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RE: What do you hate about dino-docs?



What anthropomorphism in dinosaur portrayals?  I seem to remember something
about a Disney movie with dinosaurs that might be described as such.  ;^)

Conceptually, the ideal degree of naturalism for a project might be said to
depend on the goals it sets out for itself, but in the real world of large
scale productions I am mindful that this will be tempered or, in some cases,
utterly thagomized and dinoturbated, by the projected demands of the target
audience and by the people putting up the money.  Of course, a lot of people
will just say, the Hell with it, I'm the writer and I'll make them dance and
karaoke to whatever tune I choose.  "Damn it, Jim, I'm a writer, not a
dinosaurologist!"  

There is a long tradition of anthropomorphism in oral storytelling,
children's literature, cartoons, and popular culture, and despite a
diversity of opinions on the value of humanized non-humans, the enduring
popularity of this tradition confirms that it strikes a positive chord with
people in general. No doubt anthropomorphism is a self-perpetuating cycle,
as today's adult writers were certainly exposed to anthropomorphic
traditions throughout their formative years.   

The realist in you may, for example, object to Beatrix Potter's portrayal of
animal characters as possessing the upright posture, emotions, clothing,
furnishings, culture, and speech of 19th century Englishmen, and serving as
players in fables intended to teach lessons relevant to human readers, but
the naturalist in you may still appreciate Potter's biologically correct
illustrations and the flourishes of reality in some of the stories.  We know
that rabbits do eat farmer's crops, for example, and that those farmers,
whose livelihoods rely on their crops, typically seek to eliminate the
rabbits as pests.  But if you serve up a story of a young _T. rex_ who eats
broccoli instead of animal prey, I'm outta there.

I think that anthropomorphism may be an inevitable outgrowth of our
recognition that we ourselves are animals, and hence we see some of
ourselves in the animals around us.  This extends beyond the obvious
similarities of our physical features and behaviors to the expectation that
there are shared emotions between human and nonhuman animals.  To what
extent these shared feelings are genuine (and I would think that this level
of similarity is less likely with a spider than with a dog, for instance),
such a view is reinforced by anthropomorphism in our popular culture, and it
seems likely that these humanized animals have served to promote empathy for
other species.    
      
Fictional animal stories may represent efforts both to make animals seem
more familiar and accessible than they really are, so we can relate to the
characters and their story; and to make simple human stories more
interesting, by superimposing appealing or unusual creatures and
environments over commonplace human characters and situations.  The familiar
gives one comfort -- but the unfamiliar stimulates.  Animals also afford
greater latitude in the action of a story -- they can pounce and tussle and
behave atrociously in a children's book without traumatizing young readers
so much as a more literal telling with human characters would.

Having said all that, I personally prefer to see dinosaurs behaving as
dinosaurs rather than as people, because I imagine that, as Gregory S. Paul
once put it, dinosaurs are not boring.  Not to say that I would pay big
bucks to see a movie featuring _Tenontosaurus_ snoozing for hours on end
even if the living animal really did so.  But a contemporary documentary of
extant creatures doesn't depict animals in this way, so one needn't go to
such extremes.  Speaking of "Dinosaur Planet," hey, I like White Tip a lot
-- I don't care what everybody else says.

In contrast to the "Let's make 'em all human and cuddly" approach is the
attraction of the "Ewwww -- that's gross!" factor.  Not to be sexist about
it (moi?), but there are lots of 10 year old boys (and, no, not _just_ 10
year old boys) who can't get enough of shark attacks, venomous animals, and
anything in nature that could be described as scary or disgusting.  Maybe
this is the market for David's theropods attacking innocent baby herbivores
proposal.  

On the down side, David, I know as a parent myself that parents usually have
the final say about the products they buy for their children, and so the
parental gag threshold becomes an important factor.  Lucky for you, this
reflex tends to diminish as the children get a little older and teens and
parents give up on the idea of ever agreeing on anything again, as evidenced
by the popularity of ever edgier videogames among teens.  This may be the
ideal market for your miniseries that is nothing but predators chowing down
on helpless veggiesaurus chicks in the messiest fashion imaginable, but is
this market alone big enough to make you rich?  I don't know, but I for one
would like to see it.  Ya just gotta feather those theropods for me this
time, OK?           


Dino Guy Ralph
Docent at the California Academy of Sciences
Dinosaur and Fossil Education
Member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

What was the question?  =)