Of dinosaurs and men

IT'S a small thing, really: Some scientists say the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago; and some say these massive creatures, weighing thousands of pounds, evolved into birds. You may want to reread that first paragraph a few times. Take your time. These two theories collided recently in a front page article in the New York Times on the discovery of what is purported to be a new genus of dinosaur. A skull unearthed 46 years ago, allegedly mislabeled as belonging to a gorgosaur, is now said to be that of a midsize Tyrannosaurus rex (one-tenth of the size of the luxury model), according to a passel of paleontologists, anyways. They maintain that the skull supports the supposition that the dinosaurs may not have all become extinct, but simply may have evolved into distinct life forms, like canaries.

What if it's true? For starters, there are legions of overpaid, overeducated PhDs out there who owe us a great big apology. We had been led to believe that a giant meteor hitting earth, or some dramatic climatic shift, conspired to wipe out these prehistoric wonders. Scientists reasoned that their very limited fossil record included creatures like the Tyrannosaurus rex but nothing to indicate an evolutionary process. Now, some savants are insisting they have a missing link that proves, if nothing else, that the old assumptions about mass extinction were wrong.

Note that the new theorists did not find their evidence in the ground but at a museum in Cleveland. Why was this ``smoking'' skull mislabeled? Should we heap the blame on Cleveland? No, chalk it up to human nature. Despite limited evidence, paleontologists in 1942 had their minds made up on what happened to the dinosaurs. So as additional skeletal remains were unearthed, they were viewed through the prism of the prevailing prejudice of the time. At least, that's the latest line emanating from the dinosaurs-to-birds boosters.

The idea that a 50-foot-long, six-ton dinosaur could devolve into a tweety bird is intriguing, to put it mildly. For one thing, it should provide new inspiration for dieters everywhere. It also illustrates that no species or individual is beyond changing.

For example, take George Bush. There is now hope he will become his own man sometime in this millennium. The vice-president showed some signs of that just the other day. While President Reagan was saying the following about the battle with Iran, ``They must know that we will protect our ships, and if they threaten us, they'll pay a price,'' Mr. Bush was quoted thus: ``They've got to know that we are going to protect our ships, and if they threaten us, they are going to pay a price.'' The substitution of ``got to'' for ``must'' is evidence of Bush's new independence that some political observers find significant, given his record.

Or how about Michael Dukakis? We may wake up tomorrow and find him evolved into a charismatic, devil-may-care candidate, that wild and crazy middle-of-the-road, pragmatic liberal we've all been dreaming of. Although natural selection obviously works in mysterious ways, this metamorphosis, sadly, is about as likely as catching New York Mayor Ed Koch with his lips pressed tightly together.

Yes, if we can believe these revisionist paleontologists on dinosaurs, what in this glorious world isn't possible? Can Al Haig's campaign still have some life left in it? Perhaps Ed Meese will go down in history as one of the all-time great attorneys general. And Yogi Berra notwithstanding, the 1988 race for the Oval Office could be over before it's over, from a spectator standpoint, certainly. A Bush vs. Dukakis tiff this fall would surely be a yawner from the opening bell until the fat lady sings.

Of course, one never knows, does one? Just ask a paleontologist.

David Holahan is a free-lance writer.

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