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The Dawnseekers: the First History of American Paleontology by Robert West Howard

(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1975. xiii, 314 pp., $8.95)

The Hot-blooded Dinosaurs: A Revolution in Paleontology by Adrian J. Desmond

(The Dial Press/James Wade, New York, 1976. 238 pp., $12.95)

Reviewed by


Associate Professor of Anthropology
Canisius College, Buffalo, New York

Science is supposed to be an accumulative, self-correcting, open-ended approach to understanding the natural world in all its complexity and changeability. Human inquiry continues to alter our view of man, life, and planetary history. There is always a need to rethink old ideas rigorously, consider the implications of new facts, and modify established conceptual frameworks.

In the last century, this was demonstrated in the academic and social approach to the theory of evolution in general, and the validity of the geological and paleontological records in particular. In this century, one is now asked to rethink the traditional interpretation of the dinosaurs in light of a new critical analysis of the fossil evidence and its implications. As such, there is no room for blind closure or dogmatism in science.

Since naturalists are human beings, it is not surprising that personal beliefs and vested interests have, at times, both limited and conditioned scientific investigations and resulting interpretations. It is thus refreshing to note two recent books which present the development of geopaleontology and the discovery of dinosaurs: Robert West Howard's The Dawnseekers (1975) and Adrian J. Desmond's The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs (1976).

Today, naturalists must reconsider the old explanation of dinosaurs and the previous reasons given for their eventual extinction. The present view of things is best understood within the historical perspective.

Among the Presocratics, Xenophanes recognized both the historical and biological significance of fossils, i.e. he held that they are the remains of once-living organisms preserved in rock strata. Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, and Empedocles also supported evolutionary concepts.(1) Unfortunately, neither Plato nor Aristotle adopted the evolutionary perspective; in fact, Aristotle himself taught the eternal fixity of all plant and animal forms within the Great Chain of Being.(2) Except for the writings of Lucretius, the theory of biological evolution would not surface again until modern times.(3)

In the Renaissance (1401-1527), Leonardo da Vinci presented a sound interpretation of fossils as well as formulating a theory of geological history containing elements of both uniformitarianism and catastrophism. Likewise, he also anticipated the theory of biological evolution.(4)

In the eighteenth century, Carolus Linnaeus revived biology (especially botany) and also greatly expanded and systematized taxonomy. Yet, he held to the immutability of all species. Linnaeus' major work is The System of nature (1735), and he is referred to as the father of modern taxonomy.(5)

During the French Enlightenment (1747-1789), the natural philosophers took time and change and development seriously. There was a strong belief in science, process, and progress. At its end, Lamarck boldly presented the theory of biological evolution in his book The Philosophy of Zoology (1809). He specialized in invertebrate paleontology, greatly expanded the classification of plants and animals, and argued that man had evolved from an orangutan-like hominoid. Nevertheless, Lamarck's erroneous explanations for biological evolution precluded his being acknowledged as the father of the theory.(6) Despite this, the thinkers of the French Enlightenment had established an atmosphere within which major changes in the natural sciences would take place during the nineteenth century.

In England, James Hutton was the first naturalist to present a conceptual framework seriously advocating the theory of geological uniformitarianism, i.e. he held that geological changes are slow and continuous over long periods of time as a result of natural forces on the earth. His remarkable book The Theory of the Earth (1795) challenged the traditional Judeo-Christian view of the origin and history of things by arguing for geological evolution within a scientific framework. In fact, this exceptional work led to a revolution in scientific thought during the following century.

In its early stages of development as a science, historical geology supported either Neptunism or Vulcanism (these two theories advocated the major role of water or fire in forming and altering the surface of the earth, respectively). Of course, both elements play an important part in causing geological changes.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, both historical geology and paleontology became natural sciences in their own right. The critical study of rock strata and fossils challenged old interpretations of planetary history and called for a new explanation for the origin and history of life. As a result of continued investigations, two major theories emerged to account for the appearance of new species throughout natural history: special creations and biological evolution. To be sure, theories in geology and biology are interrelated.

