What Do Dinosaurs Mean?

Last year around Christmas I received The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs after reading Steve Brusatte’s admittedly accessible The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs and wanting more. The former seemed like a book about dinosaurs with illustrations that might be for adults. The latter, Brusatte’s book, is a generally engaging narrative with repeated shout-outs to figures in the world of paleontology that he knows and loves. This year I borrowed Mark Norell’s The World of Dinosaurs, which I partially wish I would have purchased, but although it’s an interesting read, it’s not up to the snuff of The Princeton Field Guide.

Norell’s book came to light when reading “What Were Dinosaurs For?” by Verlyn Klinkenborg$ in the NYRB 12/19 issue. Klinkenborg’s essay does all of the things that non-academics hate about academics, particularly in its disdain for some of the liberties of Brusatte’s “admittedly accessible” book.* But primarily he writes one of those incredibly admirable essays that people who write for the NYRB are given the chance to write: an essay speculatively addressing a profound topic that the rigors of academic writing would not normally permit (at least not in a peer-reviewed publication).§

He asks a seemingly incoherent question and then plumbs the possible answers.

Why is “What Were Dinosaurs For?” an incoherent question? Because dinosaurs, being a prehistoric family of organic beings, cannot have a purpose any more than any other organic being, at least in respect of the principles of evolution. Thankfully, Klinkenborg is not writing a jeremiad on how dinosaurs fit into God’s purpose for humans. Nor, sadly, is he revisiting Kant’s objective teleological judgments.

Instead, he’s asking in part about how dinosaurs have changed paleontology and science as our knowledge of dinosaurs has evolved.# For example, what do we mean when we call the age of dinosaurs the “reign of the dinosaurs” (it is on precisely this point that Klinkenborg faults Brusatte and ultimately correctly so).

Reign is used as a metaphor: the dinosaurs did not rule this period although they may have been the dominant animal species, unless we mean to imply (even innocently) that animal species are the highest order of life.

$Prickly though Klinkenborg may (or may not) be, he does not deserve the natural direction of my mind to Tobias Smollett’s farcical The Expeditions of Humphry Clinker (1771), in which, among other things, it’s revealed that the patronym Clinker is a reference to merde.

*Brusatte, it should be pointed out, is doing what any academic who happens to work on dinosaurs probably wants to do, namely, make a little money off of his hard work by writing a popular treatment of the issue. He knows his audience is not other academics (and perhaps relishes that).

§Essays like this are why I read the NYRB and why I continue to insist that it is the only thing worth reading. I do not look down on the academic style of writing, but anyone who writes anything academic knows that most frequently what they have written can—after having gone through all of the details and attention to what others have said on these issues—be focused to a very clear point (please don’t tell anyone—including me—that I wrote this … I will disavow it).

#Evolved is the right word to use because evolution means continual transformation without telos. Evolution does not mean “getting better every day.” But you can see that even evolution bears traces of our most basic historical prejudice (progress).

But if you’re ready to say that, then you are already making judgments about biological life with a certain prejudice towards human being, since we are already calling this period the anthropocene and concomitantly declaiming our abuse of non-human nature.

Actually I’m not 100% on that last point.

But before I get too distracted, let’s get back to the sexy stuff: what do dinosaurs mean to us? How do we fit dinosaurs into our knowledge of ourselves?

At the very least, they should provoke a profound humility: they survived and evolved for nearly 300 million years where humanity has for not even one percent of that. For 300 million years, nature created amazing, majestic beings that we now have only a very partial knowledge of.

Nietzsche’s fable at the beginning of “On Truth and Life in an Extra-moral Sense” seems quite apropos. The irresistible urge towards science and truth had not even made the most infinitesimal appearance—and life didn’t need it.

But the word reign points to another meaning of dinosaurs, namely, their transience. Reigns are so because they know limits. The human reign may be upon the earth, but it too is unlikely to survive. And if it did, if humanity overcame the problems that face it and thrived, and did so for 10 million years, would this still be but a minor chapter in a much longer story? An apostrophe, if you will?

As well, what does it mean for science? Dark matter and dark energy have already dramatically dimished what we could say that know about nature. But do dinosaurs not also indicate the almost insuperable finitude of our knowledge? Just the study of fossils alone shows us repeatedly that our assumptions about even less complex things like biomechanics are frequently wrong—and this is prior to imagining what genetic potentialities exist.