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Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter

November 24, 2011

Book Review of Danger in the Desert: True Adventures of a Dinosaur Hunter, A Sterling Point biography of Roy Chapman Andrews written by Roger Cohen

Perhaps the real-life Indian Jones, Roy Chapman Andrews lived a life of adventure as a collections curator for the American Museum of Natural History in the 1920’s and 30’s.  He traveled the world collecting specimens for the museum’s life like displays.

Roy’s life is the kind most boys dream about, complete with a pleasant stint on a deserted island, shark encounters, and fights with bandits. Brought up hunting and fishing, he learns to be resourceful in the outdoors. When Roy is a young man a tragic canoeing accident results in the loss of a close friend. His friend’s death is a turning point for Roy as he struggles to understand the loss and figure out how to carry on. Soon after his friend’s death, Roy attends a lecture by a zoologist on staff at the American Museum of Natural History. Roy is inspired by this lecture to make this his life’s work.

After college, Roy visits the museum’s director and offers to mop the floors for a chance to work in the museum. The director is impressed with Roy’s tenacity and gives him an entry level job working with the taxidermists- and mopping the floors.

Roy’s first opportunity at the kind of exploration and scientific research he dreams about is collecting the bones of a whale washed up on the east coast. It is a tough and messy job, but Roy completes it with his usual resourcefulness and determination. This is the beginning of a life time of exploration and scientific research resulting in large collections for the museum.

From early in Roy’s travels he is captivated by the Orient.  At this time in his career, a leading paleontologist, Henry F. Osborn, hypothesized that mammalian life originated on the central Asian plains.  A trip into the Gobi desert convinces Roy that this theory needs to be investigated. From that moment on, Roy begins to plan the largest expedition of its kind, but World War I interferes.

Roy is recruited to work for the US military as an undercover agent in Beijing.  One story of combat is told where Roy and his companion shoot two bandits on a lonely road in Mongolia.  As World War I ends, Roy turns his attention back to the planning and funding of the largest scientific exploration ever attempted into Mongolia and the Gobi desert.

Roy is not disappointed in the Gobi. He and his team of scientists collect many fossils supporting Osborn and Darwin’s theories, including large dinosaurs, new species of mammals, and the most fantastic discovery – dinosaur eggs. It should be noted that the author and Mr. Andrews believe the theory of evolution to be true and discuss it in a way that assumes the reader agrees. (See flags below for specifics) The team’s findings propel the American Museum of Natural History into the spotlight and garner for Roy an imminent position in the scientific community.

Flags: (For more explanation on flags, see my About page)

  • The account of Monty’s drowning in a canoeing accident, while not graphic, is intense. Pg 35-40
  • The collection of whales for the museum is undertaken by observing the whales killed in the whaling industry. The killing and butchering of whales is dealt with in a matter of fact tone that some readers may consider insensitive. Pg 55, 88
  • Younger readers may be surprised to learn that the collections obtained by museums involve the trapping and killing of large numbers of animals.
  • The theory of evolution is discussed in general terms. No distinction is made between natural selection and adaptation and macro evolution. The idea that humans evolved from apes is one of the theories that Roy wants to validate by the excursions into central Asia.
  • Stating as fact that fossils can be dated by identifying rock strata, a standard paleontological and geological method. Timelines of million of years stated as fact. pg 133
  • After a difficult journey in Mongolia, Roy and his companion stop at a Buddhist temple and ask a lama to pray for them that their luck would continue to be good.
  • References to luck and lucky stars
  • Mention of alcohol in social situations (celebrating with a cigar and brandy, celebrating with champagne, toasting with bourbon) and as a staple on wilderness expeditions both as medicine and drink.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2011 5:12 PM

    It occurred to me that I didn’t make clear the reasons why I liked this book. As you can see by the flags it has an evolutionistic bent, but I was ok with my kids reading this book. We simply talk about the weaknesses and assumptions inherent in evolutionary theory, and we talk about how world view creates foundational beliefs for all of us.

    I liked this book because Mr. Chapman displayed such perseverance, determination and fearlessness in his life’s work. He was courageous, yet not a lone wolf. He appreciated the expertise of the scientists who came before him and regarded their advice and input with respect. He was also willing to ‘pay his dues’ as a young man and was willing to do the menial jobs to get opportunities to do the kind of work he aspired to.

    I also think the early days of American natural history museum collections is very interesting and unique to the time period. Large scale expeditions into unexplored regions are a thing of the past, so this real life account is worth reading for basic understanding in the life sciences.

  2. December 6, 2011 8:03 AM

    There is a ‘grown up’ version of this biography; Mr. Andrew’s autobiography entitled Ends of the Earth. The autobiography includes much more detail about the whaling industry and even some information on the harvesting of seals.

    A large portion of the book centers on Andrew’s time in China and Mongolia. It provides what is probably a more realistic look into the attitudes of the post colonial days. The foreigners living in Peking (Europeans, Brits, and Americans) seem to live above the common fray; frolicking, partying, dining and playing polo in the midst of Chinese civil war. They don’t seem to take the Chinese very seriously, and a bit of a superior attitude lingers.

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