Thursday, February 18, 2010

Do People Want Feathered Dinosaurs?

In its tenth anniversary this year, the Lazendorf Paleoart Award is teaming with Nat Geo to present an award for a new category: Digital Modeling and Animation. As the website says, "with this new category, the Lanzendorf committee and the SVP recognize the importance of this rapidly growing frontier of scientific visualization for furthering science and public understanding."

As feathered dinosaurs have risen in prominence I've been thinking a lot about the need for them to be popularized on a huge scale. While the CG pseudo-documentary genre catches its share of flack, and animated narrative movies sacrifice science for story, I think it's high time for another big, culture-penetrating piece of dinosaur entertainment. Ideally, I'd like something that helps the image of the feathered dromaeosaur take prominence in the mind of the general public over the very reptilian faux-Velociraptors of Jurassic Park.

But the longer I hope for this, the more I fear that it may be wishful thinking: slimy, scaly reptiles are an archetypal "other" in mythology. There are the dragons, the gorgons, the sea serpents, the snake that tempts Eve. In modern times, there is the coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs "reptilian" conspiracy theory (there are plenty of certified nutjob sites I could link to, but I'll opt for this relatively benign Wikipedia page). Though our understanding of dinosaurs has become more and more nuanced, increasingly setting them apart as unique creatures of their own, there's no denying that the "giant lizards" image is in large part responsible for their enduring popularity.

Do feathered dinosaurs carry the same subconscious weight? Is the idea that the turkey on the table and the cardinal on the feeder are derived theropods compelling to the average person? In other words: do people want feathered dinosaurs? It's easy to say that it doesn't matter what they want: they'll take their lavishly adorned Deinonychus and like it. But scientific ideas have a funny way of progressing fitfully through human cultures. See Darwin, Charles.

As I was writing this post, Brian Switek conveniently posted something relevant over at Dinosaur Tracking. A smartass blog has started a semi-serious campaign against feathered dinosaurs. Or maybe it's a clever parody of boneheaded creationist anti-evolution propaganda (it even uses the stale old "theory" vs. "fact" dichotomy). Maybe it's a bit of both. Would reactionary anger over feathers on dinosaurs surprise me? Not so much, no. I imagine it's kind of like fanboy grumbling over the new designs of the Transformers or any other old franchise that finds itself subject to modernizing. People are used to geeking out about things in their own way, and who are these scientists to slap a bunch of dumb old feathers on Velociraptor?

I don't know of any organization that conducts polls on popular conceptions of dinosaurs, so I have no data to look to. I just wonder. And I'll be interested to see if any pieces based on the new melanosome research are up for the Lazenby award this year. The artistic renderings we've seen so far have been pretty arresting, and I'm sure it's just the beginning.

Now, to start figuring out my own tongue-in-cheek pro-feathers campaign...


  1. Personally, I really like feathered dinosaurs. I think the feathered version of Czerkas' Deinonychus is much cooler than the old scaly one. I think people just want to see dinosaurs they way they saw them as kids. I'll admit that, while it took me a while to fully warm up to the feathered dinosaur idea, I was never really surprised given their connection to birds.

  2. Now, to start figuring out my own tongue-in-cheek pro-feathers campain...

    How 'bout: My feathered dinosaur can kick your scaly dinosaur's ass.


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