“A Bone from a Dry Sea” by Peter Dickenson

A Bone from a Dry Sea

Okay, call me absent minded! I overlooked the fact that this is my second Young Adult book by Peter Dickenson. See review dated April 23, 2021. It shares the slightly didactic character that shows up in much YA literature (imho). 

I had to force my way through most of this book. There are two plots, both involving young females. An English teenager goes on a paleontology expedition with her father and finds a (potentially important) bone. The other plot tells us how the bone ended up where it was later found. 

Issues of racism and sexism arise, but are not handled in depth. The scientists in this book are portrayed as unpleasant, quarrelsome egotists. I feel that this stereotypical representation feeds the anti-science attitudes that are making our lives so difficult now. If scientists are a bunch of jerks, it’s easier to reject their recommendations measures like vaccination. I’m not saying scientists are all “nice”, but gratuitous fictional portrayals of scientific infighting aren’t helpful.

There’s a real and intellectually interesting controversy behind this book, the question of whether human evolution included an aquatic stage. Why Dickenson chose this as the basis for a YA novel baffles me. But, as I’ve said before, I usually don’t like “fictionalized” versions of real and important people and events. That a bias of mine.

The best part of this book was a BIG plot twist near the end. I totally didn’t see it coming, and I found it completely believable. Yes, life does throw the occasional major league curve ball. (Nobody got killed.) The book ends without telling us how the “victim” will choose to put his life back together. 

This book should be examined in courses on Science and Society.

If you want a non-fiction look a major scientific squabble, read Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon, cultural anthropologist. I remembered Chagnon as I read Dickenson’s imagined description of the lives of early pre-humans. Chagnon made enough behavioral observations to speculate about questions like how many people can live in a “tribe” before it ends up splitting into two tribes, a possibility Dickinson hints at in A Bone from a Dry Sea. 

Another non-fiction account of science and scientific controversy is The Double Helix by James Watson, about the structure of DNA. Later editions include his apology for his dismissive, sexist comments about distinguished chemist Rosalind Franklin. 

I wish the fun and excitement of science showed more clearly in Dickenson’s books. Field scientists have crazy adventures! 

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