Transcript: Episode 1, Boria Sax

This is a transcript of the podcast Episode 1: Boria Sax, Author of Dinomania

Travis Holland 0:07
Welcome to Fossils and Fiction, a podcast exploring cultural and scientific ideas about dinosaurs.

I’m Travis Holland. Today my guest is Boria Sax, author and adjunct professor in English at Mercy College and teacher at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York. Boria is the author of Dinomania: why we love fear and are utterly enchanted by dinosaurs, and Avian Illuminations, a cultural history of birds. Welcome to the podcast.

Boria Sax 1:00
Thank you very much.

Travis Holland 1:02
Now Boria, you’ve authored several books examining the relationship between humans and the natural world. And I’ve noticed a bit of a trend there in some of that work. What are your major observations about that relationship?

Boria Sax 1:17
Well, part of the fascination for me is that our ideas of what is human, our definitions of what is human, are so far ranging. And so various, there are legal definitions and biological definitions, philosophical definitions, poetic definitions, and so on. They’re all constantly changing. And they don’t synchronize with one another very well, sometimes, hardly at all. And so if it were another concept, people would probably dismiss it as incoherent or meaningless, or something of the sort. But we can’t dismiss it that way. Because it’s too important. It’s what we are. So we constantly need to rethink it and revise it. Now, we define ourselves in reference to nature. Nature, supposedly, is all the things that we think we are not. But at the same time, our conceptions of nature constantly change as well as we try to incorporate into our own identity, features that we think are admirable, or, as we try to expel from our own identity, those that we think are harmful. And so we have this perpetual dialectic between humankind and nature. And by looking at all of the twists and turns, we learn a lot more about both. I don’t think that we will ever come up with a definition of humankind, that is even remotely perfect or complete. But yet at the same time, even though these grand philosophical questions may be ultimately unanswerable. Thinking about them, brings perspective and wisdom.

Travis Holland 4:50
I think that’s really interesting. I love the little connections you get in life sometimes and they might be called coincidences, or, you know, there might be some sort of cosmic fate. But I was listening yesterday to Episode 117 of the Weird Studies podcast by Phil Ford and JF Martell. And that episode, they were talking about play. And they described play as pre cultural. And at one point during the, during the episode, they were, well, the background is that they were discussing how animals play just as much as humans do. And that’s why it’s pre cultural. It exists before any other form of our culture. And then they described within Play theory and game theory, how not game theory in the economic sense, of course, game theory in the humanities, sense theories about games, how you will find that the essence of play is actually a way of accessing nature, the relationship between the intellectual and the physical pursuits of play, are, in fact, something that we take from nature, and we call the human. But in fact, it is entirely part of the natural order. And I think I just, you know, I don’t know where I’m kind of going with that. But I find that link between what you were just saying about the separating ourselves and trying to understand where we fit in the natural order to be really linked in with the concept that I was just thinking about deeply yesterday, in concert with with Phil Ford and JF Martell via their podcasts. So thank you for adding to that thought.

Boria Sax 6:40
Well, thank you very, as well, I think, you know, there is certainly at least a strong element of play in virtually everything that we do. Nothing is really entirely pragmatic, because there are no goals that we can take for granted. You know, not even self-preservation. For the most part, people do want to preserve themselves, but not always. And so however, puritanical people may seem to be, there’s an element of play that can’t be banished.

Travis Holland 7:44
Thank you. I know, that was a little digression from our planned discussion. But I just, as I say, I love those little connections you see sometimes and when you do humanities thinking, I guess even approaching scientific topics, you come up with these connections that others might miss sometimes. So. Now, the discussion that we were going to have mostly today is about your lovely book, which I have here, Dinomania. And of course, I’ve introduced that for the audience a little bit. The dedication of Dinomania reads to the little boy, I used to be in the hopes that he may yet grow up to be a dinosaur. Could you tell me about that?

