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by Conrad F. Goeringer

We’ve survived Y2K and News Year’s Eve 2000 -- and people are still wondering how it all began, and whether disaster lurks just town the temporal highway...

We are seduced, captivated and enchanted by all things dinosaur. We devour their imagery and history, whether in lavishly illustrated books, Saturday morning cartoons, or -- with all of their terrific immensity and power -- on television programs and movies. Toy Velociraptor Youngsters love the playfulness of Barney, but they also stare (often like their adult guardians!) overwhelmed and entranced at “Jurassic Park” or the skeletal images mounted in museum exhibits, or the growing number of documentary offerings. “Tyrannosaurus Sue” is just the latest example of our romance with these extinct creatures. The fossil is one of the most significant discoveries in the history of paleontology, since so much of the beast’s skeletal remains were found intact. The remains were first sighted by a free-lance fossil enthusiast, Sue Hendrickson, who discovered them in the hills of South Dakota. Sue’s fate -- the sex of the dinosaur remains undetermined, but the moniker has stuck -- reads like an adventure novel. After years of careful reconstruction, and a prolonged legal skirmish over who rightfully owned the remains, Sue ended up with a permanent home at the Field Museum in Chicago, gratis a partnership between the museum and other cultural icons, McDonalds and Disney. Sue, once a carnivore in her own world, is now bait and lure in a consumption battle millions of years later for attracting worshippers, and selling everything from Big Macs to movie tickets.

Our cultural armour with dinosaurs seems to be no mere fad. Remember the hula hoop, beanie babies and disco? Dare one even suggest that Harry Potter books may someday find their way into thrift shops and used book stores? It will happen, but dinosaurs seem to be in the process of cultural beatification, elevated to the lofty status of a postmodernist icon. Why is this so?

Since “Jurassic Park,” dinosaurs have become even bigger. Museums, once dusty cathedrals for the enthronement of skeletal remains (complimented by stodgy, if cautiously presented dioramas with scratch narration at the hit of a button) have had to go high tech. Today’s public, especially youngsters, demand dinosaur exhibitions with IMAX films, moving models and full-sized recreations. The 1950s fare of a water buffalo standing in a swamp, or some misty scene populated with an occasion Brachiosaurus has given way to enormous murals of a menacing T-Rex. We can even hear the dinosaurs, or at least what the best paleontologists tell us they probably sounded like, based on evidence from skulls and other fossil record. We devour speculation about dinosaur family life, their gender wars and interactions with others in their species. There are suggestions that in the distant world of the dinosaurs, for instance, it was the female T-Rex that was larger and more belligerent than her male counterpart. In the Discovery Channel special, “Walking With Dinosaurs,” the smaller male kills an aging Torosaurus as a mating offering for a more physically imposing female T-Rex. After a brief series of couplings, the male is “edgy” and she looses interest, and eventually chases off the successful (if ephemeral) suitor.

The movie and book versions of “Walking With Dinosaurs” are a quantum leap even beyond the realism of “Jurassic Park.” They exist a hyperrealistic presentation, melding “real” locations with computer generated, state-of-the-art depictions of Dilodocus, Allosaurus and the other denizens of the dinosaur era. They are more real than real, comparable to the space imagery from “STAR WARS” than, to a generation nurtured by visual media, seems more authentic and substantial than grainy pictures streamed from the space shuttle, or mounted on the NASA web site.

The semi-fictional worlds of “Jurassic Park” and “Walking With Dinosaurs” are far beyond the 1950s cinematic art form of stop-motion animation pioneered with elegant beauty by Ray Harryhousen; but they are still highly speculative. Everything we know about that era and its denizens is extrapolated, literally, from fossil remains -- not even the “real” bones. Skeletal structure -- the size of a pelvis or cranial cavity, the measurement and shape of teeth -- provides clues which serve as the foundation for a small mountain of conjecture. Even so, scientists continue to debate the most basic of assumptions, such as whether the dinosaurs were cold or hot blooded. The reasoning of paleontologists is a delicate and demanding process, one that yields insight into how real science works. The fact that these creatures did exist, and when they existed, is established; the details -- what colors did they sport, what nesting habits, if any did they exhibit? -- still await resolution.

