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Dismiss dinosaurs as failures...and pave a path to a bleak future

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Dinosaurs are frequently cited as the ultimate exemplars of failure. “Dead as a dinosaur” is now deeply embedded in our vernacular. Yet death for a species, and even for groups of species, is as inevitable as your death. Somewhere around 99 percent of all species that have ever existed are now extinct. The 10 million to 50 million species that comprise the modern day biosphere (the uncertainty due mostly to our lack of understanding of microbial diversity) are but the latest players in a four-billion-year drama—“The Greatest Show on Earth,” to borrow the title of Richard Dawkins most recent book.

Similarly, the event that decimated the dinosaurs about 65.5 million years ago killed off only those dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus alive at the end of the Cretaceous Period (with the exception of some birds, which managed to survive this biologic bottleneck). Dinosaurs existed for 160 million years prior to that doomsday event, birthing a bewildering array of forms that succumbed to the scythe of extinction long before a giant asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, we humans have been around a mere 200,000 years or so, and our small clan of bipedal primate cousins originated about six million years ago. In other words, dinosaurs are a great success story rather than a bunch of prehistoric washouts.

The notion of dinosaurs as failures underscores a pair of conditions that threaten the persistence of humanity: myopia and hubris. Lacking a meaningful sense of deep time, we tend to lump all pre-human life-forms into a single box labeled “extinct.” Virtually blinded by our severe temporal myopia, we ignore the multi-billion-year skein of life-forms, the dramatic comings and goings of organisms through the geologic ages. Meanwhile, our hubris derives from a worldview that transforms other life forms to objects, and places humans not only outside but superior to (nonhuman) nature. While I admit to personal bias on the matter, it’s simply ridiculous to thumb our noses at dinosaurs and laugh derisively at their present-day absence. We might as well speak contemptuously of our great grandparents; after all, they’re no longer with us.
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