June 26, 2005
In my misspent youth, I used to read the Turok: Son of Stone comic book,
about a pair of
North American Natives who find themselves trapped in a lost valley of
dinosaurs. (This was before Turok was transformed into a travesty of
its former self prior to being put out of its misery in 1998.) In
adventure, our intrepid heroes are pursued by
a dinosaur -- what they call "a honker" -- that is strangely immune to
poison berry juice with which they tip their spears. In the end,
turns out the honker has been eating the poisonous berries and
developed tolerance to them. That story was called "The Honker
that Would Not Die". I mention this because it will be relevant
later on. Be patient. It will be worth it.
As a kid, I spent several months languishing in Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital. It was mind-numbingly boring, particularly as my family didn't live in Toronto, so couldn't visit me regularly. When they did drop in, they would take me out on a day pass and invariably we would pay a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). There, while I enjoyed scampering about the many exhibits, gawking at the Egyptian mummies and the Japanese samurai armour and the stuffed rattlesnake that shook its rattle when you triggered an electric eye, always, without fail, before anything else, I would make a bee-line for...the Dinosaurs!
I couldn't get enough of those dinosaurs. I could stand there
for hours (hours, I say!) just staring at those colossal fossilized
how they must have looked, when alive, with flesh and skin -- and moving. At the same time, I
was always tormented by a feeling of dissatisfaction. I don't
know what I expected or wanted, but I just felt those skeletons weren't
enough. I wanted something more.
Or maybe I just wanted something different. Different
positions, different specimens, something, anything I hadn't seen the last
dozen times I had dropped by.
I think, to some extent, that same ill defined need for "something
different" is at least partly responsible for the
recent so called "revolution" in the way scientists now portray
dinosaurs. This month's Newsweek
cover story was titled
"Rediscovering Dinosaurs" and, though the article portrays its subject
as something new, in reality this Dino-renaissance has been going on
since at least the mid-70s. It was then that a young, brash, enfant terrible named Robert Bakker
(whom you've no doubt seen in his
trademark white cowboy hat -- in fact, his surrogate had the honour of
getting eaten in Jurassic Park 2) published an article in
where he argued that everything we had taken for
granted about dinosaurs till then was probably wrong. Far from
being slow, stupid, cold blooded reptiles (said Bakker),
dinosaurs were in fact quick, intelligent, warm blooded creatures,
perfectly suited to rule the planet for nearly 150 million years.
And, while the dinosaurs clearly did go extinct about 65 million years
in a very real sense they live on today in the form of birds.
Birds, said Bakker, are
The connection between dinosaurs and birds was nothing new. No
sooner were the first dinosaur fossils discovered in the 1800s than it
was recognized that they were clearly close kin to our little feathered
friends. From three-toed digitigrade (tip-toe walking) feet to
hollow bones, the similarities were fairly obvious. But, over the
years, that seemed to have been forgotten. Until Bakker revived
and suddenly everyone was looking at dinosaurs through fresh
If birds are dinosaurs, they argued, doesn't it stand to reason that
dinosaurs probably had other bird-like characteristics? For
example, birds, unlike many animals, can see in colour. What if
dinosaurs could see in colour too? Surely then, colour would play
a big part in their world. In other words,
just as birds have bright, colourful plumage, dinosaurs might be
expected to have had bright, colourful hides rather than the
drab crocodile-inspired green seen in Ray Harryhausen
flicks. Furthermore, if birds arose from dinosaurs, doesn't it
stand to reason that feathers originally evolved, not for flight, but
as a dinosaur alternative to mammalian fur? Feathers served as
dino-insulation long before the first theropod took wing.
So far the question of colour remains merely speculative -- it's
awfully hard to imagine how we could ever prove or disprove the colour
of a T-rex. But feathers are a bird of a different...um, you
exquisitely preserved fossils of feathered dinosaurs have begun turning
up, notably in northern China's Liaoning Province. (Yeah, like you know where that is, too.). While so far
they have only been proven for small, obscure dinosaurs (and, let's
face it: anything smaller than your neighbour's German Shepherd ain't
worth the name), it is widely
believed that even Mr. Jurassic Park himself -- the velociraptor --
had plumage. Feathered "raptors"?.
Which brings me to my main point.
The next time you're in a book store, take a look at the dinosaur
books. You'll be amazed. Everywhere you turn, the dinosaurs
look nothing like the creatures we grew up with. Everywhere there
are gaudily hued beasts, physically shaped like the dinosaurs of old,
but with fantastic designs, stripes and spots festooning their
hides. Worse, there are feathers, heaps of feathers, themselves
brilliantly coloured, turning even the familiar velociraptor into the
world's ugliest chicken. And, believe me, it's only going to get
worse. Where will it end? Perhaps someday we may see even
the mighty T-rex himself transmogrified into the Churkendoose!
And yet...and yet, I can't help but think the public will refuse to
accept this new vision. Refuse? Aye, refuse.
