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Re: _The Last Dinosaur Book_

Mary asked:

>Has anyone read _The Last Dinosaur Book, The Life and Times of
>a Cultural Icon_, by W. J. T. Mitchell?  (University of Chicago Press,
>November 1998)
>Reviews were rather mixed.  It is evidently a post-modern look at

I reviewed it for New Scientist, and a much-cut version of my review
appears in the 31 October issue.

Mitchell attempts to look at the popular image of the dinosaur, more or
less starting with early discoveries, but concentrating more on modern
times. This produces strange results because Mitchell is a cultural
relativist, who believes science is a cultural construct rather than a
mirror of reality.

He makes some interesting observations, and hauls out some interesting
images. He comes close to some insightful comments about the attitudes of
early paleontologists (notably the rather nasty racist and eugenecist
attitudes of a few). But he also misses the mark a _lot_, such as not
pondering how the Victorian view of dinosaurs was shaped by the Victorian
attitude toward evolutionary progress. And sometimes he simply blunders. He
goes on at great length about the Zallinger "Age of Reptiles" mural without
realzing that the Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian periods are not part
of the 170-million year reign of dinosaurs.

It's rather like reading the books of Charles Fort, the eccentric New
Yorker who spent years collecting odd reports in the New York Public
Library, and later compiled them into books that read like a series of
index cards run together. It can be fun in small doses, but I suspect most
dinolist readers would have to restrain themselves from throwing it across
the room in frustration. (Just remind yourself that you'll have to patch
the hole in the wall afterwards.)

Jeff Hecht     Boston Correspondent    New Scientist magazine
525 Auburn St.,          Auburndale, MA 02466             USA
tel 617-965-3834 fax 617-332-4760 e-mail jhecht@world.std.com
URL: http://www.sff.net/people/Jeff.Hecht/
see New Scientist on the Web: http://www.newscientist.com/