All of which begs the questions, though. There is the science of dinosaurs, then there is their social construction. In other words, why are we so captivated by them? Why do we employ certain language and narratives when describing them? Why is there such a dizzying and varied array of presentation of Dinosaurs in popoular culture, drafting them as promotional items for gasoline -- one thinks of Dino, the Sinclair Oil icon -- and miniature golf courses. These descriptions may often suggest more about us, as humanoids lurking on the cusp of a new millennium, than any group of Terrible Lizards that ever walked the face of the planet. We have “constructed” dinosaurs in modern legends far beyond what any paleontologist would dare venture; we have lifted dinosaurs out their Mesozoic era time frame, and incorporated them into our era as symbols, icons and metaphors about -- what else? -- us!
There is the hubris narrative, for instance, that reminds us that we, like the dinosaurs, are transitory and ephemeral creatures. “Thy ruled their earth for tens of millions of years, kings of their domains atop a bloody and violent food chain, only to vanish through natural disaster in the wink of an eye...” We may be talking about ourselves, Homo Sapiens, as well here. We “rule” the planet in our time, presumably “taming” a wild natural environment and subordinating all to our will.

We project back in time and on to the dinosaurs these descriptive monikers. It is unlikely that Terrible Lizards “thought” of themselves as king, emperors or rulers. These are, after all, human devices and require a degree of self awareness and descriptive talent which dinosaurs likely did not possess. By instinct and perhaps some training, they ate, migrated, reproduced and did whatever else was required for the basics of survival.

We have thus constructed a dinosaur story or narrative which we constantly embellish using the minutiae of paleontological evidence. We debate, for instance, not only the possible physical characteristics of the dinosaurs (how big? how fast? how much did they eat?) but their likely behaviors, drawing parallels with ourselves. Perhaps there is a degree of comfort in knowing that dinosaurs “nested,” and flocked and that even the most predatory of them, the T-Rex, was a bit closer to us since she may have “nourished” her offspring.


Dinosaurs have become a friendly reminder that humans, too, despite ruling the earth (or at least having the veneer of doing so) may occupy a similarly precarious niche in the greater scheme of things. We, like the Terrible Lizards, may find ourselves in the debit column of the existential accounting, downsized and fired from our tenured posts on planet earth.

Before December 31, 2020 it was easy to dismiss this sort of talk as so much fin de siecle blues, the jitters that writers like Hillel Schwartz (1) and Stjepan Mestrovic (2) say accompany the calendric roll over from one century to another. Certainly our contemporary piquancy about AIDS, Fatima and the Virgin Mary, and, yes, the extinction jitters -- huge asteroids smashing into our earth, or terrible killer viruses unleashed from secret laboratories -- all have their parallels in the late 19th and early 20th century concerns with similar themes. Emerson, perhaps a few decades ahead of his time, lamented the “godless, materialized” attitudes of urban denizens.

“There is faith in chemistry, in meat, and wine, in wealth, in machinery, in the steam engine, galvanic battery, turbine wheels, sewing machines, and in public opinion, but not in divine causes,” he lamented.

Mestrovic says that Europeans, especially the French sensed in their fin de siecle events and theme remarkably similar to own. “Syphilis, wars, political scandals, economic catastrophes, the increase in rates of mental illness, suicide, smoking, and drug abuse concerned them. They read in their newspapers about Satanism, devil worship, and the spread of the occult, and of course, our media is saturated with similar reports.”

And more: Mestrovic observes, “They started talking about the rise of homosexuality -- lesbianism became almost a fad. Sado-masochism was much discussed, and they wrote much about the rise of immorality in the family, in sexual relations, and the general style of life...”

All of this predated the admonitions and apocalyptic warnings of our modern televangelists who fixate on similar themes. Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” is a potpourri of cautions and near-predictions about rampaging storms, volcanoes, twisters and other mayhem -- the “signs and warnings” that a Biblical chronology is ticking away, and that we have entered the End of Days period where the returning Jesus is lurking just around the corner. (Not too far from the sentiment of the bumper sticker which declares, “God Is Returning Soon And She Is Really Pissed!”) Robertson’s novel, “End of the Age,” included disaster themes-’a-plenty beginning with a giant asteroid impact (a weak sister of the Chicxulub catastrophe that may have helped killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago?) As a literary work, Robertson’s opus was panned by mainstream reviewers, but he had managed to fuse scientific speculations with his premillenialist religious beliefs -- no tawdry feat!

