Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved - Marc's review

As anyone who's been there will attest, the NHM (London) doesn't seem to care a jot what hideous CG imagery it slaps on the merchandise in its tack-o-rama dinosaur shop. Notably, the same few hideous stock images appear again and again; there's a Triceratops with human molars, a bunny-handed, gorilla suit Velociraptor, a T. rex with a skull that's been through a mangle and retro JP dangly-arms, and a boringly generic wide-mouth Giganotosaurus with teeth that go all the way back. Sadly, it's the latter that's found its way onto the cover of their latest dinosaur publication - Dinosaurs: How they Lived and Evolved, by Darren Naish and Paul Barrett. Thank you, marketing twonks. Fear not though, dear reader, for this is a book that one certainly shouldn't judge by its cover.

This reminds me of something from a long time ago.

Dinosaurs: HTLE (or just Dinosaurs, as I should probably start calling it) is about as up-to-date as popular dinosaur books get. It's not unimpressive given how long these things take to go from concept to publication. Inside, you'll find Yi qi (Emily Willoughby's illustration is given no less than a full page to itself), short-legged Spinosaurus, a description of Deinocheirus beyond 'mystery arms, woo!', and much more besides. Furthermore, birds are described as living dinosaurs with absolutely no apologies or concessions made to those who might find the idea hard to swallow. There's even a chapter dedicated to the Cenozoic history of birds. Of course, it isn't the first popular book to do this, but few are so thorough in placing birds in their correct place as members of the wider Dinosauria. This is especially welcome given the disconnect between dinosaurs and birds in the museum itself (although that will surely change in time).

The photos (taken by me) are of somewhat deliberately bad quality and are only here to give an impression. Honestly, the print quality of the book is very good.
There's also a very up-to-date look at the methods used by scientists to reconstruct dinosaur posture, habits and life appearance, including the very latest computer modelling techniques. Yes, one of Heinrich Mallison's digital plateosaurs puts in an appearance, as well it should, along with Finite Element Analysis (FEA) studies on theropod skulls. Of course, the book doesn't skimp on showing us photos of the bones; far from it. There are a huge number of photographs of specimens in this book, including all manner of jaws, claws, hands, feet, beautiful articulated specimens and museum mounts. As a perfect demonstration of the commendable attention to detail shown here, the captions for photos of mounted specimens/casts often comment on how they're dated or just Plain Wrong (even when the mounts are in the NHM).

The text is exhaustive and factual - it's not as fun a read as, say, Darren's The Great Dinosaur Discoveries, with more of the feel of a particularly well-written and informative textbook. Of course, one should consider that this is aimed at a general audience. Us dinosaur, er, enthusiasts love text that's full of knowing nods and winks, and knowing that your audience will already have a certain level of familiarity with the subject frees one up to be a bit more lively. Dinosaurs needs to aim wider than that. It is a book that, cover-to-cover, could bring a complete novice more-or-less up to speed with the current state of dinosaur science (no mean feat), and there's simply so much fascinating information to take in that they can't possibly get bored along the way.

It's all too tempting to say that the more well-informed enthusiast won't find all that much new in here. Well, you might have seen a lot of it before, but there's always something you'll have forgotten about, skipped over, or was announced on a day when you were too busy drinking yourself into a stupor in order to erase the Brexit referendum from your memory. The remarkable, concise section of living bird diversity and phylogenetic relationships knocked me sideways; it's one of my favourite parts of the book just for cramming so much great stuff in. There's also a great deal of lovely artwork in here, too, with contributions from John Conway, Emily Willoughby, Julius Cstonyi, Bob Nicholls, John Sibbick, and more. Contrasting with the cover, most of the artwork inside is thoroughly up-to-date and very beautiful.

So, should you get it? Yeah, you should get it. It's essentially the perfect summation of 'where we're up to' with dinosaur science, allowing for differences in opinion and areas where More Research is Needed. If you know anyone who's recently developed (or redeveloped) a healthy interest in dinosaurs, you should thrust this book their way without any hesitation, safe in the knowledge that you're giving them exactly the right education. This is the complete picture, from what lived where and when, to biology, ecology, life habits and the latest research techniques, covering every dinosaur clade including the one that's still with us. It's one of the best popular dinosaur books out there, and I thoroughly encourage everyone to purchase one to encourage more of this sort of thing. Just...consider getting a replacement dust jacket into the bargain.


  1. Many thanks for posting this review. I especially like that it's sufficiently different from my future review (which I can't post until Sept. 2017, the 5-year anniversary of both my 1st review & my review of this book's predecessor).

    "Sadly, it's the latter that's found its way onto the cover of their latest dinosaur publication"

    At least it's the least bad of the bad CG options. I mentioned this elsewhere, but it's too bad Nicholls's Psittacosaurus model wasn't revealed sooner b/c I think it would've made the perfect cover for this book (in reference to #GiveDarrenABetterCover). Alternatively, they could've just taken Nicholls's Archaeopteryx off the back cover, made it bigger, & put it on the front cover.

    "Fear not though, dear reader, for this is a book that one certainly shouldn't judge by its cover."

    Again, I mentioned this elsewhere, but I wonder why so many ppl who were already familiar w/Naish & Barrett did (at least initially) judge the book by its cover? It doesn't make sense to me.

    "Of course, it isn't the first popular book to do this,"

    As far as you know, how many other popular dino books do this? The only other 1 I can think of is Dingus/Rowe's "Mistaken Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds".

    "Of course, one should consider that this is aimed at a general audience."

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but based on what I've read (This article & the reviews therein: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/the-great-dinosaur-discoveries-reviewed/ ), both books are "aimed at a general audience."

    "It's one of the best popular dinosaur books out there,"

    Definitely the best non-encyclopedic dino book for casual readers. Makes sense given the combination of those involved & the fact that natural histories are the best kind of dino book.

    1. With the 'general audience' remark, I didn't really intend that as a comparison with TGDD. Having said that, I'd argue that TGDD assumes that the reader has a *little more* foreknowledge. With the caveat that I haven't read it in a while.

    2. Re 'birds are dinos' in previous books (can't seem to edit my last reply, gah...) - the Holtz encyclopedia had a chapter on birds if I recall correctly, and was unabashed about them being dinosaurs. However it might have been limited to Mesozoic birds. I should probably write these replies at home when I can check, not during my lunch break...

    3. "However it might have been limited to Mesozoic birds. "

      Yes, only Mesozoic birds.


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