The Dan Schneider Interview 6:
Jack Horner (first posted 10/27/07)
This is the sixth DSI, and we begin querying perhaps the most well known
paleontologist in the nation, John R. Horner, better known to the public via his
books and PBS appearances as Jack Horner, Dinosaur Hunter. Thanks
for agreeing to be interviewed, especially since you are a noted globetrotter.
There are many queries that I would like to put to you, personal and
professional, but let’s commence with the basics. I always allow my
interviewees to introduce themselves to potential readers who have not heard of
their work, so could you please elucidate the uninitiated as to who you are,
what you do, what your aims in your career are, and your general philosophy, if
you will, on life, science, and the cosmos?
JH: Jack Horner, dinosaur paleontologist, Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana, North America.
I study the behavior, growth, and evolution of dinosaurs, make attempts to teach children and university students how to think differently, and creatively, and to be passionate in their endeavors.
My general philosophy on life is that it is the result and evolution of promiscuous chemicals, and it would be hard to live without. My general philosophy of science is that the scientific process is the only avenue to understand anything of interest. My general philosophy of the cosmos is that it’s really big, and old, and probably started with an infinitesimal, quiet thump.
The most obvious question to ask- did you pursue your profession because of the
All-American Boy love of dinosaurs? And, what specifically do you think it is
that draws males, especially, to love dinosaurs? I think it’s the awe of big
things, because little boys are also drawn to outer space, airplanes,
skyscrapers, etc. Do you agree? If so, what about digging up bones in the desert
moved you more than stars?
As far back as I remember, I have loved dinosaurs, digging holes in the
ground, and finding new stuff. When
I was young I do think more boys liked dinosaurs than girls, but these days I
don’t see much of a difference. I’ve
had as many female grad students as male, and when I talk to grade school
children the girls know as much as the boys.
You currently work at Montana State University, as a Regents Professor in
Paleontology, and also head up the U’s Museum of the Rockies. Is this an ideal
position for one with your pursuits? Or are you too bogged down with the minutia
of paperwork? I ask because, in recent decades, a vast for profit business has
arisen for dinosaur bones. Have you ever been tempted to head up such an
expedition, or company? Have you had any offers? And what do you feel about that
industry- a help or a hindrance to ‘pure’ research?
JH: I do work as a professor at Montana State, and as a curator for the museum, but fortunately I’m not the museum’s director, and as for the paper work for my own department, I have an administrative director who takes care of all the paper work, and attends all the administrative meetings. This allows me to concentrate on research and teaching.
No, I’ve never had an interest or temptation to go commercial.
I don’t have any problem with people selling fossils off their
property, but I wouldn’t trust most of it if it had been collected by
commercial collectors, as the science and accuracy are simply overhead for these
people. There are probably some
really cool, new specimens and species that have come off these properties, but
like I said, I don’t really trust the information that is likely to come with
most of them. And, I do realize
that not all commercial collectors are bad, but since they don’t really police
each themselves, there is precious little way to determine who is good from who
DS: Your personal page at the University reads: I am presently interested in dinosaur evolution and ecology, with emphases on growth and behavior. Studies are conducted in the field where we host the largest paleontological field program in the country. At the Museum of the Rockies we house one of the largest dinosaur collections in the country, and maintain two laboratories, one for the study of cellular and molecular paleontology, and the other for 3-D imaging utilizing data from CT and 3-D scanners. Students committees chaired by Jack Horner have full access to both laboratories, and are encouraged to spend at least one summer in the field.
Have you ever thought of working in other areas of paleontology, say
exploring the Cambrian Explosion, the Permian-Triassic Extinction (which dwarfed
that at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary), or Cenozoic life? Or even exploring
terrestrial life’s origins? And what of life on earth? How do you think it
arose- the warm pond, or some chemical reactions in the crust? I have read that
there is increasing evidence that extremophiles, found far below the planet’s
surface, might have indeed been the first earthlings. Do you agree?
JH: I teach a lot about the Cambrian Explosion and the Permo-Triassic Extinctions, and have my own opinions about both, but have never gotten interested in pursing them as research subjects. Dinosaurs have more lure on account of us knowing so little about them, and having such good specimens and geological data. From my point of view both “explosions” and “extinctions” are more about philosophy than science because neither can be defined. What defines the Cambrian Explosion, the first occurrences, the maximum diversity, maximum populations? I don’t know. And, what about an extinction “event?” Is it when the majority of animals go extinct, the last taxon, the last animal? I don’t know this either. I think questions like these are better left to big picture people like Doug Erwin.
What is a typical day at work, when you are at the University? Are you mostly
cataloging finds from prior expeditions? Or, are you actually peering through
microscopes to determine the size of blood vessels, or the volume of a dinosaur
cranium? Or, is it mostly the teaching aspect of it?
On a typical day I’m running around doing too many different things,
including cataloging, peering through microscopes, studying CT scans, talking to
students and staff, answering myriads of e-mails, writing papers or proposals,
or books, or not do any of this stuff, and just spending the day dawdling.
What is your typical day when you are out on an expedition? Is it more
physically exhausting than intellectually rewarding? Do you, yourself, actually
wield brush and pick, or are you mostly the traffic cop, assigning others where
to look and what to look for?
On a dig I spend most of my time hunting for specimens, studying the
rocks, and thinking about stuff. It’s
extremely intellectually rewarding, and regardless of how physically exhausting
it could be, it never is. It’s
fun. Younger people, like grad
students do most of the actual digging. After
35 years of crawling around on my knees, they’re pretty much shot.
And, what exactly goes into the planning of an expedition, be it in Montana,
South Africa, Mongolia, or anywhere else? Is it a logistical nightmare? To what
extent are you hemmed in by the regulations and laws of the native country? Are
there any new bone preservation techniques that have emerged in recent years?
JH: When I go to another country, such as Mongolia, I am there to collect for paleontologists and students from that country. Although I have many projects in other countries, I do no research in these places. I help find funding, or fund the projects, and help collect data, but all of this is for the people of the country I visit. All of my own research interests are in Montana. So, logistics are not usually any more difficult than eastern Montana. I’m not hemmed in by any regulations, other than the required permits for state or federal lands.
Bone preservation techniques are pretty much the same as they’ve always
been, but now days, with the knowledge that we can find biomolecules in some of
these bones, we often do no preservation during excavation, as we do not want to
Has your own celebrity, in any way, lessened some of the inevitable bullshit
that you must deal with? I.e.- has it made it any easier for you to get the
funding and/or permissions because your name carries with it a certain amount of
clout, and concomitant buzz, that an expedition led by a paleontologist just
starting out would not have?
In some instances things are easier, but in others it complicates
situations. I’m usually better
off, or at least my crews are better off, if I keep a very low profile.
Speaking of things functional and bureaucratic, let me return to your job at the
Museum of the Rockies. To what extent is the museum a reflection of your
leadership, in terms of what things are presented, and how they are presented?
And to what degree does someone like you have over such decisions? I mean, if
you are averse to a proposition, like endothermic dinosaurs, would your vision
hold sway? I ask this because astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who runs the
Hayden Planetarium in New York City, was noted for ‘demoting’ the planet
Pluto from the ranks of planets before it was even done so by the International
The dinosaur hall at the Museum of the Rockies was designed and curated
by me. It is unique in many aspects
because it displays the published research of our former and present students,
post-docs, staff, and research associates.
Almost everything presented is the result of research conducted at
Montana State University (within the Museum of the Rockies).
And, the exhibits are made to be changed on a regular basis, so as we
publish new ideas, these ideas are put on display for the public to see.
The physical evidence supporting dinosaur endothermy is one of the
The last few decades has seen a movement toward a more integrated and holistic
view of the cosmos and the sciences. In your field, the acceptance of the K-T
Impactor, and its likely role in either aiding or totally causing the demise of
dinosaurs, is a good example of where another science- that of astronomy, had a
direct impact on your more terrestrial science. So, does the museum then reflect
this lack of separating things from ‘up there’ and ‘down here’? Is there
more unity than would have been reflected a couple of decades ago?
Although we have a planetarium in our museum, we don’t really integrate
it into the dinosaur hall, especially for the extinction, because, quite
frankly, it’s of little interest to me. The
dinosaur hall reflects the good times of the dinosaurs, their behaviors, and
growth, and ecology, and not their demise.
