giovedì 14 marzo 2013

Reflecting upon All Yesterdays: of memes, dark sides and paths untrodden

Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. With Skeletal Diagrams by Scott Hartman. Irregular Books.
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Ceci n'est pas un compte rendu

What you are about to read here was originally conceived as the questionnaire for the announced Darren Naish's interview concerning All Yesterdays. Alas, at the moment Darren is really busy so I have opted for this reworked summary, which consists of a brief overview about the book itself and includes a number of free thoughts about palaeoart in general. This way I hope to provide some interesting food for thoughts while All Yesterdays is still reasonably hot off the press. I will be happy to add Naish's answers in  the near future as the third installment of the Palaeoart Interview post series.

Meanwhile, happy reading!

Memes and dinosaurs

In 2009, Norman MacLeod ran a cladistic analysis to test the memetic patterns of Iguanodon’s images since 1824. As MacLeod stated, 
«If image-meme complexes undergo evolution in the biological sense (descent with modification), close comparison of pictures should reveal a predominant pattern of nested correspondences» [1]. 
Tetrapod Zoology, the renowned blog run by Darren Naish, featured some interesting posts about iconological patterns in the history of recent palaeoart, which fit in well with MacLeod's suggestion. The blog section about (palaeoartistic) memes is quite abundant [2]. In some cases, the memetic scheme testifies the persistence through the decades of some erroneous reconstructions (conventions are always lurking: cf. the ironic decalogue by Frederik Splinder [3]), as well as the (somehow slower) dispersal of new iconographies. Past iconographies spread like viruses, in an epidemiology of representations that honoured stability trough time more often than a critical approach.
As I have written before, although some great artistic and iconoclastic forerunners can be easily recognized in the recent past, I think that nothing more powerful and consciously iconoclastic than All Yesterdays has ever been published.

The light side: welcome to the paths untrodden

All Yesterdays is a hymn to the paths still not trodden in palaeoart, as far from conventions as the Earth is from the Moon: herbivores caught in the act of eating insects, pterosaurs eaten by centipedes, resting tyrannosaurs, and the like. What may appear as astounding is the scientific evidence for the most part of the pictures presented (accurately cited in the footnotes – which I have greatly appreciated). In my opinion, one of the most important point highlighted by Conway, Kosemen & Naish in this book was the following one:
«animals do what they do, not necessarily because their anatomy is suited to it, but simply because they can. As a result, unexpected behaviours are commonplace» [4]
Naish's blog Tetrapod Zoology (and the book which goes under the same namesake) was a true pioneer in this field, for it allowed the general audience to get acquainted to watermelon eating crocodiles, carnivorous cows and playing animals [5]. The first reviews published so far have egregiously acknowledged this iconoclastic approach of the book, and the reviewers have usually understood the effort and the creativity put into All Yesterdays [6].

The dark side: the Knight Paradox” 

What about the palaeoart of old? In All YesterdaysIntroduction, Naish wrote about the iconic palaeoart produced by Charles R. Knight (1874-1953). He was a capable artist and indisputable expert on animal physiology in art; he also drawn what could be considered, along with Znedek Burian’s & Rudolph Zallinger’s works, the first, great lively reconstruction of extinct animals. But there was a dark side:
«[Knight] understood well the link between osteology and musculature» but he usually «drew dinosaurs freehand-style, again with what looks like poor attention to the proportions and nuances of the actual skeletons» [7].
The “Knight Paradox” Naish summarized seems like the original sin of palaeoart. Why palaeoartists have so frequently felt that drawing dinosaurs was an activity for the most part free from scientific responsibility (e.g., the study of the fossil evidence)? The same does not apply for extinct and equally unusual mammals, for instance. This is an interesting topic for future iconological research.

The downside: the Trojan horse

How much important is artwork in science communication? In 2009 Naish wrote:
«The role of artwork in promoting historical ideas about dinosaurs should not be under-emphasized, and certain views about dinosaurs became enshrined because the artistic reconstructions depicting them were memorable and sometimes wonderful» [8].
In fact, correcting an erroneous idea supported by palaeoart is difficult (and more difficult in the case of amazing or popular depictions). Here lies the palaeoart’s downside: the strategy of the Trojan horse in order to pass through the gates of academic establishment (a subject Naish dealt with on his blog [9]). Stunning visual artwork can be used to spread and popularize a controversial agenda otherwise limited to academic discussions.
The magnificent illustrated book Dinosaurs: A Global View [10], for instance, featured an incredible, jaw-dropping array of illustrations by Mark Hallett, Douglas Henderson and John Sibbick. Meanwhile, text authors Stephen and Sylvia Czerkas offered a critical view of Archaeopteryx as an “aberrant theropod”, while Protoavis, a “thecodont” reptilian chimera (i.e., a collection of scattered fossils that belonged to multiple animals, thus not representing a real taxon), was highly praised as the possible ancestor of birds. This was very debatable, if not plainly wrong, already at the time the book was published (the early 90s), but it was not an isolated case, since Czerkas strategically used modern iguanas as a dermal homologous to understand Stegosaurus plates, proposed chameleon-like abilities and appearance for Carnotaurus’ tubercles [11] and successfully inspired spiky (reptilian) sauropods [12].

