INTERVIEW

The real world behind "Jurassic World": How the story of dinosaurs reflects the story of humans

During the Gilded Age, two men fought to find valuable fossils — and one changed the world by discovering a T. Rex

Published June 20, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur (Getty Images/ROGER HARRIS/SPL)
Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur (Getty Images/ROGER HARRIS/SPL)

Humans remain fascinated with dinosaurs: It's why scientists recently announced discoveries, to acclaim, about dinosaurs being warm-blooded or maintaining a delicate co-existence with exotic plants. And it is why as the blockbuster "Jurassic World: Dominion" rampages through theaters, a quieter adventure is being told on bookshelves throughout America. Reuters senior reporter David K. Randall resurrects the world of early 20th-century robber barons and western adventurers in his new book, "The Monster's Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World."

If the story has a hero, it is Barnum Brown, who made history by unearthing the first Tyrannosaurus rex fossils in the wilderness of Montana. The hero's foil is Henry Fairfield Osborn, an upper crust eugenicist who competed with Brown to fill the American Museum of Natural History with dinosaur bones. It is a rip-roaring tale, albeit one with many sober moments of contemplation. For instance, it is difficult to read this book and not notice how class, gender, race and other social constructs determine the fates of these men and others in the tale. Randall's skill as a writer is undeniable. "The Monster's Bones" reads like a novel, complete with real-life scientific, political and social issues at stake.

At the center of all this human-fueled chicanery are the stars of the show — the dinosaurs themselves.

In the interview segment below, Salon spoke with Randall about why a bunch of fossils can fuel so much drama — and serve as the focal point of human dreams, from museums to movies, all of these years later.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

I was wondering if you'd be willing to elaborate a little on what you would say was the feeling in the air to people like Osborn or Brown when they were engaged in their endeavors? What was the ideology, the philosophy, the sentiment of the time? 

One thing I was struck by was the idea that science was for the first time kind of being seen as a social aspect. There's a social aspect of science as well. It wasn't just people doing experiments and finding out the laws of nature. It was more so, how did these laws of nature affect human beings and affect society? So with, Osborn, his idea was that dinosaurs were a way to bring in people to the Natural History Museum. In many ways that was almost the lure for the trap. If you bring people in the door, then you can also expose them to some of his white supremacist theories in eugenics, in a kind of subtle way. 

Brown on the other hand was kind of the opposite. He was the idealistic part of the Gilded Age. Where he says we have these resources and we have this idea that the history of the Earth is much longer and stranger than anyone thought possible. So now let's go out and explore it. Let's kind of attempt to master the Earth and its history in some ways. And by doing that, he would go into essentially the blank spots in the map and see what was there. One thing I was really struck by was that, he was a college student… and he writes this letter saying, essentially saying I can find dinosaurs for you.


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I want to briefly digress from discussing your book. We will return, but your book discusses using dinosaurs for evil purposes. Now, I must mention the current blockbuster stomping through the cineplexes throughout the world, "Jurassic World: Dominion."

Well, one thing I was struck by — and I haven't seen the full movie yet, I've only seen a trailer — but with "Jurassic Park," the first one, the 1993 version, dinosaurs really kind of fill in this sense of what are our cultural worries right now. The new "Jurassic World" seems like the idea that dinosaurs live among us and there's this world where they're not just in a park, they're free range, essentially. They're moving throughout the world. In some ways, it seems like that kind of fills in for our concerns about climate change. We have through science, we've changed the earth, and now we have to deal with this monster, and we don't know how to put the genie back into the bottle, essentially. 

Reuters senior reporter David K. Randall resurrects the world of early 20th-century robber barons and western adventurers in his new book, "The Monster's Bones: The Discovery of T. Rex and How It Shook Our World."

If you go back to the 1990s, "Jurassic Park" was the beginning of this sense of what technology could do. The Human Genome Project was in its early stages. Then pretty soon they were cloning sheeps like Dolly. It was this new computer age and dinosaurs really seemed to fill in this very tidy metaphor of what science can do, and also fears of science. I think dinosaurs overall, taking a step away from the "Jurassic" franchise, I think dinosaurs are overall this blank slate that we project our fears onto. 

I want to return to your book because you said that the dinosaurs are a blank slate that we project our fears onto. You could also say that they are a blank slate onto which people project their ambitions. Is that not in many ways the theme of the book?

I think that's a very fair point.

I think for someone like Brown, for sure, this was a way to get out of his life, or the life that was kind of handed down to him, as someone living on a farm in Kansas, which is the last thing he wanted to do. The dinosaurs were a path to a bigger life. And you saw that for many people in the book, the history of paleontology is filled with people who were looking for dinosaurs as a way to do something bigger… I think once they were put into museums, the public reaction to them was the first time you realized that this Earth is strange and that natural history is strange. And there were these creatures that were much larger than you and had teeth the size of your hand. It makes perhaps feel diminished in a different way.

But it also makes people feel inspired. I'm thinking of little children who love T. Rexes and Brontosauruses, and it's because they're fearsome. Have you ever thought of that? Why do little children, you would think that if T Rexes represent the apex of human fear, that children mm-hmm would view them with dread, like they view the concept of death with dread? In "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom" the horrible scene where the dinosaur dies because the volcano explodes and everyone in the audience gets teary-eyed. People care about dinosaurs and feel inspired by them. And I feel like in "The Monster's Bones" that sentiment is captured as well.

I think that's a good point.

I think "Jurassic Park" is interesting that people want to be a part of it until the safety mechanisms break down and then they're face to face with the T. Rex and suddenly that becomes a much different story. I think that kids like dinosaurs so much because in some ways it's an alien right in front of you that you are told that this is how the world works, and this is how everything has been. And then suddenly you see essentially what were real-life monsters walking around. And this, I think , dinosaurs represent the era of possibility at this age, of this sense of possibility too, that life as it is right now is not how it always has been, or perhaps will always will be, that once upon a time, there were these enormous creatures walking the Earth, and that has changed. So whatever circumstances you may be in right now, you can kind of lean on that to say, you know, life does change.


By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa


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Dinosaurs Interview Jurassic World Jurassic World Dominion Paleontology T.rex Tyrannosaurus Rex