Besides, at the end of the dinosaur hall we have a video displaying birds
of the world, with a simple sign that reads “birds are living dinosaurs.” So, no need to
discuss the extinction “event.” As
far as dinosaurs are concerned, its one of those definition problems.
They are still here in tremendous abundance.
DS: What has
been the impact of these changes in how science is disseminated to the public?
And, most especially, to young people? Do you feel that youngsters, these days,
often get a bum rap, with all the negative nonsense spewed about the eternal education
Yes, I think science dissemination to everyone is at an all-time low.
In fact I’d say that the general public’s knowledge of scientific
process is so low that the US has become an intellectual third-world country.
Some of it I blame on the Bush administration, but much of it is
generated at the college level where we college professors do a VERY poor job of
teaching teachers how science works, or the processes of critical thinking.
DS: To digress
briefly, there has been quite some national media coverage about Montana’s efforts
to battle rampant methamphetamine use. At your university, has this been a
problem? And, what of the much touted state ads, by a billionaire rancher, Tom
Siebel, to combat this?
I really have no idea whether meth is a problem in our university. I do hear that it is lessoning in the state, and I would
think based on all the ads that these must have some impact.
By the way, Tom and Stacy Siebel are the primary donors of our new
dinosaur hall. It is called the
Siebel Dinosaur Complex. They are terrific people doing their best to do good things
coverage of the drug problem tends to run against popular conceptions of the
state as a bastion of the pure, free, mountain man ideal. Since you also grew up
in the state, is this partly due to the isolation one can achieve in such a
large state that is so sparsely populated? And, have there been similar
problems, prior to this, such as alcohol usage? Was studying science a way for
you to combat such loneliness? To get away from the empty and into another time
Who knows? I actually like
the sparseness, the emptiness, and don’t find it a bit lonely.
How can you be lonely in any ecosystem, particularly one with so few
Was taking a job at the museum a deliberate choice to get more involved in
research, and less involved in education? If so, any regrets? If so, what are
I have always been in research, and all of the teaching I do is
voluntary, and conducted primarily for my graduate students, although I also
teach some non-paleontology undergraduate classes. But, whether it is teaching or research the end product is
education. How could a person
possibly have regrets about sharing or gaining information?
Do you have any plans to some day move on and perhaps issue some grand life’s
work on dinosaurs; a magnum opus the equivalent of Gould’s The
Structure Of Evolutionary Theory?
Yes, I think we all (scientists) have aspirations to “wrap it all up”
in some kind of neat synthesis. I’d
like to think that I can do this before I kick the bucket, but who knows…?
Speaking of Gould, did you have any views on his infamous misreading of the
Cambrian explosion, in his 1989 book Wonderful Life, and its
subsequent debunking by others- most notably Simon Conway Morris in 1998’s
The Crucible Of Creation?
No. As I stated previously,
I don’t think either “explosions” or “extinctions” are very well
defined, and this grayness allows for any number of misinterpretation, or
misreadings. But, I’d be
surprised if Simon’s ideas aren’t debunked one day as well.
Back to your webpage, you write, ‘I am presently interested in dinosaur
evolution and ecology, with emphases on growth and behavior.’ By
dinosaur evolution, you mean tracing genera and how they speciate,
correct? Or, do you mean attempting to understand the mechanisms of dinosaur
evolution, how they differ, perhaps, from other groups of animals? Or the
external events that shaped dinosaurian evolution- such as mountain-building?
What things have been learned in the last decade or so, that were previously
unknown, or totally wrong?
JH: All of it. For one, speciation, or what might better be called phene-morphing, since there really isn’t any good way to define a paleontological species. I continue to fight for anagenesis being as important to change as cladogenesis, but assume that different agencies act to differentiate them. I see anagenesis prominent in sexual evolution, and cladogenesis important in adaptational evolution. Concerning some of our dinosaurs here in Montana, these different events are marked by the transgressive and regressive pulses of the Intercontinental Cretaceous Seaway. I think we have good evidence of these kinds of evolutionary changes, but in a constant attempt to falsify, I am now working on dinosaur cranial variation to see if there is indeed a more parsimonious explanation.
When we are in the middle of discoveries, and testing hypotheses, its
very hard to determine what has been recently learned about previous
unknowns……questions, I think, to answer at some point, in retrospect.
What do you mean by studying ecology, or was it just to mean ecology, in
general? Are you referring to specifically dinosaurian ecology? Because, when we
hear the term in a modern geopolitical context we associate it with going
‘green,’ global warming, modern extinctions, etc.
JH: Mesozoic terrestrial ecology. In 1999 I initiated, with the help of Nathan Myhrvold, a multidisciplinary project in Montana’s Latest Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation to see if it was at all possible to track the ecological evolution of a Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystem. Thirteen paleontologists and geologists, and a number of grad students were brought together to collect specimens and data. We collected vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant remains, and are now in the process of evaluating our findings. The initial concluding hypotheses are very interesting, and reveal aspects that will challenge previous ideas, particularly regarding events leading up to the K-T dinosaur extinction.
When it comes to modern ecology, I take the “long view” realizing that the planet pulses and evolves, and that there is no constant, consistent ecology. Whatever change is in store for the planet, it will certainly be as interesting to a paleontologist, as is our current situation. As our beautiful animals decline, we should think about, and probably learn to love, all these plants and animals that have adapted to put up with the likes of us humans. The weedy biota, as David Quammen would put it.
What new things have been learned with computer models, CAT scans, and the like?
Has there ever been viable DNA found from dinosaurs, so that a Jurassic Park
scenario might emerge? In 2003 you found a Tyrannosaurus thigh bone which had
active proteins, correct?
JH: Paleontologists are using CT scanners to peer into skulls and skeletal elements in attempts to elucidate brain size, and function, as well as senses such as hearing, smelling etc. I use CT scans to evaluate growth stages in some species.
DNA has not yet been found, although proteins have, and DNA probably will be found, but it will most likely be tiny bits. Not enough for a Jurassic Park scenario.
My former doctoral student, Dr. Mary Schweitzer is working hard to exhume
biomolecules from the fossil record, and has, to date, made, in my mind, some of
the most extraordinary discoveries in paleontological history.
But, this research is in its opening stages, and I suspect we will see
results of these kinds of research endeavors that will breach many different
disciplines including modern medicine.
Does studying dinosaurian microbiology reveal things about diet, aging, life
cycles, reproduction, and genetic affiliation between individuals and species?
If so, what? Please elucidate on some of the more interesting facts and trivia
from assorted species?
Nope, not enough data yet, but as more information is acquired I think
this door will open very wide.
Speaking of Jurassic Park, is it true you were the technical advisor for
that Steven Spielberg film, and its sequels? What did that entail? And was the
lead character, Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) really modeled after you?
Yes, I was the official technical advisor for the three movies.
My job was basically make sure that the dinosaurs looked as accurate as
possible based on the current science of the time, and to make sure that there
were no big mistakes being made that would illicit nasty letters from children.
I interacted with the actors, worked with the set designer, the people at
ILM, and answered a lot of questions. Yes,
the Alan Grant character in the movie is “modeled” after me, and thankfully
he has not been eaten as yet.
In the months leading up to this interview, you were again traveling the globe
to Europe and elsewhere- even going off to Mongolia. What were you doing there
most recently? What new findings have you made in Mongolia? Mongolia and parts
of China seem to be the hotbed of new dinosaur discovery. Is this because of the
cool, dry climate on the Gobi plateau? How might global warming affect these
ancient bones? Could, say, a century from now, many of these treasures be lost
to deterioration brought on by a warmer or wetter Gobi climate?
JH: My work in Mongolia, funded by Nathan Myhrvold, is primarily to help up-and-coming young Mongolian paleontologists begin to get their own research projects off the ground. We have built a preparation laboratory, and collection space, and have preparators working on recently collected specimens. The first research project involves creating a vast collection of one dinosaur species (Psittacosaurus) in order to study skeletal variation. In a total of six weeks of collecting over a three year period, we have accumulated nearly 200 skeletons. This project will be the focus of a doctoral dissertation by one of my Mongolian graduate students.
Fossil remains are found in places where the right age rock is exposed at the surface of the ground. The best places are where these rocks are exposed in arid areas not covered with soils or vegetation, so the Gobi, which has the right age rock, is a great place because of its arid climate. Montana is good because of its arid climate, but New Jersey, which also has the right age rock, but is covered with vegetation, houses, pavement, and the such, is not such a good place.
