Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs?: A book review

Book cover

Jonathan Kane is a science writer who has written four previous posts for Panda’s Thumb: Creationist classification of theropods, Five principles for arguing against creationism, General intelligence: What we know and how we know it, and John Woodmorappe vs. modern creation science: a response. He is the editor and primary author of God’s Word or Human Reason? An Inside Perspective on Creationism, co-authored with Emily Willoughby, T. Michael Keesey, Glenn Morton, and James R. Comer, published December 2016 by Inkwater Press. This post is a review of Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? The Hilarious History of Creationist Pseudoscience at Its Silliest by Philip J. Senter. Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 211 pages. Matt Young is this post’s moderator.

While I was writing and editing my book God’s Word or Human Reason? a few years ago, one thing I often was struck by is how rare it is for mainstream scientists to make a concerted effort at answering creationist arguments. As I mentioned in my article “Five principles for arguing against creationism”, the website Talk.Origins used to be the best resource available for closely examining and critiquing creationist models, but now that that website is no longer updated, there are only a small handful of authors who have tried to pick up where Talk.Origins left off. One of those authors is Phil Senter, a paleontologist at Fayetteville State University, whom I consider to be the most knowledgeable and effective current opponent of creationism in the fields of paleontology and geology.

Senter is the author of critiques of creationism such as “The Defeat of Flood Geology by Flood Geology” and “Using creation science to demonstrate evolution” (in two papers, here and here), which show a level of knowledge about creationist research and methods that is unmatched by any other currently active critic of creationism. The latter pair of papers has had a measurable impact on creation science: one or both of them is cited in the baraminology papers by Cavanaugh 2011, Garner et al. 2013 and McLain et al. 2018, all of which replicate Senter’s conclusion that using the systematics developed by creationists, it would be reasonable to classify Archaeopteryx as a theropod dinosaur. I was therefore excited to learn from a mutual friend that Senter was writing a book devoted to debunking creationist arguments about dinosaurs. (I was informed of this by the paleoartist Lenadra Walters, who provided his book’s cover illustration.) The book’s publisher, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, has sent me an advance copy of the book for the purpose of reviewing it here.

Anyone who has spent a while reading the creationist literature will be familiar with the outlandish claims made by some creationists about dinosaurs: that all dinosaurs were created as herbivores, that dinosaurs co-existed with early humans, and that human encounters with fire-breathing dinosaurs were the basis for the Biblical account of the Leviathan and the Behemoth, as well as for the mythical dragons of Europe and China. Up to this point, most anti-creationism authors have paid little attention to these arguments, choosing instead to focus on arguments that are more centrally important to creationist models, such as those in the fields such as genetics, geology, and physics. Phil Senter is the only critic of creationism to closely examine this set of arguments about dinosaurs, having previously covered them in a 2017 article in the Skeptical Inquirer. Senter’s book is essentially a much more detailed expansion of that article, and as far as I know, it is the first anti-creationism book to focus exclusively on creationist arguments about dinosaurs’ alleged fire-breathing abilities and interactions with humans.

The first few chapters of the book give a concise summary of the origins of Mesozoic paleontology and of the creation science movement, followed by a more detailed history of the creationist arguments about alleged dinosaur/human interactions. This part of the book clearly shows the depth of Senter’s knowledge about these topics. While I’m fairly knowledgeable in this area myself, the book contains numerous details that I hadn’t previously known. I was particularly amused to learn about an early (1830s) speculation that the reason there are no human remains preserved in Mesozoic strata is not because these strata were deposited before humans existed, but because all of the humans who died during that era were eaten by predatory dinosaurs and crocodiles. It seems that more than 150 years before Michael Crichton turned this idea into a pop-culture phenomenon, the idea of humans as possible prey for Mesozoic archosaurs already had a grip on the public imagination.

The next part of the book forms the core of its argument. Senter discusses several creationist arguments about how dinosaurs could have allegedly breathed fire, describing how each of them is biomechanically impossible, as well as the actual origins of dragon legends. Senter explains how all of the methods of fire production proposed by creationists either would have caused the animal severe injury, such as by engulfing the dinosaur’s entire head in a fireball, or would have not produced any fire at all. The extensiveness of Senter’s rebuttal almost seems like overkill for what I had assumed to be a relatively minor creationist argument, but it’s clear from the creationist sources he cites that these arguments are far more widespread among creationists than I had realized. The creationist argument that humans encountered fire-breathing dinosaurs has not been limited to crackpots such as Carl Baugh and Kent Hovind—it also has been made by people who are much more central to the creation science movement such as Henry Morris, Duane Gish, and Don DeYoung, so it’s beneficial that someone has taken the time to refute it in detail. Senter is clearly up to this task, and it would be difficult to imagine a more thorough rebuttal to these arguments than the one he provides.

