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Dinosaurs, the Media and Andy Warhol

Keith Thomson

History will no doubt record Andy Warhol as a major 20th century artist. One of Warhol's "gifts" was to make everything with which he was associated—his work, his friends, his life—appear cheap and shallow. If he set out to irritate and confuse, then he certainly succeeded. In the process he mocked us and, above all, himself. Warhol will also be famous for his pronouncement, now nothing less than a curse, that in the future everyone will have the chance to be famous for 15 minutes.

All successful artists have to be showmen, it seems. Mozart and Chopin were no shrinking violets. They would have adored television unless, like those fabled old silent-screen movie stars, they had been betrayed by squeaky voices or uncouth accents. Today, although technical virtuosity is still a necessary condition for success as a solo musician, charisma is almost equally important; hence all the CD covers featuring female classical violinists in revealing clothing, or little at all. All the more reason, then, to admire the steadily nonglamorous types, such as the pianist Alfred Brendel, who let their music talk for them.

Perhaps, in a modern-day version of Faustus, those 15 minutes of fame form a contract with the devil, granted through the agency of the media, who are a fickle-enough ally in the best of times. At a recent London film premiere, the Hollywood stars wandered unnoticed into the theater while journalists gathered like flies around two recent participants in a television program called "Big Brother." Well, a plague on both their houses, we might say. Except that the rot is spreading. Getting oneself noticed by the press and especially by television, if only for 15 minutes, has infected the one field where, in a perfect world, people would be immune to cheap blandishments and hew strictly to a line of puritan truth and detachment. Fat chance, of course, when we are talking about science!

The "boffins" of World War II made science glamorous, as did the late Christian Barnard, pioneer heart surgeon. German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley had already perfected the art a century earlier, however, and I have no doubt that Charles Darwin worked long and diligently, if quietly, at his "Saint Charles" image. But perhaps nowhere have scientists pursued an often too-transient fame further than in paleontology, and particularly with respect to dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are God's gift to television and the newspapers, just as science fiction is the lifeblood of the supermarket tabloids. Tyrannosaurs and little green men—sure winners, both.

Dino-stories

Just why dinosaurs have always been so prominent in the public imagination, and why they fascinate a particular age class of (mostly male) children, has long perplexed scholars. An old Philadelphia museum guard gave me a good answer: "They're half real, and half not real." When Richard Owen, who coined the term dinosaur in 1842, and Waterhouse Hawkins erected the first life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs—half real, half wrong, as it happened—for the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1854, they were openly courting the sort of public mania that has persisted ever since. In the first half of the following century, the fictional Professor Challenger of Conan Doyle's The Lost World was echoed in real life by people like Roy Chapman Andrews and his American Museum of Natural History expeditions to the Gobi Desert, and a host of lesser but equally colorful characters.Figure 1. This conceptual artwork shows a feathered dinosaur . . .Click to Enlarge Image

For today's hungry media, a cornucopia of new dinosaur science and new-style paleontologists, some marketing themselves as a cross between Indiana Jones and the mountain men of the Old West—with beards, boots, silly hats, unwashed shirts and unedited opinions—have been a gift from heaven. One is forced to ask, however, whether some of those who have leapt onto the back of this particular tiger might not be finding the ride uncomfortable and whether more sober paleontologists might feel that their work suffers something of a taint by association. If one had a truly sensational discovery, one might in fact feel like hushing it up, lest the media convert it into something quite appalling in order to sell another day's newspapers, only to drop the subject equally abruptly. On the other hand, in this media-driven world, grant funding may require publicity.

The whole dinosaur publicity business got a boost from the famous discovery of the iridium spike in the Earth's crust and its evidence for an asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous. Here was something whose fame could last more than 15 minutes. But once again, the public-relations aspect was dreadfully overblown. The public was given the impression that at one moment there were millions of dinosaurs, in their full diversity, doing their Mesozoic thing, and then at the next moment all were extinct. The reality seems to be that any dinosaurs made extinct by the impact were the stragglers of an already dwindling group, whereas the real extinction story was in less glamorous taxa.

In a neat example of journalistic excess, the London Times of October 30, 1998, carried a story headlined: "Rock solid proof that comet killed dinosaurs." The facts of the case, which the article blithely laid out, were quite different. Two scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography had discovered a chromium spike at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, the isotopic signature of which suggested an extraterrestrial origin. Their work simply confirmed that there had been an asteroid impact, and nowhere did they use the word "dinosaur." Apparently the newspaper could not resist adding that the scientists had proved that the asteroid killed the dinosaurs. They hadn't. But it made a better story.

How Tyrannosaurus Got Its Feathers

The chief thing we know about Tyrannosaurus rex, the fabled king of the Late Cretaceous, is that we still have much to learn about it, which should be a signal for caution, although it is also a license for speculation. There are only 25 or so specimens of T. rex, most incomplete, even though the species may have survived for several million years and tens of thousands of them, if not more, must have lived at one time or another.

