Dead dinosaurs and reasons for hope

“Time will turn us into statues, eventually.”

– Saint David Grohl, a fighter of foo

As we enter this time of the holidays in the United States, many of us become reflective on the year and take stock of our lives.  For my family and I, this year has been absolutely wonderful, dreadful, fantastic, unnerving, scary, and hopeful.  Why?  There has been a lot of change in our lives: see my lonely post from September for more details and my farewell to my previous institution.  This would also explain my dearth of blog posts, although a weird and interesting topic snuck in this November.

I am also finishing my dinosaur course here at Stockton, and that means I give my final lecture on “What I hope you have learned from dinosaurs.”  It struck me today that this would make an excellent little blog post as well.

One of my grandfathers was fond of asking me, “Why study dinosaurs?  What’s the point?” When you are asked that question enough times, you eventually develop a repertoire of answers.  I don’t know if these ever satisfied him, but I do hope they satisfy those willing to listen:

There are the Big Picture Reasons:

  • First off, dinosaurs are just so damn cool.  Those who need convincing haven’t been paying much attention to the plethora of amazing discoveries that have continued at an ever-accelerating pace since the late 1800s.
  • Dinosaurs put our place in the world into perspective – this is not a world meant for us, but one we have had the happy fortune to inherit from previous generations of life.
  • Dinosaurs were the most successful group of terrestrial vertebrates the world has seen … and they are still among us as beautiful, feathered treasures.  Oh, birds are not dinosaurs?  Like the Honey Badger, the data don’t care … and the support for birds as dinosaurs is as overwhelming as the data for humans as mammals.

And then there are the Practical Reasons:

  • Dinosaurs are the perfect ambassadors for science – they bring scientific concepts and the nature of science to children and the public like nothing else I know.
  • While the doctors and veterinarians of the world are busy saving those people and pets you love, the vertebrate paleontologists are in the trenches at the universities and colleges, teaching the next group of practitioners their anatomy.  That’s right – most vertebrate paleontologists are excellent anatomists.  A certain Larry Witmer comes to mind …
  • Want to understand why vertebrate anatomy is the way it is?  Ask a vertebrate paleontologist – we have to know all that embryology and evolution stuff to inform our research and to blow your mind. =)  The bottom line has always been the anatomy is the result of embryology and evolution … who better to teach that we dinosaur-o-philes?  And so that I’m being fair – all vertebrate paleontologists are this excellent, not just the dinosaur ones!

Yes, you say, but we’ve heard these platitudes before.  You spoke of hope … where is that?  If dinosaurs have taught me nothing else, it is an appreciation for human life.  As successful as dinosaurs were, their Encephalization Quotient (their EQ, or brain size) was never too generous.  We mammals, on the other hand, have had the evolutionary fortune of inheriting a rather different brain with a typically much higher EQ.  To be fair, the birdy dinosaurs around us have enlarged brains compared to their predecessors.

Why is EQ size a reason for hope?  Well, EQ by itself is not, but it is what we Homo sapiens do with it that is.  I am no anthropologist, but speaking in general terms, here are two things one can say about humans that cannot, so far as I know, be applied to other vertebrate animals:

  1. We can both anticipate the future and act on it.
  2. We can use imagination to bring positive things into concrete existence.

For all of their significance and success, the non-avian dinosaurs could not have anticipated their demise, nor could they have done anything to act on it.  Apart from ancient aliens imbuing dinosaurs with a sense of imagination (I can imagine a particular channel of history losing all its credibility), these mighty animals could not have brought forth everything from medicine to concepts of social justice.  As a species, we are certainly still working on a lot and have a long, long way to go, but have you ever stopped to think of how unbelievably special and unique it is that we can act on knowledge and create our future?

So this holiday season, and throughout the year, I hope you may reflect on the fact that whereas for non-avian dinosaurs history’s lessons were inaccessible, they are very much an open book for us.  If we can anticipate what the future will bring, we can act on it.  If we decide to put our imagination to good use, we can create positive change in the world.

The non-avian dinosaurs could not learn from their past, but perhaps we can learn from them … and from our own ancestors.

“So have a toast and down the cup, and drink to bones that turn to dust.” — Oingo Boingo (Danny Elfman’s rock band)

Danny Elfman, creator of the Simpson’s Theme Song, can’t be wrong …

References

Fastovsky, D. and Weishampel, D. 2009. Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History. Cambridge University Press. 379 pp.