The Real World Behind ‘Jurassic World’: How Dinosaur History Reflects Human History
Humans remain fascinated by dinosaurs, which is why scientists have recently announced acclaimed findings that dinosaurs are warm-blooded or maintain a delicate coexistence with exotic plants. And that’s why, as the blockbuster “Jurassic World: Dominion” is unleashed in theaters, a quieter adventure is being told in libraries across America. Reuters Senior Reporter David K. Randall brings the world of early 20th century Western robber barons and adventurers to life in his new book, “The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World.”
If history has a hero, it’s Barnum Brown, who made history by unearthing the first Tyrannosaurus rex fossils in the Montana wilderness. The hero’s foil is Henry Fairfield Osborn, a high-society eugenicist who competed with Brown to fill the American Museum of Natural History with dinosaur bones. It’s a harrowing tale, but with many sober moments of contemplation. For example, it’s hard to read this book and not notice how class, gender, race, and other social constructs determine the fate of these and other men in the tale. Randall’s skill as a writer is undeniable. “The Monster’s Bones” reads like a novel, with real scientific, political and social issues.
At the center of all this man-fuelled chicanery are the stars of the show – the dinosaurs themselves.
In the interview segment below, Salon explained to Randall why a pile of fossils can fuel so much drama — and serve as a focal point of human dreams, from museums to movies, all these years later.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and context.
I was wondering if you would be willing to elaborate a bit on what you would say was the feeling in the air for people like Osborn or Brown when they were engaged in their endeavors? What was the ideology, the philosophy, the feeling of the time?
One thing that struck me was the idea that science was for the first time seen as a social aspect. There is also a social aspect to science. It wasn’t just people who experimented and discovered the laws of nature. More so, how do these laws of nature affect human beings and affect society? So, with Osborn, his idea was that dinosaurs were a way to bring people to the Museum of Natural History. In many ways, that was almost the lure of the trap. If you bring people to the door, you can also expose them to some of his white supremacy theories on eugenics, in a subtle way.
Brown, on the other hand, was kind of the opposite. He was the idealistic part of the Golden Age. Where he says we have these resources and we have this idea that Earth’s history is much longer and stranger than anyone would have thought possible. So now let’s go and explore it. Let’s try to somehow master the Earth and its history in a certain way. And by doing that, he would basically go into the empty spaces of the map and see what was there. One thing that really struck me was that he was a college student…and he’s writing this letter saying, basically, I can find dinosaurs for you.
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I want to digress briefly from the discussion of your book. We’ll come back, but your book is about using dinosaurs for evil purposes. Now I have to mention the current blockbuster hitting cineplexes around the world, “Jurassic World: Dominion.”
Well, one thing struck me – and I haven’t seen the full movie yet, I’ve only seen a trailer – but with “Jurassic Park”, the first, the 1993 version, the dinosaurs really fulfill that sense of what our cultural concerns are right now. The new “Jurassic World” is like the idea that dinosaurs live among us and there’s this world where they’re not just in a park, they’re basically roaming free. They move around the world. In some ways, it seems to address our concerns about climate change. We got through science, we changed the earth, and now we have to deal with this monster, and we don’t know how to put the genie back in the bottle, basically.
Reuters Senior Reporter David K. Randall brings the world of early 20th century Western robber barons and adventurers to life in his new book, “The Monster’s Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World.”
If you go back to the 1990s, “Jurassic Park” was the beginning of this sense of what technology could do. The Human Genome Project was in its infancy. Then very quickly, they cloned sheep like Dolly. It was this new age of computing and the dinosaurs really seemed to fill in this very neat metaphor for what science can do, and also the fears of science. I think dinosaurs as a whole, moving away from the “Jurassic” franchise, I think dinosaurs are basically this blank slate that we project our fears onto.
I want to come back to your book because you said that dinosaurs are a blank page on which we project our fears. You could also say that they are a blank page on which people project their ambitions. Isn’t that in many ways the theme of the book?
I think that’s a very fair point.
I think for someone like Brown, for sure, it was a way out of his life, or the life that was kind of passed on to him, as a person living on a farm in Kansas, that which is the last thing he wanted to do. Dinosaurs were a path to greater life. And you saw that for a lot of people in the book, the history of paleontology is filled with people who were looking for dinosaurs as a way to do something bigger… I think once they were put in museums, the public reaction to them was the first time you realized that this Earth is strange and natural history is strange. And there were these creatures that were much bigger than you and had teeth the size of your hand. Maybe it makes you feel diminished in a different way.
But it also inspires people to feel inspired. I think of little kids who love T. Rexes and Brontosaurus, and that’s because they’re fearsome. Have you ever thought of that? Why would little kids think that if T Rexes represent the pinnacle of human fear, that mm-hmm kids would view them with dread, as they view the concept of death with dread? In “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”, the horrific scene where the dinosaur dies because the volcano explodes and everyone in the audience has tears in their eyes. People care about dinosaurs and feel inspired by them. And I feel like in “The Monster’s Bones” that feeling is captured as well.
I think that’s a good point.
I think “Jurassic Park” is interesting because people want to be in it until the safety mechanisms fail and then they come face to face with the T. Rex and all of a sudden it becomes a story quite different. I think kids love dinosaurs so much because in a way it’s an alien right in front of you being told that’s how the world works and that’s how it all was . And then all of a sudden you basically see what actual monsters were walking around. And this, I think, the dinosaurs represent the era of possibility at this age, of this sense of possibility as well, that life as it is right now is not what it always was, or may -Being will always be, that once upon a time, there were these huge creatures walking the Earth, and that has changed. So whatever circumstances you’re in right now, you can kind of lean on that to say, you know, life is changing.