Boria Sax 8:25
Well, I was, like so many kids, I was fascinated by dinosaurs. And I most especially, remember visiting the Field Museum, where in the main lobby, they have a skeleton of a Brontosaurus. And then right next to it was a single bone that you would touch. Now, I was sort of an alienated kid, and I think the dinosaurs spoke to my alienation. The Brontosaurus especially, you know, it was all by itself. There was no partner combat. It was just there. And well, there was something that in that that really appealed to me. Now, I think a large part of the reason why dinosaurs appeal to children especially, and to others as well is the combination of great power and great vulnerability. It’s basically the formula by which we, as human beings, define ourselves, we think we’re dominant. And at the same time, endlessly vulnerable, you know, we, we’re constantly obsessed with threats and natural and otherwise with extinction. And so for children, it’s especially acute because their smallness contrasts with the vast size of the dinosaurs. And their lack of power contrasts with the enormous power that the dinosaurs seemed to have had, but at the same time, you can never forget that vulnerability, because as Shep Whites put it, speaking to Stephen Jay Gould, their fierce, powerful and extinct. And, again, it’s something that resonates for us as human beings. But most especially for children.

Travis Holland 12:04
I think that’s really interesting. And it’s a message that, you’re right, it resonates very much for humanity, and especially when we look at those, those existential threats, you know, I think there’s a line in in Jurassic Park. In fact, where Ian Malcolm, the book, not, not the film, but Ian Malcolm talks about the planet will be fine after we’re gone, but obviously, we won’t be so. And he’s referring to climate change, you know, saying the planet will go on, but we won’t.

Boria Sax 12:40
Absolutely. And, you know, I suppose you could say, Well, why do we care so much about whether humankind survives. It might be even blasphemous to ask the question, but it’s one of these questions that you can’t help asking occasionally, it’ll flip through your mind. And, you know, in the end, it’s, it’s unanswerable, you know, whatever the reason, we care.

Travis Holland 13:20
I like that. I think that’s really nice. We, we care, right? We generate meaning out of out of the world around us and out of these beasts of, of long extinct extinct creatures, like the Brontosaurus, at The Field Museum. Paleontologists and their relationship to dinosaur media, in particular, strikes me as quite interesting. Obviously, a lot of paleontologists were inspired by films or books or whatever it may have been. Perhaps others were inspired by their visits to museums. But I think sometimes they may struggle to reconcile how the public sees dinosaurs, which probably is overly influenced by films. And of course, you know, Jurassic World Dominion comes out this year and and the Jurassic World Series has been a huge part of that over the last 30 years. The sort of big fierce dinosaurs that are insatiable in hunger, for example, how do you think paleontologist should reconcile that public perception with what they’re trying to do in their own work?

Boria Sax 14:37
Well, I think all of us whether we’re paleontologist or not when we hear about dinosaurs, we form pictures of them in our minds. And perhaps we construct them digitally or we draw them on paper? Inevitably, whether we’re paleontologists or not, that involves a great deal of conjecture. You know, I mean, even the most perfect skeleton can only tell you so much about what the animal looked like, even when some of the skin has been fossilized. Again, it, it can only tell you so much. Now, paleontologists, I think, are part of a process by which society socially constructs our images of dinosaurs, they don’t do it alone. They’re held by teachers and journalists and web designers and museum goers, and all sorts of amateurs, or they’re held by artists. And so they are not really the high priests of this process. They have a terribly important role. But it’s one role among many, inevitably, just like everybody else, they’re going to see cartoons of dinosaurs, they’re going to see movies that feature dinosaurs, and all sorts of pictures. And inevitably, they’re going to be influenced by these both consciously and unconsciously. And I think that they should recognize their role as much as possible, and embrace it. But if they think they can control the process, then that’s an illusion. You know, in a sense, you could say, they’re team leaders, and the team embraces people in several locations and with several different social roles.

Travis Holland 17:59
I think that’s a really interesting take. It’s a it’s, it’s not a science, which is accessed only via science. In a sense, it’s not a science, whose knowledge only comes from the scientists.

Boria Sax 18:13
Absolutely. I mean, if if it were just, you know, a matter of keeping quiet until you had all the evidence, then there would just be a few esoteric documents. But dinosaurs have a very special role, because they mediate between the scientists and the larger public. And you know, you can see this in museums and any museum. In any natural history museum of any size. The first thing that you see when you enter is probably going to be something about dinosaurs. Dinosaurs attract children and their parents and everybody else to the larger endeavor of natural history. They have a very central and irreplaceable role there.