In contrast to Hutton's scientific speculations, Georges Cuvier advocated the theory of geological catastrophism. He taught that world-wide catastrophes throughout planetary history account for the sudden disappearance of most plant and animal species from one rock layer to the next it was an attempt to explain the existence of different rock strata and the unique fossil forms from layer to layer within a religious framework.(7) Although the father of vertebrate paleontology, Cuvier himself rejected both geological uniformitarianism and the theory of biological evolution. In geology, uniformitarianism and catastrophism are not mutually exclusive theoretical frameworks and both may incorporate the evolutionary viewpoint.

In his three-volume work The Principles of Geology (1830-1833), Sir Charles Lyell gave both empirical evidence and logical arguments to support the theory of geological uniformitarianism. Although this theory was first presented in the writings of James Hutton, Lyell is held to be the father of modern geology. Ironically, he was never to accept the theory of human evolution. In fact, it is not clear whether Lyell ever did seriously consider as true the evolution of plants and nonhuman animals.(8)

By the middle of the last century, the major works of Charles Robert Darwin established evolutionary biology on a firm ratioempirical foundation: The Origin of Species (1859) presented the theory of "descent with modification" of plants and nonhuman animals through natural selection, while The Descent of Man (1871) extended the evolutionary theory to account for both the origin and historical development of the human zoological group itself. The Darwinian framework was rigorously defended by Thomas Henry Huxley in England, and Ernst Haeckel in Germany.

Darwinian evolution supported the Hutton-Lyell theory of geological uniformitarianism as well as Lamarck's explanation for biological evolution (at least in part).(9) The study of natural history had become a science free from religious beliefs and metaphysical speculations; of course, the special sciences shed light on traditional philosophy and theology.

Archbishop James Ussher had held the date of Creation to be 4,004 B.C. on October 23 at 9 a.m., while others held fossils to be merely the remains of antediluvian animals destroyed by the Noachian Flood. Such interpretations were used to explain both the irregularities in rock strata and the giant prehistoric animals in the fossil record (especially the discovery of dinosaurs during the last century). However, in light of the growing evidence, some naturalists began to doubt the supposed age of the earth and traditional interpretations of the geopaleontological record. By the end of the century, most naturalists had accepted some form of the Darwinian explanation of earth history.

In his book The Dawnseekers, Robert West Howard presents the first comprehensive historical study of American paleontology. He concentrates on those early naturalists and significant events which shaped the science of fossils in the western hemisphere: C. F. Michaelis' discovery of mastodon teeth at Wallkill, New York (1782); C. Wistar and C.W. Peale's defense of both geological and paleontological evolution; A. Eaton and J. Hall's establishment of paleontology as a rigorous science and popularization of their findings.

Also, the author highlights the first successful search for dinosaurs undertaken by F.V. Hayden and J. Leidy in the Badlands of South Dakota (1853-1859).

As paleontology became popular and acknowledged by the scientific community, a naturalist could achieve both fame and fortune through his discovery of fossils (particularly dinosaur remains). Near the end of the last century, a fascinating feud arose between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh; each claimed superiority in the new science. In retrospect, the Cope-Marsh arguments were a great impetus to the rise of paleontology and a stimulus to the growing interest in dinosaurs (also, an interest in the evolution of birds and the development of the horse emerged).(10)

At the time, dinosaurs were held to be giant creatures analogous to the living reptiles of today. Representing the ideas of Cope and Osborn, Charles R. Knight's marvellous paintings of the dinosaurs are partly responsible for the depiction of these giant creatures as reptiles in this century (of course, some of the fossil dinosaurs were small). However, this understanding and interpretation of dinosaurs was to undergo a radical change in this decade.

The Dawnseekers is a very readable, informative, and enjoyable book on early American paleontology. It includes relevant photographs of those important early pioneers in the new science (some showing them at work in the field) and fossil reconstructions of some of the major finds, as well as a map of sites and geologic time scale (there is a bibliography and index).

In this century, geologists and paleontologists have designated the Mesozoic Era as the "Age of Reptiles" (this time period beginning about 230 million years ago and lasting until about 70 million years ago). For over 160 million years, reptiles were the dominant form of life on the earth. Through successful adaptive radiation, they dominated the waters (plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs), the air (pterosaurs or pterodactyls), and the land (dinosaurs).

