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Pronto for Proto (long-info/humor)



(again, I got this from a friend that sent it to me, and am otherwise
not connected to it.  If you want to contact the author-he puts his
e-mail waaaaayyyy down at the bottom-    -Betty)

explosive-cargo
by Michael Jay Tucker

                        History Four: "Proto, Protomammals ...
                        King Of The Wild Frontier"

i.

Hello Everyone,

Readers with keen eyesight will have already noticed that,
once again, I am not in my little virtual office at
mtucker@world.std.com. Rather, I'm back in this large virtual
lecture hall.

This means, of course, that we are going to have yet
another column in my ongoing series on the history and
pre-history of the world. So far we've gotten through the Big
Bang and up to mass extinctions ... or, roughly, several
billion years per column. Not bad considering.

GEEZ, BOSS, DO YOU SUPPOSE WE'LL EVER GET UP
TO PEOPLE?

Oh, hello, BERNIE ... didn't see you there. Everyone, you
know BERNIE, don't you? He's a intelligent software agent
who lives on my hard disk. Say hello to everyone, BERNIE.

HELLO TO EVERYONE, BERNIE.

 I hate it when you do that. Anyway, this week ...

I KNOW, BOSS! I KNOW! WE'RE GONNA DO DINOSAURS,
RIGHT?

Well, yes. And no. We're going to get to 'em... but first ...
hmm.  Take a look at this computer simulation.

        *SPROING*

HOMYGOD, BOSS. THAT'S THE UGLIEST THING I EVER
SAW. WHAT IS IT?

My direct, if distant, ancestor.

OPPS. SORRY. NO OFFENSE.

None taken. I had an uncle once who looked a lot like  ...
never mind. Anyway, it's a Gorgonspian ... Late Permian ...
five hundred pounds of fangs, claws, and scales. A
massive, small brained, bad tempered scaly quadruped
with a taste for meat ... sort of like a cross between a giant
crocodile and  mammoth pit bull.

AND IT'S A DINOSAUR, RIGHT?

No. It isn't. And that's where things get interesting. You see,
this creature came several million years BEFORE
dinosaurs.

But, give it closer look. Go on.

UH ... BOSS?

Yes?

UH ... I GUESS. ER ... SAY, THIS THING IS JUST A
SIMULATION,  RIGHT? IT'S NOT LIKE THAT THING YOU
HAD IN THE MASS EXTINCTION BOX LAST TIME?

Hmmm? Oh. Don't be silly.  Just don't touch that Big Red
Switch on the wall.

BIG RED SWITCH ... RIGHT.

OKAY ... LET'S SEE. I'LL GET OVER NEXT TO IT ... WHOA.
MAN! THOSE ARE SOME FANGS. AND THE CLAWS!
GEEZ. AND MUSCLES ... AND ... ON THE BACK ...

UH ... HA... HUH?

BOSS....

What BERNIE?

BOSS ... THIS THING ... THIS THING'S GOT FUR. ON THE
BACK OF ITS HEAD. IT'S LIKE A REPTILE, BUT IT'S GOT
HAIR!

That's right. I'll admit, the hair's hypothetical. It's only been
suggested that creatures like the Gorgon here had hair or
fuzz or some other thermal covering ... there's no proof ...but
I put it in to make a point.

You see, the thing in front of you is a protomammal .... the
dominant form of life BEFORE dinosaurs ... and the
ancestors of mammals, the dominant form of life AFTER
dinosaurs.

DUH ... HUH?

You know, I couldn't have put it better myself.

Let's go to the reading list. Then I'll try to explain.

ii.

The list:

*PREHISTORIC ANIMALS, by Dr. Joseph Augusta,
illustrated by Zdenek Burian, translated by Dr. Greta Hort.
Published by Paul Hamlyn Ltd. in 1963.

*THE DINOSAUR HERESIES, Robert T. Bakker, PH.D.,
William Morrow and Co. Inc., New York, 1986.

