Friday, 28 June 2013

"All yesterdays" by Conway, Kosemen and Naish

This post departs a bit from my self-imposed limit of life on other planets. That was not a strict limitation anyway, as I have also written about future evolution. But both are easily classified as 'speculative biology', and the subject of this post, the reconstruction of extinct animals, is not usually regarded as such. Reconstruction of extinct animals feature in almost any book on the history of life, and there are even some books devoted completely to the imagery of extinct life forms. This specialised form of nature illustration has even acquired its own name: palaeoart. If you would like to see examples of recent -mostly- excellent art, consider this book. It leans heavily towards the current photorealistic style, whereas I personally find a painterly style much more evocative. If you are interested in the early history of palaeoart, I recommend this one ( I think it was the first to coin the term 'deep time'). Sadly, there is no name yet for the 'art of depicting speculative life forms on planets other than Earth', so perhaps one should be invented, even though the number of such books is sadly low. Possible contenders are 'astrobioart' or 'exobioart', not to be confused it with 'biofuturart' (the last one definitely needs to be improved).

The reason to pick out one particular palaeoart book is that this one stresses the speculative aspect of palaeoart, and shows that palaeoart is in fact fairly close to speculative biology. The book is written and illustrated by Darren Naish (from Tetrapod Zoology), Mehmet Kosemen (from Snaiad), and John Conway, a palaeoartist with a refreshingly original style (and a painterly one at that!). The three of them should be able to come up with something very original and they did. The book can be obtained in digital as well as a printed form. The book appeared in 2012, so this is not exactly a quick review. I do not care that much; with food the 'slow food' movement has things to say about eating, and many other things deserve the 'slow' treatment as well; some things are worth being savoured. 

The introductory text of 'All Yesterdays' discusses how palaeoart should be based on a thorough understanding of animal anatomy, but is limited nevertheless because so much of an animal's appearance is determined by its integument. As you know that can range from smooth and shiny through dry and scaly to shape-distorting feathers and pelts for Earth tetrapods. The authors then proceed to play with that idea in two ways, and those are what make the book interesting.

Click to enlarge; copyright John Conway

In the first part of the book, the authors take on Mesozoic animals and add a twist to conventional 'wisdom' of animal reconstructions. They add fatty humps to animals with large vertebral spines, where convention simply stretches a sail between the spines. They seem to have a particular dislike of the 'skinny' way of reconstructing animals, in which the skin is stretched tautly over an animal's skeleton. I agree with them that this style has been overdone. I suppose the underlying reasons to stick to skinny reconstructions for dinosaurs are lingering ideas about them being 'reptiles', and perhaps by a wish to conserve weight. Well, here you will find fat dinosaurs, with stumpy legs emerging from mounds of meat. The image above shows a rather rotund triceratops, which besides being less then athletic also has a range of spikes protruding from its hide.

Click to enlarge; copyright John Conway
The authors also play around with animal behaviour,  a field where reconstruction is nearly entirely  guesswork. Many artists paint Mesozoic landscapes with more animals than there are people in a city park on a sunny Sunday; Here, you find a lone animal on a hillside, with not even one single rampaging predator coming toward it full throttle. There are also plesiosaurs displaying who can lift its neck the highest out of the water; a very nice idea. The image above shows the cover of the book, showing protoceratops in a tree. In a tree? Well, yes. After all, you would not guess that goats could climb trees, but they can. The reasoning here is largely that they have climbed the tree because they could...  

The second part of the book is the truly original part. Here the authors take remnants of present day Earth animals and have some palaeoartists of an undetermined species in the far future have a go at reconstructions.

Click to enlarge: Copyright John Conway
The above is a cat... Very well, a cat whose skull was apparently preserved, but the palaeontologists could only guess at everything else. They came up with this fictional scaly and skinny hide, without cheeks or fur. I like this concept very much, and am tempted to find images of animal skulls and have a go at such fake restorations myself.

Click to enlarge; Copyright CM Kosemen
And this? Well, you are probably familiar with the extinct amphibian whose remains where first taken for those of a human drowned in the biblical great flood. In fairness, that particular mistake was made in 1726, well before palaeontology was underway, and before Linnaeus introduced his biological classification. The animal was later formally classified and named after its inventor, Johann Scheuchzer: it is now Andrias scheuchzeri. In 'All tomorrows', Mehmet Kosemen produced the image of a salamander man shown above, as an example of mistaken identity. The authors label it 'Homo diluvii', the 'man of the deluge'. Spelled with a capital 'H' the name looks like it is an official zoological name. So far I had always seen it referred to as 'homo diluvii testis'. The literal translation of that phrase is 'man, of the flood a witness' (the Romans were not at all particular about word order). That suggests that we are just dealing with a description in the scientific language of the time, not with a formal scientific binomen. I tried to find the scanned book on the internet to check the source but failed. It matters little; this is a great 'Salamander Man'!

All in all, this is an amusing book that makes you think. Mind you, I am not one of those people who think that 'amusing' has a belittling connotation. The combination of amusing and thought-provoking should appeal to everyone interested in speculative biology. The book provides an eye-opener in showing how much of palaeoart, an as yet more 'respected' genre than astrobioart, is full of speculation. In many cases we have become so accustomed to ways of portraying dinosaurs that it has become difficult to look at the reconstructions anew. It is very likely that speculative biology is equally full of such 'familiar faces', and it may be equally difficult to forget them. Still, that may be necessary to take a fresh look. Now, where is that large completely empty sheet of sketching paper?  


Nicky said...

Go it, read it, loved it!! I recommend that books like these on speculative biology, or even speculative history, deserve more attention, and should be remembered for 50+ generations.

P.S. Can't wait for the update to the Furaha Website. Hope all is doing well.

P.S.S. It was the spidrid that had the super ability to have non-linear locomotion from the last post.

Christopher Phoenix said...

This book sounds fascinating, I love the chubby triceratops!! I agree, we so many similar reconstructions of extinct animals that we instantly default to those images. It is nice to see fresh interpretations like these.

And the fictitious "future reconstruction" of the cat gives you an idea of how far off our ideas might be. :D Now, speaking of that big empty sketchbook, I need to keep up with my drawing...

Kopout@speculative evolution said...

They neglected to mention the minority opinion. Namely that "cats" were in fact facultative mutualists of "humans", riding their hives of kleptoparasites and disease vectors.
(joke, in case you can't tell)

Sigmund Nastrazzurro said...

Nicky: glad you have it too. As for the update: well, work is competing with not-work as usual, and is is -temporarily- winning.

Chistopher: chubby dinosaurs... I could actually feel my mind boggling.

Kopout: we got it... I thought the original comment in the book was funny but far-fetched, in view of the relative size of cats and their presumed prey.

Petr said...

awesome post! =) I must get this book! I am a slacker!