Why We Love Dinosaurs?

I don’t much like it when, as a conversation starter, people ask me what I do. Men (the human variety of most limited social skills and imaginations) are usually the ones who ask. “How come kids love dinosaurs so much?”

For them, my answer, in a similar tone to their own, is: “The real question is what’s the matter with adults that we aren’t fascinated any more by the most stupendous creatures ever to walk the Earth?”

No dinosaur question has occasioned as many boring newspaper articles. (none of them were written by me!). Most of these screeds quote child psychologists instead of going to the proper source: kids.

If asked, children would tell you “dinosaurs are awesome!” This is more concisely what I wished to say above.

Or “they’re so big!” True enough of some, though on average dinosaurs were SUV-sized, and some smaller than robins.

Or - and only if they are boys - “T. rex was mean!”

Note the exclamation marks please. Kids talk of dinosaurs with the unbridled enthusiasm of a teenaged boy-band fan.

Children’s dinosaur obsession was neatly summed up by the late Harvard psychologist Shepp White to his inquiring colleague, the late Steven Jay Gould, the great evolutionary biologist: “They’re big, they’re mean and they’re dead.”

All true, sometimes, but far from sufficient.

Yes, the scale of the largest dinosaurs, especially in comparison to a knee-high kid, is overwhelming. Are dinosaurs a stand-in for parents? I dunno. Ask Freud about that one.

As for “dead” – I’d bet my shrink bill on that being a factor. How to come to grips with the concept of death, or simply of fear itself (monsters) without fear? Well, dinosaurs are gone, unless we count birds. They’re certainly not under the bed.

For me, the dinosaur bug hit when I was introduced to dino toys and books at the then-usual age of 5 (now parents have discovered that the fascination extends down to kids as young as 3).

I can still nearly feel in my hand the heavy (then) and colorful plastic dinosaurs that arrived on my birthday, along with a large display board fitted with a plastic volcano, and surrounded by palm trees.

The collection was standard for the 50’s, and often in collections now – Triceratops, what we then obliviously called “Brontosaurus” (though the name was actually invalidated in 1911), Stegosaurus, Ankylosaurus, Allosaurus, “Trachodon”, a duckbill whose name has also been discarded (in favor of, I believe, Anatosaurus.), and of course the most captivating dino of all, T. rex. I spent hours orchestrating their play fights. The choreography changed but the result was always the same – a roaring tyrannosaur taking them all down in a terrifying rage true to his Latin name. I provided sound effects to match the action.

My dinomania took firm hold thanks to my Aunt Sylvia. Everyone should have an Aunt Sylvia, the relative who offers nothing but encouragement. My aunt was a nature-lover, to such an extent that she’d stand on the stool in her tiny Manhattan kitchen, so that, if she peered at just the right angle, she could see the one tree visible in the distance.

In 1956, she made for me the greatest introduction a child could have. To T. rex, the famed skeleton, then rearing upright, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. T. rex was 65 million years old. I was five. The sight of a full-sized dinosaur, the skeleton of a 40 foot-long animal 15 times my own size, was truly jaw-dropping. I immediately made visiting the dinosaurs a weekly request, one that Sylvia always made happen.

So for me at least, “big, mean and dead” was perhaps the source of my initial dinosaur fascination. But dinosaur love for children is more multi-faceted than that.

Dinosaur love, taken another way, might describe the amorous adventures and anatomical acrobatics of giant animals. Not much to say, yet, on that score. The late and very peculiar British paleontologist Beverly Halstead and his equally peculiar wife, did the lecture circuit a few decades ago dressed in flesh-colored leotards, contorting themselves to simulate how dinosaurs might have gone about copulating. One might have expected a program this eccentric from a guy named Beverly. How it all went, for the Halsteads, and the dinosaurs, history does not record. Males usually take the top berth among most large copulating animals. How stegosaurs and other heavily armored dinosaurs made do with that positioning is puzzling. For their determination alone, they should all have our admiration, or at least pity.