Global warming certainly might in time cause places like the Gobi to
become like new Jersey, but it might be that New Jersey will become like the
This past year or so, China has sort of become labeled as a haven for producing
dangerous toys and food products for world consumption. Yet, this tarnished
reputation has its precedents in a number of famous dinosaurian hoaxes going
back several decades. What were some of the most famous Chinese hoaxes? Why do
you think China has been such a hotbed for fakery? Is it a profit-driven thing?
Who knows? I suppose fakery
is usually profit or power driven.
And what of some of the more famed hoaxes in the past, outside of China? It
seems that fakery involving dinosaurs and avian ancestors is prevalent. Am I
I have no doubt that the people making the fakes are more interested in
making the profit than in duping the scientist.
Is there a significant difference between the fossils dug up in Mongolia and
those in China- scientifically or in terms of the efforts, politically or
physically, to get them? To what extent do the two nations’ governments help
or hinder the expeditions, research, and potential exhibition of the discovered
I have read that there is an extensive black market for dinosaur bones, which
extends worldwide- sort of akin to the market that exists for stolen artwork. Is
this true? What nation or group are the prime drivers of this market? I have
also read that it is particularly prevalent in the Orient. Again, is this so?
And if so, what has led to this? Also, have their been historic discoveries lost
to such fakery, exploitation, and black marketeering? What is the most egregious
example of something that was potentially paradigm altering, but which was lost
to these forces?
Don’t have information to answer these questions.
Back in Montana, I have read of a potentially intriguing recent find regarding a
Lambeosaurus? What is the story behind this?
I do not know about this particular situation.
Let me step back, and let’s dig into your own personal past, a bit. You were
born 6/15/46, so you are an early Baby Boomer. You were born in Shelby, Montana,
between the Canadian border and Great Falls. Is that out on the plains or near
the mountains? Were you an avid fisherman or hiker, living a life akin to that
recounted in Norman Mclean’s great memoir, A River Runs Through It?
Have you ever read that book? Are you a fisherman or a hunter?
Shelby is out on the plains about 60 miles from Glacier National Park.
I loved hiking around in the hills and mountains, but never got into
hunting or fishing even though my father was an avid fisherman and hunter.
Whenever he took me out fishing or hunting, I would always find other
things more interesting, like looking for fossils.
I’ve read that you suffered from dyslexia. To what extent did that affect your
love of dinosaurs, especially given that they are such grandly visualizable
ideations? Is that something you have grown out of, or do you still endure it to
Reading is the hardest thing I do in my life, but I also suffer from not
being able to quickly organize and remember input that is auditory, so it is
both visual and auditory. But, I
have a vivid imagination.
You were not an A student. Many studies have been done that show that
valedictorians and salutatorians generally do not do particularly well in life
after school, particularly in terms of creative endeavors- like the arts and
sciences, whereas folk like an Albert Einstein were famously mediocre in school.
Do you think you fit this archetype of an ‘outside the box’ thinker? How
have you applied this paradigm into your scientific work?
JH: Yes, I do think I fit this “archetype,” but it’s on
account of having never been in the box. As
I tell my students, if you are the first person to do a particular project, or
make a new discovery, there is little or nothing for you to read.
Others can read what you have done.
I feel as though I am not bogged down by other people’s thoughts, so
pretty much free to have my own.
Part of your dyslexia seems to have been your having a bad memory. What mnemonic
devices did you develop to get through school? Was it somehow easier because the
subject matter you loved was so vivid, as compared to statistical accounting?
Actually, I didn’t get through school.
My class (us born in 1946) was the first of the baby boomers, and as a
result our class was more than twice the size of the classes before us.
Regardless of how bad we did in school, the teachers passed us along
knowing full well that if they held us back that the classes would be too large
for the rooms. I didn’t do any
better in science classes than in English classes because in either case reading
was required, and I couldn’t read. Still
read at about a 3rd grade level.
DS: Do you have
any siblings? Did any of them go into science? What of your parents? What were
their professions? Did they encourage your pursuit of science? Often you hear of
parents chiding such nonconformist dreams as being unrealistic? Did they want
you to ‘be reasonable,’ and get a job where you could ‘make money’? Did
your siblings follow you into the sciences- paleontology specifically?
I have a brother and sister, and neither are in science.
My brother Jim learned engine mechanics, and my sister is in theater.
My father owned a sand and gravel operation, and a bowling alley (with a
pool hall), and my mother kept father’s books.
My father thought I should study, and explore for gold, silver, or
anything other than dinosaurs, so that I could make a living.
My mother took me on trips to visit areas where dinosaurs came from
because she just liked to sightsee. No
one had any expectations of me becoming a scientist on account of being so bad
in school. Every year my mother
called the teachers to see if I was passing to the next grade. I really don’t think anyone had any expectation that I
would be anything more than a gas station attendant.
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
Were you drawn to the outdoors, or were you more of a geek with a book at all
times, even if you had difficulty reading the books?
I was outdoors most of the time, summer or winter, but I did occasion the
library where I could “read” the books at my own speed.
I also checked out a lot of books (all of the science books in our
library), and looked at the pictures, or read what I could read.
When on “expeditions around town to look for fossils I often invited
other kids, and some would come some of the times, but most thought I was a
weird kid, and have said as much since. I
always had lots of friends though, and some helped me dig holes in the back
DS: What were
some early works or scientists that influenced you? Name some of your favorite
science books, even to this day, as well as those you think among the best ever
published, in the earth sciences or other sciences? I grew up in the late 1960s
and early 1970s, and devoured books on dinosaurs, especially books like the How,
Why And Wonder series. How about the classic paintings of Charles
R. Knight? Although most are anachronistic, they still possess a power.
especially some of his more famous ones, like the iconic confrontation between a
Rex and a Triceratops, or the leaping
Laelaps. The latter painting has stuck with me for years, and I wrote this
poem in response:
“When you lose, do not lose
the lesson.”- Dalai Lama
by Charles R. Knight
AS AN AGE-REDDENED LIGHT
Dryptosaur (neé Laelaps) leaps
the green painting (acquainting
with its sibling?). In a new kind of way
scene portrayed everything now known
their brows are too prominent, and their toes
few, and no ridge ran down the back of their spine,
their hue is nonexistent as their gonads, too.
it has a hold no photograph knows.
the plight of so many other beasts
that day: the way Iguanodon squatted
its namesake today, or the Megalosaur’s
muted and on all fours, like some lizard bear.
the dismembered innocence of a bestial mind
itself to vitality on that long ago day,
these two are vital, with a fullness rare
until their possibility was stripped
demeaned by the day. No light droned through.
transparency it vibrated through decades, void
care, as if some chocolate for a dying dog-
worse: disrepair in search of an ending
objection. There are two forms
light: the glow that illumines, the glare
obscures, the shadow of one- the aggressor
mere projection of a truth
through error. The sun is still another thing.
What are your
views on Knight and his work?
Knight’s work was fairly good for its time.
DS: Are you
married, with any children? If so, what are their professions? I ask because the
idea of the bone hunter is of the solitary man, detached from society, and often
using work to escape awkward social lives. Is any of this cogent to your life,
or your growing up?
JH: I have three ex-wives, one son, and four grandchildren. My son is in business. When he was in high school, and had come out on my dinosaur digs for most of his life, I asked him if paleontology held any interest for him. He gave me a strange look, and said, “Dad, I want to drive a Porsche.”
For me, yes, I was
extremely shy and introverted as a young man, and desired to be a
paleontologist, so that I could work in a dusty museum collection room, or out
in the field, and be pretty much left alone.
It never dawned on me that dinosaurs would actually become popular.
When I interviewed the philosopher Daniel
Dennett I was taken aback by the amount of vitriol he still held for Stephen
Jay Gould, as they were opponents in some evolutionary quarrels. Have you a
scientific bête noir, and if so, who, why, and what is the substance of your
JH: First off, I don’t take attacks on my views or hypotheses personally, and feel that people who do take these sorts of things personally, are more interested in being right, than in learning the right answer.
