Narrativising Dinosaurs: Science and Popular Culture from 1850 to the Present
Encountering dinosaurs is a routine experience for most of us. They tower over us in museums, entertain us in books and films, and peer out at us from our cereal boxes. Though increasingly well-understood from a scientific standpoint, dinosaurs are far less frequently considered by cultural historians: it may be enough for some people to understand how these animals lived (and died), but the reasons such understandings have become important in twenty-first century culture are in themselves worthy of investigation. What is it about dinosaurs that makes them so appealing? Why do we use them to tell stories to each other, and how do those stories work? Most importantly of all, how have those stories evolved since dinosaurs were first discovered, and what can their evolution teach us about the broader relationships between science and culture?
Dinosaurs are both a manifestation of and an ideal lens through which to view the apparent rift between literature and science which C. P. Snow infamously called 'The Two-Culture Divide' in 1959. Their very existence serves to demonstrate the interdependence of these disciplines: painstakingly reconstructed from scant fossil remains, dinosaurs are invariably the product of imaginative faculties as well as empirical data. They therefore embody a combination of storytelling and science; they are, so to speak, inherently interdisciplinary. By understanding dinosaurs as a focal point for the shifting conversations between literature and science over the last 160 years, this study therefore speaks to wider questions of interdisciplinary knowledge as well as to the specifics of our relationships with Mesozoic life.
This project will examine the ways in which dinosaurs are narrated to and by the public in the broadest possible sense. The materials of its study range from scientific documents written during the nineteenth century (such as the treatise in which Richard Owen coined the word 'dinosaur' in 1842) to contemporary science fiction (such as Stephen Baxter's 2002 novel Evolution). These categories are frequently less distinct than we might suppose - the 1995 novel Raptor Red, for instance, was written by acclaimed palaeontologist Robert T. Bakker explicitly to capitalise on his science's dramatic potential. It seems that dinosaurs often serve to collapse the spatial distances between kinds of writing, as well as the temporal distances between ancient animals, Victorian naturalists, and present-day consumers.