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RE: Dinosaur Art & Q's

Ilja:  I think your 2 cents is worth a great deal more than that.  What
you're saying is that the meaning of the dinosaur (as a cultural symbol) has
its own logic and history that is independent of scientific research.  The
only thing I would question is whether the early modern image was just one
of failure.  The giantism, ferocity, world dominance were, I think, positive
values--especially for the American captains of industry who financed
dinosaur research.  In short, I think the consistent feature of the dinosaur
metaphor is ambivalence--i.e., BOTH success and failure, novelty and
obsolescence, etc.  It's this ambiguity that makes them so resonant as
metaphors.  Precisely because they don't have one simple meaning, but point
in different directions, and evoke contrary associations, they can serve as
bones of contention and objects of fascination.  For more about this, you
might look at my humble attempt to write a history of this cultural
fascination.  It's called "THe Last Dinosaur Book: The Life and Times of a
Cultural Icon." (U of Chicago Press, 1998).  As you might imagine, it is
getting a mixed reception from dinophiles!    Tom Mitchell

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-dinosaur@usc.edu [mailto:owner-dinosaur@usc.edu]On Behalf Of
Ilja Nieuwland
Sent: Wednesday, April 21, 1999 3:15 PM
To: wjtm@midway.uchicago.edu; dinosaur@usc.edu
Subject: Re: Dinosaur Art & Q's

Tom Mitchell wrote:

> Dear Dane, Thomas, Raymond:  sorry for the name confusion.  I like the
> suggestion that the issue isn't the metaphoric use of dinosaurs (we all
> agree that is inevitable, I take it) but the use of the WRONG metaphor
> (useless, outdated, etc)  Some of you now think the metaphor should be
> changed.  If the bird hypothesis is correct, it looks like dinos are a big
> success story.  Or maybe it is US (humans) who are the endangered species,
> faced with obsolescence.  What interests me about this is not who is right
> about the "success/failure" alternative, but the fact that the dinosaur
> serves as a symbol within human value systems, and a debatable symbol--a
> "bone of contention" if you like.  We can be pretty sure that these
> never crossed the minds of the dinosaurs themselves.  So what does this
> debate over a metaphor tell us about ourselves?  Tom Mitchell
It seems to me that the public and scientific perception of dinosaurs have
parted ways many years ago, possibly as early as the last century (or the
one before that, if you count our national hero _Mosasaurus hoffmanni_) when
sensationalist news stories emphasised above all the size of dinosaurs.
Their apparent close relation to reptiles endowed them with other halmark
traits that were associated with reptiles in that time: slowness, reduced
intelligence, and so on. In Victorian times, there was also a distinction
made between what I like to call white and black nature, the first one being
represented by things from Olsen's book of British Birds, and the second by
things like rats, bats, creepy-crawlies and, say, pterosaurs. Dinosaurs were
logically lumped with the latter.
Whereas the scientific study of these animals has led to important new
discoveries, the dinosaur as a cultural icon has to a large degree retained
those nineteenth-century reptilian stereotypes. Some change is noticeable
(thank you, Bill Watterson!), but by and large the first association that
most people have when confronted with the word 'dinosaur' will still be that
of a highly extinct, somewhat stupid and swampy sauropod.
It has always been very difficult to change these public conceptions, and
that is a reason why I think we should not be too bothered about it and just
do our work properly. Of course, it can be annoying, especially for those
working in museums who get confronted with it on a daily basis.
On the point of success/failure: I have always wondered about these
dialectics superimposed on past life, since that which constites either has
changed rather markedly over the years. In 19th-century terms (I am
generalising, of course), a 'successful' group would be one that dominates
(visible) vertebrate animal life on earth. In short: the large mammalian
predators. Today, we much more often refer to numbers and proliferation as a
measure for success, pointing at rats, ants, etc. One may argue that
dinosaurs were highly 'successful' according to the former, and less so in
the latter definition. It all seems rather contentious to me.
Having said all that, the point is that the common idea about dinos and what
they actually are or were have only a very narrow common basis. A good
simile would be to look at our 'icons' of trains, for instance (houses would
form another good example). On signs, in children's books and in numerous
other places a train is symbolised by a little steam engine, often with
smoke emanating from the funnel, this notwithstanding the fact that in many
(and probably most) parts of the world this type of train has not been in
daily use since the 1950s. As in trains, images of dinosaurs have gained a
separate merit, quite apart from the things they're supposed to depict.

Just my 2c.

Ilja Nieuwland