“Jurassic Park” and its sequel may have dispensed with religious trappings, but voiced similar anxieties and cautions about these same anxious themes. The dinosaurs are creations of white-coated laboratory scientists playing fast-and-loose with the genetic code. Are they appropriating the natural world or Emerson, or perhaps even the sacred world of the Creator? Dig deeper into the thematic message, and we can appreciate the fact pointed out by W.J.T. Mitchell, that the menacing Velociraptors are females (3). The “feminization” of dinosaur imagery -- and T-Rex Sue is the most compelling and recent example -- suggests deeper issues are at work here involving gender and the status of females, empowerment, and the tension between patriarchal tradition and “uppity women” threatening, like the parthanogenic raptors, the whole sexual and cultural order of things. Not only are these “Jurassic Park” reptilian terrorists the profane results of “tampering with God’s kingdom,” they procreate without the need for males on any level. They have full control of their biology, having escaped the confines of scientific management, and are free to do as they choose sans male control. They are, in a sense, symbolic icons in the ultimate Promise Keepers nightmare.


It is difficult to ignore the synchronicity of two events linking dinosaurs -- or, rather, our curiosity about them -- with the notion of extinction, and the latter being closely fused with the concept of evolution.

The word “dinosaur” was coined in 1842 by Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892), anatomist and superintendent of the British Museum, who combined Greek words deinos, meaning “terrible” or “marvelous” with sauros, “lizard.” He distinguished dinosaurs from their reptilian relatives by noting the vertebrate structures, including the pelvis and hipbones. Dinosaur imagery and references go further back, though, and some have suggested that the 5th century b.c.e. Greek historian Heroduotus may have been referring to these terrible lizards in his description of griffins -- legendary beasts that were part eagle and lion.

In Owen’s time, though, another discovery bears equally on our story. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) helped to outline the skeletal structure not of dinosaurs, but a theory which sought to explain the evolution of all forms of life through a gradual process of natural selection. After matriculating at Cambridge, Darwin in 1831 departed on a British survey ship, HMS Beagle as on-board naturalist. Five years later, he returned and set down his observations in Notebooks on the Transmutation of Species. His developed theory of evolution was announced in 1858 in a paper coincident with another penned by Alfred Russell Wallace. In 1859, Darwin’s classic On the Origin of Species, “the book that shook the world,” appeared... and the rest is, indeed, history.

At this point in human history, the bulk of the scientific community was beginning to critically examine, and in most cases reject, the notion of a “young Earth.” Churchmen such as Bishop James Ussher (1581-1656) had accepted a literal interpretation of the Bible, and with it the carefully delineated chronological time line which began in Genesis and presumably ended in John’s Book of Revelation (4). Genesis and Revelation were the metaphorical bookends defining the whole and entirety of human history. In the intervening pages was the history of the church, and the successive generations from Adam and his progeny, a long but comprehensible list of “begets” through the centuries -- all 60 or so of them, according to Ussher. It was, under this scheme, possible to calculate with exquisite if questionable detail, precisely when the The Word became real, and when the frightening events of the Apocalypse would unfold.

There was comfort and predictability in all of this. How different Ussher’s scheme was (and how different the whole Judeo Christian linear view of history) from the pagan sensibilities of time! The latter often perceived time as infinite, repetitive, cyclical, the Ouroborus consuming itself, an endless loop punctuated perhaps in some religious systems by occasional creations, destruction’s and recreations (5). Not so, said the Hebrews and later the Church Fathers of Christianity. Time was finite and short; more important, it had a purpose, a direction. Time was that which framed the sequence of events beginning with the Creation of the world, the fall of man, and the other dramatic events of the Old and New Testament.

