The Riddle of the Dinosaur

John Noble Wilford, The Riddle of the Dinosaur, Faber & Faber , 1986

The wonder of dinosaurs, as Pulitzer Prize winning science writer John Noble Wilford sees it, is that “they are an enigma beyond solution” which must be why so many people without paleontological training enough to tell their Archaeopteryx from their elbow queue up to speculate about them, not least about whatever was responsible for ensuring that the dinosaurs aren’t with us nowadays. Riddle avoids the usual pitfalls of books written for dinosaur-junkies who don't happen to be trained palaeontologists. It emerges quite effortlessly as one of the most original and stimulating forays into to this heavily written topic in years.

The title is slightly deceptive, though, Riddle… actually tells a lot less about dinosaurs than about the people who study them: the geologists the palaeontologists and more recently, but not always to the wholesale delight of the aforementioned) the astrophysicists. Mr Wilford's book explores dinosaurs not so much as unusual and very extinct animals, but as a device against which the practice of Science can be measured - the re-evaluation of past doctrines the challenges to established lines of thinking, the exchanges of old theoretical models and methodologies for new ones. The evolution of prehistoric life forms mirrors the evolution of our fresh form of thought relating to them. Ultimately getting the right answer to the riddle of what dinosaurs were doesn't matter as much as how we attempt to solve it in the first place.

The science-in-action approach excuses the fact that there have been better books on dinosaurs as living, breathing creatures or about the historical steps to their discovery; Alan Charig’s A New Look at the Dinosaurs for one, Edwin Colbert's classic Men and Dinosaurs (which Mr Wilford duly acknowledges) for another. Not that Riddle... is deficient in either department. Far from it; the author has an eye for the telling biographical detail which brings to life personalities almost as far beyond modern readers retrieval as Triceratops or Meagalosaurus.

There is the true story of how Gideon Mantell came to find the first iguanodon (differing markedly from the way he told it afterwards), There are vignettes of Reed smashing up bones he couldn’t remove so that rival collectors should not get at them, and palaeontology's bete noir, Robert Baker alarming his older peers by insisting that birds don't deserve a separate zoological class to themselves because they are only dinosaurs after all. But the book really takes of from Chapter 10 with a series of deft, pithy resumes of palaeontology as it is today: the problems, the controversies, reassessments and reassessments of reassessments.

Were the dinosaurs warm-blooded? Are birds their direct descendants? Did their 160-million-year reign end when the Earth was struck by an all-devastating asteroid/meteor/comet? Raising anyone of these subjects is a good way to raise a paleontological fist-fight. but the author does so with balance unimpaired and eyes un-blackened. Besides avoiding the facile rush to promote one view at the expense of another, Riddle... scores through the way it gives access to the rarified upper atmospheres of the subject, presenting technicalia that seldom escapes the pages of specialist journals. It creates the impression that you are possessed of the latest dinosauric information – you probably never gatecrashed a conference on Late Cretaceous extinctions\ but this book lakes it feel that way.

It was a peculiar relief to see such a well-tuned, comprehensive treatment of the Alvarez 'killer meteor', arguably the most important scientific hypothesis of the decade, certainly the most controversial. Too many people have been misled on this. The less cautious have espoused the idea of the dinosaurs blasted by the effects of an asteroid/meteor hitting Earth at the end of the Cretaceous because it seemed such a fine rebuttal of the views held by the more staid researchers. Let's face it: we all enjoy a good cataclysm, especially one that offers total answers to unsolved great questions; apart from which, palaeontologists (traditionally seen as a degree less lively than the fossils they handle) have been an easy target for custard pies. Some folk believe that Alvarez has solved the Great Dinosaur mystery and we can all go home.

Mr Wilford carefully points out why we should stay a little longer, charting the ebb and flow of the debate and pointing out why the catastrophists haven't carried all before them. The penultimate chapter brings the saga up to date with a progress report on the newest phase of the cataclysm hypothesis: the so-called 'Death Star’ idea and its relevance to the proposed 26-million-year cycle of extinctions. It's hard to see how this could have been done better.

The balance and up-to-the minuteness are an illusion: for one thing the book has a faint but noticeable Stateside bias. Granted that most of the ear-catching debates have been staged in the USA, but it misses some of the British contributions, which have often exhibited wittily effective ways of putting their objections over. It was our own Dr Halstead who couched a provocative statement which, if verified will send more than just the killer meteor theory back into orbit. There now seems to be some evidence that seven dinosaur species survived the great extinction, Halstead mentioned this in an article for the Guardian in September 1986, just as Wilford's book had its British debut.

Yes, the later-than-we-thought demise of the dinosaurs may have wrecked an awful lot of theories and paradigms and wasted an awful lot of computer-power. It's a lot worse than giving a Brontosaurus skeleton the wrong head! But far from being a disaster, it would be lust another stage in the debate that opened some 20 years ago and shows no sign of flagging, The Riddle of the Dinosaur is an ideal way of getting in on the biggest scientific show in town.
  • Michael Goss, from Magonia 26, June 1987.

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