An open ending...

Even these bizarre ideas can contribute to the advancement of dinosaur scientific research, for they can be (hopefully) rejected and/or tested in a variety of ways. Indeed, in All Yesterdays palaeoart is suggested as an «arena to propose new hypothesis» [13], well rooted in scientific evidence. But from the point of view of the scientist engaged in science communication, isn’t a bit frustrating to ascertain the persistence of such (often bizarre) artwork and its influence on the general (mis)understanding of dinosaur science? In this sense, the persistent frill-necked Dilophosaurus (as seen in Jurassic Park and recalled by Matt Martyniuk in his interview) might be an interesting case study and provide further intriguing thoughts.

[1] MacLeod, N. (2009). Images, Totems, Types and Memes: Perspectives on an Iconological Mimetics. «Culture, Theory and Critique», 50, 2-3, 2009, 185-208; p. 197. An interesting "Iconographic Evolution of Thescelosaurus" has been previously featured on Agathaumas: Memetica, storia iconografica e paleoillustrazione 1° parte, December 26, 2011, <>.
[2] Some posts deserve to be mentioned here, such as the ones devoted to Quetzalcoatlus, to the “giraffoid Barosaurus”, to bizarre ceratopsians, and to the sauropod trunk speculation. In the aforementioned order:
[3] Splinder, F. Ten Commandents for Dinosaur Artwork, available at <>.
[4] Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. With Skeletal Diagrams by Scott Hartman. Irregular Books; p. 40.
[5] In no particular order:
[6] A comprehensive list of the first on line responses is available here: All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals – the book and the launch event, December 11, 2012, <>.
[7] Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. & Naish, D., All Yesterdays, p. 9.
[8] Naish, D. (2009). The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. Berkeley-Los Angeles: University of California Press, p. 9.
[9] Naish, D. (2012). Why the world has to ignore, July 3, 2012, <>.
[10] Czerkas, S.J., and S.A. Czerkas; Olson, E.C. (scientific advisor). Illustrations by Douglas Henderson, Mark Hallett, John Sibbick (1990). Dinosaurs: A Global View. Limpsfield: Dragon’s World, 1990. The artwork and the book are now featured in «Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs»:  Vincent, M. Vintage Dinosaur Art: De Oerwereld van de Dinosauriërs - Part 1, January 7, 2013, <>; Part 2 & Part 3 available via <>).
[11] Cf. «Discover magazine», Jan.-Jul. 1989. This speculation was exploited by M. Crichton in Jurassic Park’s sequel The Lost World, but not featured in the film of the same name released in 1997 (Czerkas’ original article devoted to Carnotaurus: Czerkas, S. A., and S. J. Czerkas. [1997]. The Integument and Life Restoration of Carnotaurus. In Wolberg, D.L. and G.D. Rosenberg (eds.), Dinofest International, Proceedings of the Symposium at Arizona State University, pp. 155-158. Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences: Philadelphia).
[12] In an interview released to John Noble Wilford (author of the critically acclaimed The Riddle of the Dinosaur), Czerkas stated in a quite apodictic way that
«“Now we’re seeing that at least some sauropods really looked reptilian, as people think of reptiles, with spikes that remind you of very large iguanas,” Mr. Czerkas said in an interview. “This could shift some scientific thinking”» (from Familiar Dinosaurs May Take New Shape, in «New York Times», November 3, 1992. Original article by Czerkas: Discovery of Dermal Spines Reveals a New Look for Sauropod Dinosaurs. «Geology», 20, 12, December 1992, 1068-1070).
More recently, Mike Taylor critically approached the whole "spiky sauropod" question here: <>.
These ideas were more or less featured in Czerkas’ beautiful three-dimensional reconstructions, and popularized through his artwork. From this starting point, he went very far from the general common ground and from scientific evidence: in 2000 he even proposed that the dinosaurian scaled skin proved that birds could not be descendants of dinosaurs (cf. Martin, L.D., & S.A. Czerkas. [2000]. The Fossil Record of Feather Evolution in the Mesozoic. «Amer. Zool.»  40 [4]: 687-694.
Further informations available in Orr, D. Stephen Czerkas in Discover, 1989. «Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs», February 22, 2011, <>.
[13] Conway, J., Kosemen, C.M. & Naish, D., All Yesterdays, p. 16.