THE DRAGON SEEKERS: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin

Christopher McGowan, Author . Perseus $26 (254p) ISBN 978-0-7382-0282-2

McGowan (The Raptor and the Lamb; Dinosaurs, Spitfires, and Sea Dragons) brings his expertise as a zoologist and paleontologist to this decorative summary of the first dinosaur hunters leading up to Darwin. The author, who is senior curator of paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum, skillfully distills the debate over origins that occupied the scientists and theologians of the 19th century, and his streamlined history of the Victorian fossilists advances at breakneck speed (bear in mind that bone hunters like Mary Anning, the woman who discovered the first complete dinosaur skeleton, predate Queen Victoria). In addition, he treats the reader to fascinating professional details, such as how fossil skeletons were dug up in Anning's day compared to the techniques used today, and the common pitfalls curators encounter when purchasing fossils. But McGowan misses the mark in his efforts to popularize the first dinosaur hunters as an entertaining gallery of rogues and misfits. He gives undue emphasis to curiosities such as Thomas Hawkins, an amateur collector who "improved upon" fossils with plaster and paint, at the expense of a fuller, more rounded account of the real contributors to the field. And the author engages in some cosmetic restoration of his own by dressing up Richard Owen as the father of modern paleontology, entirely ignoring the ambitious scoundrel behind the academic honors who ruined the careers of fellow scientists and worked to discredit his rival, Gideon Mantell. McGowan seems content to leave these skeletons locked in the closet rather than risk blemishing his cheerful fable of the coming of Darwin. His dragon seekers are bone-thin, and his story, while succinct, is ultimately superficial. Readers wanting the whole story will be better off taking on Deborah Cadbury's Terrible Lizard (see review,

p. 229). Illus. (May)

Reviewed on: 05/07/2001
Release date: 04/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
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