“To make sense of phenomena like dinomania, we need to understand ‘dinosaur’ broadly as a construction in which palaeontologists are not the sole arbiters.” (p. 238)
Boria Sax is a professor in the School of Liberal Arts at Mercy College and is known for his writing on human-animal relations. In Dinomania: Why We Love, Fear and Are Utterly Enchanted by Dinosaurs (Reaktion Books, 2018), Sax takes an expansive look at human perceptions and relationships with dinosaurs throughout history and in different cultural and religious contexts. He provides an interesting overview of early discoveries of dinosaur fossils and their roles and interpretations in cultures and mythologies around the world and throughout history. Although reading these various accounts, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad at all these early discoveries, considered at the time to be evidence of dragons or monsters, that have since been lost to time. As other cultural theorists have noted, Sax also observes that the symbolism of dinosaurs is flexible, including violence, innocence, wealth, industrialisation, failure, “but none of these things really has much to do with dinosaurs in the end. We are simply imposing our own meanings on their endlessly mysterious lives” (p. 33).
In these first few chapters, Sax focuses on mythology and dinosaurs as dragons, and then in the early modern period he similarly focuses on the moral symbolism of dinosaurs in Victorian England. While there are some interesting points here, overall I found this the least compelling portion of the book — it struck me as all too hypothetical. But, as he gets further into the modern era and the 20th century, Sax’s discussion becomes more grounded. By the latter half of the 19th century, dinosaur fossils had been discovered in the American West, and a new image of the gun-toting, adventurous scientist came to be.
“The pictures of the teams that excavated dinosaur bones certainly reflect the emerging fascination with the West. They are generally almost indistinguishable from those of cowboys, outlaws or lawmen — grizzled, unshaven men in well-worn, dusty clothes, with handlebar mustaches and cowboy hats, who are more likely to be hold a rifle than a shovel, let alone a pen.” (p. 122)
Sax also builds upon W. J. T. Mitchell’s notion of the dinosaur as the “totem animal of modernity.” Sax notes that at the beginning of the modern era, the concept of “deep time” would have been intellectually and existentially challenging. Deep time refers to the extended period of time, of life on earth, before humanity came into existence — which was introduced, in part, with the first dinosaur discoveries in the 1800s. These first dinosaur discoveries also coincided with broader cultural shifts towards more secular and scientific-minded understandings of the world.
Admittedly, at first I found the notion of dinosaurs as symbols of modernity to be counter-intuitive, but Sax explains, “Dinosaurs were discovered, or perhaps socially constructed, around the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the modern era began” (p. 178). Sax also argues that unlike other extinct animals, like the dodo or passenger pigeon, which are firmly rooted in historical context, deep time is so remote, that we can’t help but think of dinosaurs as contemporaneous.
“We cannot help but think of dinosaurs as, in some sense, contemporaneous. The intricate chronologies with which scientists order the succession of living things simply cannot be internalized. With respect to the human imagination, there is not very much difference between 65 million years ago (from the extinction of the dinosaurs till now), 180 million years ago (since dinosaurs first walked the earth), 200,000 years ago (since the emergence of Homo sapiens) or 4.5 billion years ago (since Earth was formed). All are far too vast periods of time to comprehend, and the years seem to blur together if we even try. Deep time easily becomes a sort of eternal present.” (p. 169)
Sax also argues that while discoveries of dinosaur bones, deep time, and evolution brought about uncomfortable questions about human origins during the beginning of the modern era, the questions about human fate were even more unsettling.
Dinosaurs fit in well with the cultural trends of the late 18th and 19th centuries which were a time of grand ambitions, “greatness” and “immortality,” in battle, literature, huge monuments. But if the great dinosaurs could be wiped out, then what about humanity?
All this historical context is useful, and leads me to consider questions about dinosaurs in our current culture. For example, in the postmodern era (or post-postmodern?) we now live with very real threat of environmental collapse. In the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in earth’s history, human extinction is hardly unthinkable — quite the opposite. There are a lot more questions about the meaning of dinosaurs now, which I’m hoping to explore in future posts.