Book review – Too Big to Walk: The New Science of Dinosaurs

Every academic discipline has a few, the contrarian naysayers who steadfastly believe their idea is true, even it flies in the face of natural laws and mountains of evidence to the contrary. Physicists have to contend with inventors of perpetual motion machines, astronomers and geographers have to put up with the growing legion of flat-earthers, and palaeontologists are now faced with this. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Brian J. Ford and his amazing aquatic dinosaurs.

Too Big to Walk

Too Big to Walk: The New Science of Dinosaurs“, written by Brian J. Ford, published by William Collins (a Harper Collins imprint) in May 2018 (hardback, 532 pages)

If this introduction sounds like I am lampooning the man, well, he is not besides some dramatic flair himself. From the claims on the back of the book that “everything we know about the age of dinosaurs is misconceived”, the blurb breathlessly telling us that “Ford now shows how this entire branch of science has to be rewritten”, to his public lecture in London shortly before publication (you can watch it here) where he boldly stated that he was going to destroy forever the era of “reptile dysfunction” in which we have been for the last few decades… oh boy, this is not looking good, is it? Right, I guess somebody has to actually read this book. Any takers? No? Thanks, guys.

So, who is Ford? From what I could puzzle together he is an independent researcher without credentials, interested in cell biology and microscopy. But he is not a palaeontologist and, by his own admission, only has a “rudimentary knowledge of dinosaurs” (p. 368). Also, he dislikes the “conformity and subservience of the orthodox academic establishment” (p. 236) and considers peer review an obstacle to revolutions in science (he has a point, to an extent, but in my opinion its function as quality control far outweighs that). Ford is a rebel and he makes no secret of it, eagerly pointing out how amateur contributions have brought about paradigm shifts in scientific fields in the past. Fair enough. But for every valuable amateur contribution there are many cranks whose ideas are deluded or just plain wrong. Just because you are contrarian does not mean you are right.

Too Big to Walk is a nicely produced, chunky, richly illustrated book, even including a colour plate section. Clearly, Harper Collins had faith in it and I would not like to be in the shoes of the commissioning editor that Ford hoodwinked into signing off on this. It all starts off innocently enough. The first 60% is a canned history of the rise of palaeontology as a discipline, though this part already betrays Ford’s sensationalist tendencies to kick against the establishment, so let me tackle this first: “Standard books will tell you that the study of dinosaurs began when Sir Richard Owen coined the term in 1842, but dinosaurs were actually discovered thousands of years before that” (pp. 2-3), and (gasp) “[…] we have now seen that Charles Darwin didn’t discover evolution” (p. 107), and, (oh man, plate tectonics too??) “Wegener’s ideas had actually been born centuries earlier […] Once again, the convenient orthodoxies of present-day science are shown to be misleading” (p. 183). Phew, well, at least we have the guiding light of Ford to right these misconcep– Oh, come on!

“Just because you’re contrarian doesn’t mean you’re right.”

This is all old hat that has been written about at length by others. Yes, fossils were discovered long before we knew what they were, see e.g. Mayor’s Fossil Legends of the First Americans and The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths and Myth in Greek and Roman Times, and McKay’s Discovering the Mammoth: A Tale of Giants, Unicorns, Ivory, and the Birth of a New Science. Yes, Darwin stood on the shoulders of giants, something acknowledged already in his own time, see Stott’s Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists. That history remembers Darwin’s contribution but has largely forgotten Alfred Russell Wallace was a wrong righted by amongst others Costa’s Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species. And much has been written about Wegener and the history of plate tectonics, I will just leave you with Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth.

Not until page 282 do we finally get to the heart of the matter. A museum visit in 1968 gave Ford the “dramatic revelation” that large dinosaurs must have evolved in water. Why? What follows is some 30 pages of opinion, speculation, and the occasional cherry-picked publication that supports his idea. He wrote all this up previously for a piece in the science magazine Laboratory News. His argument basically boils down to “dinosaurs look more convincing in water and the physics stand up more soundly”. Ford considers this piece “revolutionary science” and “plenty of evidence to show that dinosaurs must surely have evolved in an aquatic habitat” (p. 329). Especially this last sentence is a shining example of how Ford confuses evidence and conjecture.

The rest of the book documents how media outlets loved the controversial idea (no surprises there) and how the palaeontological community responded. Palaeontologist Darren Naish wrote a measured response in the next issue of Laboratory News, but other responses were more damning, see e.g. Brian Switek’s response on Smithsonian.com and links to various other responses from that article. Ford has subsequently tried to get other articles published. With each media appearance, the palaeontological community pushed back, until Ford had enough of the “barrage of senseless criticism” (p. 452) and decided to write this book.

