A recent post
at the Smithsonian's Dinosaur Tracking
blog pisses me off, because it epitomizes an annoying trend in certain paleontologists' attitudes towards dinosaurs:
We need to reimagine what a confrontation between Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops would have looked like. Instead of two equally matched dinosaurs squaring off against each other, adult Tyrannosaurus probably ambushed young, unwary Triceratops or picked off sick individuals too weak to put up much of a fight. Tyrannosaurus had no sense of honor to uphold–the tyrant was an apex predator that had to maximize its chances of acquiring flesh, and the only safe adult Triceratops was a dead one. Perhaps, someday, a lucky researcher will stumble across evidence of our favorite Hell Creek scene at a field site or in a museum drawer. For now, though, we need to consider the magnificent Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops as real animals and not slavering monsters made to gore each other for our delight.
The problem with this quote isn't that he's technically
wrong. Insofar as most predatory animals are opportunists who won't pass up an easy kill if they find it, I agree with him that T. Rex would have done the same. What I take issue with is his insistence that we not envision dinosaurs as monsters who fought each other, which echoes how other paleo-fans I've seen complain about the media's sensationalistic over-emphasis on dinosaurs' ferocity and killing power. These people may know a lot about paleontology, but they seem to have forgotten why anyone even loves dinosaurs to begin with.
The reason dinosaurs have such a grip on our imaginations is precisely because we perceive them as much more monstrous and spectacular than anything that has walked on land ever since. They are the closest things to the dragons of our mythologies that reality has ever known. It is technically true that not all dinosaurs were fierce predators; some were majestic behemoths or beautifully plumed birds. It is also true that even the most belligerent theropods spent most of their energy outside of combat. However, these same dinosaurs appeal to us not because they fought all
the time, but because they could wreak incredible damage whenever they did
have to fight. Analogously, no one likes martial artists or superheroes because they fight all the time, but because they can kick ass in those occasions when they have to. When you complain that we focus too much on dinosaurs' monstrous qualities, you implicitly claim that we focus too much on why we even like dinosaurs in the first place.
There's nothing inherently wrong with depicting dinosaurs doing mundane or otherwise non-combative activities. Truth be told, it can even be a visual novelty. However, since many dinosaurs' cool factor depends on their martial prowess, it's little wonder that most artists emphasize their scary and savage side. Furthermore, as an aspiring storyteller, I know that conflict is what drives stories, so dinosaurs fighting or attacking is practically a necessary inevitability whenever we feature them in our stories. No one wants to watch a dinosaur movie in which the creatures simply graze in the jungle while ignoring each other.
Dinosaurs were real animals---really monstrous animals. Let's not lose sight of why they command our reverence.