I think most people would probably say that Bob Bakker and I are often at odds, and I would agree that it is certainly true in some situations. We certainly have different ideals. I’m a strong proponent of blind peer review and do my best to publish in journals that provide this kind of critique, but Bob, as well as some other paleontologists, prefer outlets with little or no review. Bob supports commercial collectors, whereas I don’t. Bob, along with other co-authors, has described a lot of “new species” that I think are simply ontogenetic stages of already named taxa.
has never been any anger between us, although he seemed pretty irritated the
time I stepped on his hat.
Who were science writers that influenced you? Before Gould, probably the best
known essayist was paleontologist Loren
Eiseley. Have you read him? His supernal prose is as poetic and cogent today
as it ever was, even if some terms are outdated, for he has an ability to tie
things back into the personal makes for such compelling reading. Gould, as said,
used digressions. What is your favorite and/or best strategy for hooking a
reader into whatever topic you are discussing, when writing your books?
Yes, I did read a book by Loren Eiseley, and I would say it did have some
influence. So did the little
dinosaur book by Roy Chapman Andrews, and several books by Edwin Colbert.
But dyslexics, like myself, are seldom influenced by books, but rather by
images and things. The photographs of specimens from the American Museum in New
York, in Colbert’s books influenced me a great deal more than any string of
I think science writing is in a Golden Age since the mid-1970s or so. From E.O.
Wilson, to the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, to Carl Sagan to Jared Diamond to
Martin Rees and Timothy Ferris to Robert Bakker and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Daniel
Dennett, Steven Pinker, and a few dozen others, the world of science is
bristling not only with ideas, but people who can clarify and excite the public.
Science books often make best seller lists, yet, if that is so, and more
Americans than ever are college educated, then why are Americans so ignorant on
things like abortion, stem cells, evolution, race, sexuality, and on and on?
I think we scientists do a very poor job of writing for the public.
Albeit I have pretty severe dyslexia (or whatever its called these days),
but I have to say that I think most of these authors are writing for themselves,
to people who have some education in these fields, or people who attended some
of our more prestigious colleges and universities.
Actually, I think that having a best-selling book in the sciences is
probably pretty easy since its mostly educated people who read these days.
I wouldn’t call them the general public, but rather the well-educated
general public. The majority of
Americans, even many who have gone to college, are ignorant of anything having
to do with most aspects of science because it is science, and not something that
is seen as important, interesting, or necessary. And, of course, there is the strong current of religious
pressures that are being flung out to compete with scientific process.
Many of these “religious” groups, including the ID folks have had
such a major influence that they have convinced most of the uneducated general
public that scientific hypotheses or theories are just ideas, no different from
anyone else’s ideas. To
re-educate this level of the general public we have to go back to the children,
and revamp our screwy education system. And, its not the teachers who are to blame, but rather us
professors in colleges and universities who have abandoned people in education.
Does E. O. Wilson or Steven Pinker, or any other well-known scientist, go
to the junior colleges and teaching universities in an attempt to keep our
teachers informed as to how science works, or what they think is important for
kids to know these days? I know
that I have failed to do this, even knowing that it is of the utmost importance
for the future of our country. It’s
just a lot easier to talk to, or write to, the already well-educated general
And despite the seemingly endless love the American public bestows on dinosaurs,
the truth is that they are almost as ignorant on that subject as well. Many’s
a time some very otherwise intelligent people, while discoursing on a subject,
will draw a historical picture along these lines, going backward
chronologically: Vietnam, World War Two, Lincoln and the Civil War, the Pilgrims
and Columbus, Jesus Christ, the Pyramids, cavemen and dinosaurs, with the last
pair thought of together, existing simultaneously. Why do you think this is?
And, trust me, I’m not exaggerating.
Same reason as explained in the last question. Our education system sucks.
What was once called critical thinking is only taught in private schools.
Public schools disseminate “facts,” most of which have probably been
falsified or altered years ago. And,
then there are the religious notions getting equal time because they can.
One of the most famous scientific sayings is geologist James Hutton’s claim,
regarding what has been called Deep Time, that ‘we see no vestige of a
beginning, no prospect of an end.’ While we are now pretty certain that
the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and life appeared less than a
billion years later, all of these sorts of numbers- millions, billions, etc.,
seem to blur in most people’s minds. In the above example, people jump from
decades to centuries to millennia to eons without a pause at how grand the leaps
they are making really are. Do you believe that most layfolk really
understand how long even a million years is? I mean, the earliest vestiges of
human society are only 1% of even that length, and this includes the first
60-80% of even that time being just scattered names and references. It’s not
until three or four thousand years ago that we start to get real human history.
And, if as I believe, most people fundamentally do not understand Deep Time, can
they, or is this just so antithetical to everyday human experience that it will
always be somewhat fairy tale-like?
And, do you believe concepts of Deep Time are similar, in their inability to
properly be comprehended, as are concepts of stellar distances, where people
bandy about terms like light years, as if they were merely a few miles? What do
you think is behind this human tendency to blur such big concepts?
Super-large dimensional space and time are obviously impossible for us humans to
fathom, regardless of our education. Early
human’s attempts to imagine the heavens most likely lead to the fears that
demanded a faith in an omnipotent, invisible caretaker.
Deep time, now that we understand its depth, simply exacerbates the
situation. Creationist’s attempts
to humanize these numbers attests to these fears.
Where did you go to school? Was it a one room backwoods schoolhouse of legend?
Were you encouraged in your pursuits, or were you hammered to conform? I have
read that, as a teacher, you are a non-conformist? Is this partly due to your
schooling, your dyslexia, or both? I take it you do not subscribe to the old
teaching dictum that, all my students are nails, therefore I must be a
JH: I went from grade school through high school in Shelby Montana, a town of about 4,000 people. The schools were built or remodeled as we came along, since we were a very large class.
teaching style is definitely Socratic, and probably a combination resulting from
dyslexia and an overly active imagination.
I think a teacher’s duty is to teach a student how to think, to
question, to argue, and to have the students use their imaginations to create.
I think the last things students need are “facts.”
To what degree do you think your rural surroundings influenced your career-
i.e.- if you grew up in New York or Seattle, do you think you may have become a
sailor? Did you ever flirt with the idea of ranching, or being a cowboy, or even
becoming a mountaineer? Have you ever read any of the works of nature/adventure
writers like Joe Simpson or Jon Krakauer? They often have musings that remind me
of the sort of places and moments that have been described in some of your
JH: I was born wanting to be a dinosaur paleontologist. I can’t imagine that had I grown up in NYC that I would have wanted to be anything else.
No, I don’t know the works of Joe or Jon. Rather than read someone else’s adventures, I just like to have my own.
The 1950s were sort of a Golden Age for dinosaurs, in the mind of the public.
With films like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, and
myriad other B films, perhaps only UFOs provided a greater popular escape. What
effect, if any, did pop culture, have on your love of dinosaurs?
No effect that I know of, although I liked those movies.
You attended the University of Montana, and majored in geology and zoology,
correct? Does that mean you initially were more interested in rocks than the
fossils they contained? But you never formally finished your degree, is that so?
In 1986 you received both an
honorary doctorate from the University, as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant. Was
the grant merely financial remuneration, or did it help open doors to projects
that you might not have been able to get going otherwise? I.e.- did that get you
taken more seriously by people with money?
JH: I majored in geology and zoology because they were the two subjects that combined to make paleontology, but I actually majored in one at a time, alternating with each quarter that I flunked out. During my attempt to get back into school I would have to admit that I was not doing well, and that I should major in something else, other than the one in which I flunked. So, I simply flunked out, and re-admitted in either geology or zoology. And you are correct, I did not complete a degree, nor did I come even close. I was never able to get my GPA above about a 1.0. I did, however, take all of the geology and zoology classes pertinent to paleontology. I simply didn’t get good grades, but I did learn a lot.
I used my MacArthur “grant” to create the initial part of our cellular paleontology laboratory (which is now a cellular and molecular paleontology lab). I do think the MacArthur helped with some fund raising, and aided my efforts to take on graduate student advisees.
The MacArthur also helped with the situation with my father, as I think
it was the one thing that finally pushed him to realize that I was not just a
lazy kid that liked fossils.
On that topic, who are the sorts of people who donate money to sponsor
expeditions? Are they vainglorious types who want some dinosaur to bear their
name, when named? Or are they folk genuinely interested in science? Or, are they
merely looking for tax shelters and write-offs?
