Dinosaurs look so strange. They look like something that lived in another world. It is a great part of our fascination with them: they are our familiar monsters. Monsters because of their size, for one, and their mysterious absence (but for fossil remains) for another. But they are also a bit familiar. They walk on two or four legs, after all, and have two eyes, a nose, two ears and a mouth (with plenty of teeth in the mouths of our favorites). So are they really so strange as we portray them to be?
I once attended a lecture by the director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History about a huge herbivorous dinosaur whose bones were found in Northern New Mexico. At some point during the lecture, he mentioned that — like today — the Cretaceous prairies were populated by herds of herbivores that would have vastly outnumbered their carnivorous predators. Suddenly a light went off in my head, and the funny-looking duck-billed hadrosaurs went from being exotic dinosaurs to ancient wild cattle grazing like any buffalo or modern range cow: the “wild cows of the Cretaceous” (as I called them in my musical “EXTINCTION: A Love Story”).
This began a series of shifts in my thinking that steadily undermined my capacity to see ancient life forms as being any more odd in appearance than any animal living today. As if on cue, there then came the occasional chain e-mail or National Geographic article with a collection of photographs of the strangest-looking living things that have been found in our modern world. Turns out we don’t have to go back to the Cretaceous to find animals that look like they were built of spare parts late on a Friday afternoon at the biological assembly line. (See some in National Geographic HERE)
The situation is not much different from that of the foods that we eat. Each of us surely eats something (without a second thought) that would induce vomiting in another human from another spot on the earth.
The problem with seeing extinct species as completely un-related to us is that it can make it easier to dismiss the biological link that all life on earth shares. Now I’m not certain that it is really necessary that each living human feel a warm and fuzzy bond with the small 210 million-year old rodent that we appear to have descended from, but it couldn’t hurt.
Seeing myself as a part of not just the chain of current life, but of the history of life on the planet has given me a not insignificant comfort in the face of a universe that is seemingly incapable of regarding my existence. Whether the hungry tiger can appreciate it or not (as she decides how she’s going to snap my neck before eating me) we are brother and sister, in this parade of life together.
But that’s the rub: we humans are the animals who think about these things. Fortunately for us (and especially for certain cats and dogs), we have found other animals willing to abide our expressions of familial affection. And it is these animals that we consider the most familiar and pleasing to our eye and mind. Dolphins and whales appear very different from us, but perhaps it is their earlier life as four-footed, land-based ungulates (as well as their obvious intelligence) that makes it easier for us to consider them part of our family of “friendly” animals.
In contrast (Creationist exhibits of Velociraptors frolicking with children notwithstanding) we know full well that were we to come face to face with even the most intelligent raptor of the dino-age, the only meeting of minds would be that of our terrified brain and the raptor’s hungry one. To us, he would be a dinosaur: to the dinosaur, we would be just another animal. An exotic one, to be sure, but (as long as we weren’t armed with a man-made weapon) an ultimately easy one to catch, kill and eat.
But we are loathe to see ourselves as “just another animal”. This offends us in some way. We have a deep need to be special. So deep, in fact, that it’s not enough to be special on just on a local level: we must matter on a cosmic scale. We want to believe that a part of our selves lives on forever with our creator.
Honestly, I think this may be a fair trade-off for being saddled with a brain that can consider its own mortality. After all, what harm will it do in the long run? Yes, apocalyptic religious thought is currently gumming up the works like a giant wooden shoe in the gears of the sustainability problem solving machine, but in the end how much difference will that make on an earth scale measured in geologic time? Practically none.
(On that score, I think we humans are clever enough to stretch our time on earth by a considerable margin. After all, we have so far escaped the extinction that has been the inevitable norm for ninety-nine percent of every other animal that has ever lived on this small planet. And, barring another six-mile wide meteorite strike, we might just find a way to use our technological skill to survive the damage done by our technological skill. Seeing ourselves as the clever animals that we are would help enormously in that process, as it would strip away the false veil of differentness that we hang between us and every other thing in nature. After all, as you sit reading this, half of your body’s cellular weight is made up of bacteria (a fact that makes our current obsession with antibacterial gel seem a bit existentially absurd.))
We are as exotic as any species that ever walked the earth, with our odd bipedal, upright and naked bodies. With our flat faces, we may be the most unusual primate on the planet. And with our mutant brains, we have built our own un-natural world within a world in ways unmatched by any other creature. It’s no wonder we see ourselves as different. We are different! In tiny but significant ways. But whatever the differences between us and nature, they are minuscule when weighed against the most basic commonalities we share with every living thing.
Perhaps we are the strange creatures on this planet, and the other animals have just been too polite to tell us to our face.