It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether Dinosaurs Without Bones is about dinosaurs or about paleontologists. Both turn out to be fascinating, and one of them can still be seen in the field today (Jurassic Park notwithstanding). The stated theme of the book is dinosaurs beyond mere bones. That is, every shred of evidence, from footprints to bathtub-like constructs that indicate where a dinosaur “took a leak” all add to our collective knowledge of how flesh and blood dinosaurs lived.
But from that (scant) knowledge, flights of fantasy emerge. Paleontologists aren’t mere scientists; they are fantasists, dreaming up scenarios if not whole novels about what their stony discoveries mean. To be sure, they have their lists of reality checks, if only to weather potential criticisms better, but their imaginations are where they really show off. And Dinosaurs Without Bones flies freely, leveraging every bodily function that fossil traces afford us. Every bodily function.
Paleontologists need to be expert in an incredible range of fields. They need to understand everything from digestion to physics. They need to know that a T-rex could not possibly run around at 45 mph as in the movies, because if it ever slipped or tripped, its massive weight and height would most surely have killed it in its fall, which is not a very effective evolutionary trait or strategy. The book is filled with such observations. It makes for a potentially realistic vision of what actually took place on planet earth 200 mya (million years ago, a lovely abbreviation used throughout).
There is a great deal of data on birds - modern birds – which for Martin represent the living embodiment of dinosaurs. His appreciation of them dominates the last quarter of the book. And he makes excellent arguments for his positions.
The one batch of theories I wanted but did not see was numbers. How many dinosaurs were there? Billions? Did they overpopulate the planet, or were they scattered? How dominant were they in the landscape? How much territory did a T-rex need, and how much for a brontosaurus? It matters in topics like how dinosaurs might have affected the environment, promoting flowers over dense foliage for example, or filling the air with exhaust gases and therefore warming it. I was left with absolutely no feel for how prevalent dinosaurs were.
Martin peppers the setting with humor: self-effacing, punning, and cultural (eg. hoping for an appearance on Comedy Central, the highest form of acknowledgement for scientists in the USA). It makes the book all the more readable, and, well, human. Basically, Martin is an incurable romantic, but an exhaustively fair and thorough one.