A suspenseful and intriguing tale, Dragon Teeth is quintessentially Michael Crichton. Following the intense and sometimes violent rivalry between two paleontologists in 1875, the story exudes Crichton’s own love for dinosaurs, in what was likely the real-life story that inspired Jurassic Park. Closely based on actual history, including journals of the two men, the novel serves as a sort of love letter to the adventures of the early years of paleontology, but also removes the veil of both professional ambition and the violent anarchy of the wild west.
In 1875, on Yale’s campus, a rich and immature college student named William Johnson accepts a dare to go on a trip out West. Johnson has no great thirst for adventure or starry-eyed view of the West. In fact, he would be rather content to tour Europe over the summer instead of going on a danger-laden trip to dig up old bones. But his pride is greater than his laziness, and so for $1,000 he accepts the challenge.
Enter Professor Marsh. Marsh is a proud, strict, and paranoid academic, with an army of fossil hunters and other resources at his fingertips. He lives in constant fear that his once friend and now arch-rival Professor Cope will get the upper hand on him. Both rabid fossil hunters, they live with constant hatred of each other, and each has a plethora of vicious insults to throw at the other. Johnson, aware of none of this, departs with Marsh’s camp as their photographer, unaware of the insanity that will swirl around him once he steps on the train.
Both Marsh and Cope are real figures of history, and their feud even has a moniker – the “Bone Wars.” Johnson, a fictional character, represents in many ways what Crichton likely saw in their story – the damaging effects of pride. Both professors are portrayed as flawed, although the story is much more on Cope’s side than Marsh’s. Cope, despite being a Quaker, has a highly violent temper, but Marsh is a liar and a schemer, as well as the instigator of most of their conflicts. Johnson, an observer to all of this, ends up on Cope’s side (somewhat predictably so), but also notes odd similarities between the two men.
Cope’s odd relationship to religion in particular receives attention multiple times in the novel. It is one of two recurring historical background notes that form grounding themes to the book (the other being the ongoing war with the Native Americans), and religion in particular forms a more nuanced view of Cope himself. As Crichton notes, the budding field of paleontology was inextricably linked with Darwinism, so much so that it was considered an “irreligious” pursuit. In one case, Cope comes across a young preacher who believes seeking fossils is the work of the devil, because a perfect God would never make creatures that went extinct. After a tense argument, Cope assaults him.
Before he does, though, Cope makes a pretty good point. After the preacher insists that he has proven why God would not make creatures that go extinct, Cope tells him, “You have proven nothing.” Instead, he tells the preacher, he has only shown his assumptions about what God would do. And aren’t humans imperfect? Although Cope later expresses some doubts about his own faith, this moment, even set against the comedy of Cope’s violent temper, makes an important point for Christians when it comes to the relationship between faith and science. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat rare moment for the book. Most of the time when religion does come up, it comes up as an obstacle to scientific endeavor, with little nuance.
I can speak with more positivity on its treatment of Native Americans. It being 1875, attitudes towards Native Americans are hardly progressive. In a way, however, this is a positive element of the book. Crichton does not whitewash American history; he says in the afterword that the history in the book regarding treatment of Native Americans “is, unfortunately, true.” While Johnson does not frequently encounter Native Americans, the threat of them is throughout the book, and Crichton gives historical interludes relating to the ongoing war between Americans and Natives, including the behavior of General Custer. There is certain savagery on full display, to be sure, but that is portrayed from both sides, and appropriately so. Johnson, acting in some ways like the conscience of the story as he goes through more and more changes, ultimately shows a great deal of respect for a Native who becomes a valuable friend.
While it’s no game-changer for the genre, Michael Crichton’s Dragon Bones is a continually entertaining story of fossil hunters and gunslingers, well-told and made more interesting by its real-life basis. It’s one that deserves a place on your reading list, despite its lack of nuance in its approach to religious themes.