The Mesozoic Era is subdivided into three periods: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Each period is characterized by its own diversified reptilian species. Although dinosaurs exhibited a wide range of size and form, they were divided into two major orders: the Saurischia (e.g., Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus) and the Ornithischia (e.g., Stegosaurus and Triceratops).(11)

It isn't surprising that naturalists were especially fascinated by the giant-sized fossil creatures, although there were species of small dinosaurs as well. In general, they imagined the dinosaurs to be huge, small-brained, sluggish, cold-blooded reptiles analogous to their presumed only living relatives the alligators and crocodiles. This interpretation lent itself to the fanciful depiction of them by artists, writers, and film-makers. This image of the dinosaurs remains in the scientific literature to the present day.

Suddenly, at the end of the Mesozoic Era, the successful dinosaurs became extinct. This puzzling planetary event in geopaleontological history still remains one of the major unanswered questions in natural science.* For whatever reason or reasons, no dinosaurs survived into the following Cenozoic Era (the "Age of Mammals"). However, one theory claims that some evolved into birds.

[* See I. Velikovsky, "Were All Dinosaurs Reptiles?" KRONOS II, 2 (Nov., 1976), pp. 93-97 and ref. # 5; Also see L. M. Greenberg, "Cataclysmic Evolution," KRONOS I, 4 (April, 1976), pp. 98-110.]

In his remarkable work The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs (1976), Adrian J. Desmond boldly argues for a reinterpretation of this large fossil group that has so impressed naturalists and evolutionists since its first discovery. The book is a fascinating synthesis of historical facts and scientific speculation. In a convincing way, the author presents a new image of the dinosaur group: dinosaurs were endotherms, i.e. warm-blooded animals. As such, he challenges the fixed but largely misleading Victorian conception of the dinosaurs as cold-blooded and small-brained titanic lizards. To be sure, this revolutionary interpretation of the dinosaurs and their behavior has given rise to a new controversy in the often sedate and dusty world of paleontology.

Instead of the old clumsy reptilian model, Desmond claims that the warm-blooded dinosaurs were far more sophisticated and interesting than has generally been thought. However, basic questions still need to be answered: What were their color, movement and speed, eating habits, and general social behavior patterns? Clues to the answers come from reconstructed skeletons, isolated fossil bones and tissue, corporalites, footprints, and molds. Likewise, information is suggested by comparative studies with living animals (especially the lizards) and the use of mathematics.

In general, there remain two tantalizing questions: Why were the dinosaurs so successful for so long (even surpressing the further evolution of the early mammals)? And why did these impressive creatures suddenly vanish from the surface of the earth about 70 million years ago?

Adrian J. Desmond addresses himself to both of these questions. He presents the first discoveries and early interpretations of these antediluvian monsters (with references to Lamarck, Cuvier, Buffon, Owen, Darwin, and Huxley), and then treats evolutionary biology and geological catastrophism. Again, these alleged pre-Adamite "terrible lizards" were all held to be cold-blooded reptiles by most scientists in the last century.

In subsequent chapters, the author presents the evidence leading to a complete overthrow of the conventional ideas about the dinosaurs as cold-blooded and sluggish reptiles. Turning away from the cold-blooded lizards of today, Desmond's critical study of the evidence suggests that the warm-blooded birds and mammals are a more suitable model for a radical reappraisal of dinosaurian physiology and behavior. As the crown of reptilian creation, the "terrible lizards" had in fact some mammalian attributes.** These very characteristics gave them an adaptive, survival, and reproductive advantage for millions of years.

[** See I. Velikovsky, Ibid., pp. 91-93; R.W. Wescott, "Typology, Phylogeny, and Viviparity: A Note on the Taxonomy of Dinosaurs," KRONOS II, 3 (Feb., 1977), pp. 84-85.]

Arguments for the warm-blooded dinosaur theory had been given by other naturalists, notably by John Ostrom and Robert T. Bakker. In his remarkable book, Adrian J. Desmond also embraces this emerging conception of those marvellous prehistoric creatures.

Finally, the author seriously considers a catastrophic explanation to account for the extinction of this unique animal group. About 70 million years ago, the planet earth was devastated by a cataclysm that simultaneously annihilated many forms of life. As a result, the giant rulers disappeared and left the land to the birds and mammals (for some reason, these animals had managed to survive the worldwide, cross-faunal, trans-environmental catastrophe).

