cu sith mythology dogAn Instinct for Paper Dragons

Oh, the pain of a book that takes a fascinating subject matter and converts it into a dull lecture on abstract principles of an academic agenda. Double the pain when that academic agenda turns out to be the undeveloped reflections of a weak, one-track mind.

An Instinct For Dragons should have been a great book. Its subject is dragon myth, as found around the world. Sounds pretty interesting, huh? I expected to find a discussion of the legends of dragons, exploring their more subtle themes, comparing and contrasting the stories of different cultural groups. Instead, I found a poorly constructed diatribe.

The author, David E. Jones, an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Central Florida, seems to have a remarkable talent for simplification, repetition and hard-headed argumentativeness. At the beginning of the book, he makes a basic point, that might have some merit, and then refuses to move on, repeating that point over and over again throughout the whole book. Even worse, Dr. Jones does not allow any perspective but his own to have any merit. Past the first 35 pages, the book begins to sound more like the obsessions of a self-educated conspiracy theorist than the reasonable discussion of a young anthropologist who has been through graduate school.

The idea that Dr. Jones promotes throughout this book is that all humans have an instinctual fear of dragon-like creatures, and that dragons appear in legend throughout the world because they are a universal, inborn amalgam of snakes, large cats and eagles. He points out that for millions of years, our ancestors have been prey to these creatures, and asserts that an all-in-one fear of creatures with their traits developed as an adaptive mental mechanism to promote survival through avoidance.

Hey, that's a neat idea. Still, is that all there is to say on the matter of dragons? Apparently, Dr. Jones thinks so. He belittles the importance of all other ideas about dragon legend, dismissing out-of-hand alternative explanations for the widespread development of stories about dragons, and even going so far as to state that, when dragons are discussed, "It is the search for the biological and evolutionary basis of the dragon that is of concern and not the use of the dragon as a literary symbol or artistic motif."

Is this an anthropologist talking? It shocks me to see an anthropologist claim that a creature of legend is only of concern as it sheds light on principles of biological evolution. Dr. Jones misses the point - without literature and art, there would be no stories of dragons for him to study. Anthropologists are supposed to be more broad-based in their thought than to make such simplistic statements.

Dr. Jones ignores another basic idea of anthropology when he lumps a diverse number of mythical creatures together under the convenient term "dragon". In order to make his argument that belief in dragons is universal among humans, he broadens the definition of a dragon to an absurd extent, including griffins, Quetzelcoatl of the Aztecs, and the bunyip of Australia. When Jones calls all of these "dragon", he makes the same mistake that eager theologians make when they call the Confucian tradition a religion, and then analyze it according to their own definition of what a religion must be. Anthropologists are supposed to understand cultures on their own terms first and foremost, not to concoct simplistic one-world concepts that are then forced into the boundaries of particular cultures, whether they fit or not.

An Instinct for Dragons is not only poorly thought out, it is dull reading because of its single-mindedness. Dr. Jones would have created a great book if he had been willing to introduce his ideas as a theory-in-progress, then discuss and acknowledge the value of others' ideas about dragons as well. As it is, his work is so annoyingly superficial that I can't stand to even keep this book in my house.

Oh, the joyful release of the used book store!

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