This week's suggestions for readings are a little different
because one of the titles on it -- Bakker's -- is so
monumentally useful that it's going to show up in the next
installment ... when we get to dinosaurs proper.

But I'll start with Augusta's PREHISTORIC ANIMALS. This
book, originally published in 1960, is now thoroughly
obsolete. It came along before the great revolutions in
paleontology in the last few decades. Dinosaurs here are
presented as cold blooded, small brained reptiles. Large
herbivores, like Diplodocus, are shown as semi-aquatic,
buoying their immense weight by living hippo-fashion, half
submerged in pools and streams.

None of which we believe these days.

But, even so, I throw in Augusta's work for two reasons.
first, it is a strikingly beautiful book. The illustrator, Burian,
fills it with over 60 genuinely magnificent color plates
showing prehistoric creatures and landscapes.

The second reason I include it is more personal. This book
was given to me when I was very young ... and it was one of
my genuine favorites.  I can remember many wonderful
evenings when, as a child, I would sit with my father and he
would read to me from this book ... of Cambrian seas and
fin-backed Edaphhosaurs, of T.Rex and toothed birds, of
toed horses and Neanderthal.

for a more modern view of dinosaurs, let's move on to
Bakker. He's a fascinating character, really. He affects a
shaggy beard and a cowboy hat. He's also a graduate of
Harvard and Yale,  the curator of the University Museum of
the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the reigning
(perhaps only) celebrity in paleontology. He is to dinosaur
studies sort of what Stephen Hawking is to physics. That is,
he's the scientist you've heard of, someplace, even if you're
not sure why or where.

He's also unquestionably brilliant. He was one of a small,
dedicated band of radicals who took on the entire scientific
establishment and managed to make it rethink some pretty
fundamental positions -- no small feat, really. Science is like
a Brontosaurus. It does not change direction easily.

In any case, Bakker & Co.'s great feat was, in the 1960s, to
make paleontology rethink its view of dinosaurs  ... or rather,
to make it go back to a long discredited position, which just
happened to be right.

Before them, you see, there had been two distinct periods in
what people thought about dinosaurs. In the nineteenth
century, among the Victorians and Edwardians, scientists
pictured dinosaurs as vital and viable creatures. Darwin
and Huxley and their followers gave us our most popular
images of their creatures ... as energetic and vibrant.

Then, come the beginning of the twentieth century,
everything began to change.  Suddenly dinosaurs were not
particularly interesting. They were -- or so said a new, and
chillingly confident generation of paleontologists --  small
brained, stupid, and sluggish. They were unable to adapt to
changing conditions. Their extinction was a good thing,
actually. Eliminate the unfit, and all that.

I'm not sure why the change came in the academy. I DO
know that some of it (not all, but some) was creepy. There
was a nasty judgmental tone to it. I know of nothing quite
like it ... at least not until the emergence of today's Political
Correctness.

Come to think of it, "dinosaur" entered the language as an
insult ... meaning slow, stupid and doomed ... at just about
the same time that the academy was flirting with the
intellectual underpinnings of what would become
totalitarianism. Intellectuals were reading their Marx, and
perverting him into Lenin. And they were reading their
Darwin, and perverting him into Social-Darwinism.

And I wonder if there wasn't something similar going on ... if
there wasn't a common intellectual thread between the
reevaluation (and devaluing) of dinosaurs and of men.
After all, if beasts could be unfit ...  could deserve to perish
... then, well, why not men? Why not certain kinds of men ...
and women ... and children? Why shouldn't you hurry,
indeed, natural selection along a little? In the ovens of
Auschwitz, and the camps of Siberia? Where racial
submen, or the petite bourgeois might make way for the
future?

Be that as it may ...

Anyway, the paleo-dogma from about the 1920s on was that
of the cold blooded, small brained, reptilian dinosaur. It was
taught as science for over half a century.

