on August 2, 2013
Illustration has been vital to the public perception of paleontology, and thereby of evolution itself, since the science developed in the eighteenth century. Rudolph Zallinger's dinosaur and mammal evolution murals in the Yale Peabody Museum, for example, have become a kind of iconic "Sistine Chapel" of evolution, endlessly reproduced in variety of venues. Many serious paleontologists have tended to look down on illustration as mere popularization, however. Cladists dismissed them along with all attempts to "bring the past to life," as "just so stories." So it was innovative of Rudwick, a serious paleontologist if ever there was one, to take a thoughtful look at how illustration has interacted with science. It made for a fascinating book, although a public used to full color animation of prehistoric creatures will find the black-and-white prints of the early paleontology that Rudwick covers a bit muted. But they complement the text quite well.
on November 3, 2014
By the beginning of the 1800s, a number of fossil bones and plants had been uncovered and investigated. People who studied them had come to the conclusion that they belonged to extinct plants and animals that lived very, very long ago, before humans were there to see them. Though those people gave verbal descriptions of the extinct living things and the world they lived in, few attempted pictures. Partly, says Rudwick, this is because pictures seemed unscientific. Partly, they weren’t artists.
But by the 1830s more attempts were being made to literally picture what that prehistoric world looked like. The people who did borrowed from natural history drawing and landscape painting. They also borrowed from biblical illustration, and in fact, generally kept with the biblical theme of a world beginning in chaos, watched over by God, progressing to Man with a capital M. They were, however, not biblical literalists, seeing the pre-Adamic days as long periods where God perfected the Creation. Rudwick climaxes with Figuier’ and Riou’s long series of prints and texts, Earth Before The Deluge (1863-1868). After which is a chapter titled Making Sense of It All.
There are 105 illustrations, along with the text that originally accompanied many of them. They are placed extremely well. It is simple to go from Rudwick to the illustrations to their texts. The texts are sometimes fascinating but often heavy going, with botanical descriptions and parades of names that will mean nothing to the ordinary reader. I would take a half point off for the condition of the illustrations, generally significantly smaller than the original, not in color, and with darks that often make it impossible to see (literally) what Rudwick is describing.