Most of my donors are people who simply love the science, and want to see
something cool excavated or published. Some
have asked to have theirs, or other people’s names put on facilities, but none
have asked to have a dinosaur named for them.
Especially under the Bush Administration, scientists have complained loudly of
the politicization of science. Has this affected your field, especially
considering all the Intelligent Design nonsense of the last decade? What is your
take on these Luddite attempts to dumb down discourse? And, have they had any
day to day effects on your research, or on those of others in your field? I
would think paleontology is far less controversial than stem cells or abortion,
etc. What are your views on President Bush, re: science, funding, and other
matters political and social?
JH: I think the Bush administration is partly to blame for the United States now being on the brink of becoming an intellectual 3rd world country. The media is also to blame, but I also think that we university professors are partly to blame as well. We simply need to do a much better job teaching teachers.
I deal with creationists and ID people on a regular basis because I teach courses in evolution, and make museum exhibits explaining evolution.
I find it ironic that these fundamentalist creationizers attempt to
discredit the notion that we humans evolved from a single celled organism, and
then make claims that a stem cell is a human.
I wonder if they think that they could tell the difference between a
human stem cell, and a fish stem cell.
Given the PC climate, and multiculturalism that is dominant at most
universities, what degree is your school politically oriented, and does that
ever affect your own department or work? What are your views on PC and
I’m not sure what you are trying to get at here.
My graduate program is, and has been multicultural for nearly two
decades. Some people might say that
my ex-wives reflect my personal multiculturalism.
They have been French, Norwegian, and African Cherokee.
I have read that you served in Vietnam, as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps.
What was your rank, your station, and when did you serve in country? What years
were you in country? Did you volunteer or were you drafted?
I achieved a rank of Corporal, was in 3rd Marine Division,
Recon, and was in Vietnam for about 14 months during 1966 to 1967.
I was originally drafted, having flunked the entrance exam.
What were your views on the Vietnam War? Were you ever politically active, or
has science been a retreat, of sorts, from the daily bullshit of the ‘real
world?’ In other words, to what degree does your love for things Antediluvian
stem from a desire to escape from modernity, and what extent is it a love for
exploration? Or, are both equally powerful?
JH: I suspect the original politics of the war were pretty screwy, just as they are in Iraq, but there is another component to it, and that is the people.
When I was in Vietnam on a South Vietnam gunnery base in the middle of the jungle near QuanTri, I met several South Vietnam solders who thanked me (as a representative of the USA) for helping them to keep the communists out of their country.
What would your reaction be if a person begged you to help them keep an enemy away from their families? I don’t know about you, but I know that I couldn’t just tell them no, or to just suck it up on account of me not wanting to get involved. I think most Americans want to help where they can, and that might even be the reason that in our song, it’s the “home of the brave.”
Vietnam was a place I could help people who needed help, and explore. I had a great time exploring the jungles, discovering snakes and beetles, and all sorts of cool plants I’d never have dreamed of.
Interestingly, and maybe off the point, one of my past donors was Jane
Fonda, and as a Vietnam veteran many people find it curious, or even offensive,
that I would have even talked to her, let alone have become her friend.
But, I’m one of those people who think that freedom of speech is worth
fighting and dying for. I very much like the fact that I live in a country where
people like Jane can speak their “peace.”
Do you see any parallels between the current Iraq War and Vietnam? What are your
views on these two current wars? And, have you ever been to Vietnam or Iraq on
expeditions? What other parts of the globe have you been to in search of
dinosaurs? Australia, South America, Africa, Antarctica?
JH: No, I’ve never been to either place for an expedition…..One is covered by jungle, and the other has virtually no rock outcrop of interest.
I’ve mounted expeditions to many places around the world including
Mongolia, Argentina, Tanzania, Romania, France, and a few others, but they were all conducted to help the
paleontologists in those countries, rather than to produce data for myself.
I did use my time in these places to get a sense for what kinds of
paleoecosytems yielded particular fossils.
For example, I was interested in trying to determine whether or not,
dinosaurs actually used particular areas for nesting grounds.
One of the two things you are most well-known for, in the public eye, is
discovering Maiasaurs, and that they cared for their young in ways not so
dissimilar to mammals. But, that was quite some time ago, thirty years or more.
What new information has come to light re: that species, or about dinosaurs, in
general, in regards to their parenting or familial situations? Were any
dinosaurs truly social animals, in the way simians or some insects are?
JH: Evidence supporting or refuting dinosaur social behaviors have been hard to come by. The Egg Mountain nesting sites still provide the majority of data concerning dinosaur nesting habits, but a few specimens from Mongolia have provided evidence for nest brooding, and parental care. Sauropod nest sites from Argentina provide additional information about colonial nesting, and some new sites in China are also providing new evidence of parental attention to the young. One of the most interesting discoveries, by one of my former doctoral students, Dr. David Varricchio made here in Montana not long ago shows that some smaller dinosaurs were burrowers, and cared for their young within the burrow, similar to some mammals.
Most likely, all dinosaurs were at least as social as the crocodilians
(including alligators), and some, particularly the little, derived theropods
were as social as some birds. Nearly
all of the different groups of dinosaurs have been found in some sort of
groupings suggesting that they were living in social gatherings, whether they
were families, or “herds.” In
addition, the varieties of display features, like horns, shields, plates,
spikes, etc. are indicative of very social animals.
The other thing that you are well known for is claiming that the iconic
Tyrannosaurus Rex may not have been a fierce hunter, but an overgrown scavenger-
a large, scaly jackal. You have been criticized for some colleagues for that
claim. Again, that was some time past. What were your arguments for this claim,
and what were your critics’ arguments against it? Do you still believe this
so? Has new information hardened your position, or have you been chastened by
some of the light shed by newer technologies?
JH: I’ve never really published anything about this. It was originally a subject that I used to show kids, and college students, how people, including scientists, often have preconceived ideas that are based on little or no physical evidence.
The first thing I like the students to do is to think about why they, and other people often think of scavenging as a less than honorable way to acquire food. Why a fierce hunter, as you put it is thought of as being cool, but a “large, scaly jackal” is somehow disappointing.
Then, I have the students examine a T. rex skeleton, and a Velociraptor skeleton, and make comparisons to show that these animals have very different characteristics. T.rex is very large, Veloc. is small; T. rex has tiny arms whereas Veloc. has good grabbing arms; T. rex adults have massive rounded, bone-crushing teeth, whereas Veloc. has blade-shaped meat-cutting teeth; T. rex has femurs that are longer than its tibias, whereas Veloc. has longer tibias than femurs, as in fast running birds; T. rex had a huge olfactory lobe, and small olfactory septa, similar to vultures, whereas Veloc. had moderate olfactory lobes, but large olfactory septa, similar to dogs; T. rex was common in its ecosystem, similar to scavengers, and Veloc. was rare in its ecosystem, more similar to the situation we see with predatory animals.
So, as the students evaluate all of these features, and some others, they are asked to determine, without prejudice, how T. rex most likely acquired its meat.
Yes, I still think there is very strong evidence for T. rex having been a scavenger. Some people would say that it was probably both, and that may well have been, but my point to kids and students is that there has to be physical evidence. You can’t just say that it was probably both just because you think hunting is cool.
As I say, the whole exercise is to show kids how science is supposed to
work, not how we want things to be.
Earlier, I mentioned your involvement with the film Jurassic Park. If I
recall, that film depicts its T. Rex as the classic monster of yore. Given your
views on the real T. Rex, did you have arguments over how the beast should move,
look, pursue prey, etc.? If so, did you win any battles? If so, which did you
win and which did you lose, and were the losses solely in favor of excitement
over scientific accuracy?
JH: The Jurassic Park movies are fictional, and as actors the dinosaurs are free to do whatever the director or writer decides for the story. Most people agree that fierce hunters are cool, so obviously they sell better.
My job was to make sure that the stuff we know for sure about dinosaurs was reflected in the way they looked or behaved, but for things that have not been confirmed, the director was free to do what he thought would make the best story.
Consulting on a movie is not about winning or losing, its about helping
to make a good movie.
I see that you have also had two species of dinosaurs named after you: Achelousaurus
horneri and Anasazisaurus horneri. How does one get a species named
after themselves? Were you their discoverer, or did colleagues gift them to you?