Although ruled out of modern geology since the time of Cuvier, cataclysmic theories have made a dramatic re-entry into natural history as a serious attempt to account for any sudden radical change in the earth's environment (e.g., cosmic radiation suddenly altering the planet's climate). Desmond himself sides with the supernova theorists in an attempt to understand what natural cause brought about such an abrupt end to the Mesozoic Era and the extinction of the dinosaurs.(12)

In short, The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs is an outstanding contribution to modern geopaleontology and sheds new light upon the dinosaurs. It is a handsome book, generously illustrated with numerous drawings and charts. There are a glossary, general bibliography, copious notes and references, and an extensive index.


1. Thales held that life had its first origin in water, and that water itself is the basic substance of all reality. Anaximander taught that the human animal had once passed through a fish-like stage during its historical development from water to land, but he held the fundamental element to be unknowable. Heraclitus' cosmology emphasized change or becoming as the essential characteristic throughout nature. And in his bizarre explanation to account for the origin of organisms as a result of the haphazardly coming together of free-floating organs, Empedocles anticipated Darwin's major evolutionary principle of "natural selection" or Spencer's concept of the "survival of the fittest"; like Darwin and Spencer, Empedocles had realized that an organism must adapt to its environment in order to survive and reproduce.

2. Plato distinguished between appearances and reality itself, reality being the transcendent immaterial world of eternally fixed Forms or Ideas. Influenced by this doctrine, Aristotle taught the eternal fixity of the terrestrial Great Chain of Being. Although considered by many to be the father of biology, and having established the sciences of taxonomy and embryology, Aristotle's own conceptual framework prevented his discovering the evolution of plants and animals. Not only did Aristotle hold to the eternal fixity of all species but, in fact, he also held fossils to be merely chance aberrations in rock strata; he even rejected the possibility of past extinctions (contrast with Xenophanes).

3. In his mechanistic-materialistic view of the nature of things, Lucretius advocated atomism and outlined, in general, both the biological and sociocultural evolution of man.

4. For a further discussion of this point, see H. James Birx, "Leonardo da Vinci: Rocks, Fossils, and Time" (KRONOS, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 70-77).

5. Like Aristotle, Linnaeus held to the eternal fixity of all species. Yet, he did recognize the existence of varieties within species. Of lasting significance, Linnaeus classified man as Homo sapiens and placed him within the Primate Order (along with the apes, monkeys, and bats). His major contribution is the taxonomic system known as binomial nomenclature, which gives a unique two-term Latinized scientific name to each plant and animal species.

6. Lamarck's theory of biological evolution supported vitalism, a limited form of spontaneous generation, and two evolutionary laws: "use and disuse" and the "inheritance of acquired characteristics" (however, modern science rejects Lamarck's interpretation of the origin and history of life).

7. As a recent defense of catastrophism as well as cataclysmic biological evolution to account for the geo-paleontological record, see Immanuel Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval (New York, 1955).

8. Although Darwin's friend, Sir Charles Lyell himself never defended biological evolution. For his own thoughts on the subject, see Leonard G. Wilson (Ed.), Sir Charles Lyell's Scientific Journals on the Species Question (NewHaven: Yale University Press, 1970).

9. To account for biological evolution or descent with modification, Darwin acknowledged three selective forces: natural selection or the survival of the fittest, artificial selection or domestication, and sexual selection. Also, Darwin reluctantly adopted a Lamarckian theory of heredity to account for the origin of variations; his own theory of Pangenesis supported both use and disuse as well as the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

10. Refer to George Gaylord Simpson's Horses: The Story of the Horse Family in the Modern World and through Sixty Million Years of History (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1961). The paleontological record of the evolution of the horse is the most complete of any genus.

11. Among the many works supporting the traditional view of dinosaurs as reptiles are: E.H. Colbert, Dinosaurs: Their Discovery and Their World (1963) and Evolution of the Vertebrates: A History of the Backboned Animals through Time (1955); L.S. De Camp & C.C. De Camp, The Day of the Dinosaurs (1968); N. Hooton 111, Dinosaurs (1963); B. Kurten, The Age of the Dinosaurs (1968).

12. Again, refer to Immanuel Velikovsky, Earth in Upheaval (New York, 1955).

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