But, then along comes the 1960s...

It was an age ripe for change. Everything from foreign policy
to sexual mores were being questioned, anyway. Why not
dinosaurs, too?

Robert Bakker and a number of young paleo-Turks did just
that. They made a bunch of truly outrageous assertions.
Like, that dinosaurs were relatively advanced creatures,
some of whom had brains as big as modern birds', and that
they were warm blooded.

for the next 20 years or so there's something like outright
war in Dino Studies. The Cold Bloodied Reptile Partisans
pulled up the drawbridge and put the hot oil on to boil. The
Warm Blooded Revolutionaries rolled up the siege engines
and started singing the theme song of Les Mis. Quite a feat,
since it hadn't been written yet (except of course by Hugo
and he wasn't on Broadway, so he doesn't count).

In fact, I'm just old enough to remember when all this went
down. I read, in SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, Bakker's article
"Dinosaur Renaissance" in 1974. I remember being utterly
fascinated by it ... he proposed, as I recall, that birds and
mammals are actually members of much, much larger
families of life ... with dinosaurs and birds in one group, and
mammals together with protomammals (Order Therapsida)
in the other.

iii.

PROTOMAMMALS! I REMEMBER. LIKE THAT
GORGONZOLLA THING.

Exactly. Gorgonopsian. In fact, that was one of the many
things that absolutely threw me for a loop when, as a 17
year old kid, I saw Bakker's piece in SCI-AM ... and it's a
feeling I still get when I read chapter 20 of his book, "The
Kazanian Revolution: Setting The Stage for Dinosauria."

You remember last time I said that Dinosaurs were really
rather recent? Well, they were. They date back only to the
late Triassic ... from, in fact, precisely the same time that the
first TRUE mammals appeared.

But life had been on the planet for millions upon millions of
years before dinosaurs. Indeed, Bakker writes about how
the history of the planet can be divided into four
"Megadynasties." The first Megadyansty was the age of
primitive reptiles and amphibians. I'll skip the second ... for
now ... and tell the you that the Megadynasty III was that of
the dinosaurs. Number four is our own.

Megadynasty II, though, was the age of the Protomammals -
- - creatures like this thing before us.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN PROTO...?

Protomammals? They had a lot of mammalian
characteristics Bakker thinks they had developed some
degree of warm bloodedness ... he pictures them with fur. In
fact, one of the most powerful images in his book, and in the
SCI-AM article, is that of "shaggy protomammals stalking
their prey through a winter snowstorm, hot breath steaming
from their nostrils."

HOLLY SALSA PEPPER! THIS THING? HUNTING YOU?

Yep. They were quick. They were powerful. They were
clever ... for their time. Pea brained, but in an age of
brainlessness, the half wit is king. They ran the world and
occupied every niche they could. And, some of them, much
later, developed into true mammals.

AND THESE WERE *BEFORE* DINOSAURS?

Uh-huh.  Think of it: if circumstances had been a little bit
different, something like humanity might have evolved
before Stegosaurus.

In fact, there's a wonderful fantasy there, someplace ... a
novel, perhaps ... set just before the great Permian
extinction, or perhaps at the late Triassic ... in which some
unknown species of protomammal did indeed develop
intelligence. And that millions of years before T.Rex stalked
the earth, something like ourselves built cities, wrote poetry,
lived beautiful and heroic if faintly melancholy lives ...
knowing that in the end all they had built would pass away,
and the world would be inherited by Dragons.

WHAT HAPPENED TO 'EM? HOW COULD ANYTHING
LIKE ... LIKE THAT THING OVER THERE ... GO EXTINCT?

Ah ... well ...

The protomammals were subject to several of the periodic
mass extinctions we discussed last time. In fact, they went
right through the very worst of 'em -- the Permian -- which
eliminated something like 50% of every living thing on the
planet.

