Dinosaurs are everywhere. They crumble out of outcrops, are reconstituted in museum halls, star in big-budget films, and sell everything from candy to gasoline. And while dinomania has varied in intensity since 19th century naturalists started giving names to these curious creatures, dinosaurs have nevertheless been cultural touchstones for nearly two centuries. To us, the descendants of mammals that scurried through their world, dinosaurs have stood as prehistoric nightmares, warnings to the danger of investing too much energy in armaments, and reminders of inevitable extinction.
The evolution of dinosaur culture is one of the many points where science and society intersect. Paul Brinkman, a paleontologist and historian at NC State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, has examined this junction between the prehistoric and the modern in his book The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, and is now teaching a course called “Dinomania! A Cultural & Scientific History of Dinosaurs.” Since it’s just as important to understand what we think about dinosaurs as what Mesozoic bones and traces can tell us, I asked Brinkman a few questions about how dinosaur culture has changed through history.
– Dinosaurs have been used as cultural touchstones since the time they were discovered. Why do you think they’ve lasted as such potent symbols?
Brinkman: There are many explanations for the long-lasting appeal of dinosaurs, but none of them are entirely satisfying – at least not to me. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote that the popularity of dinosaurs is due to three virtues: big, fierce and extinct. I think there’s certainly some merit to this simple idea, but it cannot explain everything. There’s no denying the odd appeal of big things – especially superlatively big things – including skyscrapers, animals and plants and roadside attractions (like the world’s largest ball of twine!).
Many of the best-known dinosaurs are beloved – in part, at least – for their size, including Brachiosaurus, Apatosaurus and other gigantic sauropods. Other popular dinosaurs, on the other hand, are small, including Velociraptor. Likewise, there is something very appealing about fierce or scary things – especially those that don’t pose any immediate danger. Tigers in the zoo are appealing, but holding a tiger by the tail is not. Dinosaurs are appealing in a similar way. Many of them were no doubt very fierce when they stalked the Mesozoic Era, but because the non-avian dinosaurs are long extinct, they aren’t really threatening. Sauropods and other plant-eating dinosaurs seem to be an exception, as it is difficult to imagine a fierce Diplodocus.
The popularity of dinosaurs has fluctuated dramatically over time, but they have been a big part of our cultural landscape for more than a century. That suggests that there’s something inherently interesting about them. But I’m afraid the best explanation for their staying power is that they’ve long been effectively marketed and commoditized, first by museums, and later in books, movies, comics, toys, games, cartoons and more.
– New dinosaurs are being named at an astonishing rate, but the most popular ones are still Bone Wars-era classics such as Triceratops. Why do you think that is?
Brinkman: I ask my students what their favorite dinosaur is and overwhelmingly they answer with classics like Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops. I think the reason for this is simple familiarity. While new and charismatic dinosaurs – Siats meekerorum is just one recent example – are named and described in the scientific literature as a matter of routine, it takes a long time for those new taxa to migrate from specialist journals to museum displays and textbooks and then to movies, toys and other pop-culture media. Thanks to a starring role in Jurassic Park, Velociraptor has gained ground on Tyrannosaurus, who still reigns supreme as the world’s most popular dinosaur. All it takes to make a big splash in the world of dinosaurs is a few marquee roles.
– In American culture, especially, dinosaurs are connected to childhood. No one seems to really understand why. What’s your take on why kids are so drawn to dinosaurs?
Brinkman: That’s probably because as children we’re taken to marvelous places like museums and encouraged to wonder (if not to wander). Curiosity and awe are positively reinforced in children by indulgent adults. And what’s more curious or more awesome than a fully-mounted skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex in a typically menacing (yet harmless) pose? As we grow older, however, we’re told to put away childish things. More often than not, dinosaurs are chucked out with the toys and security blankets. Maybe this is for the best, though, as those of us who retain our fascination for dinosaurs into adulthood become obsessive writers, rockhounds and tinkerers with fossils with precious few marketable skills!
– The “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the late 20th century was a major image shift, transforming dinosaurs from plodding monsters to agile animals with a peculiar biology. But that transformation happened decades ago. How has the impression of what dinosaurs really were changed since the 80s?
Brinkman: Modern scientific ideas about dinosaur behavior, including herding, parenting and pack hunting, have certainly made some in-roads. Some of these behaviors were depicted in Jurassic Park, for example. Yet dinosaurs are still commonly used as metaphors for obsolescence, as, for example, in a recent television commercial that shows a smaller, more maneuverable SUV driving between the legs of huge, lumbering dinosaurs. The message is clear only if one subscribes the idea of dinosaurs as slow-moving, swamp-dwelling, dim-witted and doomed to extinction. I think this is a powerful idea with wide popular appeal because it suggests that if you’re smart and adaptable you’ll be rewarded, and if you’ve been rewarded it’s because you must be smart and adaptable. A moral like that makes for a great story that will be difficult for paleontologists to rewrite.
– News of meteorite strikes and near-miss asteroids raise the specter of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs. Do you think this popular imagery feeds back into the ongoing scientific discussions and debates about how the non-avian dinosaurs, and many of their neighbors, died?
Brinkman: I think it must.
– Many films and documentaries these days feature menageries of computer-generated dinosaurs but very little of how we know what we know about these animals. How is that affecting the public’s understanding of dinosaurs and the science of paleontology?
Brinkman: I believe that the public’s understanding of how paleontology is done is minimal. Recently, however, museums have been doing a better job of trying to explain not only what we know about dinosaurs, but how we know it. In fact, the new wing at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is dedicated to this very approach. I think that if scientists and science communicators did a better job of explaining how science is done to the public, there would be a lot less skepticism and a lot more confidence in their results. Science isn’t hocus-pocus. It’s hypothesis-driven, testable, experimental, and it utilizes common everyday reasoning. Best of all, it is subject to revision in light of better data or more reliable testing. Ultimately, though, it is the responsibility of scientists to convey this idea to the public.
– Next year Hollywood will release two big-budget films starring dinosaurs – Jurassic World and The Good Dinosaur. Might these films trigger a new wave of intense dinomania, or have cgi dinosaurs become so familiar that such a paleo revival is unlikely?
Brinkman: I have always been better at describing and explaining the past than predicting the future, but I think every generation has its cultural milestones. If Jurassic World and The Good Dinosaur are as good as Jurassic Park was, then a new wave of dinomania is certainly not out of the question. Is your surfboard handy?