T. Bakker is a near-legendary paleontologist, a preacher, a teacher,
a rebel, an artist, something of a comedian and the owner of a small
fleet of kitchen appliances due to his four marriages. To hear Bakker
tell it, he’s just another WGWB — white guy with beard — out digging
seems to be something more than that. Bob Bakker was a leader of
the handful of iconoclastic paleontologists who rewrote the book
on dinosaurs three decades ago. He and the others — notably John
Ostram and Armand de Ricqules — changed the image of dinosaurs from
slow-moving, slow-witted, cold-blooded creatures to, in at least
some cases, warm-blooded giants well equipped to dominate the Earth
for 200 million years. They argued that dinosaurs are the ancestors
of birds. And Bakker contended, long before feathered fossils were
found, that some dinosaurs were endowed with insulating feathers.
The debate on all those issues continues, sometimes hotly, but new
discoveries and research lend strong support to what seem no longer
to be minority views.
meanwhile, remains a magnet for controversy, as ready as he always
has been to challenge the accepted wisdom of past and present paleontologists.
Consider the title of his groundbreaking 1986 book, The Dinosaur
Heresies. Bob seems to enjoy the role of heretic — especially since
he’s often proven right. “I was fond of saying most of dinosaur
science was wrong stuff,” Bob notes, “and that did offend a lot
of people. … Someone had to say that dinosaurs probably had feathers
and well, by gum, they did.”
to that an outspoken opposition to the habit of many colleagues
to speak in the esoteric jargon of science — an academic language
that loses and alienates many of the legions of dinosaur fans, both
young and old. “There are some people who think you should never
speak in plain English. Now I am really against jargon — absolutely
against. It’s often a smokescreen for sloppy thinking. There’s a
friend of mine who works on fossil turtles and speaks in sentences
like ‘the fossa orbitalas is displaced in a derived condition rostrally.’
All it means is that the eye socket is near the front of the head.
Why not say, ‘The eye socket is near the front of the head’?”
And even in a profession not noted for its sartorial elegance, Bob stands apart. He is seldom seen without his trademark, well-worn cowboy hat. His ponytail sprouted in the ’60s and has never been seriously trimmed. His beard resembles a tumbleweed.
Some attribute Bakker’s blunt and outspoken manner to the fact that he has no academic appointments. Working with an assortment of ad hoc support, he has been excavating the rich Como Bluff dinosaur quarry near Medicine Bow, Wyoming, for the past 30 years.
convictions that dinosaurs were anything but sluggish evolutionary
failures are the fruit of a seed planted at the age of 10, when
he came across a copy of a 1953 Life magazine at his grandfather’s
house in New Jersey. The magazine’s cover displayed part of Rudolph
Zallinger’s famous 1947 mural, The Age of Reptiles, at Yale University’s
Peabody Museum. The dinosaur article within hooked Bob for life.
His interest was further fueled by trips to the American Museum
in New York with his mother and the high value his creationist parents
placed on education.
the prehistoric bug still in his system, Bob entered Yale. His mentor
was none other than the great paleontologist John Ostrom. Bakker
was on an excavation with Ostrom in 1964 when the remains of Deinonychus,
a relatively small, fast, and deadly predator, were found. This
sleek, carnivorous dinosaur caused Ostrom to consider a different
lifestyle for meat-eating dinosaurs than was generally accepted.
meanwhile, picked up the ball and, being anything but conservative
(a trait that greatly concerned his mentor), ran with it. This fossil
and Bob’s review of existing dinosaur reconstructions led him to
challenge almost everything that had been passed on as truth in
the portrayal of dinosaur life. Just 23 years old at the time and
publishing ideas neither accepted nor appreciated by his colleagues,
Bakker rode the theory of high-metabolism, high-energy, hot-blooded
dinosaurs to star status.
1975, Bob completed radically new illustrations of galloping ceratopsians
(horned dinosaurs) and fleet-footed carnivores — in great contrast
to the century-old view of swamp-dwelling, tail-dragging behemoths
shuffling along in a cold stupor — for Adrian Desmond’s book The
Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. A year later, he earned his doctorate at
Harvard, where he was elected to the elite Society of Fellows.
Ten years later, Bob, ever the scientific antagonist, published his first book, The Dinosaur Heresies, in which he writes: “I’d be disappointed if this book didn’t make some people angry.” He was not disappointed. The book contains a compilation of his controversial theories and self-illustrated visions of karate-kicking carnivores and boxing brontosaurs. The images alone were almost scandalous at the time to paleontological academia.
