Why Dinosaurs Matter
1 In Defense of Dinosaurs
Albert Einstein was a complete and utter failure. His name should be synonymized with obsolescence. The mere mention of his person should connote a devastating inability to adapt to change. Of course, it’s true that he revolutionized science, invented our current framework for understanding the cosmos, and bent our very perception of space and time. He won the Nobel Prize in 1921, was named Time’s Person of the Century, and was awarded honorary doctoral degrees from Oxford, Princeton, and Harvard Universities. The principles he laid down made possible the development of GPS, digital cameras, smoke detectors, burglar alarms, cell phones, and countless other consumer products. Computers and semiconductors themselves would not be possible were it not for Einstein’s March 1905 paper setting forth his particle theory of light, cracking the bedrock of established doctrine and laying the foundation of modern physics. Just a few months later, Einstein cinched the case for the existence of atoms, silencing the gainsayers on the other side of an age-old debate. Arguably, the modern age, as we know it, would not have come to be or would have been delayed without the accomplishments of Einstein.
Yet where is Einstein now? Dead, that’s where. Despite his stunning intellectual prowess, his ability to completely
disrupt and replace our view of the cosmos, and his heroic achievements that improved the lives of every human to follow, Einstein, in the end, died. A catastrophic event befell this most brilliant and successful man—an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Unable to adapt to the sudden and dramatically changing physiological conditions within his own body, Einstein departed life at age seventy-six, doomed by his inability to overcome the devastating angiological circumstances that led to his demise. Having perished, having succumbed to his own mortality, having vanished from the living Earth, we must now conclude, through the lens of history, that Einstein’s legacy is a cautionary tale about failure to adapt and about eventual obsolescence. He died and was, in his very last moment, unequivocally, a failure.
Preposterous! Ludicrous! Of course. It would be the height of absurdity to conclude that Albert Einstein’s towering accomplishments should in any way be sullied by his own mortality. Despite a lifetime spent blazing trails across the frontiers of human understanding, his last step was the last step we all must take: one final footfall over the threshold of life, into oblivion. Einstein was a great man, but a man nonetheless—a human, a Homo sapiens—every one of which lives for some short while and then dies. It’s what we organisms do. Marie Curie, Benjamin Franklin, and Charles Darwin are no less great because they eventually succumbed to disorder and died. Louie Armstrong will forever remain the founding savant of jazz, even though his horn has fallen silent. Neil Armstrong’s “giant
leap for mankind” will never be walked back. His indelible tracks will endure in the dust of the Moon and in the minds of humans for as long as those vessels persist to bear the trace of his accomplishments. To argue otherwise, as I have done above, is ridiculous in the extreme.
Now that we’ve dispatched the preceding deeply flawed line of reasoning, I’d like to pose a question: Why do we besmirch the legacy of the dinosaurs using the very same foolish argument? Why is the word dinosaur used so often as a pejorative to describe obsolescence? How did dinosaur become an epithet to invoke an inability to adapt to changing conditions? Why are dinosaurs the one group of animals associated most closely with failure?
These slanders against the good name of the dinosaurs are no mere colloquialisms. They are proper English. They have been codified, legitimized, and set to type by the lexicographers of all the major English dictionaries. Crack open the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and you will find that the word dinosaur means “one that is impractically large, out-of-date, or obsolete.”1
Consult the Cambridge Dictionary and learn that a dinosaur is “something that is old and that has not been able to change when conditions have changed and is therefore no longer useful.”2
Heft open the queen mother of all English lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, and you will find definitive proof that dinosaur can be quite properly used to refer to “someone or something that has not adapted to changing circumstances.”3
With such weighty authority against them, it’s no wonder that the legacy of the dinosaurs is so often dragged through the metaphorical mud. I could fill a book with defamatory comparisons to dinosaurs. Here’s a brief sampling: IBM is an “IT Giant Commonly Viewed as a Dinosaur,” the headline read. “Intel: A Dinosaur Headed for Extinction?” pondered an investment site. “Both Major Parties Are Seen as Dinosaurs—Old Institutions That Do Not Fit the Times or Challenges of the Day,”4
opined the Wall Street Journal. To all that, I say humbug! They should all hope to be so lucky.