Darwin’s theories as well as the findings of other physical scientists required a more expansive sense of time, though. A few housands of years meant little, especially to uniformitarians who saw geological processes occurring over long eons. Ussher’s chronology was far too brief to explain anything substantial, whether the gradual evolution of Darwin’s creatures or the formation of sedimentary layers unearthed in an extinct ocean. Deep time was required here -- millions, then tens of millions, then hundreds of millions of years. Equally important was the demand that any explanation concerning life and the universe had to be made from the perspective of scientific method, not the religious doctrines of Ussher and others. Some Christians recast Genesis and Revelation, treating the Biblical accounts as coded, symbolic narratives rather than literal history. Others, the “creationists,” set about the laborious task of trying to reconcile the evidence of geology, paleontology and astronomy with the Procrustean requirements of Ussher and other “young earth” believers.

Dinosaurs emerged as perhaps the most evocative symbols of this deep time. They existed long before human observers, their remains laid down in ancient riverbeds, or beneath layers of deposits including iridium, that crucial evidence that their demise was somehow tied to the arrival of an enormous asteroid tens of millions of years ago. We can only smile as modern-day creationists attempt to fit whole communities of “Terrible Lizards” on to Noah’s ark, or suggest that dinosaurs and human beings both coexisted on earth only a few hundred or so centuries ago. That is the stuff of Biblical fundamentalism, Conan Doyle’s “Lost World,” and, of course, “Jurassic Park.” In the Paluxy River Valley, near Glen Rose, Texas dinosaur footprints were found in the early twentieth century. Some Biblical creationists have claimed to also discovered “giant man tracks,” large elongate footprints which they say confirms the literal Genesis account and proves that dinosaurs and humans coexited. There is even a nearby creationist museum. (6)

Percival Lowell
Another name deserves mention here, not so much on account of dinosaurs, but because of evolution and deep time. Percival Lowell (1855-1916) came from a family of Boston Brahmins which included poetess Amy Lowell and a slew of Russells, Putnams and Cabots, and went down in history as the popularizer of the so-called “canal theory” of Mars (7). True to his patrician roots, Lowell went Ivy League and then embarked on The Grand Tour writing memoirs of his travels in books like “Choson -- The Land of the Morning Calm” (1885), “Soul of the Far East” (1888), “Noto” (1891) and “Occult Japan”(1895). He excelled at mathematics and developed a passionate interest in astronomy, which may account for his subsequent lack of interest in commercial business.

Lowell was also interested in a debate played out not only in scientific circles but the popular press. Was there life elsewhere in the universe, possibly on the planets of our own solar system? It was a legitimate question, and one certainly raised by the work of men like Charles Darwin which suggested natural underpinnings for the origin of life forms. If living creatures could manage to arise out of a primordial soup, living in a range of seemingly inhospitable climates and times here on our Earth, why not elsewhere? Copernicus and Galileo had wrought a revolution in thought over how the solar system operated, dethroning Earth -- and with it, humankind -- from the center of the universe. Darwin, it was suggested, went a step further, placing human beings and animals on a level field. We were all the products of powerful and persistent natural evolutionary forces. If not here, why not there?

Lowell was particularly interested in the work of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) who had discovered the major asteroid Hesperia in 1861, and demonstrated that swarms of meteor (which often fall into our atmosphere as “shooting stars”) travel in cometary orbits. In 1877, Schiaparelli announced that he had seen markings on the planet Mars that he described as “canali” or “channels.” This naturally gave rise to speculation that these were non-random structures, the result of intelligent life. Not all astronomers agreed, and many suggested that the “canals” or lines were optical artifacts and wishful thinking. Others, including Lowell, insisted that, indeed, they saw a web of intersecting lines on the Martian surface.

Lowell typified the end of a period in history when “gentlemen scientists” dug up fossils, experimented with plants, and observed the heavens in their private observatories, or funded the work of others. The gap between professional and amateur was widening. Lowell managed to straddle both worlds, though, and in 1893-94 constructed an impressive observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona in part to satiate his curiosity about Mars (8). The following year, the first in a series of speculative books about the Red Planet and related topics appeared, Mars (1895) followed by The Solar System (1903), Mars and Its Canals (1906), Mars As the Abode of Life (1908), The Evolution of Worlds (1909) and The Genesis of the Planets (1916).

They were masterpieces of systematic logic, betraying Lowell’s extensive talents as both a Renaissance person and a scientific generalist. The reasoning is thoughtful, logical, tenacious and exacting; reading the Mars series even today, one cannot help but occasionally wonder: how could he have been wrong?