Travis Holland 19:44
And, you know, even despite, perhaps the presence of those sorts of movies and things as a central notion, you’re talking about what museums also do. For example, this is just an excuse I can segue into playing this which comes from a natural history museum. And you know, everybody recognizes this kind of sound:

this is this is a large dinosaur claimed to be Diplodocus, but we have no real way of knowing whether that’s what a diplodocus sounds like, as it walks through the landscape, for example

Well, you know, we, we can only guess and perhaps we can’t help it. But you know, just consider how it is with animals in general, I mean, people, you know, they think of an eagle, a great big bird, they expect that it’s called is going to be very loud and kind of frightening. But it’s just this little high pitch kind of, mew sort of, and, you know, our imagination of the sound is really a consequence of our visual imagination. We sort of expect that a great big animal will have a very deep, loud voice and a kind of rumbling sound and maybe sort of gravelly but there’s no special reason for that. Who knows?

You’re almost begging me to hit more of these buttons here. We’re talking about an eagle. So here’s an Archaeopteryx.

Boria Sax 22:11
Well, I like it. It’s a little bit like, Oh, I’m not sure there’s a little bit of a red tailed hawk in there, I think. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s fun. You know? It’s, it’s fun to imagine these things. I, I wouldn’t take a terribly seriously.

Travis Holland 22:37
Well, we already talked about playing. And of course, you’ve got to have a bit of fun with these things. So, now Boria, you have ascribe lots of ancient myths and legends to the discovery of dinosaur bones and various other fossils. To what extent then, and we’ve already perhaps touched on some of this, but to what extent do you think our culture still mythologize as dinosaurs?

Boria Sax 22:59
Oh very, very much. I think it’s mythologized as them as much as it ever did right now. You know, it’s, again, with all of these environmental threats and the prospect of nuclear war so on, we’re very preoccupied, among other things with our own extinction. And the fact that the dinosaurs are extinct, adds not only some more intellectual fascination, but I would say a sort of glamour to them as well, I think, you know, discoveries are just being made about dinosaurs faster than they ever have been before. I don’t think even the paleontologists can keep up with all of them. And it’s, in lots of ways, I think that the mythology of dinosaurs is now re combining with the older mythology of dragons. You know, they there was a lot of affinity between the two from the beginning. Dragons, like dinosaurs were associated with an earlier time, an earlier age, and they were also believed to live underneath the ground very often. So there were a lot of affinities and dinosaurs were discovered, just as people ceased to believe in dragons or demons or angels. And so there wasn’t any continuity now, then, or there wasn’t much. But now, you see Tyrannosaurus Rex and other dinosaurs appearing and all sorts of digital games and in all sorts of contexts that are not very scientific and don’t pretend to be. In a sense, I think that the old mythology is perhaps once again, merging with the new one.

Travis Holland 26:27
And related to that there’s a particular arrangement of archetypes, which you talk very much about in Dinomania, or in the early part anyway, and you refer to Megalosaurus and Iguanodon, which were two of the earliest dinosaurs that were described, and how they were established as a kind of archetypal pair, which he labeled Mr. Big, Mr. Fierce. How do you think the idea of an archetypal pair of a sort of fierce carnivore and a large herbivore have shaped our perception of dinosaurs into that mythology?

Boria Sax 27:04
Well, if those were the first two dinosaurs that were discovered, and I think it ties in with our long standing ambivalence about predation. Now you can see this going back to the Bible, you know, the agriculturalists, like predators, because the herbivores would eat their crops, and the predators would keep them away. On the other hand, for herders, particularly sheep herders, and the predators were a continuous threat, sort of going a little bit further in time. You find that the aristocrats who are land owners, and therefore very directly dependent on crops, tended to identify with predators they would pick, generally speaking, animals like the wolf or the lion, as their heraldic symbols, whereas others that were more democratically inclined, would view these animals as savage and uncivilized and had a strong preference for herbivores, particularly domesticated ones. When the Iguanodon was discovered, I think there was a lot of ambivalence. On the one hand, people like to identify with this enormous, ferocious predator. At the same time, they feel threatened by it, and they feel kind of uneasy about it. When dinosaurs were first discovered in the early 19th century, you know, people were really scared of them. And when there were exhibits of models of dinosaurs, people were scared of the exhibits. And so they matched the giants predator with a equally powerful herbivore that was essentially their protector. And that, paradoxically, helped them to admire the predator from a certain psychic distance. And the two are constantly paired in exhibitions of dinosaurs. In Britain was the Iguanodon. In America, it would be the Tyrannosaurus and the Triceratops. But the, again the herbivore prevented the predator from becoming too frightening. And to charismatic. The predator prevented the herbivore from being a little bit too placid. And too contented. So exhibitions of dinosaurs always try to balance the two.

