History of Paleontology (especially with respect to art)

What did dinosaurs look like? It seems like a silly question today, when images of dinosaurs are everywhere — from chicken nuggets, lunch boxes, and baby clothes to feature films and endless popular books. Amidst all this clutter, it is easy to forget that no human ever saw a living dinosaur, and so all of our images and understanding must be reconstructed from the very incomplete fossil record and comparison with animals alive today.

The same is true, of course, about all the extinct animals that paleontologists deal with every day. We infer and compare and guess and hypothesize and test and publish versions of our conclusions, sometimes with illustrations of what we think our creatures looked like when they were alive. This work is of course influenced by the fossils we find, but it is also a product of our choice of comparisons, our pre-existing ideas about the history of life, and occasionally simply our personal preferences and biases. The public seldom sees this process of scientific creativity. They frequently assume either that scientists must “know” what extinct organisms looked like, or that they can’t really be sure of anything at all. Either way, the whole thing seems kind of mysterious. Because of their longstanding and seemingly unquenchable public appeal, however, dinosaurs offer us a special opportunity to look in on this normally behind-the-scenes process of recreating the past. The thousands of dinosaur images produced over almost two centuries offer a glimpse of the complicated interplay of scientific, artistic, cultural, social, and personal influences that lead scientists and the artists who work for them or are otherwise steered by them to depict fossilized creatures as they do.

Some publications:

  • Allmon, W. D., and R. M. Ross, 2000, An art exhibit on dinosaurs and the nature of science. Journal of Geoscience Education, 48: 296-299,357-358.
  • Allmon, W. D., 2007, The evolution of accuracy in natural history illustration: Reversal of printed illustrations of snails and crabs in pre-Linnaean works suggests indifference to morphological detail. Archives of Natural History, 34(1): 174-191.