Surprisingly, given the level of destruction they'd endured,
the protomammals managed to regroup. Several very
aggressive and sophisticated protomammals moved out
into the now empty world. For instance, there were the
cynodonts, creatures with dog-like faces, some of whom
would develop into Wolf-like predators.

But, this time, the protomammals had company.

With many ecological niches empty, other creatures had a
chance to expand.  Among these were animals very closely
related to modern crocodiles ... and, by the way, crocs and
'gators remain among the most amazing creatures on the
planet. Bakker notes that, in terms of internal structure, they
are as much like birds as other reptiles.

One group of Triassic crocodile-relations seems to have
scored a major coup. It seems to have become at least as
sophisticated ... and as warm blooded ...  as the
protomammals were.

And, this group of beings ... Archosauria, or the "Crimson
Crocodiles,"  Bakker tells us they're called, from stains on
their bones when they were first discovered ... would move
easily and confidently into roles before reserved for
protomammals. Battle was joined. It would be a war of gods
and titans ... but over the next few million years, the
Dragons would slowly win out over the Wolf-lords.

By the late Triassic, it was all over. The few
protomammalian survivors were tiny, obscure cynodonts
hiding in the underbrush. The Crimson Crocs, meanwhile,
had already  produced the prototype of their finest work --
Lagosuchus, the "rabbit-crocodile," the ancestor of  true
dinosaurs.

DINOSAURS!  .... WE FINALLY GET TO DINOSAURS!

Took us long enough, didn't it? Ah well. Next time we do this
trope, we'll see Lagosuchus's kith and kin spread about the
world ... while the little cynodonts squatting in the weeds
and brambles develop into modern mammals.

ABOUT TIME.

Probably. But, in the meantime, let's clean up.

SAY, BOSS?

Yes, BERNIE?

THAT BIG RED BUTTON? THE ONE I'M NOT SUPPOSED
TO PUSH? WHAT DOES IT DO?

Oh, that's the radio button on the simulated gorgonspian. If
you were to depress it, it would go into animation mode and
we'd have to flee screaming for our very lives ...

OH. OKAY. WELL THEN ... WHAT? SCREAMING? LIVES?
ANIMATION? HOLY HAUSENPHEPHER! WHY WOULD
YOU EVEN *HAVE* A BUTTON LIKE THAT?

Well, admittedly, it is a bit dangerous ... but I'm required to
have it under my contract with the Slapstick Workers Local
#90210.

SAY WHAT?

Oh, sure. Standard boiler plate. Every informal essayist, no
matter how unfunny at the best of times, has to have a
Massive Disaster Button so that the silly side kick ... that's
you ...

ME?

Uh-huh ... the silly side kick who's as uncoordinated as a
water buffalo with the DTs ...

I BEG YOUR PARDON! I'LL HAVE YOU KNOW I'VE
GRACEFUL AND ... OPPS. WHOA. HEY...

Can fall over some speck or dirt or something and ...

HELP! SOMEBODY! CATCH ME!

Hit the button ...

LOOK OUT!

        BLOINK!

Release the monster...

        SNARL!

And cause general havoc.

        GRRRR

AH, BOSS ... WHAT NOW?

I think running like hell would be a good idea.

        RORAR

WITH OR WITHOUT SCREAMING?

Oh, definitely, with.

SUPER.

        GROWL

EEEEEEK

Like he said ...

SCUDLE, Scudle, scudle...

Well, folks ... pant puff ... as BERNIE and I hot foot it out of
here ...

HURRY BOSS ... HE'S GAINING....

        SNAP, SNARL, SNIP!

This ... pant, gasp ... looks like a good time to leave you ....

        SNARL SNAP

YOWCH!

 ... with a pleasant Good Evening and ...

        SNAP!

And my signature sigh off ...

        SNARL!

Onward and upward.

=A9Copyright 1996 by Michael Jay Tucker
                       ***
explosive-cargo is a column of humor and commentary by
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