Monday, 5 October 2020

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 7 - The End?

Fig. 1: The cover of All Yesterdays, portraying Protoceratops climbing a tree. While it seems strange at first, this behaviour is strongly inspired by what can be seen in modern goats and emphasizes the fact that many animals sometimes engage in unexpected behaviours that one would not be able to deduce from the skeleton alone. 

For the previous part please go here.

All things have an end, except for sausages. Those have two. After passing the swan song of the Alien Prehistoric World Trope that was Wayne Barlowe, we will now come to art which most of us would call contemporary. What has happened in the meantime? Somewhen around the late 2000s/early 10s paleoartists began noticing that there was something majorly off about most common dinosaur depictions. As mentioned in part 5, since the 80s the most popular style of reconstruction had become the Greg Paul way, in which the animals are depicted as (perhaps overly) active, but also so slimmed down that the contours of the entire skeleton become visible through the skin. Living animals rarely do look like that, so artists began to reconstruct their fossils not just as walking skeletals but also decked them out with proper amounts of speculative soft-tissue, often referencing living animals. A major contribution to this were new fossil Lagerstätten giving us more information about dinosaur skin than ever before. Another major shift at this time was the fact that the practice of paleoart had existed for so long that people began studying its history in more detail and, in the process, discovered that certain tropes and even plagiarism had become rampant over the years. Things like background-volcanoes, violence, monstrosity, alien atmospheres, anachronisms, shrink-wrapping et cetera now became obvious clichés that artists wanted to avoid if they wanted to be original.

Fig. 2: Very bird-like Troodon formosus scurrying around a magnolia tree by John Conway. The use of modern flowering plants to create a sense of familiarity and beauty in prehistoric scenes is something we have already encountered in Zallinger’s Age of Reptiles from part 4.

These new developments became codified in the 2012 book All Yesterdays, written by Darren Naish, John Conway and C.M. Kosemen (who by the way follows this blog, so Hi there if you’re reading this). The work features several pieces which depict prehistoric life in speculative and unusual ways, but without ever stepping too far from plausibility. It also features an “All Todays” section in which modern animals, such as rhinos or elephants are reconstructed using the flawed methods of the past (often with tongue-in-cheek descriptions), resulting truly alien abominations. Despite this, the ironically most thought-provoking images in the book are those which depict extinct animals doing ordinary things, such as camouflaging, building nests, sleeping or playing. It really says a lot about the previous state of paleoart when simply depicting dinosaurs doing normal animal things was seen as revolutionary. But alas, exactly this was a major shift, one we are still experiencing. Extinct animals are not thought of anymore as antediluvian monsters deservedly swept away by catastrophes but as animals that lived and died like the ones today. Remembering previous parts, in some ways this is a revival of sentiments similarly expressed in the art of Zdeněk Burian and Wayne Barlowe. Perhaps you could call this a second, more subtle Dino Renaissance, but generally our current paleoart period is referred to as either post-modern (as by Mark Witton) or as the Soft-Tissue-Revolution. The animals of our current paleoart often have bizarre ornamental features and engage in unusual behaviour, but, strangely, they seem a lot less alien than the creatures of older art. Apart from the fact they are not depicted as monsters anymore, this, at least in the case of dinosaurs, may be because many are now depicted with insulating fuzz and feather-shells, emphasizing their close link to modern birds. Dinosaurs are not aliens anymore, but odd proto-birds and, since we all know that birds are very, very weird, it becomes a lot less weird when we show dinosaurs doing weird things. Weird, is it not?

Fig. 3: Thus again we come back to Deinoynchus, the dinosaur we used as an example all the way back in part 1, illustrated here by C. M. Kosemen (used with permission). Once portrayed as a zombie-lizard-alien (see part 5) it has now become a near-bird, exuding the majesty and respect of a bird of prey while also looking a lot more believable as a real animal.