What CEO wouldn’t daydream lustily about global dominance spanning a geological era? What board chair wouldn’t crave the rapid growth of thousands of successful franchises the way that dinosaur species exploded across the globe, as they conquered continent after continent? What head of R & D wouldn’t revel in the development of unprecedented feats of speed and size and power and versatility? Dinosaurs pushed the envelope of physiological possibility, broke record after record, and were paragons of success by almost any measure.
Considering, as a whole, the breathtaking adaptations of dinosaurs, such as titanic size, devastating power, extravagant plumage, razor-sharp teeth, and bizarre spines, plates, horns, and clubs, the public adoration for these amazing creatures is not surprising. What is surprising is our dichotomous relationship with the concept of dinosaurs. How did these versatile creatures, arguably the most successful group of large
land animals in Earth history, get labeled as the epitome of prehistoric failure?
The most damning misconception about dinosaurs is the idea that their extinction, except for the birds (more on that later), represents their own failure to adapt to changing conditions. Until relatively recently, the idea seemed patently true. If only they weren’t such dim-witted, sluggish, stuck-in-the-mud, ponderous creatures, maybe they could have survived and hung on to the domain that was once theirs. But they weren’t good enough. Not clever enough. Not adaptable, like our own tiny ancestors. And in the end, they couldn’t hack it, and the cream, like it always does, rose to the top. The mammals took over, and here we are, smarty-pants primates, with dominion over the Earth. That was the narrative.
Inculcated for decades with a host of misconceptions, it’s easy to see how the public came to view these noble and spectacularly successful creatures as failures: as the evolutionary equivalent of the VHS tape, the DeLoreans of the Mesozoic Era,5
the Woolworths of the fossil record. Prior to 1980, no one had any idea what had happened to the dinosaurs. They were here for 165 million years, and then—poof!—they were gone, thought to have petered out in a whimper, perhaps, or maybe something more dramatic. Crackpot theories abounded: A dinosaur pandemic killed them. Those sneaky mammals ate all their eggs. If sex determination in dinosaur embryos was temperature dependent (we have no reason to think this), maybe the climate became too cold to have
males or too hot to have females. Their shells got too thin. Caterpillars ate all their food. Maybe the radiation from a supernova got them. Maybe all the fiber-rich plants died out, and they all perished of constipation. Maybe they were just too dumb to live.
If you were born before about 1990, this was the dinosaur narrative of your youth. Dinosaurs were losers, a plotline of extinction by ineptitude drilled into our subconscious by children’s books, television shows, and movies. Walt Disney, in his 1940 animated classic Fantasia, presented the most gorgeously illustrated version of this sad tale. His retelling of natural history was set to Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which has wildness in it, with its crashing rhythms breaking like surf, and unexpected shrieks and wails—the perfect soundtrack to the Darwinian struggle to survive. Beginning with the violent and fiery origin of the Earth, Disney’s version takes us through the emergence of single-celled life, adorable and personable in his hands, and on to the demise of the dinosaurs. The original concept was to continue the story through to human evolution, but Disney scuttled this plan to avoid provoking the ire of creationists.6
Disney’s depiction of Earth history was guided by some of the top minds in 1930s science, including leading paleontologists Roy Chapman Andrews and Barnum Brown, the biologist Julian Huxley, and the astronomer Edwin Hubble. The result was state-of-the-art. Even now, nearly eighty years later, portions of Fantasia, such as the emergence from the
sea of limbed animals and the evolution of flight, seem quite modern. And, of course, the climactic T. rex–Stegosaurus death match is a cinematic classic. (Never mind that T. rex and Stegosaurus were separated by more time than separates you and T. rex.) “Don’t make them cute animal personalities,” Disney cautioned his animators. “They’ve got small brains, y’know; make them real.”7
And real they were. The most realistic dinosaur reconstructions the world had seen. The Rite of Spring scene in Fantasia thrilled audiences. It was the Jurassic Park of its day.