I assume the former beast was found around the remains of the Anasazi tribes of
the American Southwest, correct? What sorts of animals are they, in terms of
size, herbivorous, carnivorous, omnivorous? And when did they live? What was the
area like when that creature roamed- surely not the desert-like area the Anasazi
You get a dinosaur named after you if the author feels that you deserve
it. In the case of Achelousaurus,
it is a dinosaur that one of my field crew’s discovered. It was a specimen that I allowed the author (Dr. Scott
Sampson) to work on for his PhD. dissertation.
As for Anasazisaurus, this is a dinosaur I originally referred to as
Kritosaurus, so I suppose the authors honored me with it so as I might be less
irritated, although I can’t be sure of their intention.
Let me digress a moment. When I mentioned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson
about the controversy regarding the planet Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet,
I asked re: the politics of the decision, and to what degree that outweighed the
science, which many (including myself) think is dubious. Yet, your field also
has a similar controversy, regarding the replacement of the great, iconic, and
apt term Brontosaurus
(thunder lizard) with the wan and inapt Apatosaurus (deceptive
lizard). This was due to scientific priority given for naming rights,
correct? For those unfamiliar with the controversy and history, can you give
some historical background as to why the Brontosaurus we all grew up with has
Any plant or animal, fossil or extant, can only have one scientific name,
which we give as a genus and species.
The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, perhaps the top evolutionary pedant
for the general public, derided the loss of Brontosaurus as being an example of
science missing an opportunity to remain relevant to the public, in favor of
placating obscure rules regarding a century old mistake by the man, O.C. Marsh
who discovered both the correctly identified Apatosaurus and incorrectly
identified Brontosaurus. Which position and name do you favor, and why?
JH: Actually I think its good to change the names, as it shows people how the science works, and that we are learning new things. Many adults of the general public probably are irritated by the change, but kids very much like to learn this sort of new information, and use it to tell their parents. Seems kind of hypocritical to have some rules in science that kids should follow, and others that seem inconvenient, not to follow. Science is a process, and it does have rules, and if we don’t insist on following them, how can we possibly expect the general public to believe in its outcome?
One of Stephen’s books, Bully For Brontosaurus, would have to be re-titled, so maybe he was irritated by the synonomy with Apatosaurus.
When I lecture, I often use the word “brontosaur” when referring to
sauropods in general, and some kid always calls me on it, to let me know that
apatosaur is the proper term. I
very much like being corrected by kids, as it gives me hope that they are paying
attention to the work we are doing. Apatosaurus
is the proper name. I disagree with
Speaking of O.C. Marsh, he was one of the two giants of 19th Century
American paleontology, along with his great rival, E.D. Cope. For those who
don’t know of them, who were these two men, and what effect did their great
rivalry- often dubbed The Great Bone Wars, have upon the establishment of the
modern field you work in?
JH: Cope and Marsh were two of the earliest dinosaur paleontologists, and began at a time when there were few rules or decisions concerning how to name species. Additionally, they both seemed to be obsessed with naming more species than the other, suggesting that it was more of a contest, or about ego rather than an interest in the science. Together, they gathered hundreds of tons of dinosaur remains, much of which are useless to modern paleontology, but then it was a time when the dinosaurs were more novelty than science.
I think the bone wars did little for the early establishment of dinosaur
paleontology as an important science. It
may have entertained the general public at the time, and probably is still one
of the most popular of stories in paleontology, but did more to degrade the
Cope is generally considered the better pure scientist, while Marsh seems to
have been the more influential. Yet, both men died just before the dawn of the
20th Century, basically financially broke. Now, despite great fame in
their time, both are utterly forgotten, outside of paleontology, today. Do
either of these two men’s legacies have any strong bearing on your field
today? After all, was not Marsh amongst the first to posit avian descent from
dinosaurs? And did not Cope elucidate a law that claims that successive species
within a genera tend to increase in size?
They had some good ideas for their times, but quite frankly there were
other paleontologists, not as flamboyant as Cope and Marsh, that did much better
science, such as Joseph Leidy. As I
stated above, I don’t think that Cope and Marsh are nearly as important to the
science they were to the public press.
Apropos of Cope and Marsh, let me toss out that old question: if you could sit
down and break bread for an evening with folks from the past- scientists or not,
which folk would you most like to engage with, and why?
I’d like to have spoken with Baron
Franz von Nopcsa, the Hungarian nobleman whom writer Adrian Desmond described as
“..that colourful Transylvanian spy, dinosaur expert, and self-styled heir
designate to the Albanian throne…” who although being a “…brilliant, if
arrogant, misfit, was basically an ideas man.”
Nopcsa was one of the first paleobiologists who was interested in what
the dinosaurs were like as living creatures.
He wasn’t into naming new species or gathering hundreds of tons of
bones, but in doing good science. Others
from the past would include people like Da Vinci, Einstein, and anyone else with
a good, creative mind.
In modern terms, you seem to be one half of a sort of modern Twin Titans of
paleontology, at least in the public mind. The other half is the well known
paleontologist Robert Bakker, who was mentioned earlier. Are you rivals on an
order of Marsh and Cope? What is your relationship with the man, both
professionally and personally? Have you ever worked together, in the field or
not? I note he was also on the Jurassic Park advisory team- correct?
No, we are not rivals, although we think differently on some topics.
We have not worked together in any capacity, and although he may have
contributed some information to the ILM people during the making of Jurassic
Park, I never saw him on set.
Bakker is also a preacher- something that seems at odds with a scientific life,
especially in a field which so totally undermines Biblical claims for antiquity.
Are you religious? If so, what denomination, and how do you reconcile the chasm
between science and religion? And, do you know if Bakker is a believer in
Intelligent Design, or the like?
No, I’m not religious, and as far as Bob is concerned, you’ll have to
ask him about his beliefs.
Some have also painted Bakker as the Cope to your Marsh. Is this an apt
comparison? Bakker seems to be the more unorthodox scientist, willing to
outrage. As example, he posited (along with others) that dinosaurs were warm
blooded. Do you agree? Or, could only a few have been endothermic, while others
were ectothermic, or cold blooded? Bakker also is on the other side of the fence
re: the T. Rex scavenger/predator debate, correct?
All of the work I have done on dinosaur growth rates suggest that all
dinosaurs were endothermic, but probably not homoeothermic.
More like endothermic heterotherms, generating heat internally, but able
to fluctuate body temperatures similar to most birds.
Speaking of T. Rex, you have been the prime discoverer of the beast in recent
years. Is it true that it might reclaim the title as biggest carnivore from
Spinosaurs and Giganotosaurs?
The largest carnivorous dinosaur we have records of is Spinosaurus, as
there is a partial skull with a dentary that would have been about 8 feet in
length. The largest T.rex skull is
5 feet long. But, as we find more
specimens of all dinosaurs we are realizing that we probably don’t have the
largest of any species. We are
probably mostly finding the middle-aged dinosaurs, those that were not full
To what extent have we uncovered the dinosaurian past? Given that we only have a
fraction of a fraction of the remains of all the dinosaurs ever alive, can we
pretend to know that we have even 1% of the answers?
JH: Its true that we will never have much of the record for any group of animals or plants, but for those animals that we do have a record, there is an amazing amount of data that we can acquire. Paleontology is not about what we don’t have, it’s about the potential of what we have.
What are some of the other tidbits that have been revealed, in recent years,
regarding other life cycle phases, etc., of dinosaurs? As example, do we have
viable estimates of how long a typical T. Rex, Stegosaur, Brachiosaur, etc.
lived? How about their maturation rates? Can we tell if certain species paired
off as exclusive mates? Were some polygynous?
A lot of my research deals with dinosaur growth rates, and longevity.
We know that dinosaurs grew up very fast, at rates equivalent to most
birds. T. rex grew to near adult size in about 15 years, Maiasaura
in 7 years. Sauropods in around 25
years. How long they lived is not
yet known, but the oldest dinosaurs we’ve recorded are around 35 years.
Let me turn to one of the older controversies I recall from my youth as a
dinosaur lover: do we now know if the Stegosaur’s plates were used in
thermoregulation or as defensive weapons? Or both? The tail spikes, of course,
seem to plainly be defensive, or offensive, weapons, right? And, did Stegosaurs
really have pea-sized brains?
