"Ever since Jurassic Park we thought we knew how dinosaurs lived their lives. In this remarkable new book, Brian J. Ford reveals that dinosaurs were, in fact, profoundly different from what we believe, and their environment was unlike anything we have previously thought. In this meticulous and absorbing account, Ford reviews the latest scientific evidence to show that the popular accounts of dinosaurs' lives contain ideas that are no more than convenient inventions: how dinosaurs mated, how they hunted and communicated, how they nursed their young, even how they moved. He uncovers many surprising details which challenge our most deeply-held beliefs such as the revelation that an asteroid impact did not end the dinosaurs' existence.
Professor Ford's illuminating examination changes everything. As he unravels the history of the world, we discover that evolution was not Charles Darwin's idea; there were many philosophers who published the theory before him. The concept of continental drift and plate tectonics did not begin with Alfred Wegener a century ago, but dates back to learned pioneers hundreds of years before his time. Ever since scientists first began to study dinosaurs, they have travelled with each other down the wrong path, and Ford now shows how this entire branch of science has to be rewritten.
A new dinosaur species is announced every ten days, and more and more information is currently being discovered about how they may have lived: locomotion, hunting, nesting behaviour, distribution, extinction. Ford brings together these amazing discoveries in this controversial new book which undoubtedly will ruffle a few feathers, or scales if you are an old-school dinosaur lover."
NHBS caveat lector: the aquatic dinosaur hypothesis of Ford, who is not himself a palaeontologist, is considered controversial in palaeontological circles and generally not taken seriously, being at odds with a large body of evidence. Interested readers might also want to have a look at the pieces written by palaeontologists Brian Switek for Smithsonian.com, and Darren Naish for Scientific American.
Very surprised Harper Collins has given a platform for this tripe from an obvious self-publicist. Having seen the recent debate between Darren Naish and Ford, where the latter had no other response than to insult palaeontology and presented no evidence of his (self-delusional) claims. What next Harper, young earth creationism or flat earth theory?
Every academic discipline has a few, the contrarian naysayers who steadfastly believe their idea is true, even it flies in the face of natural laws and mountains of evidence to the contrary. Physicists have to contend with inventors of perpetual motion machines, astronomers and geographers have to put up with a growing legion of flat-earthers, and palaeontologists are now faced with this. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Brian J. Ford and his amazing aquatic dinosaurs.
If this introduction sounds like I am lampooning the man, well, he is not besides some dramatic flair himself. From the claims on the back of the book that "everything we know about the age of dinosaurs is misconceived", the blurb breathlessly telling us that "Ford now shows how this entire branch of science has to be rewritten", to his public lecture in London shortly before publication (you can watch it here) where he boldly stated that he was going to destroy forever the era of "reptile dysfunction" in which we have been for the last few decades... oh boy, this is not looking good, is it?
So, who is Ford? From what I could puzzle together he is an independent researcher without credentials, interested in cell biology and microscopy. But he is not a palaeontologist and, by his own admission, only has a "rudimentary knowledge of dinosaurs" (p. 368). Also, he dislikes the "conformity and subservience of the orthodox academic establishment" (p. 236). Ford is a rebel and he makes no secret of it, eagerly pointing out how amateur contributions have brought about paradigm shifts in scientific fields in the past. Fair enough. But for every valuable amateur contribution there are many cranks whose ideas are deluded or just plain wrong. Just because you're contrarian doesn't mean you're right.
Too Big to Walk is a nicely produced, chunky, richly illustrated book, even including a colour plate section. Clearly, Harper Collins had faith in it. It all starts off innocently enough. The first 60% is a canned history of the rise of palaeontology as a discipline. Not until page 282 do we finally get to the heart of the matter. A museum visit in 1968 gave Ford the "dramatic revelation" that large dinosaurs must have evolved in water. Why? What follows is some 30 pages of opinion, speculation, and the occasional cherry-picked publication that supports his idea. He wrote it all up for a piece in the science magazine Laboratory News. His argument basically boils down to "dinosaurs look more convincing in water and the physics stand up more soundly". Ford considers this piece "revolutionary science" and "plenty of evidence to show that dinosaurs must surely have evolved in an aquatic habitat" (p. 329). Especially this last sentence is a shining example of how Ford confuses evidence and conjecture.
The rest of the book documents how media outlets loved the controversial idea and how the palaeontological community responded. Darren Naish wrote a measured response in the next issue of Laboratory News, but other responses were more damning. Ford has subsequently tried to get other articles published. With each media appearance, the palaeontological community pushed back, until Ford had enough of the "barrage of senseless criticism" (p. 452) and wrote this book.
To an outsider, this book appears to ask reasonable questions, some of which we don't have good answers to. But Ford's proposed solution creates more problems and questions than it solves, and, worse, it blithely ignores that science has moved on since this idea last had currency in the 1960s. And herein lies the book's biggest sin: omission.
I am not going to counter each of Ford's claims here, Naish has done an admirable job countering most of them, both in his Laboratory News response and in his public lecture in London that followed Ford's presentation (you can watch that here). But, in short, decades of research show that large dinosaurs could, and most certainly did, live on land. Ford mentions none of it. The few papers he brings up are summarily dismissed as perpetuating the dogma of the – sorry, I'm trying not to laugh as I type this – "terrestrial tyranny" of an orthodox establishment whose careers and funding ride on the status quo. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it's an old-fashioned conspiracy to suppress the truth.
So, Ford, since you intend to stick to your guns, here is a plan:
Why is a generation of palaeontologists convinced that dinosaurs lived on land? Have you examined the evidence they have amassed? Put aside your pride for a moment and entertain the idea that you might be mistaken. Since your ideas single out sauropods more than anything else, here are some popular academic books for the general reader: Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs and The Sauropod Dinosaurs. Or how about books that explain how dinosaurs actually lived, and how we know what we know? Books such as The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, Dinosaur Paleobiology, Dinosaurs: How They Lived and Evolved, and the encyclopaedic The Complete Dinosaur and The Dinosauria. There are references in there, start with those. And you might just have an unlikely ally in Naish, who by now has linked to more than enough primary literature to get you started.
Not only do you have to gather support for your view, you will also have to convincingly show that all the evidence to the contrary is wrong. Does that sound like a lot of work? It does, but, hey, you wanted to play the iconoclast, didn't you? That means that the burden of proof is on you. Those 281 pages you filled with a superfluous canned history before finally getting to the point? You could have used that space a lot better, but it's a bit late for that now.
This book is frankly bizarre. Not only does it peddle an uninformed, speculative idea, it does so in a poor fashion, with lots of irrelevant asides, rather than the balanced overview I suggest above. Do I expect Ford to take notice? Not at all. This review, too, will no doubt be dismissed as blinkered adherence to dogma. The triumphant conclusion to his book that "the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in support of my theory" and that "there is no denying this compelling conclusion" is so pompous that it is laughable. He is utterly convinced he has already won the argument and has "diligently demolished an entire branch of science and established an edifice to stand in its stead" (p. 463). No, Ford, you have not. Not even close.
Brian J. Ford FLS HonFRMS is an independent research biologist, author and lecturer, who publishes on scientific issues for the general public. He has also been a television personality for more than 40 years.