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Speculation good. Sensationalism bad. Repeat.

All Yesterdays is gaining momentum. As I’ve written in my review, I think this is a great thing and highly recommend the book, in whatever form you choose to buy it. I love the independent Geist in publishing. Kudos to the whole team. I love the science/art tag team to present a truly rounded argument for more speculative life and behavioral reconstructions. I also think the call is much-needed and spot on. As a book.

As a book it is a landmark argument to reassess our presumptions about soft tissues, biomechanics and behavior. It calls into view how much we don’t know about dinosaurs and – in relation to these unknowns – how plausible speculation can be. How important. As a book, I find All Yesterdays timely, important and well done.

As a movement,  All Yesterdays is problematic.

A semantic issue is that the character of a movement implies that this something new rather than a corrective effect of the existing processes. A look at the artists who’ve managed to establish themselves shows that this isn’t the case. Good, speculative work comes from good artists involved in a scientific discussion in some form. Most have direct and involved exchanges with the scientists themselves. As in the book, this is a key factor.

The major issue is the question of where speculation stops and sensationalism begins. This is partly an issue of audience. I may take issue with something like spelunking sauropods, but it’s a quality image done with scientific consultation. I personally climb out of my mental participation, but it thematicizes the gargantuan mineral demands that a Diamantinasaurus would have had, and offers plenty of solid artistic skills. Successful,if only for the discussion. What I see as problematic however is the reference to Yesterdays as a sort of movement, as that shifts the focus dangerously close to speculation for speculation’s sake, which is right next door to the sensationalism practiced – among others – by television ‘documentaries’ out to make a good cut among the viewing public. The same sensationalism rightly abhorred by the palaeoart community. I know media producers who defend such formats as audience-oriented science with a healthy portion of speculation. Go figure.

 

There are 5 Comments to this article

Craig Dylke says:
03/15/2013

Pretty much my thoughts… as you know 😛

Matt Martyniuk says:
03/15/2013

My view of the AY “movement” is more of a much-needed admission that paleoartists are probably objectively wrong bout how we depict ancient life. Being ultra-conservative in our depictions is scientifically rigorous, but we need to admit to ourselves and to the public that scientific rigor can only take you so far and that there is much we will never know about how these animals looked and especially behaved in reality. To imagine that the Morrison Formation was filled with dozens of sauropod species that looked basically the same except for some subtle proportional differences and ignoring the big soft tissue differences and bigger behavioral differences that their ecology would absolutely require to ensure sufficient niche partitioning is in a way far more inaccurate than showing Barosaurus (random example) as a bottom-feeding swamp dweller. One is probably wrong because I just made it up on the spot. The other is definitely wrong because everything we know about ecology says Barosaurus and Diplodocus were not living the exact same lives with the exact same external anatomy and behaviors. Yeah, it would be more subtle to simply show them feeding at different levels of foliage or something, but that subtly isn’t using art to make a clear point, which is the purpose of AY as I see it.

The only real danger I see from all this is the creation of memes. A classic example is the frilled dilophosaurus we all spent decades railing against from Jurassic Park. The entire point, discussed in the film and the book, is that this animal was meant to show what unexpected soft tissue anatomy may have existed in dinosaurs and never fossilized. On it’s face it’s no different than the goal AY, and in hindsight there was really no problem showing Dilophosaurus with that speculative frill to make that point. The problem is when it became a meme, reported by dozens of copycat “artists” to the point where everybody considers Dilophosaurus “that one with the frill.”

d maas says:
03/15/2013

Thanks Matt, well formulated. And good examples.

Also the Dilophosaurus… the intent behind that speculation was cinematic, which I think is valid in context. The intent in Brian’s piece is mineral acquisition – that’s a solid context. And I want to make it clear that I do not consider his piece in any way sensationalist, just one piece that I don’t follow. I apologize to him for bringing it up in this context… I thought I’d placed it solidly enough on the side of scientific speculation.
My message is that sensationalism has to be a theme when dealing with speculation and I miss it in the discussion about AY, which… yeah, has linguistically at least taken on the character of movement.

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