Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science

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Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science

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Title: Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science
Author: Rieppel, Lukas Benjamin
Citation: Rieppel, Lukas Benjamin. 2012. Dinosaurs: Assembling an Icon of Science. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation examines how the modern dinosaur—fully mounted, freestanding assemblages of vertebrate fossils such as we are accustomed to seeing at the natural history museum—came into being during the late 19th and early 20th century, focusing especially on the United States. But it is not just, or even primarily a history of vertebrate paleontology. Rather, I use dinosaurs as an opportunity to explore how science was embedded in broader changes that were happening at the time. In particular, I am interested in tracing how the culture of modern capitalism—the ideals, norms, and practices that governed matters of value and exchange—manifested itself in the way fossils were collected, studied, and put on display. During the second half of the 19th century, America experienced an extended period of remarkable economic growth. By the eve of WWI, it had emerged as the world’s largest producer of goods and services. At the same time, paleontologists were unearthing the fossil remains of marvelous creatures the likes of which no one had ever dreamed in the American west. The discovery of dinosaurs like Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus, and Triceratops prompted the nation’s wealthy elite to begin cultivating an intense interest in vertebrate paleontology. In part, this is because dinosaurs meshed well with a conventional narrative that celebrated American exceptionalism. Dinosaurs from the United States were widely heralded as having been larger, fiercer, and more abundant than their European counterparts. Not only that, but their origins in the deep past meant that dinosaurs were associated with evolutionary theory, including the conventional notion that struggle was at the root of progress. Finally, it did not hurt that America’s best fossils hailed from places like Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. This is precisely where most of the raw materials consumed by factories could also be found. As they coalesced into a coherent social class, American capitalists began to patronize a number of elite cultural institutions. Just as Gilded Age entrepreneurs invested considerable resources in the acquisition of artworks, so too did they invest in natural history. However, whereas the acquisition of artworks functioned as a display of refined aesthetic sensibilities, the collection of natural history specimens primarily represented another form of social distinction, one that combined epistemic virtues like objectivity with older notions of good stewardship and civic munificence. Capitalists who had grown rich off of the exploitation of America’s natural resources turned to dinosaur paleontology as a form of cultural resource extraction.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10381365
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