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Sue Lives, and the Last Dinosaur Book Returns!
Jeff Hecht wrote:
I wonder what W. J. T. (Tom) Mitchell, cultural historian and author
of The Last Dinosaur Book, would think about press coverage [of Sue]? Are
still around, Tom? As a card-carrying member of the press, I think the
press is picking
up the rituals of anthropomorphism, fantasy, etc. as a mirror of how
they see public interest in dinosaurs. It's easier for them to cover
than the science. It's also a reaction to the big public-relations
push around the dinosaur.
As a journalist writing for a general science magazine, I haven't
seen much new science of interest to our audience in Sue.
Tom Mitchell replies:
Hi Jeff. I'm still around, still amazed at dinomania.
I think you are right that the press mirrors what they think the public
wants, and the public wants what the press shows them in the mirror. This a
cultural feedback loop, what anthropologists like Rene Girard call "mimetic
desire" (we want something because we think that others want it). I don't
blame dino-scientists for being annoyed by this, especially when the
cultural value of the dinosaur is mis-represented as scientific value. As a
cultural scientist, however, I can't be content with annoyance. I want to
understand the general characteristics and historical evolution of the
dinosaur cult. Have you ever noticed how predictably it aligns itself with
big corporate capital, outsize sums of money, big appetites, big crowds, and
a mob of child-like consumers? (Macdonalds/Disney is the perfect corporate
tie-in). I'm also fascinated by the Native American dimension of the
Sue/Sioux story, and the popular fantasy that there is a "curse" of some
sort around this fossil. Shades of Cope and Marsh and the legends of the
And Patrick Norton writes:
>Anthropomorphism, fantasy and speculation, metaphoric
associations, and the repetition of certain rituals of rebirth,
resurrection, and renewal are endemic to the dinosaur cult.<
I read your book and feel that those characteristics are probably better
viewed as endemic to human nature rather than to any "dinosaur cult",
whatever that is. Humans have attempted to understand any number of
phenomena through those methods--celestial objects, the seasons, natural
catastropies, etc. Since those methods are not unique to our cultural
approach to dinosaurs, I don't see them as explanative in any way.
Tom Mitchell replies:
Dear Patrick: I said these things are "endemic to" the dinosaur cult, not
"unique to" it. There have been many other cults, myths, and collective
fantasies, and they are probably, as you say, a result of some sort of
general human nature. My point in linking dinosaurs to totem animals is not
to explain them, but to put them in the proper perspective so we might go on
to look for an explanation. They are a very specific kind of totem animal,
very new in human history, associated with modern mass culture and with
modern science and technology. So they are, if you will, a new "species" of
totem, within a very large genus of symbolic animals.
The only reason I continue to harp on the symbolic & fantastic character of
dinosaurs (which seems obvious enough to me) is that some people seem so
determined to deny it, or to insist that it is merely a bit of stupidity, a
mistake that could be cleared up by a little hard science. No amount of
huffing and puffing about "real science" will make dinosaur anthropomorphism
and fantasy go away. My view is that hard science (of the cultural variety)
should investigate dinosaur superstitions with the same kind of rigorous
historical, interpretive methods we use on anything else, and try to
understand what they mean. That's what "The Last Dinosaur Book" tried to do.