Perspectives in the Past Present and Future of Dinosaur Studies

Advances in dinosaur studies in the past 25 years are exhilarating. The fast pace of these discoveries and the competition for coverage of these discoveries by the popular press ensures that the history of dinosaur studies will be continually changing, but all of this is still a direct result of the science behind such discoveries. One of the fringe benefits of the ongoing popularity in dinosaurs is that many professional paleontologists can write books for a general audience on their favorite subjects while still retaining their scientific integrity. Some of these books summarize evidence, hypotheses, and in some cases speculations about dinosaurs, whether based on information gathered in the past two centuries or just in the past few years. Knowing the history of dinosaur studies gives us a perspective as to how the science, especially in terms of its knowledge, has evolved and changed through the centuries, change that is still happening today. Scientists try to learn not just from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others, so no doubt some of the "certainties" of dinosaur paleontology today will be ridiculed (in an understanding sort of way) by future generations of paleontologists.

In contrast, some aspects of how paleontologists went about their work and made their discoveries in the past are unlikely to change. Despite the sophistication of modern technology, much of dinosaur paleontology still involves wandering through remote areas of the world, looking at the ground, and using search patterns. The human element of such explorations will also be both a source of constancy and unpredictability. As demonstrated previously, knowing about the people involved in dinosaur paleontology also helps in understanding that scientists are real people who have jealousies, fears, prejudices, greed, and occasionally nasty tempers. However, when all is said and done, they love their science. Additionally, society and politics have influenced the course of paleontological studies, and provide valuable context for certain dinosaur discoveries and their interpretations. Lastly, as we have seen, many dinosaur discoveries were made by amateurs and later described by professional paleontologists, demonstrating how paleontology is one of the few sciences where amateurs have made and continue to make important contributions.

The biological origin of dinosaur fossils was probably evident to early peoples and had some influence on cultural development of some prehistoric populations. The first written reference to what may have been dinosaur fossils was in China nearly 2300 years ago, but scientific methods were not applied to these fossils until about 200 years ago. When fossils were discovered in Europe from the fifteenth to the early part of the nineteenth centuries, the voice of reason, so often associated with the rise of scientific thought in Western civilizations, rejected fossils as the remains of extinct organisms. However, these errors were eventually recognized, which demonstrates that science is a self-correcting enterprise. Early workers in England, such as William Buckland, the Mantells, and Richard Owen, were responsible for the gestation of dinosaur studies. French, German, American, Canadian, and Argentinian paleontologists investigated both dinosaur body fossils and trace fossils in the remainder of the nineteenth century. In part, the first half of the twentieth century represented a continuation of this work, but it also was marked by exploration of Asia (particularly China and Mongolia), Africa, and more of the Americas. Unfortunately, two world wars interrupted most international cooperation on dinosaur paleontology, but most relations resumed in the 1950s. The study of dinosaurs began its climb to its current exalted state when new hypotheses about dinosaurs, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, received increased publicity. The recent resurgence of new discoveries and hypotheses in the 1990s and early part of the twenty-first century ensures that the future study of dinosaurs will continue to make history. Dinosaur paleontology is now, more than ever, a global science and its evolution indicates that trend will continue in the future.

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