Sunday, November 25, 2012

'All Yesterdays' Book Review

Many of you are probably aware of the new paleoart book All Yesterdays, written by Darren Naish of TetZoo, John Conway, C.M. Koseman, and Scott Hartman, and illustrated by the latter three. Right now only the Kindle edition is available on Amazon, but the print version should be out soon, last I asked. In any case, I'd eagerly awaited this book for some time, and wanted to write a review for Amazon after it was released. I thought I'd post my review here as well in the hopes of inciting the interest in my paleo-minded followers.


Conway's illustration of Protoceratops in a tree serves as the book's cover, and demonstrates the idea that animals can do things they don't necessarily do all the time


Paleontography - the science of accurately illustrating extinct animals - has gotten a bit more press in recent times, but All Yesterdays is the only modern book that I can think of that's actually about paleontographic illustration itself, rather than just serving to showcase a selection of artists' work. In this, it carves out a unique niche in the world of publications on dinosaur art, and is an invaluable resource to anyone hoping to make an impact in the field.

The central tenet of the book is that paleontological illustration, despite having undergone many changes over the decades, has largely fallen into a pattern of being both uninformed and uncreative, and that there is a better way - not just a way, but a way of thinking - in reconstructing these extinct animals. When we know an animal only from (often only parts of) the skeleton, we have to consider all of the plausible and interesting ways that the soft tissue and integument would have covered the bones in life, while still remaining true to the limitations of the skeleton and to inference from modern analogues and relatives. The same goes for behavior, which is very rarely preserved in the fossil record and for which most paleontography has been woefully narrow in its depictions. Birds, for instance - the closest living relatives of extinct dinosaurs - have an enormous variety of bizarre and beautiful integument that could not possibly be gleaned from bones alone. Birds also exhibit some of the most varied behaviors of any group of tetrapods, from nesting, to courtship, mating, exploration, and feeding. Why should this incredible wealth of artistic possibility be neglected in paleontological illustration?


Conway's enfluffened Leaellynasaura use long "flagpole" tails for signaling in their polar environment


All Yesterdays does a wonderful job exploring many types of these possible reconstructions through illustration and explanation. The book is divided into two main sections: the first, the eponymous bulk of the book, focuses on creative, unusual, but completely accurate reconstructions of various extinct animals (mostly dinosaurs) engaged in various behaviors and interactions. The majority of these are illustrated by John Conway, with his beautifully nuanced and atmospheric usage of color and light, and also includes a smattering of Koseman's colorful, clean-lined illustrations. Most scenarios are accompanied by a lateral skeletal reconstruction by Scott Hartman, useful for comparing the illustrated animal in life to its bare bones, which should be hidden under layers of fat, feathers and fuzz.


Conway's camouflaged Plesiosaur makes like some coral


This section draws attention to plausible but oft-ignored possibilities for paleontological illustration, such as the usage of cryptic camouflaging, signaling integument, play, and mating. The well-read dinosaur afficionado probably won't learn too much that's wholly new (though I did learn the term 'musth', which is apparently the animal equivalent of pon farr), but the illustrations are new enough, both in concept as well as actuality, as the book features a lot of Conway's work I'd never seen before. Some of the illustrations are just stunningly gorgeous - his Therizinosaurus, Heterodontosaurus and Tenontosaurus were especially striking to me.

The latter section of the book, cleverly titled "All Todays", is like the first half in reverse: it posits a hypothetical scenario in which intelligent alien researchers come to our planet in the distant future and are presented with only the skeletal remains of modern animals. How, then, will tomorrow's paleontological artists reconstruct the animals of today? This section is far more amusing and more whimsical than the first section, but it certainly does a good job of highlighting how ridiculous and constraining some of our paleontographical dogma is in reality when applied to modern animals whose appearance we're already familiar with. It points out specific pitfalls of modern dinosaur illustration, such as "shrink-wrapping" (wherein the skin is basically drawn directly over the skeleton, showing every nuance of skeletal anatomy) and pigeonholing tall neural spines as a "sail". When modern animals follow the same constraints that we unwittingly apply to our paleontological illustration, some frightening and quite nonexistent creatures emerge. Some of my favorites from this section are the shrink-wrapped cat (which is clearly a pack hunter and a predator of humans, since their skeletons will usually be found associated with human "nests"), the fluffy iguana, and the hummingbird parasite.


This is how future scientists might reconstruct a very familiar animal - but what is it? Buy the book to find out.


(I also enjoy the slightly wry, tongue-in-cheek manner in which most of the book is written. For instance, the line "Camarasaurus [...] is considered by some experts to be among the ugliest of all sauropods" brings to mind an image of a team of paleontologists sitting around their computer, writing a publication on what research has determined is The Ugliest Dinosaur.)

