SERMON: “In a Strangers Face” by the not-so-reverend bob

Isn’t the most compelling feature of dinosaurs their very different-ness from anything we’ve ever seen?  Maybe that’s why kids love them so much.  And yet, there is something familiar about them as well (which is why kids are free to love them so much).

The timing of my own childhood and growth has paralleled years of progressively interesting dinosaur discoveries.  Even the big star dinos of my youth have been re-named and revised from lumbering dumb beasts to sprinting, bellowing, warm-blooded (and feathered!) creatures that probably tasted a lot like chicken.  Is it, then, the (now) near-constant revision of our ideas about dinosaurs, their ubiquity in computer-animated film and television or my own study of evolution of life that has caused the once exotic features of the dinosaurs to look a lot less exotic to me than they once did?  I wonder if it’s just me that thinks that prehistoric life doesn’t look all that strange (anymore).

Think about the face of a Hadrosaur (one of the duck-billed dinosaurs), then look at a living Platypus, or the mug of a giraffe.  There are faces on animals living today that are as wildly extravagant as anything that lived in the past (not to mention the faces that are relatively unchanged from their ancient predecessor’s).  To a child a dinosaur looks as if it might as well have been brought here from another planet — but the more of the existing critters you see, well…

In short, life is about as interesting today as it ever was.  And as odd.

The other day I saw a photo a friend shot in South America of a Vizcachas.  It’s a relative of the Chinchilla (in the rodent family).  But what it really is is a rabbit with a long curly tail (with a strip of squirrel-like hair on it).  That little critter just floored me:  I’d never seen one before.

Now I understand enough about evolution and natural selection to know that you would probably only need to switch on a couple of inactive genes in a regular rabbit to make it grow a tail like its South American cousin (or switch a couple off in the Vizcachas to make a rabbit), but still, a long-tailed rabbit just seems pretty damn funny to me: like a literal cut-and-paste conglomerate of animal parts.

But then, isn’t that what we are?  Not of parts cut and pasted from animals outside our line of descent, of course, but a continuous modification of the basic body plan that once swam in the ocean (with our telltale up and down fishy flexing of the spine)?

Creationists like to cry out for the “transitional” creatures in the fossil record: the midway point between the fish and the Tetrapod, or the early monkey and man.  But the glaring (so obvious we easily miss it) truth is this: we ourselves are the not-so-missing link between what we once were and what we are becoming.

If we were to meet a living Ardipithecus (the current candidate for the most recent common ancestor of monkeys, apes and man), she wouldn’t think herself a missing link at all, or a transitional being, for she would look just like her own mother, and were she to have a daughter, the child would not appear to have made any dramatic step towards homo sapiens sapiens.  But in truth grandmother, mother and daughter “Ardi” were quietly moving away from what their ancestors “were” to what their descendants would “become” (thank you Richard Dawkins for supplying the framework for this useful descriptive tool).

One of the few places we have actually been able to “observe” evolution is in the laboratory, where scientists have been culturing parallel generations of e-coli bacteria for twenty years and have observed one line actually evolving to make use of a food source the original colony was not able to feed upon.  But then bacteria reproduce incredibly fast compared to us humans.  We have to look back thousands and millions of years to see the branching of our family tree.

But if we could follow our line back, one after the other, we would eventually go all the way back to a bacteria, or a single celled organism that gave “birth” to every animal that walks, flies or swims across our earth, sky and oceans.  And if we followed the trail back to us, we would pass innumerable branches in the trail where we would see creatures that looked exactly like we did (then) taking a different road (to be, then,  separated from us by a mountain range, or a melting ice bridge, or a drifting continent) so that by the time we met them again, we (or they, or both) would have evolved into a different species and we might very well no longer recognize the cousinship that links us to our common ancestor.

Perhaps its natural that this kind of knowledge gives me different eyes for dinosaurs and dolphins, trout and trumpeter swans.  We are all variations on a theme, with mutation and natural selection (and sexual selection, let’s not forget) exerting pressure and favoring this slight change over that one until a bacteria grows a skeleton, a fish learns to walk and a hominid learns to play the piano.  So Whales are most closely related to Hippopotomuses, and Manatees to Elephants.  Chimpanzees are more closely related to Humans than they are to Orangutans.  Mice share 85% of our DNA, a head of lettuce 40%.

With facts as mind-blowing as that, Dinosaurs don’t look so strange to me at all.  They look, well, familiar.  Like some really wild cousins I never got the chance to meet.

t.n.s.r. bob

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