However, I feel that there are two flaws in this section of the book. First, when responding to these creationist arguments, one of Senter’s rebuttals is less than effective. Discussing the creationist argument that hadrosaurs (duckbilled dinosaurs) possessed a gland in their nasal passageways that produced a flammable substance, Senter argues that no living reptile or bird has a gland in the particular place where it allegedly existed in dinosaurs, so its presence in dinosaurs can be ruled out based on phylogenetic bracketing. However, the relationship between Crocodylomorpha and Aves is distant enough that bracketing between them is not a reliable way to infer the presence or absence of traits in dinosaurs. Even within dinosauria, it is not unusual for families to possess highly specialized autapomorphies that are not found in any of the closely-related families, such as the bat-like wing membranes that were present in scansoriopterygids but not in oviraptorosaurs, dromaeosaurids or troodontids. Fortunately, Senter’s more robust arguments from biomechanics are sufficient to rule out the fire-breathing hypothesis, so his argument from bracketing is not really necessary to support his point.

Second, when discussing the origin of medieval dragon legends, Senter leaves out one explanation that I think deserved to be mentioned. One possible reason for the superficial resemblance between dragons and dinosaurs is that people with a pre-scientific understanding of the world discovered real dinosaur fossils, and created fanciful depictions of these animals. This is especially likely to have happened in China, as discussed by Dong Zhiming in the Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs: a book written during ancient China’s Jin dynasty referred to the discovery of “dragon bones” in what is now known to be a Jurassic deposit, and in some rural areas of China, the belief that dinosaur fossils were the remains of dragons persisted up to the 21st century.

The last part of Senter’s book discusses the true identity of the Biblical Leviathan and Behemoth, along with the case for the early chapters of Genesis having been intended as something other than literal history. The arguments against a literal reading of the Genesis creation story are well-trodden territory, so while this chapter of Senter’s book is well-argued, it does not make any arguments that haven’t previously been made by other sources that discuss the topic in more detail. His chapter on the identity of the Leviathan and Behemoth, on the other hand, is the best explanation I’ve encountered about this topic anywhere. Senter examines the original Hebrew of the descriptions of these creatures, as well as references in the apocryphal books of Enoch and 4 Esdras, to show that the Leviathan and Behemoth were understood by the ancient Hebrews as supernatural serpent-like beings, rather than as real animals. In addition to his career in paleontology, Senter also holds a Master’s Degree in theology, and his knowledge of Christian and Jewish theology shows clearly in this part of the book.

It seems as though Senter probably had a lot of fun writing this book. The book is full of humorous asides and absurd analogies, such as this one about the thick layer of conglomerate that would have been left behind if there had been a global flood: “It would be a prominent part of the geologic record on every continent, one that would be as difficult to miss as a manatee on a moped, wearing a monocle and a prom dress and throwing handfuls of fancy cheeses to passersy-by while leading a parade of penguins in top hats blowing party horns down a busy boulevard.” Comments like these add a lot of personality to the book, but I think he uses them too often, and they sometimes distract from his scientific discussions. However, I should mention that one of these asides in particular made me laugh: a reference to the 1980s broadway musical Little Shop of Horrors in the chapter on the identity of the Behemoth and Leviathan. I understood that reference because I’m a Howard Ashman fan, but I wonder whether most readers will understand it.

In keeping with the humorous theme, the book contains several cartoon drawings of a creationist chef (who cooks “misinformation soup”) re-interpreting various mythical creatures as representations of dinosaurs or other Mesozoic animals. Although these images fit the theme of the book, they’re lacking in visual polish. This book is an example of an unfortunate trend I’ve noticed many other times: from a graphic design perspective, creationist books and websites often show more skill in presentation than the pro-evolution sources that provide rebuttals to creationist arguments. Of course, substance ought to matter more than style, but I’ve often wondered whether fewer people would be convinced of creationism if evolutionary scientists were to put the same effort into presentation that creationists do.

This book also has one other flaw, that I consider to be its most significant flaw. While reading the book, I was constantly unsure of who its audience was intended to be, because it does not seem to be written for either creationists or non-creationists. Many of Senter’s earlier writings, such as his studies of dinosaur baraminology, were clearly aimed at influencing creationist attitudes and were effective at doing so. The effort that Fire-Breathing Dinosaurs? devotes to disproving a specific creationist hypothesis suggests that this book has the same goal, but any creationist reading the book will likely be turned off by the disparaging tone that Senter takes throughout it. As my book’s co-author Emily Willoughby discussed in her article here, this approach is the opposite of what’s likely to be effective for changing minds.

Despite its flaws, I highly recommend this book, because it presents a detailed and well-reasoned rebuttal to a line of creationist argumentation that had previously flown under the radar of most science educators. In some of my past writings on this topic I have argued that it is important for creationist arguments to be refuted rather than ignored, and in that regard Senter has provided a valuable service with this book. Until another critic of creationism tries taking on this particular set of creationist arguments, Senter’s book (and the Skeptical Inquirer article it is based upon) will be the only game in town.