Lowell hypothesized that the “canals” were real, and served the purpose of transporting water from Mars’ polar caps across the surface to its temperate zones. Canals seemed to appear, darken and become engorged with the seasons -- an agricultural cycle? Where they intersected were larger patches of similar dark markings. Were these the remnants of Martian cities, the last redoubt for a titanic race of genius engineers living on a dying planet whose water was running out? The theory possessed a certain thematic symmetry and internal logic -- if the canals really existed...

Mainstream astronomers rejected Lowell’s speculations, though, and questioned whether he (and others) were really seeing canals, or were simply the victims of optical illusions. History supports the latter, and suggests that Schiaparelli, Lowell and other “canal” theorists were connecting indistinct surface markings in their minds, imagining a web (and web makers!) where none really existed. Lowell rejected these arguments, of course, arguing that his telescope and observatory possessed superior observing conditions, that other astronomers failed to see the canals because they simply lacked such serendipitous and favorable circumstances. Dreams and speculation of Martian canals -- and with it, perhaps a dying or lost civilization -- lived on after Lowell’s death. A popular 1956 children’s book, “Exploring Mars” (Roy Gallant, illustrations by Lowell Hess, Garden City Books, N.Y.) displays a map of the Martian surface covered with channels. Even the naming -- “Mare Acidalium,” “Arcadia,” “Utopia” -- suggests a romantic Marscape and civilization. The dream was finally put to rest by a series of space probes beginning in the late 1960s which showed Mars a world battered by meteoric impact with no grand “canals” or other artificial structures. True to Darwin, some form of microbial or other primitive life on Mars may have evolved and could even now be stubbornly occupying niches beneath the surface; it certainly does on earth, from arctic terrain to sulfurous “black smokers” in the depths of the ocean. Lowell’s Martian civilization, the result of eons of evolutionary processes at work on the Red Planet, is likely wishful thinking.

For his time, though, Lowell took full advantage of the latest scientific findings. In Evolution of Worlds, he discussed the orbital inclinations of planets noting “we have every angle of departure from orthodox platitude to uncomforming uprightness,” adding, “This point, that heavenly bodies, like terrestrial ones, show all possible grades of indistinction, is kin to that specific generation by which Darwin revolutionized zoology a generation ago. It is as fundamental to planets as to plants...”

Further on, he contrasts Darwin’s treatment of evolution and the theories of the French astronomer and mathematician Pierre LaPlace.

In Mars As the Abode of Life, Lowell continued his examination of geological epochs on earth -- truly, a sense of “deep time” -- attempting to tie together the evolution of everything from planets to life.

Lowell’s Martians reflected the predominant ideological ethos of his time. What sort of civilization would, or could, embark on such a titanic engineering project, one that dwarfed the scale of deLessep’s Suez canal, or the later Panama channel? “Quite possibly, such Martian folk are possessed of inventions of which we have not dreamed, and with them electrophones and kinetoscopes are things of a bygone past, preserved with veneration in museums as relics of the clumsy contrivances of the simply childhood of the race,” he mused.

What else might be said of the Martians? In retrospect, Lowell and Schiaparelli may have commented more on their own times and perceptions than the state of any genuine Martian civilization. For the Italian astronomer living in the cauldron of European revolutionary movements, the Martians had established “a collective socialism (which) would appear very likely to have resulted from one community of interests and one universal solidarity among the citizens, a true phalanx which could be considered a socialist paradise...” Not so with Lowell, however; his Martians were ruled “by an oligarchy of the elite,” writes astronomical historian William Sheehan. These alien denizens are locked in a vicious struggle for survival on a planet running dangerously out of resources, particularly water. Lowell wrote of the “strength phenomenal” of this Martian race, “more godlike than any Grecian god/ Who ever on Olympus trod.”

This Martian scenario, a despotic but advanced elite struggling against its inevitable demise, resonated neatly with some interpretations of Darwin’s work, especially those of the British social philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). Spencer embraced Darwin’s theories on natural selection, and then attempting to apply this same model to human social behavior. Natural selection held that the most well-adapted survive and reproduce, thus allowing over an extended period of time a population to operate successfully within a given environment. Spencer suggested the “survival of the fittest” to describe this dynamic within the human population; human advancement was best facilitated, he claimed, by permitting unfettered competition.