Disney wraps up his natural history with a somber epilogue; a requiem to the demise of the dinosaurs. Climate change, it seems, is at work. We’re led to believe that volcanoes belching gas into the sky have despoiled the Cretaceous8
atmosphere. Plants wither under the blazing orange sun, water evaporates, and the ground becomes parched and dusty. Thirsty dinosaurs in search of water plod stiffly, like zombies, through a hellacious landscape. They paw and nose feebly at a dried-out watering hole, but no water awaits. One by one, they succumb to dehydration and flop morbidly across the cracks of a desiccated lake floor. Unable to adapt to the changing world around them, hampered, perhaps, by their small brains and indolent nature, the dinosaurs perish. Disney leaves the final four saurian protagonists trudging to their doom as a dust cloud envelops them. Pan to the searing sun, set into a baked orange sky, and fade to black. The Cretaceous is over. Although Disney chickened
out on the last chapter, and the scene ends there, the implication is that with the unadaptable dinosaurs dead, a new world awaits our worthy heroes—the mammals.
In this, and in a thousand similar accounts, the dinosaurs of our imagination were tarred with fatal incompetence. There was nothing to learn from prehistory’s biggest losers, except: Don’t be like the dinosaurs. Don’t be a failure. Don’t be incompetent. Don’t be obsolete. And with that, the long history of success enjoyed by the dinosaurs was turned on its head. The descendants of the tiny fuzzballs that huddled in fear in the dark and little-noticed recesses of the dinosaur world had grown up and labeled their former tormentors stupid and irrelevant. The label stuck. But the bum rap, hung about the necks of the dinosaurs, reflects our failure, not theirs. It stems from our long-running inability to decipher the true nature of their extinction.
Geological literacy is new to humanity. Like a child learning to read, we cracked open the rock record and saw to our untrained eyes a confusing jumble of letters and words—alphabet soup carved in stone. By the time dinosaurs were recognized as a group apart from other animals, we could sound out a few words and grasp the major themes of Earth history, but the nuances of our planet’s story were beyond our apprehension. Dinosaurs were here, and then they were gone; we could see that. But the nature of their disappearance remained a total mystery until 1980, when Luis and Walter Alvarez, father and son, presented evidence9
dinosaurs did not fail to thrive, vanishing from the world of their own degeneracy. They were murdered. Snuffed out by a space rock that unleashed hell on earth. It took decades for this idea to catch on, particularly with paleontologists, but most now seem to have finally come around to it.
Dinosaurs, exculpated from blame in their own extinction, should no longer bear the tarnish of failure. Their demise should no more diminish their achievements than Einstein’s death should abate his. They were, and still are, an unqualified success. Their name is clear. They died through no fault of their own. What’s more, we can learn from them. We should learn from them. To do otherwise would be foolish and arrogant.
Dinosaurs are long-lasting champions of resilience and persistence. They reigned unchallenged on the land for the better part of 165 million years. But that’s only if you exclude birds, which are truly dinosaurs. If you include the birds, known now as avian dinosaurs,10
their incredible run has yet to pass and spans the last 231 million years. Not bad. Primates have been around for about 56 million years.11
Our human lineage split from the line leading to chimpanzees only six to seven million years ago.12
Our own species appeared around 200 thousand years ago.13
That’s a rounding error on the Mesozoic timescale.
Perhaps it is fairer to compare all mammals and all dinosaurs (avian and non-avian). Our forebearers, tiny shrew-like creatures with the unlyrical name
morganucodontids, first appeared about 210 million years ago.14
That’s a respectable run across deep time. But by the time of their first appearance, dinosaurs had already walked the Earth for twenty-one million years. If every bird on every continent were to die today, mammals would not surpass the temporal success of the dinosaurs until the year 21,002,017.15
Dinosaurs are ancient and contemporary. The latest chapter of their triumphant reign is being written as you read this. Across the blinding ice sheets of Antarctica, through the cacophonous forests of Amazonia, atop the withering heights of the Himalayas, in oases dotting the Sahara, and in a million other places—including your backyard bird feeder—the exquisite adaptations and enduring persistence of the dinosaurs is on display.
As biologists work to expand their understanding of modern avian dinosaurs, growing ranks of paleontologists are adventuring to the far-flung corners of the globe and uncovering ancient dinosaurs at an ever-increasing pace. From their discovery, in the early nineteenth century, until the mid-twentieth century, the recognition of new dinosaur species was a rare event, only about one per year. By 1990, the rate had climbed to about six per year. By 2006, it was fifteen. In 2016, thirty-one new dinosaur species were described! Every year, we discover that dinosaurs were more widespread, more diverse, and more amazing than we ever dared to imagine.
