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The Last Dinosaur Book

In response to Matthew Celeskey' skepticism about my claim that the dinosaur
is best understood (in popular culture) as a totem animal. (See his letter
to the List on Thursday, April 8, 1999). I'll admit that this a complex
notion, more complicated than merely calling it a "cultural icon."  But I
think it deserves some thought.  Human societies have always adopted animals
and animal images as symbols of tribal or clan identity.  Chinese emperors
and feudal barons used the dragon as a heraldric device; the Israelites
erected a Golden Calf (with bad consequences); the Trojans failed to look a
gift horse in the mouth and took it into their city as a trophy of their
victory over the Greeks.  We moderns still elevate animals as the emblems of
nations (the American Eagle, British Lion, Russian Bear) and of smaller
social units like clubs (the Elks) and sports teams (Toronto Raptors).

So I don't think it's implausible on the face of it to think that dinosaurs
might be playing a similar role for us--at the same time that they are
performing as scientific objects and educational devices.  The "totem"
connection becomes even more compelling when one thinks of them as symbols
of deep antiquity, our ancestral predecessors as "rulers of the earth" (just
as the Greeks believed that the Chthonian, serpentine Gods of the underworld
preceded their human-formed Olympian Gods).  Totemism also involves ritual
practices (death/resurrection, festivals of consumption and sacrifice) that
might be profitably explored in connection with the stories and rituals we
associate with dinosaurs.

NONE OF THIS, I hasten to add, threatens the objectivity or reliability of
scientific research in any way.  It just turns the focus of science onto the
culture in which it is practiced.

Tom Mitchell

     Date: Thu, 08 Apr 1999 19:46:23 -0600