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Review: Riley Black’s “The Last Days of the Dinosaurs”

“This is a story about the meek inheriting the Earth.”

Nothing piques the human imagination quite like prehistoric animals. There is something almost mythical and fantastic about these creatures. Of these, dinosaurs come foremost to mind. Dinosaurs always provoke nostalgia, whether they take us back to our own childhood or carry us to eons past, wondrous and unseen. Nevertheless, the terrible lizards are no longer with us. They were killed off long ago–perhaps more swiftly than many passing dino aficionados assume.

One of the prevailing suppositions regarding the end of the Age of Dinosaurs is the theory that an Earth-shattering asteroid caused extensive ecological annihilation. (Scientists put forward the Chicxulub crater as an indicator of this cataclysm.) Riley Black’s recent book The Last Days of the Dinosaurs gives us a scenario deviating somewhat from the stereotypical representation of the asteroid smashing into our home planet: a scenario that is also a bit more fleshed out than the traditional story. For one, it is likely that the iconic image of a fireball descending through the sky never occurred. Black speculates that the sheer velocity of the space rock would make it improbable that any sign of its entry into the atmosphere would be visible before impact. Afterward was another matter. Few organisms escaped the effects of the asteroid.

Debris from the collision was tossed high into the atmosphere, and the air grew fiercely hot. In Black’s envisioning of the extinction event, this “global infrared heat pulse” was unbearable. Temperatures could easily have hit 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the dinos could not take the heat, the author surmises, and they died off within a matter of days or even hours. But Black’s narrative is about more than just dinosaurs. The faces of other bygone critters make plenty of cameos.

The shell-toting Compsemys safeguards its future by submerging underwater and settling on the bottom of the pond like Bert the Turtle in the Paleocene edition of Duck and Cover. Water is a refuge for small reptilians, explaining the contemporary lines of turtles and crocodilians we see today. On land, diminutive mammals that managed to evade the heat pulse in pre-existing burrows also had something to offer posterity.

The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction event, in which the dinosaurs met their doom, swept away the majority of the then-existing terrestrial megafauna. But this is a tragedy of biodiversity which became an opportunity for biodiversity. This is a story about the meek inheriting the Earth. The Last Days of the Dinosaurs tells the story of a transitory period in the history of life on Earth–rebounding and resilient life! Like Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says, “Life finds a way.” Even after devastating destruction, life was (and is) able to revive and bloom anew.

In her book, Black dives into a prehistoric hinterland. The only data guiding her way, the only data that is set in stone, is found in fossils. Hence, like the dino DNA in Jurassic Park, the gaps in the story had to be filled in. The special ingredient is imagination–a key element to any dinosaur storyteller’s re-creation. Black makes this exact observation, noting that every paleo-artist or museum display designer must likewise lean heavily on imagination. This is not hard to do: Dinosaurs are very inspirational.

Although there is little to no dialogue (most of the characters are prehistoric fauna), The Last Days reads almost like a literary novel–a work that kept in mind such tools of rhetoric as syntax and sound, aesthetics and attention-grabbing devices. The book is the fruit of familiar research, a honed voice and a fertile imagination, and its contents engross the reader nearly as much as the author is passionate about them.

Indeed, its chief shortcoming comes up when Black turns to some autobiographical details in the final chapter and seems to use these in an analogy for the destruction and ecological metamorphosis at work throughout the evolutionary process, particularly the K-Pg disaster and what followed. Black, a transgender woman, likens her gender transformation to “an endless interplay between luck and biological foundations for change.” She continues: “I lived my life one way for what seems like eons, my personal Mesozoic era…My life wouldn’t be the same, couldn’t be the same anymore…That freedom could not have existed without the searing pain and the end of an era, just as we could not have come to be in a world held in the claws of the terrible lizards.”

Unfortunately, the comparison is at odds with itself. Black’s personal transformation was one of choice and intention, whereas she makes an equally strong case that the event triggering the K-Pg massacre can only be chalked up to “happenstance” or luck. The turning point in the author’s own life experiences came after her divorce when she made a conscious effort and took preconceived steps to obtain this personal change. (“Transgender” inherently implies a change, a transformation.) On the flip side, throughout the book, when it comes to discussing natural selection or the cosmic forces that beget the bolide that smacked into the Earth, the causality is always explained as the result of “accidents and happenstances.”

This, then, is not a perfect comparative device: juxtaposing one series of events that is intentional with one that is random. Yet, elsewhere, the author muses: “I don’t know whether the K-Pg disaster, and the sixth extinction crisis we’re hurtling toward, holds any lessons for our modern world.” As for the former disaster mentioned, maybe it does not. The Last Days is open-ended as its author stands with her work, affirming that the scenarios therein might later be disproved when further data are discovered. In other words, our knowledge and understanding are always evolving.

One of the book’s most powerful lines also comes in the final chapter: “Science is a way of knowing, but hardly the only way.” Science helps us to approach reality with a better-informed worldview, but it cannot teach wisdom; it cannot tell us how to use our newfound information. We will find answers to those dilemmas through soul-searching and caregiving.

In the end, then, The Last Days of the Dinosaurs is a book about change, science, and life that is sure to entice dino-lovers everywhere. And who knows—the reader might even learn something new.

John Tuttle is a freelance writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including Tablet and The Hill.

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