As for humans’ enduring love for dinosaurs, it’s a fascination for all ages, and has been ever since dinosaurs were invented, at least in name, nearly two hundred years ago (Sir Richard Owen coined the term in the 1840’s). It’s only that lately that we began to abandon notions of Biblical leviathans and folktales of ancient giants. Or for that matter, even less time since we stopped thinking that all that was still is. Extinction is that new.

Without a concept of dinosaurs, or even extinct animals, one of the earliest recorded dinosaur finds, the bulbous end of a large femur unearthed in England in the 17th century, was quite seriously taken to be the hardened scrotum of a giant.

Fanciful interpretations of dinosaurs were not confined to Western civilization. Yes, Chinese observations as far back as the 13th century described the concepts of fossilization and animal evolution. But for many more centuries, Chinese considered the bones of dinosaurs they excavated to be those of dragons. They carved them with messages and ground them for poultices. I’ve met nomads in Mongolia who still do the same.

As for dinosaurs, science caught onto them in the 1820’s, with the Iguanodon tooth finds of British physician Gideon Mantell and the Megalodon jaw identified by minister and geophagist (consumer of zoo animals) William Buckland, The fossils were fancifully recreated as lumbering giants. The thumb spike of Iguanodon, for instance, ended up on its forehead.

Not long after dinosaurs got a name, the first dinosaur mania took root. Painter-sculptor Waterhouse Hawkins created a set of bronze dinosaurs that drew throngs to the famed Crystal Palace exhibition. (They still stand in London’s Sydenham Park. Reputedly, that a second set of Hawkins dinos was built for New York’s Central Park but buried, for unknown reasons, by thugs working for Boss Tweed).

Dinosaurs have been a staple of our culture ever since. The modern obsession with fads leads the media to search for surges in dinomania, as if it is a passing fancy like hula hoops or Britney Spears.

The unveiling of the newly-found largest of all land-based killers yet known, the very same skeleton of my pal Tyrannosaurus rex at the American Museum of Natural History in the first decade of the 20th century, marveled the public. The Museum’s director, John Osborne, knew a thing or two about promotion himself. The first maquettes built for the display featured T. rex in the tail-level-with-head pose we still take as accurate. But as a showman, Osborne chose to position to the full-sized T. rex rearing up like a spooked horse.

Adventure hero and Indiana Jones inspiration Roy Chapman Andrews, a master promoter himself, discovered dinosaur nests on his Central Asiatic expeditions of the 1920’s. Dinosaurs instantly took on a new dimension, as parents and babies. Andrews was greeted with a ticker-tape parade on his return to New York.

Other milestones of culture more than science have at once stimulated, and reflected, our enduring fascination.

The first animated film was of a dinosaur, Windsor McKay’s Gertie.

In the ‘50’s, Disney’s animated Fantasia featured memorable dinosaurs marching off to extinction to the strains of Stravinsky. A few years after, a huge mural of ancient life, dominated by dinosaurs, painted for Yale University’s Peabody Museum in the late 1950’s by Rudolf Zallinger, won a Pulitzer Prize and adorned the cover of a Life Magazine that I gazed at endlessly as a child.

In the 90’s, marketing bonanzas were made of dinosaurs as disparate as Barney and those of Jurassic Park, capturing two extremes of the dinosaur fan base – gentle fantasy-prone pre-schoolers and slasher-movie-loving teens and adults.

Dinosaur mania has benefited from all the marketing. Ancient life is full of bizarre big creatures, from 20 foot-long ground sloths to equally massive giant kangaroos. But dinosaurs have the gone-but-not forgotten niche for giant ancient animals nearly cornered.

The rabid core audience for dinosaurs lies between the years 3 to 8. In these years, kids have the talent we have sadly lost – the ability to put themselves into other realms and so to imagine, in Technicolor, living in a world of these giants. Still, there’s more too it than that.

In my own amateur analysis, children’s dinomania is not just a genetic disorder that dies down with maturation. It’s actually a series of infections that neatly build upon one another to match the pre-teen development of kids.