“Ford considers his piece […] “plenty of evidence to show that dinosaurs must surely have evolved in an aquatic habitat”. Especially this last sentence is a shining example of how Ford confuses evidence and conjecture.”

To an outsider, this book appears to ask reasonable questions. Some of these we do not have good answers to (How did dinosaurs have sex? We do not really know. Why are the forelimbs of Tyrannosaurus rex so much reduced? Even Hone in The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: The Biology of the Tyrant Dinosaurs concedes there are many explanations, none really satisfactory). Others are answered very selectively. Yes, some footprints were made in water, but you are ignoring the vast number that were made on land. The idea that large dinosaurs couldn’t have held their tails aloft, because it would be too costly energetically? Ever heard of postural muscles? The ones that fire continuously, without tiring while not consuming large amounts of energy? You know, the ones that keep your head upright? And, fair enough, the evidence is starting to stack up in favour of Spinosaurus being semiaquatic. So you have found an exception. Who says that scientists adhere to dogma and never change their mind? However, Ford’s proposed solution creates more problems and questions than it solves, and, worse, it blithely ignores that science has moved on since this idea last had currency in the 1960s. And herein lies the book’s biggest sin: omission.

I am not going to counter all of Ford’s claims, Naish has done an admirable job countering most of them, both in his Laboratory News response and in his public lecture in London that followed Ford’s presentation (you can watch that here). But, in short, decades of research across disciplines has resulted in a large body of evidence showing that large dinosaurs could, and most certainly did, live on land. Ford mentions none of it. The few papers he brings up are summarily dismissed as perpetuating the dogma of the – sorry, I am trying not to laugh as I type this – “terrestrial tyranny” by an orthodox establishment whose careers and funding ride on the status quo. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it is an old-fashioned conspiracy to suppress the truth.

“[…] decades of research across disciplines has resulted in a large body of evidence showing that large dinosaurs could, and most certainly did, live on land. Ford mentions none of it.”

Ironically, this makes him guilty of exactly the things he is railing against. Wishful thinking and idle guesswork? Check. Selecting only evidence that supports your current pet hypothesis? Check. Ignoring inconvenient truths? Check. Not looking at every aspect of dinosaurs we can analyze? Check. Lack of objectivity and a self-critical approach? Check. Now, reading the book, have palaeontologists responded to this in the best possible way? Some of their responses may have been heavy-handed. That petition to have the BBC put out a formal retraction of their interview with Ford? Maybe not such a good idea. But that does not legitimise Ford’s views.

So, Ford, since you intend to stick to your guns, here is a plan:

Educate yourself.

Why is a generation of palaeontologists convinced that dinosaurs lived on land? Have you examined the evidence they have amassed? Put aside your pride for a moment and entertain the idea that, maybe, just maybe, you might be mistaken. Since your ideas single out sauropods more than anything else, here are some popular academic books for the general reader: Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: Understanding the Life of Giants and The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants. Or how about books that explain how dinosaurs actually lived, and how we know what we know? Books such as Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: The Untold Story of a Lost World or his textbook Dinosaur Paleobiology, Naish & Barrett’s Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved, and the encyclopaedic The Dinosauria and The Complete Dinosaur (a third edition is rumoured to be in the making). There are references in there, start with those. And you might just have an unlikely ally in Naish, who by now has linked to more than enough primary literature to get you started.

If you are convinced that you have the right end of the stick, not only do you have to gather support for your view, you will also have to convincingly show that all the evidence to the contrary is wrong. Does that sound like a lot of work? It does, but, hey, you wanted to play the iconoclast, didn’t you? That means that the burden of proof is on you. Those 281 pages you filled with a superfluous canned history before finally getting to the point? You could have used that space a lot better, but it is a bit late for that now.

This book is frankly bizarre. Not only does it peddle an uninformed, speculative idea, it does so in a poor fashion, with lots of irrelevant asides rather than the balanced overview I suggest above. Do I expect Ford to take notice? Not at all. This review, too, will no doubt be dismissed as blinkered adherence to dogma. However, as the saying goes “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it”. The triumphant conclusion to his book that “the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in support of my theory” and that “there is no denying this compelling conclusion” is so pompous that it is laughable. He is utterly convinced he has already won the argument and has “diligently demolished an entire branch of science and established an edifice to stand in its stead” (p. 463). No, Ford, you have not. Not even close.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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