JH: I was involved with recent research on Stegosaurus plates, and we came to the conclusion that the plates couldn’t have been used for thermoregulation, that they were covered with hard keratin, and they were most likely for display, just like some of the feathers of birds. Other display features in dinosaurs include their horns, shields, spikes, and so on. There is no evidence that any of these features were for defense.
The skull brain of Stegosaurus was indeed rather small, but as in all
dinosaurs there was a rather large second nerve center in the sacrum (pelvis),
and it likely took care of most of the motor activities, so that the skull brain
could function as the sense center, much like birds.
How about the color and texture of dinosaur skin? Even though they are called ‘terrible lizards,’ in truth, are not they as dissimilar
from lizards as birds or therapsids- or even mammals, are? We now know some had
feathers, correct? Did any have fur?
JH: Dinosaurs are related to crocodilians and birds, and their skin texture was similar to these animals. The skin texture of birds, as we see in their bare legs, had a scaly texture. We have lots of examples of dinosaur skin impressions, so we know a great deal about their skin texture.
Dinosaurs were reptiles, as are birds, and reptiles for the most part are
diurnal animals. Mammals evolved as
nocturnal creatures, and had to utilize smell and sound to communicate.
Reptiles evolved as diurnal creatures and relied on color for most
communication. Birds communicate
with a combination of color and sound. Dinosaurs,
because they are reptiles, and closest to crocodilians and birds, are assumed to
have been diurnal, and therefore would have communicated with color, and
possibly sound. Dinosaurs were
likely colored much like birds, with the males being more vivid than the
How about many of the frills and crests that some dinosaurs had? Were these used
mostly for defense- as likely for Ceratopsians, or perhaps as sexual displays?
Could some of the crests, especially on the duck-billed dinosaurs, have been
used for assorted differing vocalizations?
As stated above, all the cranial features of dinosaurs were most likely
display organs, and the reason this is so is that these features usually
didn’t form until the animals were more than 50% grown up. Their juvenile morphologies would have been recognizable to
the adults, and the adult morphologies would have been recognizable to both the
juveniles and other adults. This
retarded development of the adult morphologies is indicative of animals with
highly developed social behaviors.
Here is another query I recall being raised, about twenty years ago, but have
never heard the answer to- did dinosaurs have lips? Specifically, I recall
theories that some sauropods, specifically Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus, may
have had elephantine trunks. What’s the latest on that?
I don’t think there is any evidence to indicate lips or trunks for any
dinosaurs, although paleontologists like Larry Witmer in Ohio study things like
How do you assess the current state of dinosaur awareness, worldwide and in
America? By that I mean not just a recognition that they existed, but a
knowledge of when they existed, where, etc. As I mentioned earlier, I find some
people, in this day and age, still believe cavemen co-existed with dinosaurs.
Have you? And, do most dino lovers realize that popular creatures like
Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, and Mosasaurus were not technically dinosaurs?
Sounds like you’re asking the wrong people. Kids could tell you all the right answers, but few of their
parents have a clue when and where dinosaurs lived. That’s one of the reasons to keep publishing good research
for the kids, as one day they will get through to their parents.
Dinosaurs are a great medium to teach evolutionary biology to the public,
first through young dinosaur enthusiasts, and eventually filtering down to the
Let’s get to some superlatives, since that’s one of the main attractions of
dinosaurs. Which of the dinosaur species were the largest? As a child that title
was held by Brachiosaurus, as both the tallest and heaviest, and by Diplodocus,
as the longest. But, in the decades since, other sauropds, such as Titanosaurus,
Ultrasaurus, Argentinosaurus, Supersaurus, Sauroposeidon, and Bruhathkayosaurus,
have seemed to displace them. Which is the champ? Were some sauropods able to
whip their tails at supersonic speeds?
JH: As far as I know, the largest dinosaur we’ve found to date is Argentinasaurus from Patagonia. It has a femur (thigh bone) about 9 feet long. Estimated body length is around 120 feet, or there about.
Nathan Myrhvold hypothesized that sauropods had supersonic tails, and
although its possible, its kinda hard to test until we find some good
articulated tails of sauropods.
JH: Actually, I don’t give a damn what killed the dinosaurs. What is your definition of an extinction, anyway? When the majority went extinct? The last one?
I can assure you, regardless of where or not their was an “impactor,”
it was not the only cause, regardless of your definition.
Dinosaurs evolved and experienced extinction throughout the Mesozoic era.
Extinction is an ongoing process, and an important part of evolution.
DS: How about
the chances of another K-T or P-T Impactor, hitting the earth? What of the long
spoken of Star Wars meteor defense type system that has been
proposed to zap any potential Impactors from doing to us what the K-T one did to
Don’t know, don’t really care.
DS: How about a
little speculation, here? What do you think of claims that certain theropods
were developing larger brains and opposable digits, which may have led to a
humanoid creature? Pop culture, such as Star Trek, have made such
speculations, and even some UFO enthusiasts have posited that the Gray aliens
they claim abduct humans, may actually be dinosaurian descendents. While silly,
from a speculative viewpoint, what do you think would have happened to dinosaurs
without the K-T Impactor? Would they have bitten the dust, anyway?
I think the notion that bigger brains and opposable digits being somehow
evolutionary, terminal extreme is homocentric, at least.
But, I suspect if they had evolved a brain, they would have shortly
thereafter, invented themselves godhead, and then gone on to commit endless acts
of genocide, and finally completely screw up the ecosystem.
Those big brains and opposable thumbs are pretty special.
DS: Are you
familiar with the illustrated books of Scottish geologist Dougal
Dixon? He has taken speculative evolution in many interesting directions.
Most apropos to this discussion, have you ever seen his The
New Dinosaurs: An_Alternative Evolution? If so, any thoughts on the
credibility of some of his speculations?
No I haven’t seen this, but do have a pending project with national
Geographic television to propose my own ideas as to what would have become of
the dinosaurs had they not gone extinct at the K/T.
I don’t think I should look at his, as it could influence my thoughts.
DS: As a
dinosaur fan, are you an avid reader of fiction that includes them? What are
your favorite tales or authors? Have you ever read the famous Ray Bradbury
dinosaur tale, A
Sound Of Thunder? Since I mentioned the speculative alternate history of
a non-K-T Impacted Earth, that famed sci fi story literally deals with causality
and the Butterfly Effect, as a time traveler accidentally kills a butterfly and
changes his and human history. Other than the K-T event, what do you think would
be the most interesting change you would make to terrestrial history if you had
I’d do away with those pesky primates early on so that the planet’s
ecosystems could evolve l’naturalle. Or,
I would “create” psychologically secure primates……
mentioned American ignorance in the sciences, and with garbage like Intelligent
Design still being used to debate Darwinian theories, how long do you think the
forces of ignorance will last? Is this just remnants from apocalyptic
ID will be used to debate Darwinian theories as long as there are
scientists who want to debate. If
we scientists made a stronger stand on the principles of scientific process
rather than scientific “facts,” I imagine the idiocy of the ID side of the
debate would become exposed. A good
scientific hypothesis is testable, and based on physical evidence.
There is neither physical evidence to support ID, nor is it testable.
It’s all just a bunch of crap, or pseudoscience at its best.
DS: Yet, there
are real debates within science, far more interesting than Creationism as a
science. When I interviewed philosopher Daniel
Dennett, he ripped Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of Punctuated Equilibrium.
Here was our exchange, where he dismissed the idea:
So, Gould’s claims of punctuated equilibrium, in your view, is like looking
through a microscope, stating that the little things look bigger, and then
claiming that the fact that things are different than what they seem to the
naked eye is some grand revelation?
You have been a
champion, however, of Punctuated Equilibrium. How would you reply to Dennett’s
dismissal of the idea?
I wouldn’t say that I have championed Punc-Eq, but rather that I see
its place in evolutionary synthesis, just as I see punctuated anagenesis, and
gradualism. I think there is
evidence that several modes occur in differing settings.
DS: To return to
Intelligent Design, one of the key underpinnings of that idea is the claim that
there is a limit to knowledge. By that, they do not mean that an individual- you
nor I, have limits, which is manifest. They mean that there are certain things
that are forever unknowable by the scientific method, or any other method. Do
you agree, even if you disagree with their conclusion that this limit is, in
effect, the boundary that defines a godhead?