Although Spencer was a philosophical individualist, his theories were used to justify a number of racist and authoritarian political ideologies, as well as what some considered the excesses of capitalism and industrial society. While Spencer viewed society and human progress in strictly material, non-Divine terms, clergy such as the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) took up the banner of social Darwinism, seeing it as a vindication of Christian belief. Referring to the robber barons of his time, Beecher declared, “We need all the Jay Cookes we have and a thousand more. God has need of rich Christians.” Patricians and the financial aristocracy were made by a Spencerian god “and He assigns particular duties to them.”

“Generally the proposition is true,” said Beecher, “that where you find the most religion there you find the most worldly prosperity.”

Describing himself as a “cordial Christian Darwinist,” Beecher added, “no man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault -- unless it be his sin.” (9)

“It is said that a dollar day is not enough for a wife and five or six children,” Beecher wrote in the Christian Union magazine during the nationwide rail strike of 1877. “No, not if the man smokes or drinks beer. It is not enough to enable them to live as perhaps they would have the right to live in prosperous times. But is not a dollar a day enough to buy bread with? Water costs nothing; and a man who cannot live on bread is not fit to live...”

Generalized interpretations of “survival of the fittest” subsequently came to be used as a rationale for disparate political ideologies and agendas, from the racist theories of fascism and national socialism to the brutality of Stalin’s purges and bloodyclass warfare. (Were not the bourgeoisie, kulaks and other counter-revolutionaries a spent species on the grand stage of historical determinism?)

Darwin’s theory of evolution, and its application to human interaction by Spencer and others, though, promoted wide discussion over the question of human origins and destiny. Fundamentalist retreated into a literal defense of the Bible (taking with them Ussher’s cumbersome chronology) with awkward results. Others, like Lowell, found confirmation of Darwin’s system not only on Earth, but in the heavens. Mars, he declared, was an older planet than ours, its inhabitants in the last stages of their war to tame a hostile environment. Humans here would follow a similar path, all as part of the war to survive.

Ironically, there is a small but lively and growing movement that looks to Mars as the future home of Homo sapiens, and our refuge if catastrophic events -- say, another asteroid impact like the one which probably wiped out Sue and her relatives 65 million years ago -- head our way. American colonists, and later the frontier explorers often described the North American continent in millenialist terms -- a paradise, a fresh start unblighted by the sins and troubles of Europe, a New Jerusalem. In many ways, it is Lowell’s Mars -- one populated by an intelligent species (us) using advanced technology to tame a distant wilderness, turn deserts green, in other words, to survive. Groups like Robert Zubrin’s Mars Society speak of the Red Planet in such frontier terms. It is a frontier; Mars or Bust (forget California!) reads a button on one Mars Society conventioneer observed by writer Joel Achenbach in his new book “Captured by Aliens.” (10) Mars enthusiasts speak of a kind of interplanetary Manifest Destiny for the human race. For some, it is a Spencerian spin-off from the halcyon days of 19th century grand Imperialism, when the European powers threw their own web across this planet, building not just canals (Suez and the attempt at the Panama Isthmus) in pale imitation of Lowell’s Martians, but launching fleets and armies to subjugate client states. Others, though, seem caught up in the intoxication of possibilities. Why not terraform an entire planet, if it can be done? Why bother with the cautious, even timid NASA approach to space exploration? One conference speaker suggested that we need to take more chances in order to colonize space. There is even a touch of populism here, with Zubrin talking about the need to have poets and musicians heading into space along with the scientists.

For some, Mars has become the insurance policy against extinction on earth. Build a viable presence on the Red Planet, become the technologically savvy Martians Lowell and Schiaparelli dreamed of, and the prospects of human extinction drop precipitously. Earth may someday be hit by a mile-wide asteroid bringing nuclear winter and extinction in its aftermath, but so what? The Martians will survive, and the human story -- or so the story goes -- will go on.

