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Dinosaurs as a Cultural Phenomenon

Keith Thomson


Granting the extraordinary marketing and publicity that surrounds dinosaurs , it remains true that unless they were fundamentally interesting, such efforts would surely have fizzled out by now. Part of the reason for their hold on our collective imagination may be that, of all extinct organisms, dinosaurs are the most paradoxical. On the one hand, dinosaurs were long believed to be clumsy and slow. They are extinct (with the exception of the bird lineage) and ought to be symbolic of failure. On the other hand, some (but not all) were big, strong and ferocious. As the largest-ever land animals, they symbolize power. The Sinclair Oil Company used a dinosaur as its logo. Compared with living behemoths such as elephants, rhinos or hippos, we mostly experience dinosaurs through reconstructions that are quite static. And until the advent of modern animation and computer-enabled reconstruction, dynamic representations of dinosaurs were far clumsier than the originals could ever have been; many (like the original Godzilla) were simply laughable. To see past these often inadequate depictions requires imagination.

As an old museum guard once told me, the secret of the fascination of dinosaurs, especially for the young, is that "they are half real and half not-real." The resulting tension gives them a particularly exotic nature. In the mind of a child, they are half dangerous and half safe, half scary monster and half special pal. They are powerfully strong but cannot reach us. They are in many ways familiar and near, and yet also very far away in time and totally foreign to our experience. Other extinct creatures, whether ammonites, trilobites, flying reptiles or mammoths, similarly fascinate us with their strangeness and antiquity, but they lack the same emotional connection.

Unlike a child's conception of the "real" world, which includes human and near-human monsters and living creatures like snakes and bugs, the world of dinosaurs can be wholly controlled in the imagination. With control comes power, which is wonderfully reinforced as children master (at surprisingly young ages) the special vocabulary of dinosaurs. The lexicon of dinosaur names is a closed world to parents (or they pretend it is) and therefore becomes a private world for the child. Some names—Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Iguanodon or Apatosaurus (children know it is no longer Brontosaurus)—roll off the tongue. Others, such as Eustreptospondylus, Archaeopteryx or Pachycephalosaurus are almost tongue twisters, but that is no barrier to a determined two-, three- or four-year-old. Surely this precocious, polysyllabic facility is an invaluable boon to cognitive development.

At a time when science (and especially evolutionary science) is not as fashionable or well taught as it used to be, paleontology is one of the most accessible sciences for children as well as adults. It does not require the mastery of arcane mathematics or bafflingly complex genomics, and discoveries in paleontology are usually identified with, and explained in public by, someone who speaks in layman's terms. Any amateur can have an informed opinion about mass extinctions, asteroid impacts and the age of the Earth. Paleontology, and especially dinosaur paleontology, is the single most accessible aspect of (embodiment of) the concept of evolution. This leaves us with one last question: What will we do if dinosaurs ever lose their appeal?

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