Welcome to our web feature for The Last Dinosaur Book by W.J.T. Mitchell. To the right, an excerpt from the book. Below are links to additional features on our site and to offsite resources.
Go to A Schematic History of Dinosaur Images adapted from page 101 of the book, with dozens of links to relevant websites.
Read Mitchell's Seven Theses on the Dinosaur a lecture handout on the main themes of The Last Dinosaur Book.
An interview with W.J.T. Mitchell, reprinted from the University of Chicago Chronicle.
Other books by W. J. T. Mitchell published by the University of Chicago Press include:
Links to dinosaur resources on the web can be found at:
You may also like to read the Romantic Praxis interview of W.J.T. Mitchell.
The Last Dinosaur Book
Although our history of the dinosaur is over, it isn't the end of the story. Throughout the history of the dinosaur image there has been one figure whose role we have so far taken for granted. Children are probably the principal audience for dinosaur images. Every day of the school year, busloads of children are herded into natural history museums in major cities, and in elementary schools throughout the United States, paleontology has become a semi-official fixture of the curriculum. "Dinosaur units" are now standard fare in "the majority of California school districts." With the reinforcement of the toy industry, children's television shows, advertising, and roadside attractions, the dinosaur may be the most publicized animal in children's lives.
The myth that all children love dinosaurs is contradicted by this nineteenth-century scene of a visit to the monsters at the Crystal Palace.
(Cartoon by John Leech. "Punch's Almanac for 1855," Punch 28 : 8. Photo courtesy of The Newberry Library, Chicago.)
There is a widespread assumption that all children love dinosaurs, that they find them automatically fascinating, interesting, marvelous, wonderful, and irresistible. I do not have any sociological studies or statistics to prove that this assumption is wrong, nor do I need any. The claim that all children love dinosaurs simply cannot, on the face of it, be true. If only one child in the world were to express indifference or ambivalence, let alone hostility, then the claim that all children love dinosaurs would be proved false. Since I have certain knowledge of one child who did not love dinosaurs (namely, myself), the common wisdom has to be wrong.
That's right. I was not one of those children who love dinosaurs. To me they always seemed a crashing bore compared with the medieval dragons, whose images were accompanied by wonderful romantic stories of courageous knights and beautiful ladies. My first introduction to dinosaurs was accompanied by a stern admonition: no stories, no fantasies; this is science. These creatures are (were) real. They existed a long time ago, so long ago that there were no people around to have any adventures with them, much less make up stories about them. So I tuned out of the dinosaur lessons, concentrated on King Arthur, and grew up to be an iconologist, a historian of cultural images, instead of a paleontologist. The only interesting question about dinosaurs to me was why other kids thought they were so wonderful. Did this mean that there was something wrong with me? What was I missing?
It wasn't until I saw Jurassic Park that I finally got the point. Dinosaurs, I realized, were just as saturated with romance and adventure as the dragons. I had just been looking for the romance in the wrong place-namely, in the real lives of dinosaurs, which, apart from occasional episodes of spectacular violence, were probably quite dull. There was romance aplenty, however, in the human activities surrounding dinosaurs-in the heroic quest-romances in search of their bones, the intricate detective work of their reconstruction, the magic of their visual resurrection, the impressive temples in which they are displayed, and the endless mythologies that people spin about them. The romance was to be found, in short, in the history of the dinosaur image that you have just read.
I doubt that I am the first person in history to fail to love dinosaurs at the proper time and in the proper place (between 4 and 7 years of age, in preschool and elementary school). And even if the vast majority of children do the right thing and fall in love with dinosaurs on schedule, they also have a tendency to fall out of love with them on schedule as well. The Barney jingle, "I love you, you love me . . . " that is sung by kindergartners all over America is subjected to a hate-filled transformation within a year or two. Indeed, Barney is on the receiving end of more hostility than just about any other popular cultural icon I can think of. Parents admit to a cordial dislike of the saccharine saurian, and no self-respecting second-grader will admit to liking Barney ("He's too childish" was the response of first-graders I talked to at the University of Chicago's Laboratory School.) When Barney made a personal appearance at a suburban shopping mall a couple of years ago, the news that he had been beaten up by a teenage gang was greeted with undisguised pleasure in the news media. The audience on Saturday Night Live cheered wildly when Barney (standing in for Godzilla) was knocked around by professional basketball muscle-man Charles Barkley. The Barney bulletin board on the Internet consists mainly of unprintable obscenities about the dopey dino.
I will admit that Barney evokes an extreme range of emotions, from the unqualified love of the 4-year-old to the (often ironic) expressions of indifference or outright dislike by older children and adults. I think we should take Barney as a kind of weathervane of the ambivalence about dinosaurs that seems so deeply embedded in their reception throughout their 150 years of public life. It seems "built into" the culturally constructed "nature" of dinosaurs to be both monumental and trivial, awesome and contemptible, horrible and cute. In absorbing all the "cuteness" of dinosaurs, Barney seems to become a lightning rod for all the darker, more violent passions that they evoke. It's a little more difficult to feel superior to the T. rex or Velociraptor, though it should be clear that no monument, however impressive, is invulnerable to desecration or satire. At the beginning of Jurassic Park, when challenged by a fat little boy who doesn't see why the raptors were so impressive, the paleontologist Dr. Grant performs a demonstration on the boy's belly (with an actual raptor claw) of how the raptor would have disembowelled him and eaten him alive. The message from Dr. Grant is explicit: "Show a little respect." But the message in the boy's challenge is equally telling: kids have no respect. They do not all love dinosaurs or find them fascinating, and we should not base our educational practices or psychological theories on the assumption that they do.
The monster as paleontologist, shown in this still from Jurassic Park, in which the benign Dr. Grant gives way to his dislike of children by administering a lesson in fear and respect to the fat little boy who has dared to question whether dinosaurs were so great.
What would be a better starting place? To begin with, we need to recognize the temporal, transitional character of dinosaurs as cultural symbols. Lifelong fixation on dinosaurs, whether it takes the form of amateur dinomania or a professional career in paleontology, is the rare exception. Most adults go to natural history museums with their kids-or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the kids take the adults. How many times have you heard a first-grader lecturing a parent or grandparent on the latest dino-discovery? I deliberately use the word Brontosaurus in conversations with first-graders to see how long it will take them to correct me on the up-to-date nomenclature (Apatosaurus). On rainy Saturdays in New Haven, the curators of the Peabody Museum of Natural History know the place will be packed with kids.
We should recognize this for what it is, a rite of passage that is specific to contemporary childhood in modern societies. It was not part of anyone's childhood before 1854, it was not part of most American children's experience before World War II, and it is still not part of many children's experience in the so-called underdeveloped areas of the world. As an initiation ritual, it is a very special and recent invention. We need to be asking what sort of initiation is taking place in children's consumption of the dinosaur image. What cognitive skills and moral attitudes are being inculcated by the passage through dinomania? Any assumption that this process is simply "natural" or "universal" just leads us away from really understanding what is going on.
We need to begin, then, with a rather different set of hypotheses about children's (and, for that matter, adults') feelings for dinosaurs, to wit:
Copyright notice: Excerpted from page 230-35 of The Last Dinosaur Book by W.J.T. Mitchell, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 1998 by W.J.T. Mitchell. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.
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