With this, one might ask if the APW is a dead trope now. In professional paleoart and paleontology, probably, but unfortunately not in fringe and pseudo-science. Many fringelords and hacks do certainly seem to have views of a prehistoric world which resembles that of Victorian Antediluvia, if not weirder. Most infamous of these are obviously the people who believe in an actual deluge and antediluvian world: Young-Earth-Creationists. In their unwinnable struggle against common sense they have come up with all sorts of bizarre and untenable ideas to explain the fossil record and plate tectonics without resorting to geologic timescales and evolution. One of these is the thought that Devonian and Carboniferous animals lived together on a floating forest off the shore of the antediluvian continent and that is why they do not appear in the same sediments as dinosaurs or humans or that the breakup of Pangea happened during just the few days of the deluge. Other ideas are just rehashing already disproven ideas, such as vapor canopies and Cuvierian catastrophism. Only one step above YECs is the recent nonsense by a man named Brian J. Ford. In his book Too Big to Walk he seriously claims, against every anatomical, botanical and geological evidence to the contrary, that during the Mesozoic the entire Earth was covered in a shallow, steaming ocean and that all dinosaurs were amphibious or fully marine, seemingly unaware that the idea of aquatic sauropods and hadrosaurs was already popular in the 1930s before being thoroughly disproven from the 50s onward. Similarly, the physicist Brian Cox suggested that dinosaurs lived on an Earth whose gravity was closer to that of Mars and that is why they could grow to such heights. Also notable are the reconstructions by fringe paleoartist David Peters (who has yet to grant me the honor of insulting me on one of his websites). The majority of his pterosaurs look like alien creatures, mangled corpses, or a combination of the two. We have already discussed the connection of cryptozoology and even ufology with the APW trope in part 2. Obviously, none of these people are trained paleontologists, which is quite obvious in their lack of knowledge about fossils, anatomy, geology or even just history. As mentioned in part 1, several studies have, for over half a century, shown that all these animals would have been perfectly capable of living on land, in our modern atmosphere and under normal earth gravity. Their physiology was just that efficient. The reason why these fringelords still have adherents is unfortunately because the general public is about as uneducated as them. Many people look at animals like Giraffatitan and Quetzalcoatlus and cannot believe that these existed on the same planet as us, not because they did the math but because of some gut feeling. This, combined with the fact that the APW trope still lingers on in pop culture, leads people to think stuff like “surely there must have been three times as much oxygen in the past”, “surely the atmosphere must have been a lot denser back then”, “surely gravity must have been different”, “surely there must have been more available energy for animals back then, like radioactivity”, giving fringelords credibility. The last sentence was an unironic Reddit-comment I once saw under a post about the extinct giant bird Argentavis, an animal which would have been regularly feeding on mammoth carcasses, not uranium like Godzilla. One explanation for such strange gut feelings is probably a simple familiarity bias. Any extinct animal, especially older ones, will automatically seem alien to us just because we did not grow up with it and we have never seen one alive, while our modern animals seem fairly ordinary or even boring, despite the fact that the elephant is a manatee-relative with a tentacle nose and the largest animal of all time is a still living ungulate that feeds on tiny crabs and communicates by singing. Another reason might also be the still pre-conceived notion that prehistoric animals must, by default, have been primitve and inefficient compared to modern fauna and therefore needed external explanations to justify why they were so good at what they were doing. "If an advanced mammal like an elephant cannot grow this large today, then these backwards dinosaurs surely needed help from their environment to get this far", is a sentiment some people probably have. One could compare this to ancient astronaut theories, whose basic and very racist premise is that non-european people were too primitive to have built megalithic structures or develop agriculture so they needed help from aliens to explain their achievements. I also believe that another major factor that leads to ideas like these is that we humans live in a world with a very impoverished megafauna, making it hard for some to understand how past ecosystems worked (hence you also end up with fringe theories like there only being one sauropod species in the entire Morrison Formation because there is only one giraffe in Africa today). The thing is however that our modern fauna is so impoverished not because Earth has become a radically different planet, but because we have, at least in part, driven the majority of megafauna to extinction and destroyed their habitats. It therefore becomes especially brain-frying to read APW-esque ideas from people talking about recently extinct animals such as Argentavis, moas or mammoths. To illustrate this level of cognitive dissonance, imagine two cavemen sitting around a campfire, one saying to the other: “Ya know, Harold, the animal herds have been getting awfully small in recent years. I bet it has something to do with the air. Anyway, you got any more of that bison-stew?”. If viewed from this perspective, the APW-trope becomes potentially dangerous, as it absolves humans from responsibility over any past and possibly future megafaunal extinctions by claiming it all on unproven radical changes of the planet. This would be comparable to how some climate change “skeptics” claim we cannot and should not do anything about climate change because it is all actually caused by changes in the sun’s radiation. We can only hope that fringe ideas like all of the ones mentioned here will lose popularity as science education will improve in the future and post-modern paleoart fully replaces Jurassic Park wannabes. If not, well… let us hope that the intelligent species that will evolve after our inevitable extinction will do a better job at understanding our times.
Fig. 4: What a Russian childrens’ book from 1962 imagined the surface of Venus to look like, a nice, whimsical note to end this series on. It is also oddly topical, given how we have found profound biosignatures in the Venusian atmosphere this year. I am not saying it is dinosaurs, but...

At last, if the APW trope is rendered obsolete by professional paleontology/paleoart and nonsense by pseudoscience, what is there to do with it for you, dear reader? Tropes can be tools and have positive effects if used correctly. With this seven-part history outlined, you should be able to spot the characteristics and pitfalls of the trope and use them appropriately. If you are working on a story or artwork that wants to go with originality or accuracy, you should avert or subvert the APW trope when possible. If you aim for something that is pure nostalgia you should play it straight. You can also do something like Wayne Barlowe in the previous part and transport the APW trope into different settings, be it sci-fi or fantasy, and create something truly fun and unique. Another great example would be Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated series Primal. Be creative, have fun, read books, write books!

With that I end the series which originally started this blog. What does the future hold? Certainly more silliness from old-timey paleontology, but maybe also an endeavour into something more astrobiological. Stay tuned!

If you liked this and other articles, please consider supporting me on Patreon. I am thankful for any amount as it will help me at dedicating more time to this blog and related projects. Patrons also gain early access to the draft-versions of these posts.

Related Posts:
Literary Sources:
  • Conway, John/Kosemen, C.M./Naish, Darren: All Yesterdays. Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals, UK 2012.
  • Cox, Brian: Wonders of Life, London 2013.
  • Ford, Brian J.: Too Big to Walk. The New Science of Dinosaurs, London 2018.
  • White, Steve: Dinosaur Art. The World's Greatest Paleoart, London 2012.
  • Witton, Mark: The Paleoartist's Handbook. Recreating prehistoric animals in art, Marlborough 2018.
Online Sources/Further Reading:
Image Sources:

1 comment:

  1. I've been loving this series and I'm really looking forward to seeing what you do in the future! Realizing that we live with an impoverished fauna has really recontextualized a lot of how I think about evolution and life on Earth. Rather than the pinnacle of evolution that all other life was leading up to, our modern fauna is actually just a pale shadow of the splendor that it once was. Very sobering thinking of it that way.