So, here we are on the hump between two centuries and two millennia. We made it through the angst of the end of the century, solved the Y2-K problem, and seem to have avoided (for now, anyway) the predicted killer asteroids, rise of the Antichrist and the prospect of Final Judgment. We’re somewhere at the beginning of what we count as the 21st century, but cannot seem to stop looking in the rear view mirror. We have developed a national curiosity with our own genealogy; the Mormon Church, with its vast ancestral database, is on line, and people appear more determined than ever to trace their predecessors as far back as possible. Ancestry, knowing one’s roots provides many with a sense of grounding and anchoring. Like the geneology of Genesis, this is time we can comprehend, get our arms around so to speak. It tells us of our place in the linear scheme of things. We go back even farther, though, to a time before humans, when Sue and her relatives ruled the earth, and we look for parallels with ourselves.

Dino-mania, then, the cultural romance with dinosaurs and all things dinosaur, is inextricably linked to our concerns about origins and extinction. Is it any coincidence that interest in dinosaurs come at a time when the majority of Americans think that creationism belongs in schools, that divine agency -- and not the “deep time” processes of evolution -- gave rise to us and the world as we know it? These two sensibilities (one a scientific fact, the other a mythic belief) seem to coexist in a contrapuntal, uneasy alliance.

T-Rex Sue epitomizes so much about ourselves and our history, and our future, that we feel a kindred spirit lurking within those fossilized remains. “Dinosaur” describes a bevy of things and processes in our world, from cumbersome, archaic political regimes and their leaders to unsavvy corporate practices and obstacles to progress. We have “tamed” the dinosaur in a sense; there is the popular belief that dinosaurs are the source of oil, that substance our world runs on and fights over. These Terrible Lizards died so we might live ... and drive. They are icons of strength and terrifying power and menace, but also reminders -- like the human skulls Victorians often displayed on their book shelves -- of the passing of time and hubris. We too will someday follow their footsteps down the path of extinction.

An alien archaeologist rummages through the debris of an abandoned human civilization -- say, New York City or Chicago -- in some distant future might unearth an exhibit of these creatures, and conclude that t dinosaurs, “Terrible Lizards,” were possibly objects of reverential veneration, worship, and certainly curiosity. Humans erected pedestals and grand halls to display, and likely offered homage to these extraordinary creatures. Were they gods, deities like the biped found in similar temples, hanging from two pieces of crossed wood? Were they beings that ruled the world and then, like the bipeds, disappeared? The alien scientist wonders. He (for lack of a more accurate gender identification) suspects that the dinosaurs roamed the planet far, far earlier than the bipeds who found them so compelling and seductive. He wonders if the people who built these cities saw in the dinosaurs something about themselves, and their own tenuous relationship with the universe around them. He would likely be right...



(1) See Hillel Schwartz, Century’s End, An Orientation Manual Toward the Yeart 2000 (N.Y., Doubleday, 1990) [back]

(2) Stjepan G. Mestrovic, The Coming Fin De Siecle, (London, Routledge, 1991) [back]

(3) W.J.T. Mitchell, The Last Dinosaur Book, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1998) [back]

(4) For more on ussher’s chronology, see Stephen Jay Gould, Questioning the Millennium, A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown, (New York, Harmony, 1997). [back]

(5) See Paul Halpern, Time Journeys, A Search For Cosmic Destiny and Meaning (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1990) [back]

(6) An informative account of the “Man Tracks” controversy may be found on line written by Glen J. Kuban: On the Heels of Dinosaurs. [back]

(7) See Biography of Percival Lowell by A. Lawrence Lowell (New York, MacMillan, 1935). Informative background on the canal controversy may be found in Planets & Perception, Telescopic Views and Interpretations, 1609-1090 by William Sheehan (Tucson, University of Arizona Press, 1988) [back]

(8) For more on Lowell’s activities in astronomy, see William Lowell Putnam, The Explorers of Mars Hill, (Maine, Phoenix Publishing, 1994) [back]

(9) See E. Digby Baltzell, The Protestant Establishment, Aristocracy & Caste in America (New York, Random House, 1964) [back]

(10) For a write-up on the Mars Society, see the segment by Joel Achenbach, Captured By Aliens in Astronomy Magazine, July, 2000 issue. [back]

Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 by American Atheists.