Travis Holland 31:42
The there has been some competing ideas about particularly herbivores as being, you know, either lumbering and slow or stupid, compared to sort of active and parenting as well. Over time now, in the book, you talk about those sorts of exhibits and other dinosaur media that always had to pay it off together. But often, you said that they were hinting at violence that they often didn’t show it in detail, you know, there was no blood, in a sense, right? They paused for combat, they’re not actually engaged in combat. That might have changed recently, I think. And I think you even suggest that that changed with perhaps with Jurassic Park. So what do you make of that series of Jurassic Park/Jurassic world and its role in how we see dinosaurs now?

Boria Sax 32:39
Well, I don’t think the change was by any means due to Jurassic Park. It’s a broader change in society. You know, I remember as a kid watching the nature shows with Marvin Perkins. And they were always very idyllic and they would never show predation and they would never show sex and now in nature specials, it’s just the opposite. What they used to censor out has become Prime footage, you know, they they emphasize predation and and sex and sometimes you get the the impression that from the shows as if nature were nothing else but but just fighting and mating and that’s about it. So we go to extremes about this. As far as Jurassic Park I don’t think it was that much of a trendsetter. You know, it’s it’s built on many other specials about dinosaurs before that, 1 million BC and, and and Fantasia and so on. And in a way, it was a pretty old fashioned and pretty conventional horror movie. It’s had the latest and special effects. You know, it was state of the art. But apart from that, I don’t think it was very innovative. And I think part of its appeal probably was nostalgia. You know, apart from all of the spectacular effects It was it kind of had the ambience of a 50s horror movie.

Travis Holland 35:06
I think that’s really on brand for Steven Spielberg, you know, he is very much is a filmmaker who attempts to recreate his own childhood experiences, in a sense the things that he was awed by the cinema. He wants the next generation to be awed by as well. So

Boria Sax 35:24
I think so. And I think, in general, he’s not that much of an innovator and I don’t say this, you know, as a criticism. But I think most of his work is pretty heavy on nostalgia.

Travis Holland 35:47
Absolutely. And there’s a lot we could say about, you know, keeping the sex offs off screen as well, I guess, because it of course, Jurassic Park, even even though it was a, you describe it as a horror movie, or an action adventure, but it was also a family movie, in many ways, you know, it was pitched as a blockbuster. And so although it hinged on the nature of dinosaurs breeding, when they shouldn’t be on the idea of that, it was all very sterile. You know, we found that out via eggs only. There was otherwise dinosaurs were created in the lab. There was often debate about whether Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler were even actually together, you know, because it was only kind of hinted at, I guess, and the only way it was really hinted at was when Malcolm became, you know, interested in Dr Sattler. Anyway, I’m going to read about Jurassic Park too much. So I won’t, I won’t keep you for that. You talked briefly about paleontologists sometimes not even being able to keep up with the sort of speed of their own their own field. And whether or not paleontologists can keep up I think the public sometimes struggles to keep up and so we had the debate really recently about whether they are actually in fact, multiple Tyrannosaurus species. So Tyrannosaurus Rex being split up into three different species being Tyrannosaurus rex, Tyrannosaurus imperator, and Tyrannosaurus regina, or king, queen and emperor. There was another paper last week, which caused a bit of a stir about Spinosaurus, you know, describing Spinosaurus actually as being aquatic or mostly aquatic, more akin to a crocodile, or a penguin I think was the other comparison they made rather than rather than something that lived primarily on land. Do you keep up with those debates? Or you’ve moved on?

Boria Sax 37:55
I, I don’t follow. I follow them a little I follow them enough to to have heard about them, but I never really tried to follow them closely. I find they’re interesting. But I think they’re pretty much unresolvable. The, the one about whether Tyrannosaurus rex is one species or several, for example. It’s what’s a different species is pretty subjective, even with animals that are still around and some scientists reject the concept of species altogether. Now, with that, living animals, there’s at least a rough criterion. If animals interbreed, then they’re considered to be of the same species if they don’t, probably not. But again, this is just a rough criteria, and it’s usually just one of many, but when it comes to Tyrannosaurus rex, well, you know, all you can do is guess wildly as to whether these various kinds could interbreed or not. And so it’s you know, it’s, it’s, it’s interesting, but ultimately, I suspect kind of futile. But one thing that’s very intriguing about all these debates about dinosaurs, is how they reflect our changing understanding of what it means to be human. We have the same debate with respect to human beings. Were the Neanderthals of the same species as a cromagnon man. Was there just one species of human being? Or were there several? And I think it’s at least possible that there is a connection here, that maybe it’s not an accident that this was raised with reference to Tyrannosaurus, not too long after it was raised in reference to humankind.

