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Dinosaurs as a Cultural Phenomenon

Keith Thomson

Few sciences have been as successful as paleontology in remaining serious yet broadly accessible at the same time. Much of its popularity may come from the image of the paleontologist-explorer who pits himself against the wilderness and brings back fabulous things. The image is even partly true, because in the 19th century, dinosaurs (and paleontology) became part of the myth of the American West. No longer were important discoveries made by European gentlemen in suits and ties who directed a couple of workmen in an obscure quarry. Instead, fossil collecting had become "prospecting": A man with a horse and a pick—and of course a rifle—could venture out West and, like his gold-seeking cousins, bring back untold wealth from the rocks. That fantasy carries much more weight than the reality of the scientist in a lab coat, noting tiny details in endless trays of museum specimens and preoccupied more with statistics and geochemistry than with campfires in the badlands. No matter that most paleontology concerns undramatic taxa like graptolites and brachiopods, the field continues to enjoy a reputation as a richly rewarded, swashbuckling enterprise.

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But why dinosaurs? They were not the first prehistoric creatures to gain wide attention. In 1801 Charles Willson Peale, a talented artist, showman, and inventor of the modern natural history museum, excavated the remains of three large mastodons from Newburgh, New York. The display of one of Peale's mastodons in Philadelphia helped start the public fascination with fossils. In the 1820s and '30s Mary Anning excavated an amazing array of ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs from the Jurassic cliffs of Lyme Regis, England. In 1824 William Buckland described the world's first dinosaur—Megalosaurus—and the next year Gideon Mantell followed with the herbivorous Iguanodon. An 1830 watercolor by Henry de la Beche first depicted such creatures in life settings, but to judge by popular science books of the mid-century, ichthyosaurs and pterosaurs were much more captivating to the public. The modern popularity of dinosaurs has partly to do with the creatures themselves; it owes even more to astute showmanship and media savvy. 

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