For the youngest kids, dinosaurs are one of many lovable product themes, swinging on mobiles, adorning pajamas, books and bed sheets, or being converted to pillow plushes.

We don’t consider it much of an accomplishment when a two year-old says “cow” or “bird.” But the parental praise heaped upon a two-year old who says “stegosaur” or the must-be prodigy who mouths “Pachycephalosaurus” is an enormous boost for a kids’ dinosaur fascination.

Dinosaurs start assuming well-defined familiar shapes for three- to five year-olds, whether in fact books or plastic toy sets. A key word here is “set.” The early, and unfortunately lifetime concept of “mine” begins extending to collecting associated objects. Trucks, trains, barnyard animals, dinosaurs – they all exist in discrete groups and worlds, at least in the imagining. This fascination has been most crassly manipulated by PBS, with its Dinosaur Train series, the pre-schooler equivalent of mixing Scotch and Vicodin.

By 5, a gradual transition to the real world has begun, from a timeless realm of imagining to a specific fantasy of a past largely defined by an arbitrary toy makers’ grouping of big-name dinosaurs.

The past becomes truly the past, and a treasure hunt to boot, when kids, around age 6 or 7, hit upon the concept of digging for dinosaur bones. Kids have by then glommed onto the idea that was once a dinosaur is now a bunch of bones. So, why shouldn’t there be a dinosaur fossil buried in MY back yard?

So kids all over the world begin tearing up their neighborhoods. Unfortunatley, a far more likely outcome is finding the remains of somebody’s Fido. But finding your own dinosaur COULD happen. It sometimes does for kids out West.

This exploration process is a phase of particular interest to me. I see it as the dawn of scientific thinking, and more importantly, excitement, in kids. Search for clues, analyze the evidence, construct a conclusion.

Educators waste far too much time wondering how they can create science curiosity in kids. Science fascination already exists among dinosaur-loving kids. It’s our challenge, one we have largely failed at meeting, to convert that enthusiasm into a life-long love of science.

So, when all but the nerdiest kids turn 8 or 9, dinosaurs die within them, never to be reborn with more than a flicker of the flame with which they once burned. The modern real world begins to take hold, at first via heroes and other obsessions, from ball players to horses. So it went for me – to sports and girls – two abiding interests. Dinosaurs only made a comeback for me when in my 30’s, my employer, The Boston Globe, sent me to profile two of the then most-famous of dinosaur paleontologists, Bob Bakker and Jack Horner.

The second coming of dinomania for me that ensued was more cerebral, less emotional, though compelling nonetheless. These peculiar characters and their equally odd and unwashed camp-followers, were able to read a long-gone landscape within the beautifully barren badlands. They were embarked on a never-ending scavenger hunt. Once scavenged, the fossil evidence became part of a jigsaw puzzle of reconstructing a past life, a quest made all the harder since the puzzle was inevitably missing most of the pieces.

Other than the painstaking work of fossil preparation which has never held any appeal for me, all about dinosaur exploring was all exotic and compelling, part of a decidedly low-tech science much easier to grasp than brain surgery or rocket science. That the quarry was an enormous animal I had once adored, only added to the appeal. But it was the search for a vanished world that gripped me, and still does.

I am well aware that my personal dinosaur renaissance was a serendipitous one, little understood by anyone, least of all my family. My older daughter, when in her early 20’s digging holes for archaeological research, went to so far as to tell me that looking for dinosaurs “is silly.” This was the pot calling the kettle black if there ever was one.

So, yes, I love dinosaurs even though I’m past puberty. By 10 or 11 among girls, and a few years later for we slow-maturing males, our obsessions focus on the opposite, adjacent or same sex – emphasis on the last word. It’s all downhill from there in my view: jobs, marriage, remarriage, and kids in varying order. Then grandchildren, arthritis, retirement, more arthritis, death, and perhaps fossilization.

But along the way, every once in a while, if we’re lucky, we see a strange new dinosaur on the screen or on the news. Maybe then we can feel a spark still within us from the magical time when we were young and dinosaurs were alive in our hearts.