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The Last Dinosaur Book

by W.J.T. Mitchell
University of Chicago Press (Trd); 334 pages, 1998 paperback
ISBN: 0226532046 ; $35.00 (U.S.)


Reviewed by Reese Barrick

W.J.T. Mitchell is an English Language and Literature Professor at the University of Chicago. So, you might ask, why is he writing about dinosaurs? Well, dinosaurs as we know, have been adopted into American culture in many strange and interesting ways, often to the paleontologist’s chagrin. While, there are a few other parts of the world that have become a bit dino crazy, the ability of most 2nd through 4th graders to recite the Latinized names of dinosaurs without a fault is truly an American phenomenon. It is precisely these cultural aspects of dinosaurs or as Mitchell puts it, dinosaurs as cultural icons, that is explored in this book. While understanding that there will be no science in the book, I thought that this still might be a fun read. I checked out acknowledgments prior to getting started and found that other paleontologists had some strong feelings about the book, often negative, yet the author drew encouragement from the fact that these same paleontologists apparently couldn’t put the book down. I thought to myself -- hmmm… this could be interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t come away sharing the same sentiments as most of these other paleontologists except for perhaps James Farlow who apparently expressed "deep ambivalence". While I did make it through the whole book, I must admit it took me 6 months. It wasn’t so much that it annoyed me, but rather that much of the theorizing of dinosaurian impacts on American culture were to me about as relevant and entertaining as a coffee room colloquium on the topic of just how many angels can stand upon the head of a pin

Nevertheless, there are some interesting aspects to the book, such as chapters 16 and 17 which explore Thomas Jefferson’s intrigue with big fossil bones (mainly mammoth and sloth) and his use of these bones to show Europe (e.g., Buffon) that America’s natural constitution (by virtue of the size of its fossil bones) was as great as Europe’s. This gives some nice historical perspective to the importance recently given to the debate (again, mostly the male perspective) as to who has the biggest theropod! Of course, Jefferson didn’t really believe in the concept of extinction and thus some of the impetus to fund Lewis and Clark to explore the west was to find these great beasts alive. As claws of the giant sloth Megalonyx were at the time, presumed to have come from a giant lion-like carnivore, it is no wonder Lewis and Clark took along a large store of guns and ammunition. However, of course interesting history must be analyzed into a search for constitutional allegory -- arrgh.

The main thesis running through the book is that the dinosaur is the totem animal (social symbol) for American culture. It represents a clan, and as a group of large extinct animals, is representative of states and imperial civilizations, or even dangerous new sisterhood (as is, of course, just patently obvious from the line "clever girls" in Jurassic Park). It represents taboo; incest and procreation taboos are represented by correlating sexual roles with extinction and resources (the interesting fear that humans won’t procreate enough to avoid extinction). We also bring dinosaurs to life then subdue them (with French fries in McDonald commercials) or consume them by rituals of display. Finally, Mitchell asserts that dinosaurs are ancestral, so of course they must die before mammals – thus, of course, we humans can inherit the Earth.

Examples of over-analysis are abundant throughout the book. In Chapter 29, T. rex represents feudal capitalism, while raptors equate to postmodern capitalism of "downsizing", adaptability and gender confusion. Throughout the book, dinosaurs are moralized (Chapter 22), correlated to Osborn’s ideas of eugenics (because they were all painted green), sexual anxiety and American ideology. The Victorian dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins represent the nation-state and Spielberg’s dinosaurs represent NAFTA and multinational corporations.

If at this point, you are feeling truly stimulated, please go get the book now. Most people, especially children, think dinosaurs are fascinating because they are big (even though everyone knows that many were relatively small), different (in their biology and the world in which they lived), and dead (extinct, let’s leave birds out of it for this discussion). While Mitchell rejects this hypothesis, I don’t. The simple answer is often the best, and most insightful. J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a classic fantasy book, The Hobbit, and a following trilogy The Lord of the Rings which involved the coming together of disparate groups of peoples to defeat a singular great and powerful evil empire. This work was also very over-analyzed as an analogue to World War II and the defeat of the great evil-Hitler. Yet, Tolkien himself essentially said that his books are just a story and not an allegory.

The Last Dinosaur Book takes the analysis of the popularity of dinosaurs to new levels of inane absurdity, when their appeal is truly as simple as their being able to fire the imagination by being big, different and dead. Perhaps, treatments such as The Last Dinosaur Book are what make the literature departments of the world or pop culture classes go around but it doesn’t really trip my trigger. If, at some time, however, you want to come share a box of doughnuts in the morning, to discuss whether dinosaurs could survive today or not, or how well elephants and lions would do in the Cretaceous, whether we would be around today had it not been for a bolide impact, or the place of dinosaurs in the history of life, I’d be happy to chat and speculate awhile before going to work. We could probably even get my colleague Dale Russell to join us. If you want to talk about dinosaurs as kitsch or totems or nation-states, The Last Dinosaur Book is definitely for you.

Finally, Mitchell suggests that dinosaurs must undergo a second extinction. They will eventually become overexposed in the general population, boring to scientists, and thus eventually completely lost from our collective consciousness. While I do believe that dinosaur hysteria will wax and wane, I doubt they will undergo this second extinction any time soon, because of the fact that dinosaurs were big, different and dead.

Copyright: Coquina Press
22 October 1999

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