Travis Holland 41:09
That’s really interesting. And because we, I guess, we assume, or based on the research, but we assume that Homo sapiens out competed the other human species in a sense?

Boria Sax 41:24
Well, again, you know, there’s the old question of whether we interbred with them, or whether we drove them to extinction or what. And it’s, it’s one of these questions that’s paralleled in the questions that we asked about dinosaurs.

Travis Holland 42:07
And, of course, it links back to you know, how we see ourselves as human and how we do that, in the myths, I guess, that we’ve created about about dinosaurs.

Boria Sax 42:19
Well we, at least in the United States, we tend to identify humanity very much with Tyrannosaurus rex, I think that’s not nearly as much the case in Britain and other parts of the world. But it may have something to do with this same combination of suppose a dominance and vulnerability, we see ourselves again, is terribly powerful. And as at the same time, utterly vulnerable. And we see these, this combination reflected in Tyrannosaurus rex, especially, perhaps, especially in the United States, which where we have felt both pride and shame at being the most powerful nation in the world. And in a way the world of dinosaurs is kind of like a mirror, you know, we look into it, they look back at us. Tyrannosaurus especially. Plus, it’s a little easier to identify with Tyrannosaurus, because it’s bipedal. And you know, it has something approaching the sort of human morphology

Travis Holland 44:22
and certainly the dominance, you know, we see ourselves as the top of the food chain, and I think we probably see Rex is in that vein as well.

Boria Sax 44:31
Right. And, you know, in both cases, it’s very subjective. I mean, we don’t have any criterion of dominance. You know, other animals like snails have much more members than we do, are much more diverse than we are. Quite a few animals are likely to survive after we’re gone. And the same can be true of dinosaurs as well, somehow or other, we’ve decided that they’re dominant, but there’s, there’s just no objective measure of that, you know, we’ve, we’ve sensed an affinity, we, we feel more affinity that for them than we do for our own evolutionary ancestors. And we project a lot of our collective human self image onto them. But in the end, it’s, it’s, it’s all pretty subjective. I think.

Travis Holland 45:59
That’s probably a good note to draw it to a close, really. So the last question I want to ask is, what’s your favorite dinosaur?

Boria Sax 46:08
I liked the Brontosaurus. I liked it as a kid and I still do. And, again for kids, but I think for me, particularly, dinosaurs seem to address a feeling of alienation. And the Brontosaurus, at least as its presented, seems to stand a little apart. Not only from our world of human beings, but even from the world of dinosaurs. Others like Tyrannosaurus and triceratops, at least have a sort of companion in battle. But derived, Brontosaurus is usually alone, and has something very meditative and very iconic about it.

Travis Holland 47:28
Thank you so much for joining me for this interview. Is there anything you’d like to plug? Do you have any other books coming out soon?

Boria Sax 47:37
We’ll just out there’s my book, Avian Illuminations: Cultural History of Birds. Yeah, right. Right. It’s, you could, you could see it as a sequel to the book on dinosaurs. And it’s about human bird relationships, in all their facets from Neolithic times until today. And right now I’m in the middle of writing a cultural history of forests, the oh, all the various ways that people have thought of forests the the classical forest, the Rococo forest, the Gothic forests, the primeval forests, the jungle swamp, and how these have evolved and with a tell us not only about flora and fauna, but also about human beings

Travis Holland 48:56
fantastic Boria thank you so much again. I look forward to talking with you another time I’m sure.

Boria Sax 49:04
Well, I I’d love to Travis thank you so very much for having me.

Travis Holland 49:13
Thank you to Boria Sax for joining me for that conversation. You can find Boria’s books, ‘Dinomania: Why we love, fear and are utterly enchanted by dinosaurs’, and ‘Avian Illuminations: a cultural history of birds’ at all major booksellers. Look out for his forthcoming work on forests. Thank you for listening to the Fossils and Fiction podcast produced by me Travis Holland with the support of Charles Sturt University. The podcast theme music is Sonora by Quincas Moreira via the YouTube Audio Library. Find more content on our social media channels, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Instagram and Tiktok. Shownotes are available on the website You can subscribe to the podcast on all major podcasting platforms.

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