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The Last Dinosaur Book



Dear friends:  I've come in late to a discussion of my book on The Dinosaur
List which started November 2 of last year.  Hope it's not too late to add
my 2 cents to an interesting discussion.  I'm delighted, first of all, that
dinophiles and dinoscientists are reading "The Last Dinosaur Book."  I can
understand very well why some people are irritated by it.  I have come into
the field of dinosaur research as an outsider, and I freely admit that I
have no credentials as a dinosaur scientist.  My field is cultural history,
and especially the study of cultural icons, popular images that attract
widespread public fascination.  I tried very hard not to make any mistakes
about scientific accounts of dinosaurs, but there is no doubt that my
scientific grasp of the subject is limited.

My credentials as an art historian and iconologist, on the other hand, are
fairly solid, and that is where the emphasis of my book lies.  I'm
interested in the image of the dinosaur, not the real thing; in fables,
fantasies, and metaphoric meanings, not in hip-bones and comparative
anatomy.

I'd like to respond to one complaint about the book that has been made by
several reviewers, and that appears in Jeff Hecht's review in New Scientist
magazine, and in his Nov. 2 letter to this list.  Hecht says I am "a
cultural relativist who believes that science is a cultural construct rather
than a mirror of reality."  This is a fundamental confusion that needs to be
cleared up.  Hecht's insistence on a choice between cultural construction
and realism is just a red herring.  To call something a cultural practice
says nothing about its objectivity or realism.  Astrology and astronomy are
both cultural practices.  One is a legitimate, scientific activity
characterized by rigorous methods and experimentation; the other is a
mystical and magical belief system.  Both astrology and astonomy involve
professional experts, ritual forms of behavior, habits, customs, and public
images--both, in other words, are cultural practices, but with drastically
different levels of credibility.  As for science being a "mirror of
reality":  this just a popular metaphor; it is not a scientifically or
philosophically respectable statement.  I would prefer to say that science
is a method for constructing and testing models of reality.  The "mirror"
metaphor is misleading in its suggestion of passive reflection; it misses
the whole sense that science is an activity, more like a searchlight or
probe than a mirror.

As for my own practice as a cultural historian:  my aim in this book, and in
all my work, is to get the facts straight and try to produce plausible
interpretations.  I think that the study of the history of images is just as
objective and realistic as the history of ancient life.  The evidence is
different, and the methods have been worked out in a distinct professional
culture, but there is nothing subjective or relativistic about it.  The
whole "two cultures" split between scientific and humanistic knowledge has,
I'm afraid, poisoned the exchanges between the two kinds of research.  I
hoped that the idea of the dinosaur as a cultural icon would provide a
conversational opening between science and cultural studies instead of the
usual stand-off.

So I hope Jeff Hecht will respond to this, and perhaps reconsider his
characterization of my position.  If I'm a relativist, it's in the spirit of
Nelson Goodman's philosophy of science as a "way of worldmaking" that is
just as real as the pavement and the bones beneath our feet.  Perhaps he
will also reconsider some of his other statements--for instance, that I fail
to consider "how the Victorian view of dinosaurs was shaped by the Victorian
attitude toward evolutionary progress."  (In fact, I discuss Owen's
creationist, anti-evolutionary agenda for the dinosaur and Huxley's
response, and try to make it clear that the dinosaur was, from the first, an
object of debate, a "bone of contention."  There was no single "Victorian
view" of dinosaurs, but--as has often been documented--a fossil feud).

Perhaps Hecht will also grant me that I don't "simply blunder" in failing to
point out that Zallinger's great "Age of Reptiles" mural at the Peabody
Museum includes periods that lie outside the Age of Dinosaurs.  I'm quite
aware that the mural includes other periods and creatures.  My point was to
look at Zallinger's masterpiece as a work of art, and to investigate how it
came to be a compelling, provocative icon of dinosaurs for both scientists
and the general public.  Was this a blunder?

I would welcome comments or questions from Hecht, or any other subscribers
to the list who are interested in the concept of dinosaurs as cultural
icons, or other issues raised by "The Last Dinosaur Book."

Yours sincerely,

W. J. T. Mitchell
Professor of English and Art History
University of Chicago