A true vision it may
be. Scientifically valid, beyond dispute, however you want to put
it, the real deal. And yet, interest in dinosaurs has
always been part science to three parts circus. It is as much
about entertaining as it is about enlightening. The public has
always shown a passion for dinosaurs that far outstrips interest in
just about any other field of scientific enquiry. They can't get
enough of the big guys.
But that is because of what dinosaurs are...or rather, what we
thought they were. Great
big lizards. Dragons!
Robbed of that image, transformed into the Churkendoose, and they may
no longer hold the public's interest as they once did. And, if
interest wanes, you can
bet the publishing industry will take note, as will Hollywood and the
comic industry and ultimately even museums. To win back their
audience, they will revert back to the original image of the dinosaur
as dragon, never mind that the scientists howl in disgust.
If the public wants dragons, dragons it will get!
Think it couldn't happen? It already has. When Steven
Spielberg made the Jurassic Park movies, he decided to
portray the dinosaurs as the traditional drab green rather than
hued, which by then was already the accepted
theory. (For that matter, Spielberg made the velociraptors considerably
larger than real velociraptors, because
he felt the real ones wouldn't have been scary enough. And, yes,
I'm well aware they later found Utahraptor which was about the right
size, but that came later.
Spielberg just caught a lucky break.)
At the risk of wandering too far afield, a similar form of such
wilful ignorance can be seen in our modern vision of the classical
ancient Greece and Rome. (Think I can't connect this? Oh ye
of little faith...) When we picture the classical world, we
see it all as pristine white marble statues with blank pupil-less eyes
like Little Orphan Annie, come to think of it). This image took
root way back during the Renaissance (not the Dino-renaissance, the
renaissance Renaissance) when the art of the
world was first rediscovered and, ultimately, imitated by the likes of
Michelangelo and, uh, Michelangelo's friends. Those imitations,
like the classical statues, were
also stark white marble with blank eyes.
So where does the "wilful ignorance" come in? Archaeologists
have long known that the statues of the classical
world were in fact brilliantly painted. It's just that after more
than two thousand years of wear and tear they have all lost that
paint. But, through modern science, it is possible to reconstruct what
colours were used from even the minute traces left behind. And
that is precisely what was done last year at the Vatican museums.
A display called The Colours of White
took copies of famous classical statues and painted them according to
the best information science could supply.
The result was something akin to a real classy freak show.
As white marble statues, Greek and Roman statuary has an elegant
beauty, a godlike
iconic simplicity. The pupil-less eyes, especially, lend
classical statues a haunting otherworldliness. But painted in
bright, gaudy hues, the eyes filled in and staring, the statues seem
suddenly cheap and tawdry. The magic vanishes and we are left
with something that seems less suited to the Louvre than to Disney's
Pirates of the Caribbean ride. (Grumbled my brother: "And they
don't even move!")
consensus seemed to be pretty well universal. The Colours of White exhibit was an
interesting experiment but no one was in a hurry to take it any
further. Where classical statues are concerned, we don't want
reality, we want what we had. Even if it is a lie.
Returning now to dinosaurs -- I began by saying that I thought this
Dino-renaissance was partly driven by an ill defined
"need" for change. I'm not saying the scientists are wrong --
most likely dinosaurs did have feathers and bright colours. T-rex
almost certainly never really looked anything like the way Harryhausen
portrayed him. (Or, more properly, the famous dino-artist Charles
R. Knight, whose
art served as the basis for just about all screen portrayals of the
great beasts.) But paradoxically, I have said that the public
will likely reject that vision for the opposite reason -- they
don't want change. Well, which is it? Want change, don't
want change. Both can't be true, can they?
Sure they can. Among dinosaur scientists, before the
Dino-renaissance, there was a feeling that the entire field had gotten
into a rut. Nothing ever seemed to progress. The
field of palaeontology amounted to little more than finding and naming
dinosaurs, book keeping. There
were no "great" discoveries the way Physics had its Einstein and
Genetics had its Watson and Crick. Then Bakker came along and
showed them that maybe there was life in the old girl yet. Maybe
dinosaurs were vibrant, exciting, even warm-blooded animals.
Maybe they were birds. That
Bakker was probably right only partly explained the passion
with which the scientific community embraced his vision. They
were quick to accept it because they wanted
it to be true.
Or, rather, they thought
they wanted it to be true. I could be wrong, of course, but I
think this fascination with feathered dinosaurs is only
temporary. Oh, certainly dinosaurs will remain feathered in
the pages of scientific journals. But in the popular imagination,
in the movies and the comics and novels, even in books supposedly
intended to teach children science, I think things will
eventually revert to "normal". Sales figures will demand
it. The old beasts will once
more rear their lizardy heads, drag their tails, and forsake feathers
for crocodilian hides. And once again dragons will roam the
earth. Green dragons.
Because just as you can't change a
leopard's spots, when it comes to colour, a honker just will not dye.
(Now wasn't that worth it?)
Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate
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