Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Guest post: How Dinosaurs Teach Us about Humanity

Today, we have a guest post from Jesse Langley, a dinophile from Chicago, who shares his musings on the appeal of dinosaurs throughout our lives. Take it away, Jesse...

We like dinosaurs. But you already knew that. It's just a fact. And while you might consider it a given, there's a lot going on with this under the surface. Young kids get excited about dinosaurs and that early obsession never really leaves us. During our school years, dinosaurs are a welcome escape from the repetition of schoolwork and endless boredom of long-winded chemistry lectures.

Awesome Dinosaur Terrorizes Children
Awesome Dinosaur Terrorizes Children

Even as undergraduates we remain dinosaur fans, but we tend to get distracted by things like education and jobs and other relatively unimportant stuff. So we evolve. However, underlying that veneer of social responsibility and preoccupation with mundane matters, we're still sort of obsessed with dinosaurs. It's not something you grow out of either.

There is something visceral about dinosaurs and maybe that forms the initial attraction. Dinosaurs are otherworldly creatures, but the fact that they actually existed on earth in the long-ago past makes them even more compelling. The fact that we know much less about them than we'd like to only helps serve to ensure that we stay curious.

But as young children, we also know that dinosaurs no longer exist. In this way, it's possible that dinosaurs give us our first glimpse into the fact that we're mortal. Understanding death is difficult for a child to grasp. But knowing that dinosaurs once were the masters of their domain but are now extinct may actually instill the first philosophical seeds about life and death and a terminal planet for kids in a postmodern society.

The interesting flipside to the fascination with the violence, size and mystery of dinosaurs is the way popular culture repackages dinosaurs to ensure that if the slight terror of the actual creature doesn't hook you, the repackaged soft and fuzzy version will. How many countless kids encountered dinosaurs through Barney or "The Land Before Time"?

As we grow into adolescence, dinosaurs fulfill a different function. The soft and fuzzy Barney evolves into the terrifying but delicious adventure of the "Jurassic Park" films. There's a reason that the "Jurassic" franchise was a huge hit. It may have been unwitting, but accident or not, those films tapped into the overwhelmingly human fascination with dinosaurs. I went to see the film with my Mom, Dad, four brothers and one sister. All of us—from my eight year old sister to my seventeen year old, too cool for school oldest brother—were on the edge of our seats with sweating palms.

It may have been the carnivorousness. In our postmodern society, there's rarely a need for hunting. But millions of years of evolution can't be switched off overnight. Dinosaurs were awesome hunters—at least the meat-eating kind—but the fact remains that we as humans managed to adapt and survive. We've got a pretty good record of hunting too. And in the absence of actual hunting experience, dinosaurs form a sort of vicarious thrill for us.

We may not be able to hunt down animals and tear them limb from limb in great bloody gulps, but we seem to find that mix of terror and fascination appealing. And there's a built-in irony in the fact that the mighty dinosaurs no longer exist, but we relatively puny humans do. We share a deeper level of kinship with dinosaurs too.

In a weird way, we sort of understand the existential terror inherent in knowing that we may be the agents of our own demise from the planet. We understand that while dinosaurs may have gone extinct due to a catastrophe of epic proportions, they were victims of extinction through an outside force. Humans have to live with the existential crisis of knowing that we're powerful enough to cause our own extinction, but either unwilling or unable to stop it. Who says that a childish obsession with dinosaurs can't teach you something valuable about the human condition?

Jesse Langley lives near Chicago. He divides his time among work, writing and family life. He writes on behalf of Colorado Technical University and has a keen interest in all things dinosaur and social media. He also writes for www.professionalintern.com.


  1. Some excellent points, Jesse. I watched that in my own kids. They learned so much about different types of dinosaurs, quite on par with the detail they later applied to Pokemon. What were their environments, what were their diets, what was the difference between diplodocus and apatosaurus, etc I just wonder how far along paleontology would be the majority of the kids who loved Jurassic Park had stayed with it?

  2. Exactly what I've always thought- our obsession with dinosaurs is really just our desperate obsession with our own inevitable mass demise.

  3. Enjoyable article, although it may be worth pointing out that while dinosaurs can seem 'otherworldly' when you're a kid, growing up and learning more about them reveals that they aren't really anything of the sort. In fact they aren't even extinct!


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