he and his crew partially excavated and anachronistically placed behind the AMNH’s “Brontosaurus“—but no human tracks. Strangely, though, hoaxed human tracks did have a role to play in Bird’s decision to initially visit the tracksites.
Bird wasn’t the first person to notice the dinosaur tracks, and selling the sauropod and theropod tracks was a cottage industry in the vicinity of Glen Rose. And a few local people carved fake human tracks in the same stone. Bird actually saw a pair of such forgeries at a trading post in Gallup, New Mexico, along with dinosaur tracks removed from the Glen Rose area, shortly before he left to investigate the site himself.
Bird wasn’t fooled by the fakes. He saw them for what they were, and was much more interested in the real dinosaur tracks imprinted in the same stone. But some creationists, blinded by dogma, have put their faith behind fakes and even dinosaur tracks that they have misinterpreted as being human footprints. When theropod dinosaurs squatted down, for example, the backs of their lower legs, the metatarsals, left slightly curved depressions in the Cretaceous sediment, and creationists have misconstrued these markings to be the footsteps of ancient people.
Dye takes up the standard creationist line that humans and dinosaurs coexisted and reappears a little later in the episode to throw his support to a different icon of creationist nonsense—the Ica stones from Peru. These famous fakes are stones engraved with images of dinosaurs and humans interacting. They were created by farmer Basilio Uschuya and his wife, using pop culture depictions of dinosaurs in books as their guides. Despite this, both Dye and the Ancient Aliens program present the stones as if they were authentic ancient artifacts that record the survival of dinosaurs such as Triceratops to almost the present day. Dye says that ancient people must have known a lot about dinosaurs because the stones are engraved so precisely, even though we know that precision came from Uschuya copying mid-20th century dinosaur art so carefully. Our narrator says that scientists are skeptical about the origin of the stones, but nothing more.
The show offers a few other awful gems. Our narrator goes on at length about how carbon-14 dating is unreliable for telling the age of dinosaurs, but paleontologists do not use carbon-14 to estimate the age of non-avian dinosaurs. Radiocarbon dating only works for carbon-bearing materials up to about 60,000 years old. Instead, paleontologists use different radiometric dating techniques to constrain the history of non-avian dinosaurs. In uranium-lead dating, for example, geologists investigate the relative abundance of uranium and lead, the element uranium decays into, to determine the age of the rock the materials were sampled from.
Different dating systems are used for rocks of different ages, and these techniques have put time estimates on when dinosaurs lived. The key is finding layers such as ash beds that contain radioactive materials and are above or below layers containing dinosaurs. Since dinosaur bones themselves can’t be reliably dated, geochronologists determine the age of the under- or overlying rock to constrain the timeframe for when the dinosaur lived. Ancient Aliens, reliant on tired creationist talking points, casts aspersions over a process that the show’s creators clearly don’t understand.
But my favorite bit of babble involves the ultimate fate of the dinosaurs. The show can’t even keep its own story straight. Fringe television personality Franklin Ruehl makes a case for the modern or recent existence of non-avian dinosaurs by way of the coelacanth. These archaic lobe-finned fish, which Ruehl rightly points out were around long before the first dinosaurs evolved, were thought to be extinct before a live one was hauled up off South Africa in 1938. Since then, a handful of fossil coelacanth finds has bridged the gap between their modern representatives and those that lived at the end of the Cretaceous 66 million years ago. Their unexpected reappearance has often been used by cryptozoologists and true-believers of various stripes to claim that some other prehistoric lineage may really still be out there, even if there’s no actual evidence to suggest this is so.
As paleontologist Darren Naish has pointed out multiple times, though, the coelacanth is a red herring. In strata from the past 66 million years or so, at least, coelacanth fossils are rare and hard to identify. It’s not really surprising that their fossil record appears to have petered out. Non-avian dinosaurs, however, had bones that were far more diagnostic. In fact, the resolution of prehistoric eras gets better as we investigate slices of time approaching the present. If creatures as large and distinctive as Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Apatosaurus and Tyrannosaurus really did thrive for millions of years after the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact, they would have turned up in the fossil record by now. The evidence is clear—with the exception of avian dinosaurs, all other dinosaur lineages went extinct about 66 million years ago.
Shortly after Ruehl makes his proclamation, however, the program entirely forgets what he said. Near the show’s conclusion, the narrator speculates that aliens manipulated dinosaur DNA to turn the imposing creatures into smaller, less-dangerous animals like the coelacanth. Never mind that coelacanths were already present in the world’s oceans more than 360 million years ago—more than 130 million years before the very first dinosaurs evolved. The suggestion is unadulterated bunk (as is they whole show, really). And then crazy-haired alien fanatic Giorgio Tsoukalos throws out another idea. The coelacanth really did go extinct, he suggests, but was revived by a “direct guarantee from extraterrestrials” millions of years later. Why? Tsoukalos doesn’t seem to care. And his talking head peers generally mutter about aliens clearing the way for our species somehow.
The show can’t seem to decide whether aliens exterminated dinosaurs 66 million years ago or whether dinosaurs somehow survived to the modern era. Which is it? Did aliens clear away dinosaurs so that we might live? Or did some dinosaurs escape extinction somehow? Competing ideas bounce around like ping-pong balls during the whole episode. Grandpa Simpson tells more coherent stories.
There were a few real scientists on the program. Paleontologists Luis Chiappe and Mark Wilson, for example, make appearances throughout the show. I can’t help but feel bad for them, and wonder whether scientists should simply boycott appearing on such programs. While I think it’s worthwhile and essential to call out false claims made in the name of science—such as intelligent design and myths of living dinosaurs—programs like Ancient Aliens only abuse scientists. Responsible researchers are typically taken out of context to help set up unsupported fictions spewed by the alien fan club. Shows like Ancient Aliens, MonsterQuest and Finding Bigfoot apparently have little or no interest in actually talking about science. The most sensationalist speculation will always triumph. On these shows, scientists just can’t win.
Ancient Aliens is some of the most noxious sludge in television’s bottomless chum bucket. Actual experts are brought in to deliver sound bites that are twisted and taken out of context while fanatics are given free reign. Fiction is presented as fact, and real scientific research is so grossly misrepresented that I can only conclude that the program is actively lying to viewers. To present the show as a documentary, on a non-fiction network, is a loathsome move by the History Channel spinoff. (Technically, Ancient Aliens airs on an offshoot of the History Channel called H2.) If the network and the show’s creators want to present Ancient Aliens as a light survey of fringe ideas and make it clear that the ideas aren’t meant to be taken seriously, I can’t quarrel with that. But Ancient Aliens and shows like it winnow away at actual scientific understanding by promoting absolute dreck. Ancient Aliens is worse than bad television. The program shows a sheer contempt for science and what we really know about nature.