Dinosaurs as a Cultural Phenomenon
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
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?