Reviewed by Liz Dexter
Michael J. Benton is Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology and head of the Palaeontology Research Group at the University of Bristol, so you can be sure he knows his stuff; however, he also remembers what it was like to be a ‘cheeky’ young undergraduate and research student, and brings a lovely bit of his own career, and the people he looked up to and those he has nurtured, into the book. His aim in the book is stated early: “How science has pushed back speculation in dinosaur science,” and he achieves this aim, looking at a range of scientists and research programmes and what they have learned. As he takes us through various aspects of dinosaur science, he is always accessible and always explains things really clearly, even when they’re quite complicated, as science often is!
The book opens with the exciting discovery of the colours that make up dinosaur feathers. We then start off the main book with the origins of dinosaurs, explaining what they are and who first discovered them, then move on to the fascinating task of creating what are effectively family trees for the creatures and associated animals. There are lots of arguments here and this features throughout the book, making it pretty rooted in reality and not glossed over as a single set of theories (there’s a great list of all the reasons why people think the dinosaurs died out in the back, with the ones Benton finds at all sensible highlighted!). He’s also a bit scathing on the unfounded theories that are permitted by the public interest in dinosaur science to be shared convincingly outside the world of peer-reviewed journals.
A chapter on the actual work of finding and digging up dinosaurs is absolutely fascinating – while the basic stuff is just the same as ever, prospecting and looking for bone fragments in canyon walls featuring heavily, there are so many sophisticated ways of scanning and viewing into fossils that just weren’t available before, including being able to see into fossil eggs without damaging them using CT scanning. But there’s always the knowledge that some things are unknown and many are still changing – Benton admits at the end of Chapter 1 that the chapter on the oldest dinosaurs will need to be re-written in ten years’ time or so and also covers how the catastrophe theory that covers why the dinosaurs might have become extinct very suddenly was completely unknown and would have been ridiculed only as recently as the 1970s. The sections on whether dinosaurs were warm- or cold-blooded and on how they achieved their massive growth and what stopped their eggs getting enormous are also fascinating – well, the whole book is, to be honest. But we still don’t know why some dinosaurs’ arms became so small over time, or what function those eventual tiny arms had:
Their function remains a mystery, one of those puzzles in dinosaur science that will keep future researchers happily engaged.
There are great illustrations with titbits of information and little-known facts for tens of dinosaurs throughout the text, as well as two sets of full-colour plates inserted into the book. The author is far from po-faced about his subject, so you will find answers to “classic dino-geek question[s]” such as “could T. Rex have bitten a car in half?” There’s an afterword which looks at what might happen next in dinosaur research, the aforementioned list of extinction hypotheses, a good list of further reading with those offering an easy introduction marked, and a list of current dinosaur books the author recommends, and, of course, a comprehensive index.
A must-read for anyone who loved dinosaurs as a child and still hankers after them, anyone interested in the history and progress of science, and anyone wanting a good, clear guide to a still-fascinating subject.
Liz Dexter’s favourite dinosaurs are the triceratops and apatosaurus. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Michael J. Benton, The Dinosaurs Rediscovered: how a Scientific Revolution is Rewriting History (Thames & Hudson, 2019). 9780500052006, 320 pp., col. ill., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link. Free UK delivery.