Brian Switek – My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs
A good part of the early part of this book is about taxonomy, which though a useful discipline, fails to excite much interest. This book’s title comes from a famous example of why. The Brontosaurus species we all remember from our childhoods turns out to have been made from mismatched body and skull fossils. When scientists corrected the error, they decided on a name change as well, to Apatosaurus. They could have just as easily kept the old name; there is no solid argument one way or the other. Much species designation is improvised and arbitrary.
Readers more interested in taxonomy than I am would profit from the chapter in Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker on the subject, which defends a tree-of-life organizational scheme based on genes, rather than the old Linnaean scheme based on physical features, which can classifying distant relatives too closely based on convergent characteristics that evolved separately.
Switek’s larger goal with this book is to convey his boyish enthusiasm for dinosaurs and paleontology, and here he does inspire interest. Also, perhaps in an effort to be provocative, he repeatedly insists that dinosaurs never went completely extinct. Today’s birds and crocodiles are descended from dinosaurs, and should be considered dinosaurs. Again, this is an arbitrary distinction without an objectively right or wrong answer. Switek also gives considerable space to similar controversies regarding triceratops, in which a newer species was arbitrarily folded back into the original, and a few other species, including the allosaurus, a Jurassic precursor to the tyrannosaurus rex.
There are some amusing throwaway lines, as when he remembers thinking about the Thanksgiving dinosaur in the oven one holiday season, or describing a Las Vegas museum’s not-very-tasteful rendering of a feathered deinonychus as “a Cretaceous version of Robert Smith from the Cure.”
The bulk of the book is a tour of various facets of dinosaur biology, with from reproduction, anatomical changes throughout their life cycles, social lives and hunting strategies, parenting, diet, dentition, how they got so big (lightweight bones helped), health problems, and more. Switek’s tour is interesting enough to make it worth the useless semantic arguments he keeps going back to, but the book would have improved with fewer of them.