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The Last Dinosaur Book(long)



Dear Colleagues:  One last thought about the debate between Dinogeorge and
myself over the propriety of using the noun phrase "THE dinosaur."
Dinogeorge says (3 May 1999):

"There is no such thing.  There are many kinds of dinosaurs, none of which
may legitimately be singled out as 'the dinosaur.'" ... which dinosaur does
one mean?  [a list of species follows]  Some kind of mental or metaphysical
construct of an 'ideal dinosaur.'  This is balderdash."

This problem isn't unique, of course, to dinosaurology or taxonomy more
generally.  The question of singular names for collective and class concepts
has vexed linguists for many years.  What do abstractions like "dinosaur,"
"mammal," "tree," denote?  A full treatment of this problem would take us
back to the debates of the nominalists and realists, Aristotelians and
Platonists, and into a discussion of how abstract concepts and ideal
entities function in language.  I think the simplest route is to recall
Frege's distinction between the "sense" of a word and its "reference."  "The
dinosaur" does not not "refer" to any particular being or individual entity
(any more than the species concept homo sapiens does).  But it does have a
sense in our language, and we would be hard-pressed to do any higher-order
reasoning without recourse to such abstractions.

The problem is compounded, of course, when the abstract concept gets
incarnated in some material and visible form--e.g., "liberty" personified as
a woman bearing a torch.  "The dinosaur," as I explain in the book, is a
composite portrait--a verbal concept, a collection of real fragmentary
objects, and a set of speculative images or reconstructions.  It has become
a "concrete abstraction," one that evokes a specific set of features and
rules out some others (that's what the claim of monophyly comes to, I take
it).  In folk taxonomy, "the dinosaur" is picked out by a set of visual and
verbal stereotypes so simple that a five year old can learn them.  That's
why we can recognize them in cookie-cutter abstractions.

So the noun phrase, "the dinosaur" may make us uncomfortable, but it is not
balderdash, and we cannot do without it.

Readers interested in more on this should look at the discussion of
systematics and taxonomy in The Last Dinosaur Book.

Tom Mitchell