The Secret Life of Dinosaurs

By | April 19, 2013

raptor2Well, I’m still working on my MOOC presentation, so I’m not ready to post on it yet. But I thought that I would share some thoughts that came to me recently, following watching a History Channel special on dinosaurs that, among other things, shattered my previously held image by pointing out that among other things, velociraptors were almost certainly covered in bright feathers – veritable boa-raptors! So, I reasoned in my inimitable fashion, what ELSE don’t we know about dinosaurs?

In a following exchange on one of the BigThink discussions, I took the opportunity to respond to a somewhat negative view of dinosaurs, as follows:

“It’s premature of you to dismiss the dinosaurs so casually as mere animals. It’s entirely possible that they possessed science, literature, and/or philosophy, through a rich mental and conceptual life. Just because they apparently lacked technology, particularly for writing, is hardly evidence of lack of thought. After having been around for 200 million years, why is it impossible that T. rex could have come up with quantum mechanics, a velociraptor the theory of relativity, or a lambeosaurus a theory of interspecies ethics far surpassing that of Kant? None of this would have required any paws-on technology; merely a nimble mind.

It’s also quite possible that written language was created and subsequently abandoned by mid-Jurassic, in favor of epic poetry committed to memory (a much superior medium, I believe). Expressing the fundamental theorems of calculus or general relativity in the High Stegosaurus equivalent of Myxolydian mode would have been just the thing to do while casually munching one’s way across a  fruited Cretaceous plain. And let’s not forget the possibility of telepathy; with a couple of hundred million years to work with, why shouldn’t evolution have been able to come up with something like that, as well as longer fangs?

It’s mammal-chauvinism of the first water to arbitrarily assert that arguably the most successful (at least in terms of long-surviving) group of vertebrates ever to walk this planet had to be incapable of advanced intellect, perhaps surpassing ours. Exploring the implications of the theme of therapod sapience would be an enterprise at least as worth pursuing as, say, unraveling the perpetration of 9/11, IMHO.”

In response to a subsequent question regarding the species identity of dinosaurs, I relayed the following experience to explain why I take this issue somewhat personally:

“Regarding the reptilianity of dinosaurs, I recall back in sixth grade in Iowa City hearing my teacher Mr. Brooks tell the class that dinosaurs were mammals. I questioned this, and despite being somewhat admonished, subsequently decided to write a short but well-researched report (with several citations, based on a couple of trips to the library over the weekend) establishing that dinosaurs were in fact not mammals but reptiles (I generally don’t do admonishment well.) When I presented my report to Mr. Brooks on Monday, I was given the opportunity to learn an important lesson about social relationships; namely, that it doesn’t matter nearly as much who’s right as who has the power. This is a lesson that I have had to learn the hard way on a number of subsequent occasions, fortunately none of them fatal.

As it turned out, there wasn’t a whole lot of the sixth grade left, and by seventh grade I was in a different school halfway around the world where my Permanent Record from Iowa didn’t really reach, or perhaps was trumped by the fact that my father was a colonel. Had I remained in Iowa, even I would pretty soon have noticed the little target pinned on my back visible at first only to teachers, but later on to all the kids – “snot-nosed little know-it-all troublemaker – handle with as little care as possible”. Since the badge was only conceptual, I don’t still have a copy, but I regarded it at the time as a badge of honor, and it’s shaped my subsequent career in interesting ways. I’ve wiped my nose and gotten fat, but I am still a know-it-all troublemaker – although I have also gotten better at managing trouble, along the way.”

One of the pleasures of writing this sort of blog, read by very few but wide open to my flights of fancy, is the opportunity to offer peculations on issues such as the sapience of dinosaurs, as well as to confess to assorted sins of attitude. When I return to being a normal person, I may no longer have this luxury. So if you are also taken by the notion of the quantum-raptor, please let me know! If you’re not, well, you’ll be pleased to know that at least Mr. Brooks would agree with you.