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In Defense of the Dinosaur

By Melvin Maddocks / April 14, 1980



A paleontologist in Margaret Atwood's new novel, "Life Before Man," muses to herself: "Dinosaurs didn't intend to become extinct; as far as they knew they would live forever."

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Well, why didn't they?

We have all been taught The Answer. The world changed -- became the domain of the warm, the quick, and the mobile. And the dinosaur, a once-glorious giant in armor, went lumbering into obsolescence.

Poor Brontosaurus!m Poor Tyrannosaurus rex!m They couldn't do something called "adapt."

The metaphor of the dinosaur has been held up as a cautionary tale by every futurologist in the business. "Adapt or perish -- like the dinosaur?" So goes the warning to all those who refuse to get with it.

In all this, somehow, extinction is made to seem the dinosaur's fault. The great beady-eyed lummox wasn't paying attention. He had it coming to him. Shape up or be cut from the squad by coach Darwin.

Has anybody noticed, by the way, how macho the rhetoric of the myth of evolution can be? "Survival of the fittest" is a phrase straight out of the prehistoric locker room -- not to mention "tooth and claw."

It si safe to refer to Darwinism as a myth -- everybody seems to be doing it these days, partly because some of the survivors do not, by biological standards , appear to be the fittest. But in the case of the much-maligned dinosaur we now have a very specific revisionist theory.

Dr. Walter Alvarez and a team of scientists from the University of California found layers of clay in limestone formations at Gubbio, Italy, and Stevns Klint, Denmark, that contain 30 to 160 times the usual amounts of iridium -- an element that must be presumed to be of extra-terrestrial origin because the earth's iridium is concentrated at its core. According to the Alvarez theory, an asteroid about 10 kilometers in diameter struck our planet 65-million years ago with the force of 100 megatons of TNT. Rock, pulverized by the collision, filled the stratosphere with dust, blocking sunlight for three to five years. With photosynthesis denied, both land and marine plants turned dormant or died. Could the dinosaur -- a gourmet of green life -- be faulted? The sudden famine gave our hearty salad-eater no time to "adapt."

How this new story changes the reputation of the dinosaur for the better! No more is he the stupid monster -- the dolt of prehistory -- oblivious to nature's heaviest hints.

"Dinosaurs didn't intend to become extinct" -- Miss Atwood's words now contain a respect even she might not have imagined.

It would be pleasant to think the words apply to all creatures, and that true evolution occurs within -- as the secret aspiration of each individual to transcend its type.

Given time, could the self-made dinosaur have pulled itself out of its muddy rut? Andrew Carnegie may have thought so. That self-made man cast models of his own private dinosaur, Diplodocus Carnegiei,m and presented them to the crowned heads of Europe. The old titan of finance was not known to have a taste for losers. Did he, a century ago, see possibilities in the dinosaur that are just becoming apparent?

Given time, would the dinosaur have warmed up, taken to eating nuts instead of leaves, and learned to be agile? Would the lovely old lizard have survived, as Miss ATwood's paleontologist imagines, to "dance stumpily" through the parks of a 20th-century city?

Maybe not. But as a long-time dinosaur romantic, we would insist upon endless development of plot, extending even to the scene imagined by Norma Farber for a mini-dinosaur in her poem "Theory of Flight." Her hero, "the precursor, with his dull unfunctional feathers, claws/horn-sheathed for earthbound stalking," on one eventful day ignored the mockery of his fellow beasts to launch himself ponderously, half striding in air:

He could've burst with the scrape and fumble of being first to try what he'd never in a hundred million years have pinion enough to perfect. . . . Anyway, praise to his take-off from his kind, still cackling in ooze.