Contemporary dinosaur palaeontologists, like Steve Brusatte in his The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (2018), have been keen to stress that the dinosaurs were diverse and spectacular evolutionary successes (whose ancestors survive today). This point requires significant stressing, because dinosaurs have long signified failure.
In the acrid visual language of political cartoons, dinosaurs usually represent the worst accusations cartoonists can think of (Figure 1). Falling down the Google Images rabbit-hole we encounter recent political dinosaurs, most of them American, standing in for the Republican Party, the mainstream media, NATO, Brexit, recessions, the coal industry, climate change deniers, Wall Street, bureaucracy, and the national debt, in addition to many, many dinosaurs which have been retrofitted with the head of Donald Trump. You call something a dinosaur when you think it’s on the wrong side of history or living on borrowed time; when it’s unmanageable, short-sighted, old-fashioned, self-destructive, unsustainably ravenous, distinctly unsuccessful. At least, you do if you’re a political cartoonist. In recent decades, the dinosaurs of political cartoons have sometimes been depicted as sufferers of asteroidal bad luck, but the political dinosaur is usually its own worst enemy and/or the enemy of progress.
At PopPalaeo, we have often interrogated narratives, like ‘progress’, which are used to shape and frame palaeontology. At the December 2018 session, for instance, Elsa Panciroli looked at how non-specialists and even specialists have tended to view the idea of evolutionary success in loose or colloquial ways. These perspectives have usually been detrimental to the idea that the small Mesozoic mammals that lived alongside dinosaurs were – despite often being the prey of those dinosaurs – diverse, abundant, and successful. Mark Witton, moreover, spoke about the tendency of so many artists to ‘monsterise’ extinct animals, turning the denizens of prehistory from credible animals into improbable killing machines. Compared to these nightmare fiends, modern nature looks positively reformed by comparison. Both speakers were, to a significant degree, looking at how and why we turn prehistoric animals into goodies and baddies, winners and losers—progressive and conservative. Throughout history, dinosaurs have typically represented unprogressive moral qualities.
The dinosaurs’ dart-board-like role in mediating political disagreements today is steeped in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century evolutionary science. When the most famous dinosaurs—Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus—were unearthed in the Gilded-Age United States, their incredibly tiny brains stood out in the face of evolutionary theories that emphasised continuous brain growth. Low intelligence, hardly a factor in the original classification of the dinosaurs by Richard Owen in 1842, became one of their most notorious characteristics (Figure 2).
The rise of dinosaurs as the subjects of political cartoons paralleled the rise of ‘phylogeronty’ as an explanation for the evolution of traits that seemed opposed to the logic of adaptation. Writing as late as 1962, in the London Natural History Museum’s official book on Dinosaurs, William Elgin Swinton explained the logic of this theory:
Then again, we are familiar with the effects of old age in the individual; toothlessness, lack of energy and diminution of the sense, and it appears that a similar series of characters can, in fact, affect a whole group of animals. This is called phylogeronty, the old age of a phylum. The symptoms of this are gigantism, spinescence and loss of the teeth […] Taken together, these facts mean that old and tried stocks (exhausted perhaps by evolutionary activity) and those like the Ceratopisa that were very specialized were suddenly faced with changing environmental conditions that demanded new efforts from them at the very time they were unable to give them.
Certain types of dinosaur were frequently assumed to have evolved in futile directions: namely the oversized sauropods, inexplicably spiny stegosaurus, and heavy-headed ceratopsians. Such views had been influential (although not universally accepted) in palaeontological circles throughout the first half of the twentieth century, even if they were, by the time of Swinton’s writing, becoming distinctly outmoded. Phylogeronty was also called ‘racial senility’ or ‘racial senescence’, in a common but telling slippage between early twentieth-century anthropological and palaeontological science.
Palaeontologists and science writers revelled in the stupidity and inherent obsolescence of so many dinosaurs – slamming into Stegosaurus and Triceratops again and again. The moral implications a reader might take from Swinton’s words about the decadent dinosaurs are clear. The palaeontological writer Henry R. Knipe had put it even more plainly in his Evolution in the Past (1912), ‘the superior intelligence and higher moral qualities of the mammals’ were key reasons by which ‘the old reptile nobility, unable to march with the times, had been swept away’. Those familiar with the illustrated palaeontology books of the artist Charles R. Knight will recall his many tirades against the ‘stupid, unadaptable, and unprogressive dinosaurs’ and his fondness for the ‘little warm-blooded beings, furry, alert and aggressive’ who ‘were to supersede them’ (1946).
In fiction, the threat presented by dinosaurs acted as a spur to energy against complacence and decadence. Predatory dinosaurs, not so commonly associated with phylogeronty, were potentially dangerous foes despite their tiny brains. In romances like the lost-world adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs, fish-out-of-water male protagonists rediscover their masculinity while pitting their bodies and their wits against largely brainless and cumbersome but physically powerful dinosaurs. While contemporary palaeontologists might object to films like Jurassic World (2015) that depict predatory dinosaurs as scaly serial killers, early twentieth-century naturalists were less sympathetic to their subjects. When Arthur Conan Doyle made the dinosaurs in his romance The Lost World (1912) brainless killing machines, the famous naturalist E. Ray Lankester wrote to congratulate him on his accuracy: ‘I notice that you rightly withhold any intelligence from the big dinosaurs’.
In specialist circles, the stark contrast between warm-blooded, far-sighted mammals and cold-blooded, idiotic dinosaurs would eventually be chipped away by suggestions that some dinosaurs were warm-blooded; subsequently, the theory that an unlucky encounter with an asteroid killed off most of the dinosaurs put paid to the idea that dinosaurs like Triceratops—objects of derision since the 1890s—were simply at the end of their tether. Memorable images of dinosaurs growing too large, spiny, and vicious for their own good, however, stay with us. It’s no surprise that dinosaurs continue to entice not only palaeontologists, but also cultural historians, historians of science, and literary scholars. The Mesozoic is a morality play.