While the colorful histories of paleontology and geology have been thoroughly documented, it has thus far not been possible to document broad historical trends in these fields in a detailed, quantitative way. Michel et al. (2011) recently developed a novel approach, termed “culturomics,” to quantitatively analyze cultural and linguistic trends from a massive “corpus” of over 5 million digitally scanned books (many of which were scanned from university libraries by Google). In particular, culturomics may be used to study how certain terms—relative to one another—have fallen in or out of favor over time within the printed literature.

For example, consider these four delicious (at least in my opinion) foods: tacos, hamburgers, pizza, and ice cream. Which one of the four is the most popular (or, at least most written about) today? Addressing this question is simple using Google’s Ngram Viewer, a freely accessible culturomics web interface available to the public at http://books.google.com/ngrams. The results of the Ngram analysis of these foods is shown in Figure 1; ice cream is the most popular of the four foods, followed closely by pizza, which skyrocketed in popularity beginning in the 1960’s.

Fig. 1. Results of Ngram analysis (1800-2000) of the following search terms: “taco” (blue line), “hamburger” (red line), “pizza” (orange line), and “ice cream” (green line).

Figure 1, and similar charts that follow, show the percentage of words within the total corpus that match the search term during a particular year. For example, in the year 1910, approximately 0.0001 of all of the words in the corpus were “ice cream.” (Additional details on the Ngram viewer are available here.)
Here I utilize culturomics to briefly document shifting trends in the development of the geosciences, especially paleontology, in both the public arena and also within the field itself. These are presented as a series of short case studies.

Case 1: Mastodon vs. Dinosaur

Semonin (2000) documented the important roll that the mastodon played in the American psyche during the 18th century. Puritans initially interpreted fossil mastodon remains as evidence of giants, while later naturalists saw in the remains evidence of a monstrous meat-eater. Thomas Jefferson was particularly interested in the mastodon, as he saw it as powerful evidence against the French idea of American degeneracy, the suggestion that the soils and climates of the New World are inferior to those in the Old World. Because Jefferson did not believe in extinction (a fact of nature established around 1800 by the great French naturalist Cuvier), he thought that mastodons might still survive in the American West and even asked Lewis and Clark to keep their eyes open for one on their westward expedition. In 1801, the first reconstructed mastodon fossil was put on display, and the mastodon immediately became a symbol of power for the young United States.
But how famous was it? To address this question, I used the Ngram viewer to compare instances of the words “mastodon” and “grizzly bear,” another large and famous American mammal. The results in Figure 2 show that until the mid-1970’s, mastodons were often more popular (or at least more written about) than grizzly bears; this was certainly the case during the 1800’s, even though grizzly bears presented a much greater threat to Americans than mastodons, which had of course been extinct for thousands of years.

Fig. 2. Results of Ngram analysis (1800-2000) of the following search terms: “mastodon” (blue line) and “grizzly bear” (red line).

In terms of popularity, the mastodon had a good run, at least until about 1930. What changed? The answer is that another type of ancient beast, the dinosaur, rapidly replaced the mastodon as the archetypal prehistoric monster, a transition documented by Semonin (2000). The replacement is evident in the Ngram comparison in Figure 3; dinosaurs became more popular than mastodons in 1927 and have not let up since.

Fig. 3. Results of Ngram analysis (1800-2000) of the following search terms: “mastodon” (blue line) and “dinosaur” (red line).

The name “dinosaur” was coined by the great English paleontologist Richard Owen in 1842. This word had almost no widespread usage until the last decade of 19th century (Fig. 3). This was a period of time that included the culmination of the famous “bone wars” between Othniel C. Marsh and Edward D. Cope, who tried to outdo each other with new dinosaur discoveries in the American West. The rise of interest in dinosaurs between 1910 and 1920 was likely due to many factors, including an ever-increasing number of specimens being displayed in museum exhibits and the popular prehistoric artistry of Charles Knight. Dinosaurs made it into the movies first in 1925 (The Lost World), but that did not seem to dramatically increase their popularity in the literature over the subsequent 45 years. Interest in dinosaurs began to increase, however, in the 1970’s. This may have been due to new insights made around this time by paleontologists such as John Ostrom and Robert Bakker, who suggested that at least some dinosaurs were dynamic, active animals, rather than slow, dim, lumbering beasts. Interest in dinosaurs soared during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The increase in the 1980’s is probably because Luis Alvarez and his colleagues hypothesized that an asteroid impact some 65 million years ago caused the demise of the dinosaurs. The peak in dinosaur popularity during the 1990’s must have been due to the incredibly popular book “Jurassic Park” by Michael Crichton (1990) and subsequent movie (1993), which made nearly $915 million at the box office (Box Office Mojo).

Jonathan Hendricks is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geology at San Jose State University and is also a research associate at the Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York. Email Dr. Hendricks at jonathan.hendricks@sjsu.edu.

Check back next week for Chapter Two of Dr. Hendricks’ series on Culturomics and Paleontology!


Crichton, M. 1990. Jurassic Park. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, New York.

McPhee, J. 1998. Annals of the Former World. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, New York. 696 pp.

Michel, J.-B., Shen, Y.K., Aiden, A.P., Veres, A., Gray, M.K., The Google Books Team, Pickett, J.P., Hoiberg, D., Clancy, D., Norvig, P., Orwant, J., Pinker, S., Nowak, M.A., and Aiden, E.L. 2010. Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books. Science 331, 176-182. DOI: 10.1126/science.1199644.

Patterson, C. 1956. Age of meteorites and the earth. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 10, 230-237.

Semonin, P. 2000. American monster: how the nation’s first prehistoric creature became a symbol of national identity. NYU Press, New York, New York. 502 pp.

The Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, New York, is pleased to sponsor Paleontology content for This View of Life. Founded in 1932, PRI has outstanding programs in research, collections, and publications, and is a national leader in development of informal Earth science education resources for educators and the general public.


Published On: February 11, 2013

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