There's a painting I'd love to see but which nobody has done yet, a sort of dinosaurian Ascent of Man. On one side, an archaeosaur would crawl out of the primordial ooze, done in the style of the earliest paleontology reconstruction art. Each new dinosaur would be drawn in a progressively later style, lifting their tails from the ground, leaning forward, growing warm-blooded, and finally sprouting feathers and flying out of frame.
The Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins oils would be at the most basal/earliest/most primitive end of the canvas.
There's a lot of insight into the paleontology of 1876 to be derived from studying them. Hadrosaurus foulkii
was brand spanking new then and the fact that they walked on two legs was revolutionary. So their stance and walk were noticeably human -- humans being the best available model for how bipedal locomotion works. The Nothosaurus
were impossibly sinuous. And so on.
But the most remarkable feature of these prehistoric creatures is their expressions. They leer, they sneer, they gloat. Their faces light up with unholy glee. The pterosaurs look Satanic.
They are inherent sinful.
If you look through the pictures, the moon is shown in the daytime sky several times, but the sun never. This was a painterly convention to indicate that the creatures existed in a world that was not properly part of God's Creation, sometime on the Sixth Day, possibly, before the creation of Adam and Eve.
It's not that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was particularly concerned with the theological implications of the fossils he was bringing to life. But the cultural context within which he was working was Christian, Biblical, and moral. It only made sense that ancient life-forms would be primitive not only physically but spiritually.
I point this out not to make mock of BWH -- he accomplished a great deal and advanced his science to a degree that very few scientists do -- but because it demonstrates how our preconceptions shape our science. When I was a child, the skeletal mounts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City dragged their tails on the ground. Looking at the bones, you could see the gaps where the bones had been effectively "broken" to bring them down. Had they been presented as the fossil evidence left them, the tails would have been held in the air as modern mounts do. So the evidence was tinkered with.
Why? Because dinosaurs were presumed to be reptiles, and reptiles dragged their tails on the ground.
Similarly, our readings of fossils today are colored by our preconceptions, our philosophies, our expectations. I've seen enough revolutions in paleontology over the past two decades (it's been a lively and exciting time) to have few illusions about how perfect our current understanding is.
Still . . .
Look at those wonderful, entrancing, absurd creatures that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins brought back to life after so many million years. They are so much better than anything that existed ten years before. There is so much information encoded in them. They are such a good start to the long, long road on whose earliest stretches we yet stand.