In conclusion: if you are even slightly interested in paleontography, I would highly recommend this book if for nothing more than the very novel viewpoint it takes on the field. For an illustrator of extinct animals or a researcher who relies on these illustrations, there are a lot of invaluable lessons to be learned from the material within. For everyone else, there are some really, really pretty pictures to look at.

Buy it on Kindle at Amazon
Attend the launch event in London

8 comments:

  1. Nice review. I'm looking forward for it ;)

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  2. "Camarasaurus [...] is considered by some experts to be among the ugliest of all sauropods"

    I am pretty certain that that line is about me, and my colleague Matt Wedel.

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    1. Looking forward to the paper on sauropod aesthetics. ;)

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    2. Well, the ugliness of Camarasaurus gets a brief mention on SV-POW! every now and then, but not a in published paper yet, as far as I recall. Maybe one day.

      "ARRRGGGHHH! Why can't you be like Brachiosaurus, or at least like Diplodocus? You look fat and stupid!" -- Matt Wedel's reaction whenever he sees Camarasaurus vertebrae.

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  3. Can't believe I never thought to comment on your blog posts b-4. In any case, I have some questions.

    1stly, what the heck is that thing on the bottom left ( http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/files/2012/11/All-Yesterdays-image-montage-John-Conway-Memo-Kosemen-Nov-2012-600-px-tiny.jpg ), some kind of amphibian thought by future scientists to have been humanoid?

    "This is how future scientists might reconstruct a very familiar animal - but what is it? Buy the book to find out."

    What's the reasoning behind the scaly-skinned face? In any case, it reminds me of Hallett's dragon-bear in "Ice Age Cave Bear: The Giant Beast That Terrified Ancient Humans". Also, in the latter section, is there any mention of "Prehistoric Kitteh"?

    "I would highly recommend this book if for nothing more than the very novel viewpoint it takes on the field"

    I bet it helped that Naish put in a good word for you. ;) I'm just kidding (mostly), but it still must've been pretty awesome to be grouped w/some of the best paleoartists by 1 of the best paleontologists.

    Lastly, IYO, is it more of a casual reader book or an enthusiast book ( http://whenpigsfly-returns.blogspot.com/2008/04/paleo-reading-list.html )? I like to hear about this from a few different ppl to get a good idea of what to expect from a new book.

    Many thanks in advance for your help.

    -JD-man

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    1. 1stly, what the heck is that thing on the bottom left

      That thing is "Homo diluvii", a bizarre reconstruction of a giant salamander whose remains were once (in the 1700s) thought to be an actual human drowned in the Biblical flood.

      What's the reasoning behind the scaly-skinned face?

      I'm not sure if it's intended to reference something more specific, but I took it personally to be a slightly humorous reference to the idea that maniraptoran faces (perhaps Archaeopteryx in particular) were reconstructed as being scaly in paleoart for an extremely long time, with no sensible justification whatsoever (at least 95% of birds have feathered faces, etc). It also may be intended to represent the typical "show every fenestrae in lurid detail" phase that paleoart has gone through.

      I'm not sure what a prehistoric kitteh is (an internet meme?), but I don't believe the book addresses it, although the shrink-wrapped animal above is described as having not one but FIVE switchblade claws on each foot, which may be a jab at how dinosaurs are typically represented in televsion programs and documentaries.

      I bet it helped that Naish put in a good word for you. ;)

      I can't say it hurt! I was quite honored by the inclusion.

      Lastly, IYO, is it more of a casual reader book or an enthusiast book?

      I'm not entirely sure. It's definitely appreciable by the casual reader, since the text is largely not difficult and doesn't rely on a lot of prior existing knowledge on paleontology, nor does it use many terms and references that wouldn't be generally accessible to the laymen. I've no doubt that the casual reader will be able to find it interesting, amusing and very pretty. I also think, though, that the book has some really important messages that might be lost on the casual reader, and which will sink in far more with people who've had some experience with paleontography and with the general depiction of dinosaurs in artwork and media. So in that respect it might be more of an enthusiast book, because it is kind of niche, but I think it definitely can be appreciated by a wide audience.

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    2. "an internet meme?"

      Yep ( http://optimisticpainter.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/2011-year-of-the-prehistoric-kitteh/ ).

      "although the shrink-wrapped animal above is described as having not one but FIVE switchblade claws on each foot,"

      I'm guessing that means it's some kind of felid. I was originally gonna guess dog.

      -JD-man

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  4. Dangit, I really need to nab this once it makes it to print (as I have no fancy kindle and don't like computer versions of books).

    This is the sort of thing I LOVE, artists depicting paleo critters as animals rather than ideas. I hope it catches on and frees up the realm of paleo reconstruction/art to other folk who might otherwise feel intimidated by the "A/B/C ANIMAL COULD NOT DO/HAVE LOOKED LIKE THAT BECAUSE CLEARLY X/Y/Z OPINION" crowd.

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