The Dinosaur Heresies is currently undergoing an update that changes none of Bob’s previous notions, but adds a chapter called “The Archaeopteryx Paternity Suit,” which discusses the now widely accepted theory that birds descended from dinosaurs.
new section describes the important — but largely unheralded — work
of the Reverend Edward Hitchcock, a prominent Protestant theologian
of the early nineteenth century. Hitchcock, who discovered and analyzed
dinosaur footprints, concluded that dinosaurs were “prehistoric
ground birds.” And even more than that, Bakker says, Hitchcock,
a pastor, preached that “these discoveries in the rocks … agreed
with the best interpretations of Genesis. Today, in the year 2000,
this rich history, this rich intertwined story of Old Testament
scholars and rock scholars is just about forgotten.”
Always committed to sharing dinosaur science with an always-fascinated public, Bob published in 1995 a story that’s told from the point of view of a large, dinosaurian martial artist. He chose a female utahraptor as the main character in Raptor Red. The scientific information that fills the book came in part from Bob’s former student, James Kirkland.
Kirkland and amateur fossil-hunter Bob Gaston, along with Don Burge, found and brought to the media’s attention a raptor the size of the beasts that Steven Spielberg had previously created for the movie Jurassic Park. Until that discovery, there were no known raptors the size of the movie’s villains. Spielberg took what we knew about raptors and grew them larger because the confirmed raptors simply “weren’t big and scary enough.”
is currently working on Bones, Bibles, and Creation, a book about
“how theology — good, solid Biblical theology — went hand in hand
with the discovery of fossils and deep time. The press certainly
doesn’t realize that.”
long ago became a hot commodity for the sale and support of various
dinosaur projects. He unofficially consulted with Spielberg during
the making of Jurassic Park and in the sequel, a more-than-reasonable
facsimile of Bakker (played by an actor who met and studied him)
was devoured by a T. rex.
Bob’s image and voice were featured in a Jurassic Park video game produced by Sega, and he appeared in television commercials advertising the game: “You’re a raptor. You’ve just been awakened after 65 million years. You’re hungry and you’re ticked off ... ”
He has endorsed dinosaur art by sculptors and artists. He consulted with Dinamation on the creation of its famous robotic dinosaurs and provided artwork for the company’s dinosaur trading-card series. Bob also appeared in magazine ads for Rockport Shoes, holding the well-clawed fossil forearm of an allosaur and proclaiming: “I hunt monsters for a living.” (In fact, he not only touts the work boots, he has worn them for years.)
has been in countless TV dino-documentaries, and you can currently
see him Sunday mornings on the Discovery Channel’s dinosaur show
for kids, Bonehead Detectives of the Paleoworld. He’s even worked
as a consultant on dinosaur toys.
asked why he gives up valuable time from fieldwork and research
to pursue such commercial ventures, he replies, “It pays for support
for my students and Wyoming museums. We have only 400,000 people
in Wyoming. There’s only one university, and it only has 5,000 students.
… We are full of fossils, but we have no people. The Rockport ad
supported two students for a year, and the video game aided some
other students as well. It’s hard to get money to support small
museums in small states. Real hard. … Dinosaur science is just about
the most popular science, but it’s desperately underfunded.”
you can’t appreciate a great Pentecostal sermon, don’t bother asking
Bakker a question. Besides hunting and explaining and popularizing
dinosaurs, he’s also a Pentecostal preacher who teaches the Old
Testament — and he delivers his knowledge with a preacher’s fervor
and a blend of relevant scripture and well-placed jokes. He speaks
his convictions bluntly and worries little about whether some listeners
might be offended by either his scientific or his spiritual message.
fabled paleontologist, Jack Horner, writes of Bakker in The Complete
T. Rex: “I think Bob is great for paleontology. He makes a lot of
intriguing statements that get other scientists riled up and sets
them to work disproving him. And like much of what Bob has to say,
I think his estimate of T.rex’s speed is extreme.”
energy and enthusiasm seem boundless, and his dedication to his
work is unmatched. In between snowfalls, you’ll still find him in
the field searching for new fossils.
Current projects involve his continuing work at the long-productive Como Bluff, where he searches now for great specimens that will be kept in Wyoming. For years, he contends, the best dinosaur fossils have been pulled out of Wyoming and shipped to museums all over the country with little benefit to their state of origin. Bob wants to change that and boost local museums to draw more tourists to his favored state.
what he’d like dinosaur books of the future to say about his contribution
to the field, Bob replies: “I want to put dinosaurs in context and
in their chosen environment. I want you to be able to feel and think
and smell what a Stegosaurus experienced or what a Ceratosaurus
experienced. I want you to smell fresh fish on your teeth as a Ceratosaurus,
then do this with the whole history of dinosaurs, every species.
Then I want you to finally understand how and why dinosaurs ruled.”
TONY CAMPAGNA is a freelance writer who writes widely about dinosaurs.