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by William H. Benson

May 25, 2000


     Human intelligence is naturally fascinated by prehistoric life, especially the dinosaurs, and a child will tell you why.  “They’re big, fierce, and extinct.”  Dinomania peaked in 1993 with the movie “Jurassic Park”, in which Velociraptors, cloned into existence, takeover the park and attack the visitors and zookeepers.

     But Dinomania received a shot in the arm last week when Hollywood released “Dinosaur”, a fantasy, loaded with computer-generated dinosaurs dubbed into virtual reality in scenery shot in Florida, Australia, and Venezuela.  The story revolves around Aladar, a young Iguanodon, raised Tarzan-style by a family of friendly lemurs.  Fantastically, the dinosaurs talk.

     It has only been 150 years since dinosaurs entered into human consciousness when   paleontologists began scientifically cataloguing the fossils–vertebrae, thighs, and skulls.  They identified Stegosaurus with its upright horny plates along its spine, Brachiosaurus with its eighty foot body and long supple neck, and Tyrannosaurus rex with its short forearms and a head and jaws shaped like a bucket on a coal mine crane. 

     Amazed at what they found, they studied more, and the facts gave way to theories.  Slowly the light dawned, and the paleontologists realized that these animals were from “deep time”, not just thousands, but millions of years ago.  The theory holds that the dinosaurs ruled Earth for 150 million years, up until 65 million years ago, at which time they disappeared.

     Often we refer to a failed business or a defeated politician as a “dinosaur”, which is an unfortunate and inappropriate image.  Stephen Jay Gould, Harvard’s paleontologist, argued that “Dinosaurs were among the most successful creatures that ever lived, and any comparison with them should be viewed as a badge of honor.  While they ruled terrestrial environments for 150 million years, the domination of mammals, by contrast has endured only for 65 million.”

     However, with the fascination comes the controversy.  First, were they cold or warm blooded?  Thirty-six years ago in the summer of 1964, John Ostrom first suggested that dinosaurs may have been warm blooded, unlike our modern-day reptiles that are slow-moving, lethargic, and unintelligent.  Ostrom argued that dinosaurs may have been active, capable of running and expending large doses of energy, and even intelligent.  The jury is still out on this question.

     But the biggest controversy centers about Luis Alvarez’s theory that a five kilometer extraterrestrial asteroid slammed into the North Atlantic 65 million years ago completely changing the climate and ultimately wiping out the big animals, especially the dinosaurs.  Even Stephen Jay Gould buys into this theory.  But others argue that there were multiple extinctions during those 150 million years and that a goodly number of differing reasons can explain each one, including the final one.  So we have theories, and each very well may be true.  Perhaps we will never know why they completely disappeared.

    Yes, Brachiosaurus was very “big”, and Tyrannosaurus rex had to have been very “fierce”.  But fortunately for the mammals, such as homo sapiens, they are all “extinct”.  Those are the facts, but then we are forced to turn to theories and novels and movies and even fantasies to understand deeper what those big animals’ lives involved and meant and what kind of a world they inhabited.  Along with astrophysics, dinosaur study is an interaction, or rather a collision, constantly between facts and theory, and human intelligence, sensing the challenge, works hard to sort it all out.  Inevitably and with a measure of danger, human concepts and values overlay the science and the study of dinosaurs.  And then to bring those big and fierce animals, dead for millennium, back to life, Hollywood gives the dinosaurs voice and language and feelings and even meaning.