In popular imagination, T. rex started out as a ferocious tyrant. How are the mighty fallen, however! In 2001, Warhol's curse struck T. rex and ushered in a drastic makeover for the capo di capo of dinosaurs. (How easy it is to fall into the style!) It had already been noised about that the thing was really only a scavenger of something else's kills, more a hyena than a lion. By May 2001, T. rex had become cuddly and possibly even covered with feathers. By October, it had become the "Woody Allen of dinosaurs," even neurotic.

This may turn out to be a just-not-so story. T. rex is a member of a large group of dinosaurs called theropods. The idea that theropod dinosaurs and birds are related is very old, dating back at least to T. H. Huxley and now having much modern support. So far, so good. But how did T. rex get feathers? In 1999, National Geographic magazine published a story under the title "Feathers for T. rex" in which an amazing new find from China, intermediate between a bird and a dromaeosaur, was described. Amazing indeed; it was a fake. In April 2001 in Nature, Qiang Ji et al. published an account of a new Chinese theropod that had evidence of a kind of proto-feathers. Once again the media homed in on Tyrannosaurus: "Maybe even mighty Tyrannosaurus rex had feathers," and "Maybe baby tyrannosaurus looked something like a cute, fuzzy baby chick," said ABCNEWS.com. Perhaps the best line went to science writer Deborah Smith of the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, April 27, 2001: "T-Rex in a feather boa turns heads among fossil hunters." (T-rex instead of T. rex seems very popular with journalists.)

Next, Jim Kirkland of the Utah Geological Survey and Doug Wolfe of Mesa Southwest Museum released an account of a new North American theropod—Nothronychus—at a Discovery Channel press conference. Nothronychus was evidently a vegetarian but with "bird-like characters and ? probably covered with feathers, said the scientists" (Reuters, June 19, 2001), to the newspapers' delight. But was there any evidence? At the press conference it was stated that no feathers were found with Nothronychus. Certainly none have been found with Tyrannosaurus. So far the sequence is as follows: T. rex is related (but not closely) to Nothronychus, where there is no evidence of feathers; Nothronychus is more closely related to the Chinese dinosaur Beipaosaurus, where there is disputed evidence of proto-feathers. Score: feathers 3, logic 0.

From Cuddly to Sad

This past October, as the date for the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology drew near, the world waited for the inevitable sensational announcement that would hog the headlines while a great deal of excellent work was ignored. Predictably, sensation once again found our poor, put-upon friend Tyrannosaurus rex; but this one was a classic. As the London Times trumpeted: "Neurotic T-rex cast in a Woody Allen role." On the web, the Associated Press had spread the news: "T-rex wasn't happy ? T-rex was probably T-wrecks." Obviously someone was getting his 15 minutes of fame!

What happened had started out with good straightforward science. Elizabeth Rega at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona and Chris Brochu at the University of Iowa had read a paper concerning skeletal abnormalities in T. rex, especially the Chicago specimen known as Sue. There was evidence of osteomyelitis of the left fibula, healed rib fractures and healed jaw lesions. They concluded: "While the number of these pathologies indicate that Sue was not healthy during life, the maturity of the specimen and the clear evidence of healing indicate that Sue was a robust individual who successfully survived many insults ?. No evidence of cause or manner of death is apparent." So far, so sober. No drama there and no headlines, either.

Then the Associated Press interviewed Robert Bakker, who was not an author of the paper but who announced the meaning in Rega and Brochu's study that everyone else had missed: "If we did Jurassic Park 4, T-rex would be portrayed in an angst-ridden role—sort of a large Woody Allen character. ? They were beat up, limping, had oozing sores, were dripping pus and disease ridden, and had to worry about their children starving and other T-rexs coming in and kicking them out." And worse, the London Times article wrongly claimed that "Mr Bakker's view is endorsed by Elizabeth Rega," thus adding injury to insult.

Here the gap between the science and the hyperbole is truly staggering. Perhaps it is only some paleontologists, not the dinosaurs, who are like Woody Allen—sometimes combative, sometimes cuddly, bearing the scars of old battles and confused? Perhaps this sort of thing is perfectly harmless or even positive for paleontology, on the grounds that all publicity is good, especially if it remains divided into 15-minute chunks. But the creationists certainly had a field day with the faked "feathered dinosaur."

Admittedly, all progress in science involves the breaking of old stereotypes, and mistakes will be made all along the way. Who knows, maybe even a Tyrannosaurus with true feathers will someday be found; that is what makes science a real adventure. And, as Robert Browning famously wrote, "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp" (Andrea del Sarto, 1855). Perhaps, though, both the scientists and the public deserve to travel a less jolting path toward enlightenment.

© Keith Thomson

 

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