Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

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