\ Visualizing Evolution: Is Paleoart Scientific?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Is Paleoart Scientific?

After my Paleoartist of the Month post, I received an interesting email from the writer of Bloggasm (great name), who just interviewed James Gurney: Pencil journalism: An artist's attempt to depolarize the proselytizers. The interview covered the same post by Gurney that was featured last week on Pharyngula, where he shared his experience of inviting two Jehovah's Witnesses to sit down and allow him to sketch one of them.

It's nice that the post is getting him lots of attention, but personally I remain much more interested in the entries about art and technique and dinosaurs.

On that note, on May 27, Laelaps featured an interview with Paleoartist Michael Skrepnick, someone I already have in mind for a future PAotM. Skrepnick discusses how he became a paleoartist, as well as some of the challenges of reconstructing extinct animals, the techniques he uses, and the scientific validity of paleoart.

The interview reminded me of an interesting and slightly annoying conversation I had last year. In graduate school, I asked the professor of my Vertebrate Paleontology class, "Why are Parasaurolophus so often depicted with a fan of skin stretched under their head-crest?" Like so:
(painting by Rich Penney)

With a smirk, my professor said it was "because dinosaur artists need to make money." I was taken aback! So, of course, I had to bring up the subject the next time we were in the fossil lab together. I asked what he thought of reconstructions. He didn't like them! It's one thing to draw the bones, but once you start adding flesh and environment, you're bound to make mistakes, he asserted. I wish I could remember his exact words, but his point was that these types of illustrations are just artworks, not science.

Well, to an extent, I dissagree. Even something like this:
(from the Natural History Museum, if you can't tell)

...makes certain assumptions about the animal that future research could show to be wrong... placement of bones, posture, etc...(Actually I'm not sure how old this drawing is, but it looks painfully quadrupedal, doesn't it?)

And what's more, mistakes that have been made in the past, such as the idea that the Parasaurolophus crest was an air chamber or some kind of snorkel:
(from a very, very old book called "All About Dinosaurs")

... also existed in the literature. It wasn't a fanciful idea drawn up willy-nilly by a carried-away artist, but was rather illustrated based on what was believed by scientists about the fossil at the time.

I'll admit, as an artist who is partial to this kind of work, I'm probably biased. So I'll quote Michael Skrepnick from the above linked article:
Throughout the history of paleontology, paleo art has provided a reliable visual record, and essentially a "mirror" of progress within the science. Greater advances in technology, related disciplines, sheer volume of specimens and research, all reinforce an increasingly accurate assessment of ancient life on earth.
I'll admit Skrepnick might be biased, too, but I couldn't have said it better than that. Indeed we can confidently assume that the more we learn, the more accurate the art becomes. He continues:

Not so very long ago, snarling, upright theropods stalked slow, lumbering, swamp dwelling sauropods, incapable of walking unsupported on dry land. At the time, it was accepted, "cutting edge" science, today we have a much revised understanding of diversity and extremes in dinosaur evolution. Barriers have been broken, sauropods twice the size walk freely on land, tyrannosaurs have "tipped" forward, small theropods have feathers, psittacosaurs have "quills", etc. . .

Is our understanding now refined enough to offer a realistic vision of lost worlds ?

What I wonder, will today's " cutting edge " look like, in 2108 ? . . .

So what is the worth of paleoart? Yes it is fluid, and dynamic, and changes with scientific views and is bound to continue to change. But I think its real value lies in the way it captures the imagination of the general audience. Think especially of young people, whose early interest in science often begins with reading about fantastic prehistoric creatures. We owe it to them to make biological history exciting, to give it life and color and generally just more badass and cool. Here, have some more James Gurney to prove my point:



Harrison said...

Very good post.
I've always wondered why some dinosaurs look the way they do in drawings when pretty much all we have to go by is fossils.

Some of the fossils of animals today have some weird things underneath that we don't notice on top.

If we found a fossil of a whale would we draw it as having fingers and a really strange mouth?

Maybe a Parasaurolophus' head would look like something we haven't even thought of yet.

Heidi Richter said...

That's a good point. How would a paleontologist of the future know that a camel had humps, or an elephant a trunk, or a tiger stripes?

If we're lucky, perhaps some day genetic analysis will give us more answers.

In the meantime I respect the right of the paleoartist to take artistic liberties. The viewer just has to understand where the science ends and the art begins!

Dave Mazierski said...

Heidi wrote:
"In graduate school, I asked the professor of my Vertebrate Paleontology class, "Why are Parasaurolophus so often depicted with a fan of skin stretched under their head-crest?" With a smirk, my professor said it was "because dinosaur artists need to make money."

Well, I know who that was!


PS here's a link I found to a listing of old dinosaur books. I know I had a few of those listed when I was a kid, and I've been hunting for some of them on abebooks.


Heidi Richter said...

Hey cool! I had a couple of those as a kid, too. Some of those drawings! My goodness are they aweful! Not just from an anatomical standpoint, either! : o Thanks for the link... I may have to do a post later about bad dinosaur art just to highlight this.

Don't tell you-know-who that I said he 'smirked.' He did smirk, though. ; )