Lesson of the Dinosaurs: Evolution Didn't Inevitably Lead to Us
by Stephen Jay Gould
commitment quite so well as righteous anger. When I was ten, I got into a fierce
argument with a friend at summer camp about whether humans and dinosaurs had lived
togetherhe thought yes; I knew no (and by a good 60 million years). We bet a candy
bar (camp currency) and agreed to abide (by foolish and habitual trust) in a grown-up's
affirmation. Not a soul at the camp knew the answer, so we had to wait for parents' day.
My folks didn't show that weekend; his dad insisted that people and dinosaurs had lived
togetherhadn't I ever seen Alley
Oop, he asked. I had to pay. My anger, a thousand chocolate bars later, remains undimmed.
Such a travesty of justice couldn't occur today (outside the community of
fundamentalists, who sink dinosaurs, along with wicked humanity, in Noah's flood). Dinosaur
consciousness is far too high, and too general. No randomly chosen garden-variety adult would
be so uninformed. Dinosaurs are riding high in both the popular and professional community.
Are the reasons for this joint acclaim related?
Dinosaurs have flooded kiddie culture and spilled over to adult life.
Tyrannosaurs have almost displaced flamingos in Key West T- shirt emporia. Dinosaur dolls,
models, clocks, even toilet paper holders, are inundating the world of kitsch, while games,
books, and anatomically correct plastic skeletons bombard the upscale market of "educational
toys." (I leave aside, for some other time, the issue of whether such a surfeit is pure
blessing. I'm too young, I trust, to glory in the old days when men were men and thought their
Neanderthal forebears rode bareback on brontosaursbut
too much of anything can remove mystery and provoke demotion to the ordinary. The dinosaur
nuts of my childhood shared a rare and secret passion for something arcaneand we had to
search out every tidbit of knowledge. Dinosaurs are now ubiquitous in a child's world. They've
become scenery or furniturea stage of early life for all to enjoy and supersede.)
This public acclaim is matched by renewed interest among professionalsa
result, largely, of a new and coherent interpretation (spearheaded by Bakker and
Horner, the appropriate foci of the foregoing article) that has revised our view of the
lives and fortunes of these most prominent prehistoric beasts.
The so-called age of mammals has persisted, so far, for the 60 million
years since dinosaurs died. Dinosaurs, by contrast, were the dominant large animals of our
continents for more than twice this span of time.
Despite this proven record of success, the
traditional view cast dinosaurs
as stupid, slow, inefficient, and torpidovergrown cold-blooded reptiles of little
brain, so bloated that the largest could only survive in the buoyant waters of swamps and
A pushover, no doubt, for superior animals. But if so, how couldwe account
for the basic and long known fact that pierced this tradition and cried for recognitionbut
largely went unacknowledged? Mammals didn't evolve late in the reign of dinosaurs,
immediately using their newly evolved wile and wool to launch dinosaurs on their path to
death (by eating their eggs, or whatever). Mammals evolved at the same time as dinosaurs
and lived for more than 100 million yearstwice the span of their later successas
small creatures in the nooks and crannies of a world dominated by dinosaurs.
Horner provide an
elegant and coherent solution to this
paradox. We were wrong. Dinosaurs were sleek, anatomically efficient, probably warm-blooded
creatures with complex social behaviors and average-sized brains for reptiles of their
bulk. This new, archetypal dinosaur is a great improvement on the old stereotype for
public fascination. Yet while the sleek new model helps to promote public acclaim (all
the world loves a winner, cliches about underdogs notwithstanding), the full implications
have yet to be assimilatedand they're both disturbing and wonderfully enlightening.
Dumb and torpid dinosaurs fit well with our most cherished notion of
evolution as progress leading inevitably to us. But in the new view, dinosaurs are as
worthy as mammals (only different) and their success (apparently beyond the power of
mammals to challenge) implies that life doesn't proceed in lockstep toward increasing
efficiency and mentality, eventually (and inevitably) to culminate in us.
The new view of dinosaurs adds a third component to the Bakker-Horner
duo of anatomical efficiency and behavioral complexity: the recognition that extinction
is no sign of ineptitude but the inexorable result of life on an uncertain planet. Both
Bakker and Horner accept this view of extinction but oppose the most congenial argument
in its favor, the idea that an extraterrestrial impact (the ultimate bolt from the blue)
triggered the coordinated extinction of dinosaurs with some 50 per cent of marine species.
(I might add that I disagree with Bakker and Horner here.)
And so, dear reader, you can't have it both ways. All knowledge and
novelty comes at a price. You may have your sleek new dinosaur as a better icon for pop
culture, but you'll have to accept its implication for the history of life and for our
own species. We didn't have to evolve at all. Life is a series of complex and
unpredictable events, not a straight and narrow path to progress. Wind back the tape of
life to the midst of dinosaurian hegemony, and let it play again (but without asteroidal
or cometary impact). This time perhaps, as we reach our own day, no tyrannosaur graces
a T-shirt. Rather, great-grandson of tyrannosaur gazes down at his feet and wonders
how those odd little furry things continue to eke out such a marginal life in his
[ Stephen Jay Gould, "Lesson of the Dinosaurs: Evolution Didn't
Inevitably Lead to Us" Discover 8 (March, 1987): 51. ]
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