Why should we give a whit about dinosaurs? After all, they’ve been extinct for millions of years. I mean, it’s probably ok for little kids to be fascinated with these long-dead beasts. But how can we possibly justify spending precious time and resources trying to understand dinosaurs?
As a dinosaur paleontologist, I’ve been asked some version of this question many times over the years, and I admit to trying on a variety of answers. Often I've said something like, “The study of dinosaurs can lead to unexpected discoveries; for example, the ways in which ecosystems transform over long time periods.” In the end, however, most of these appeals to scientific insights with supposed benefits to humans seem, shall we say, wanting. The one exception may be the asteroid impact hypothesis. This now familiar idea claims that the collision of a giant asteroid with the Earth (generally thought to be in the Gulf of Mexico region) caused an immense cloud of dust to be tossed high into the atmosphere, circulating around the globe, blocking out the sun, halting photosynthesis for some brief period, and thereby causing the deaths of numerous species, including most dinosaurs alive at that time. Recognition that such a localized event could result in dire global repercussions was used by scientists testifying before the U.S. Congress to argue that the notion of “winners” in an all-out exchange of thermonuclear warheads was sheer madness. In effect, then, one could argue that the scientific study of dinosaurs resulted in a discovery that may have saved humanity!
Nevertheless, these days I argue more strongly than ever that we humans have much to learn from dinosaurs. The difference is that the identity of the “we” has morphed. Instead of referring to all that scientists can glean from understanding dinosaurs, I am convinced that the public can benefit most from such understanding. To be clear, I am not saying that dinosaur paleontology is dead or dying. No, this small but vibrant corner of science is more active than ever; to give one superficial metric, more “new” dinosaurs have been discovered in the past quarter century than in all prior history. My argument is simply that, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint (which, of course, is only one reason for doing science, and completely misses the long-standing human passion for exploring nature), it’s the non-scientists who have the most to gain from learning about dinosaurs. Let me explain.
Today most of us exist within a snapshot of time. We do not consider our place in the deep time pageant of life on Earth, and thus think little about life’s future on this planet. Sustainability, I contend, must include a shift in mindset rooted in a revised sense of our place in nature. Recognizing that “everything is connected”— the mantra of many environmentalists, as well as ecologically-minded educators—is certainly critical. But if these connections exist only in the present day, we are lacking an essential component: the Great Story. As the only human cultures lacking an origin story, industrialized societies may well be unique in the history of our species. Yes, the major religious traditions offer origin stories, and all indigenous peoples of which I am aware have such grounding myths. Yet vast numbers of us in the Western world lack any meaningful comprehension of where we come from, with dire consequences for our sense of meaning and larger purpose. This ignorance persists despite the fact that, particularly during the past few decades, sciences like cosmology, geology, paleontology, and anthropology have generated what is without doubt the most accurate glimpse into who we are and how we got here. The Great Story—encompassing the origins of the universe, the Milky Way galaxy, the Solar System, Earth, life, and humanity—has abundant potential to provide the larger context of our lives. It deserves to be taught at all levels of education, from elementary years, through middle and high school, and on into university. Yet thus far it is all but absent from education.
At present, dinosaurs are presented like some sort of prehistoric eye candy, strange giants from a distant time that might as well be from a distant planet as well. (As I receive feedback on my recent book, Dinosaur Odyssey, I continue to be struck by how many people comment on the lack of glossy pictures, as if any treatment of dinosaurs cannot be complete without a large format and page after page of color reconstructions.) Yet, as the most famous of all extinct animals, dinosaurs offer an exceptional access point into the Great Story—our story. They can help us forge links between the distant past and the present day (e.g., modern birds as living dinosaurs) and insert us back into the flow of deep time (Tyrannosaurus lived closer to you in time than to Allosaurus or Stegosaurus). These ancient creatures can be used to demonstrate that every ecosystem on Earth, whether in the Mesozoic or the present day, is the culmination of millions upon millions of years of co-evolution between and among life forms. Since their heyday overlapped with the fragmentation of Pangaea, dinosaurs also provide an excellent forum for communicating the workings of plate tectonics and the physical evolution of our planet. They can even serve as able guides as we contemplate such pressing issues as global warming (i.e., the Mesozoic was a hothouse world with perhaps no persistent polar ice caps) and mass extinction (the end-Cretaceous event was the last mass extinction on Earth, until the most recent one caused by humans). I am not suggesting that we lay the weight of the world’s ecological crisis on the shoulders of youngsters. As educator David Sobel says, education should include no disasters before the fourth grade. Yet, in part because they spark the imaginations of children and adults, dinosaurs are a terrific vehicle for addressing numerous aspects of science and nature, including the Great Story.
Can dinosaurs save the world? Not on their own. But they can be a tremendous help as we educate coming generations to contemplate nature, and their place within it, in ways that may seem almost unimaginable to us now.