This treasure trove of information comes to us at an auspicious moment. As we move into an uncertain environmental
future, it has never been more important to understand the past. The lessons written in stone and buried beneath our feet are both profound and urgent. Dinosaurs are more than the charismatic stars of deep time. They are the victors of a ruthless selection process that dealt death to any species that faltered. They are the products of a trillion experiments played out according to the uncharitable rules of evolution, and we have so much to learn from them.
Want to design a system to move heavy loads over rough terrain? Dinosaurs did that. Want to understand mostly passive and efficient cooling systems? Sauropods were experts. If you’re interested in extremes, dinosaurs include the largest creatures ever to walk upon the planet and, also, nearly the smallest. Interested in upcycling, in repurposing technology? Look to the dinosaurs. Feathers, in particular, are a marvelous example of exaptation: the process of acquiring functions for which they were not originally adapted. Looking for the functionally important segments of a protein? A 2011 study, guided by earlier work in molecular paleontology, found that the most crucial regions of the collagen molecule, the most abundant protein in your body, are those that are preferentially preserved in the femur (thighbone) of a Tyrannosaurus rex.16
Want to understand market segmentation and capture? The dinosaurs, from tiny hummingbirds to sixty-five-ton plant eaters, are champions of niche partitioning. Want to explore adaptation? Today avian dinosaurs are the only large creatures to have breeding populations on every continent. Interested in resilience? Avian dinosaurs survived the worst catastrophe in last quarter billion years and today outnumber mammalian species by more than three to one. Since da Vinci, and probably long before, humans have been fascinated with self-powered flight—something that we’ve been unable to substantially achieve. Dinosaurs did this 150 million years ago.
Until now, you might have seen dinosaurs as cool comic-book characters, all gnashing teeth and thundering limbs, celebrated in children’s fantasies and blockbuster movies but otherwise quaintly obsolete. The truth is far different.
Dinosaurs were finely tuned marvels of evolutionary adaptation. Old as they are, they are supremely relevant today. To study them is to be astounded by their physical virtuosity—and to gain valuable insights about endeavors as varied as flight, industrial design, and locomotion.
Hardly the embodiment of obsolescence, more than eighteen thousand species of avian dinosaurs17
flit, trod, and swim about our planet today. To be a dinosaur is to belong to a staggeringly successful group of animals whose reign across time may never be matched by humans or any of our mammalian kin.
Beyond their admirable qualities, dinosaurs resonate with the public in special ways. They embody the past and stand in for the ancient. But why look back, when so many challenges lie ahead? In this book, I will argue that dinosaurs matter because our future matters. Global warming, sea level rise, the catastrophic degradation of our environment, and the heartbreaking and costly biodiversity crisis all loom large on our horizon. People, even paleontologists, are more concerned with the future than with the past. But we don’t have access to the future. We can make no observations of it and can conduct no experiments in it. The future is a dark scrim that races just before us, always obscuring that
which we are about to experience, always concealing how the world will dispose of our dreams and hopes and prayers and desires. As for the present, there’s not much to it. Unstable and fleeting, like the heaviest of elements. A wisp of time separating that which can be from that which has been. The sentence you are reading is already in your past. But the past can be embraced. It’s in the hills, under the oceans. You can hold it. Crack it open. Learn from it. Put it in a museum for all to see. Most importantly, the past is our guide to the future, the only one we will ever have.
When the infamous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked, “Why do you rob banks?” he replied, the story goes, “Because that’s where the money is.” Why study the past? Because that’s where the answers are. If you’re concerned about the multiple, simultaneous existential crises facing humanity, look to the past. No analogies are perfect, and the ancient record does not contain all the answers. But we would ignore it at our peril. Winston Churchill is quoted as having said, “The further back you look, the further ahead you will see.” Only the past provides the broad view that we desperately need to prepare for the future. We can now gaze out upon Earth’s ancient worlds from many vantage points; vistas cut through time for the passage of our imagination. Each view has much to teach us, but no lookout commands the attention and holds the allure of the precipice on which we stand when we view the ancient world of the dinosaurs.