JH: I think everything is knowable. I feel some sorrow for people who put limits on their imaginations, or who give away to this godhead, their potential powers to perceive the unknown. I don’t understand why the unknown is so frightening to these people, when it holds such a great potential for exciting discovery. This fear they harbor, rather than the anticipation of discovery is probably what sets them apart from us. And, apparently there are a whole lot less of us than them.
DS: The late
historian, Daniel J. Boorstin, penned a famous book on the history of the
sciences, called The Discoverers. I’ve often felt that art and
science were two halves of the same creative coin. I.e.- that in science,
creativity is used in service to the discovery of facts that are extant, while
in art, discovery is used in service to the creation of things that are
non-extant. As a discoverer yourself, would you ascribe to that view of art and
science, creativity and discovery?
Besides paleontology classes for my graduate students, I also teach in
the honors program where I participate in a literature class focused on
imagination that is inclusive of art and science.
I have no doubt that scientists can be more open minded if they can learn
to appreciate art, and that artists can be better artists if they learn some
science. I have taken some of my
paleontology graduate students from the arts.
DS: Let me now
quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the
Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic I
also find applicable. When I interviewed Steven
Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at
least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is
something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is
wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with
an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the
180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or
Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ
measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to
creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense,
this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the
Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also
be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the
Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability
to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the
Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences,
the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus
Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of
prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater
leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and
Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new
mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this? And, if you are
copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
I think I understand what you are saying, and I would agree with it for
the most part, but I don’t think any person could evaluate themselves.
I think we would have to be judged by someone else, probably in
retrospect of our accomplishments.
DS: In a similar
vein, who would you rank amongst the top 10 earth-based scientists of all time,
and why? Cope, Marsh, Hutton, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz. Certainly, some, if
not all of these would be on your list. No? How about the most important moments
in your fields, from antiquity up to recent discoveries?
JH: I don’t consider Cope and Marsh important for any science. Mostly they gave paleontology a bad reputation.
I think the top 10 earth-based scientists of all time are alive today,
but I couldn’t really name them without doing some research.
Everyone up to this point has been building the foundation, and its
people like Doug Erwin and Gary Vermeij, and Jim Valentine, and others.
What predispositions do you have re: philosophy? Do you get involved in such
publicly? What do you see as the role of a ‘public intellectual’ in this
century? And do the constant controversies that surround someone like a Noam
Chomsky make you, and others less apt to speak out? Or, do you think it’s best
to stay focused in your area of expertise?
People like me, who have such a difficult time reading, read only the
most important things in our fields. I
don’t read books unless they are for one of my classes, or for my own
paleontological education. I
don’t even read the newspaper. So,
I don’t know who Noam Chomsky is. As
for “public intellectuals” I
know a few of them, and I’d say some of them bring up interesting ideas on
occasion, and others simply babble. I’d
put most philosophers in the babble category.
Do I get involved? NO.
On the subject of human thoughts, let me turn to a related topic, human
discourse. One of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the
utter dearth of really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the
exception of the Playboy interview, such venues are nonexistent.
Furthermore, many people actively denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse,
such as this, preferring to read vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions
designed to be mere advertisements for a work, sans only the page numbers the
canned answers are taken from. Why do you think this is? What has happened to
real discussion? Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, David Susskind, Dick
Cavett, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him. Only Charlie Rose
is left on PBS, but his show airs near midnight. From what I’ve read, you, as
a pedant, tend to value real interactive discussion in your classes, more than
rote learning/mnemonic techniques. Is this so, and what has been the result?
As you can probably imagine, I don’t read discourses of any length,
unless they are written by my students or concern my classes.
But, yes, I do value interactive discussion, in all of my classes, as it
is the only way I can evaluate the creative potential of students, and their
ideas. I expect my students, when
they finish at Montana State, and whether they are completing undergraduate
studies or a PhD, that they are prepared to discover the unimaginable or create
new paradigms. I expect them to be
imaginative thinkers. And, I encourage them to read lots of stuff, so that they can
discuss science or philosophy.
How about discourse in the sciences? Is it alive and well, or do people hunker
down in camps and refuse to budge? Do tempers flair, and are there still ad
hominem attacks in scientific claims?
I think these days too many people are interested in being right rather
than learning something new from a peer, especially if it has anything to do
with their own subject of expertise. Few
people have the patience to listen, but would rather be heard.
In my mind this is one of the most serious shortcomings of our society.
Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions, claims that
scientific theories are disbelieved at first, then grudgingly accepted, then
become dogma, then are tossed out. Do you agree? If so, what are some of the
theories, in your field, that might, by this century’s end, seem laughably
I suppose this has happened to some, but for the most part I’d say that
rather than finally being thrown out, they are revised.
Almost everything people thought they knew about dinosaurs is being
revisited and revised, but I think the molecular studies recently conducted by
Mary Schweitzer will have the biggest impact for the future.
The whole idea of fossilization is being challenged, as is our notion as
to what kinds of biomolecules have the capability of lasting for millions of
Of all the books you have written, which have had the most impact- in terms of
public reaction, and which have had the most resonance to other scientists? Digging
Dinosaurs seems to have been your most popular, at least in terms of
sales. Have their been any essays or papers in which you have posited things
that you’ve later had to say, ‘Whoops!’? What were they, and
how big were the gaffes?
JH: Digging Dinosaurs is certainly the book that had the biggest impact. Jim Gorman is a great writer. He and I are working on another book that should be out sometime next year. I think it too will have a big impact. It is aimed at the non-college educated general public, and will focus on explaining genetic engineering and evo-devo.
Any scientist who attempts to lead a field is going to have lots of
“whoops” moments. The first
person to posit an hypothesis has the least amount of data, so further
information almost guarantees that the original hypotheses will be revised.
I’ve had to revamp several hypotheses based on new discoveries, but
that is the process one has to go through in order to get to a point where you
can even begin to think that you might be close to the “truth.”
When Egg Mountain was first found, the site that produced America’s
first dinosaur egg clutches, I hypothesized that the egg layer was a little
dinosaur called Troodon. Later,
after more discoveries, and some identifications by Bob Bakker, I realized that
the skeletons found on the nesting grounds were actually a new species of
hypsilophodontid (little primitive plant-eater), and with the help of Dave
Wieshample, named the new dinosaur Orodromeus.
We even found embryos of this dinosaur in some of the egg clutches. So, I was able to hypothesize how Orodromeus laid its eggs,
nested in colonies, cared for its young, and much more about its ecosystem.
But then, several years later, after publishing numerous papers on the
subject, one of my graduate students (Dave Varricchio) discovered a skeleton of
Troodon sitting on top of a clutch of “Orodromeus” eggs.
A re-evaluation of the embryonic remains revealed that they too were
Troodon, so the whole story had to be revised in order that Troodon was the egg
layer, and that Orodromeus was the food supply.
Twice I had “whoops” moments at Egg Mountain, but now I think we have
a pretty firm idea about Troodon nesting habits, and its ecology.
DS: Let me wind down this interview by asking what big things that are still unknown to current science do you want answered before your life ends? Do you think that these unanswered questions can be answered in your lifetime? If not, why not? And, are you doing anything to elicit these answers?
JH: Who knows what kinds of things we might find. I think its best not to look for particular specimens or answers, but to be prepared for anything. Too many preconceived ideas or even questions can stifle discovery. I think that when we have questions that are difficult to answer, especially after long periods of time, and the input of several lines of evidence supporting various opposing ideas, like whether dinosaurs were warm-blooded or cold-blooded, we are probably asking the wrong question, or at least asking the question wrong.
DS: Where do you
think paleontology will be in 2107? What things that are considered fringe might
be dogma? What dogma will be anachronistic?
Who knows? I don’t see
much reason to think about stuff like this.
Whatever our outlook is today, it is unlikely that we can even imagine
what we might find.
what is in store, in the next year or two, for you, in terms of upcoming books,
expeditions, and your work at the museum?
I have several books in the pipeline, and numerous research projects,
particularly focused on dinosaur growth and behavior, but mostly I’m
concentrating on helping up and coming students because they are all a lot
smarter than I, and maybe they will falsify some of my hypotheses, and I will
learn something new and interesting.
Thanks for this discourse, and me end this interview with a thank you, and,
since I’ve been guiding us along, let you have the final word, on whatever
JH: If we really do want more educated people, we have to do a much better job of educating the educators.
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