I Believe in Isaac

They Call Me a Mighty Brontosaurus

Posted in Uncategorized by isaacmcphee on June 8, 2010

By someone who is not me

They call me a mighty Brontosaurus

Friend of the moon and stars

Bludgeoner of the slabs of truth

Champion of darkness,

and friend to light

What my neck cannot reach

is not worth being sought

This is what it is to be a Brontosaurus

It is rare that an animal inspires me to poetry (though to be fair, this particular verse is not entirely original, but is very loosely based on the structure and meter of a stanza about trolls from Skáldskaparmál by Bragi Boddason), but for the Brontosaurus, I gladly make an exception.

In the annals of animalia, there seems little room for debate when it comes to dinosaurs.  They have long proved fascinating and awe-inspiring to the human mind; mankind has eagerly sought to understand these tremendous and powerful animals whose fragmented bones and footprints have spurred us on to new heights of forensic paleontology.  Though perhaps no practical value will ever be found for this immense scientific field, I know of no one willing to argue that we should stop searching.  Though the reaches of space and the depths of the ocean may be man’s next great frontiers, the mysteries of the Earth’s past and, specifically, giant lizards, must be seen as valuable as well.

I have few more vivid recollections of the earliest years of education than this:  Second Grade.  We are informed by our teacher (Ms. Valentine) at the beginning of the year that we are going to be spending some time studying dinosaurs.

It was the first time in my life – the very first – that the word “studying” was being applied to an action I would be performing, and it was an absolute revolution!  In my mind (yes, this is exactly what I thought when I was in second grade, which is what makes the memory so vivid), my educational career had suddenly taken a startling leap forward; I was no longer merely an elementary school student attempting to learn the basics of getting by in the world – I had arrived at an altogether new and exciting tier of academia: Studying things.  Investigating to discover.  With that one statement from Ms. Valentine (surely ignorant of the power of her own words), I was no long a student, but a true man of science.  I was going to embark on groundbreaking original research on that greatest of all subjects: Dinosaurs.

Now, I cannot remember any of the details of what I might have learned in second grade, because that is not at all important (there is an important lesson to be found here about pedagogical theory and the value of method over substance in the teaching of certain subjects, but I’ll leave that to be debated at a later time).  What is important is that through the study of dinosaurs, I was given my first taste of scientific exploration and given an opportunity to see myself not as a child, but as one who has the potential to seek out and discover new things using only the mind.  It was a very powerful time in my life.

So, it was with great excitement that we began our dinosaur unit that year by looking at one of my favorite dinosaurs: The Brontosaurus.  This mighty herbivore, with its long, serpentine neck and powerful pachyderm-like feet had the gimmicky frills of neither the triceratops nor the stegosaurus, nor the sheer ferocity of the Tyrannosaur, but the fact that it could have simply stomped any of these other beasts out of existence with its might feet gave weight (no pun intended) to its credibility.  Next, we moved on to a similar study of that beautiful, graceful flying dinosaur: The Pterodactyl.

Come to find out as an adult:  The Pterodactyl is not actually a dinosaur, and the brontosaurus doesn’t exist.

At least, these are the claims of science.

On this first point, I will momentarily defer to the opinions of the true scientists, as this is not the issue being addressed here (though I leave the door open to perhaps reopen this door in the future).  But to say that the Brontosaurus – a creature so beloved by children and adult alike – never existed… that seems something like treason.  After all, in a manner of speaking America is the Brontosaurus (at least in spirit).  How can one say that one exists and the other does not?

Clearly, it is in the best interest of the world that the Brontosaurus issue be resolved as quickly as possible.

Though the full story behind this bemoaned dinosaur is both long and fascinating (it is very much on my list of “books needing to be written”), the issue cannot be fully addressed here.  A sadistically acute explanation goes like this:

19th Century:  The Gilded Age of America.  The fossil discoveries in Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas leads to a great rush of fossils and a sudden fascination among Americans over the rapid influx of exciting new species of these “terrible lizards.”  All is right with the world.

Many of these discoveries can be credited to just two men:  Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.  Former friends and later bitter opponents, the rivalry between these two explorers, each searching to better the other in the great dinosaur hunt (which boils down to simply discovering and naming the greatest number of new species), grows to the extent of libel, theft, vandalism, and mutual loathing.  Fossils are destroyed, false claims are made; enough nonsense to go around.  Though perhaps the behavior of these men proved damaging to science itself, this is certainly made up for by the fact that it is really a great little story.

Anyway, this all leads back to the Brontosaurus.  Othniel Marsh discovered the fossils of a massive sauropod (really big dinosaur) in 1877, which he called the Apatosaurus (which in Greek means “Deceptive Lizard,” due to some of its bones closely resembling that of another species).  Marsh published his findings and then two years later discovered still another similar dinosaur of even greater proportions.  This second sauropod Marsh called the Brontosaurus (“Thunder Lizard”).

Othniel Marsh died in 1899, perhaps never realizing that in his epic quest to discover more dinosaurs than his bitter rival, Cope, he had made a little mistake.  Just a few years later paleontologists began to realize that the Apatosaurus and the Brontosaurus were not really as different as Marsh had claimed.  In fact, it was soon enough realized that Marsh’s original discovery which he called the Apatosaurus was really just a baby Brontosaurus.

And yet (and this is where things get absurd), “scientists” (I use this term loosely) decided that it was the former name – the one originally published by Marsh – which would stick around as the official name.  So the two dinosaurs were amalgamated into one, the Apatosaurus.  Never mind the fact that Brontosaurus is a significantly stronger name.  Never mind the fact that Brontosaurus was the name given to the fully grown adult dinosaur, while Apatosaurus was given to the child.  Never mind common sense.

And of course, never mind the fact that people wanted the Brontosaurus.  This fact is quite evident in that even 86 years after science decided to do away with the Brontosaurus, the thing was still showing up on U.S. postage stamps (leading to a remarkably petty outcry from the paleontological community, who take these things far too seriously and don’t seem to care about what people want).  It wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that museums stopped using the term Brontosaurus!

If scientists had their way (God forbid!), the name Brontosaurus would never again tumble off of a person’s tongue.  Those dreadful remnants of the “Bone Wars” would be left in the past and never mentioned again.

But let us start again!  Let us revive the Brontosaurus, if not literally (though I dream that one day Jurassic Park will become a reality – it is more than worth the risk) then, at the very least, in the hearts and mind of our children.

May we teach our young ones the truth:  Though they try desperately to be more so, scientists are only human beings and are not to be held up as infallible.  Scientists (not all of them, certainly, but as a generalization) believe that by amassing knowledge they might somehow be “freed” from the very biases and aesthetic devotion which make us humans in the first place.  They feel that by pushing aside the common traits of humanity they might make themselves into something far better, when in truth all they are becoming nothing more than robots.

I don’t believe there is any way around these two facts:

1)      The spirit of the Brontosaurus ought to be revived, for the thing never truly died.

2)      Scientists are robots.


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