Review of TV documentary on dinosaurs (with much feted computer simulations) from Black Flag #219 (2000).
Review: Walking With Dinosaurs BBC TV, October 1999
I wouldn't normally review a television programme, and I don't actually watch that much TV... it was obviously fake, a lot was guessed at and almost all the animals featured died out so long ago that it is hard for humans to even conceive of such time. So why am I moved to write about this one? Firstly, because humans need to ditch some of their arrogance about their place in the world. It is entirely a fluke, and the story of the dinosaurs illustrates this. Secondly, it shows us something about science, which all too often is perceived as an absolute, rather than a method of making assumptions and testing them. Thirdly, it's about time we stopped referring to conservative or reactionary political opponents as dinosaurs — it's a disservice to the beasts. Finally, it touched my sense of wonder at life itself, and the beauty of forms that adapt themselves to survival in different environments.
On the technical side, most of the recreated creatures were well done. The skin colours and other features were inferred, of course, but generally done in the context of debates about dinosaur behaviour, and observation of species in similar ecological niches today. Some failed to convince — for example the didelphodon nest raiders in the final episode, and some of the feeding sequences didn't quite gel, but overall, most had a ‘jizz' as birders would say, that felt unique. The programmes proceeded as if they were normal natural history documentaries, of the sort that the BBC actually does well. The bombastic narration from Kenneth Branagh was a bit too much — all the pomp of Attenborough without the enthusiasm. Why don't they ever use someone with an accent from somewhere, instead of all this BBC English? The series was also interestingly split up — showing different periods in natural history and different places. Far too many films and books mix everything up, which is why you would never really see a stegosaurus fight a tyrannosaurus rex. I suspect that some of the very interesting recent feathered dinosaur discoveries from China came too late for the film makers — they might otherwise have added feathers to the baby tyrannosaurs in the final episode. What the series aimed to do was to put the dinosaurs in their context, which it certainly succeeded in.
So why is this at all relevant to a political mag? Well, the popular idea about dinosaurs when I was growing up (and interested in them, which I suspect almost all kids go through) was that they were supplanted by mammals which were somehow 'better' than these slow, lumbering, cold-blooded reptiles. This is all now known to be false — dinosaurs were warm blooded and filled most of the large animal ecological niches filled by mammals today. Feathers probably evolved from reptilian scales as a means of keeping warm, only later becoming adapted for flight. Their distant relatives, the pterosaurs, filled most of those that are today occupied by birds. As a family of animals, dinosaurs probably reshaped the planet more than any others since blue-green algae started poisoning the atmosphere with oxygen, at least until humans came on the scene. Their habits and behaviour were probably responsible for what Darwin called the "abominable mystery" of the origin of flowers. Oh, and they didn't all die out. In South America until it was joined to North America and on several island groups to this day, their descendants, the birds, successfully kept at bay the supposedly more advanced mammals for millions of years.
These creatures evolved, and dominated all those large animal niches, for one hundred and fifty five million years. In contrast, relatively intelligent apes have been around for four million, and our own species is only a few hundred thousand. Started feeling smaller?1
But this is also a story of science. The same popular myth that says that mouse-sized mammals wiped out dinosaurs by eating their eggs also believes science sets things in stone. It doesn't, and the story of the dinosaurs illustrates that very well. Science isn't an either or equation — it is, as Stephen Jay Gould notes, "rooted in creative interpretation... [scientists] believe in their own objectivity, and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their [data]."2
Dinosaurs were originally called antediluvian monsters because they were supposedly all killed in the 'Great Flood'. The plethora of fossil-hunting parsons and men of letters in the nineteenth century led to them being re-assessed as ancient reptiles. The theory of evolution by natural selection published by Darwin in 1859 began the slow process of restoring these collections of ancient bones to their proper place in natural history. While backward American states still insist on banning the teaching of evolution (is that why they have to import scientists from more rational countries?) it is now widely accepted, if misunderstood. The last twenty years have put feathers on dinosaurs and birds in the same family as (dinosaurs like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park). Discoveries have been made that show some dinosaurs cared for their young, and basically did many of the things we today associate with mammals and birds. So, is the picture of the dinosaurs from the BBC accurate? Well, it's a good guess, but it's as accurate as current research will allow, probably less so as so much of it is necessarily conjecture - the fossil record leaves no absolute clues about mating behaviour for example.
I've probably said enough now about why I think dinosaurs shouldn't be used as a metaphor for reactionaries unwilling to change. By a similar line of argument I object to those highly intelligent quadrupeds, pigs, being compared to policemen. But I should really leave this review with the sense of awe and wonder I felt at seeing these creatures brought to life. The dolphin like opthalmosaurus chasing bony fish through turquoise waters. The newly revised diplodocus grazing the ground (not the treetops). The sociable leaellynasaura coping with the Antarctic winter. But what sticks with me most is the flight of the ornithocheirus, an albatross-like pterosaur with a wingspan up to twelve metres, gliding across the infant Atlantic to its final resting place. And how can anyone fight for the planet we live on without a sense of wonder?
- 1 How small and how lucky can be seen from the Burgess shale fossils, a remarkable collection of soft-bodied animals preserved in British Columbia, which represent the Pre-Cambrian explosion of multi-cellular life after its bacterial origins. All of the phyla currently alive are represented among the fossils. An uncommon fossil is that of Pikaia, the representative of the ancestors of the phylum vertebrata — containing fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, dinosaurs etc. Only luck can account for why the vertebrata weren't wiped out in the mass extinction that ended the pre-Cambrian, and saw the extinction of so many other potential body plans for animals.
- 2 Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, Penguin 1996, p.106