Written by Victor Milán
When I was discussing possible topics for this post, my pal Larry Hays said, “‘Why dinosaurs?’ Duh—dinosaurs.”
Yeah. Pretty much.
I love dinosaurs. I’ve loved ’em since I was an infant in the 1950s, when one of the first books my Mom read to me from was The Golden Treasury of Natural History. Many of its brightly-colored pictures captivated baby me, but none more than those of dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs have been kicking the public in its imagination at least since 1831, when English paleontologist and obstetrician Gideon Mantell published a paper called “The Age of Reptiles,” based on pioneering work done by Georges Cuvier, Mary Anning, and William Buckland on mysterious monster fossils that had been turning up for years. Sir Richard Owen named the taxon Dinosauria in 1842, helping Dinosaur Mania snowball so much a that in 1853 Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins pitched a gala New Year’s Eve dinner inside a sculpture of a (mistakenly quadrupedal) Iguanodon he was creating for London’s Crystal Palace.
In the late 19th century US the rivalry between Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope to find, name, and publicize dinosaur species out west got so crazy it was dubbed the “Bone Wars.”
The public love for dinosaurs ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th Century. But it never got killed off, even by the dominant paradigm that they were inert, cold-blooded, tail-dragging lumps, some so huge they had to live in water to support their own body weight—some even so dumb they needed helper brains in their butts to help work their hind-sections. I was taught that as a child, and believed it for years.
It was all wrong.
The 1970s revolutionized dinosaurs, with the then-heretical realization that dinos were really active, vigorous, and largely warm-blooded. Jurassic Park’s runaway 1993 success popularized that vision, and the dinosaur love has built ever since.
Nowadays, thanks to technological advances in detecting, handling, and analyzing dinosaur remains, we know more species, and more about them, than ever before. We’re in Golden Age of Dinosaur Paleontology, learning things about their physiology and behavior that, when I was a child, it was “known” we never could learn.
That thrills me. Millions of other people, too.
So what strange secret do these ancient animals possess?
Real. World. Monsters.
We love scary thrills. We love monsters, from the physically smaller, more intimate threats posed by vampires and zombies, to lumbering natural-disaster-sized daikaiju like Godzilla. Who, like so many of his Fifties Lizard Fear Cinema kindred, started life as a pseudo-dinosaur.
Dinosaurs, and the bizarre flying and swimming reptiles who shared the Mesozoic Earth with them, were monsters: fabulous, alien creatures, some literally monstrous in size and sometimes menace, who actually existed.
Some people don’t like the New Dinosaurs. They don’t think they’re as scary as the old model. And what’s with the feathers? They’re just big birds!
(Not really. But birds are dinosaurs. I love that too. Then again, I also always loved birds.)
It’s okay to like what you like. But here’s the deal: I spent way longer believing in the old model than most… and I say: do you really think the snarling monster in the picture is less intimidating than a guy in a rubber suit?
Even if he’s covered in feathers, you’re gonna tell me you wouldn’t be scared of a forty-foot long meat-eating dinosaur animal that weighs more than a Humvee and has teeth the size of axe blades?
Careful not to trip on your cape, there, Superman.
Dinosaurs: they’re monsters! Who were real! And we can even meet (and eat) their less-threatening descendants! How is that not cool?
I love dinosaurs. You too, I hope.
That’s why dinosaurs.