Another feathered dinosaur ramble?! On Jurassic Park IV, Science, Plausible Doubt, etc.

Hey, guys. Just when I thought I couldn’t possibly say anything more on why fellow paleontology geeks need to loosen up on feathered dinosaurs, I had a couple of extra thoughts to contribute (or reiterate, in some cases). I don’t want to make a huge deal out of this again, except it seems others are bent on making a big deal out of the issue. I wonder if anyone else is going to call them out on it.

Not really a unified angry rant so much as it is a couple of thoughts bundled together. And I’m trying to be charitable and composed here. Honest.

Xiphactinus, on the other hand...

Xiphactinus, on the other hand, isn’t. My thanks to Dinomemes.

One

Sometimes it’s hard to be charitable with other paleontology enthusiasts when they make such a big deal out of “OMG why aren’t the ignorant masses accepting feathered dinos?! We’re shoving the facts down their throats as hard as we can! Facts! Science! Argh!”

Maybe that’s the problem? Perhaps we can afford to back off from the battering ram? Entice people with the awesome fact that some dinosaurs had feathers (as XKCD does, quite admirably). Facts coupled with charity and grace will generate a greater impact. The problem isn’t that science is making dinosaurs less cool. The problem is that those with facts on their side are addressing the subject in such an adversarial manner that they alienate everyone else.

[One-B]

There’s a lot of derisive humor at the expense of outdated raptor depictions. Oh, so scaly raptors would have been pathetic and ill-equipped for survival…because they lacked feathers? A large, warm-blooded archosaur needs plumage (crocodiles and Carnotaurus notwithstanding), or else it’ll keel over and die? The muscles, intelligence, claws, pack hunting, etc. all count for naught? All righty then. Let me know when the cloned raptors are stalking you in Jurassic Park’s kitchen and immediately collapse because this essential tool of survival is not available for their use. Stupid geneticists. What do they know?

Two

Not everyone who’s less than ecstatic about feathered dinosaurs is anti-science, or a stick in the mud, or someone who’s overtly nostalgic for the scaly movie monsters of yore. Sometimes people’s aesthetic tastes (mine, for example) just lean more toward scaly raptors. I know they’re inaccurate. I am not contesting that. And if I ever design a painting of a Raptor for a museum exhibit, you can bet your Dinosaur Revolution DVDs it will have plumage in plenitude.

For crying out loud, I’m editing (well, I’m supposed to be editing) a fantasy novel that has dinosaurs in it, and I’m putting feathers on the appropriate species to keep the animals as accurate as possible. A fantasy novel!

But sometimes, people simply find the Jurassic Park Raptors awesome or frightening. Those people are neither lame, nor out of date, nor anti-progress. It’s a testament to the excellent work of Stan Winston and his animatronics crew, Steven Spielberg, and the CGI crew in bringing the movie’s versions of Velociraptor to life. Talking down to someone for appreciating a good movie monster doesn’t make you pro-science. It makes you look like a condescending jerk.

Three

The transition to feathered raptors being considered “cool” by the public will take time. Patience is required, but it’ll happen eventually. Here’s what I want to know: why is it so important that a Deinonychus with feathers be considered “cool” right now? What cosmic fate balances on the public’s awareness of the sort of body covering an extinct animal had? Normally I want animals to be accurately portrayed, or as accurate as possible. But I don’t scream for a boycott of adventure movies when the hero comes face-to-face with a “poisonous” jungle snake, and I can see it’s a harmless kingsnake or garter snake. I take the movie with a grain of salt, and enjoy it all the more when Indiana Jones encounters a real, live cobra.

Four

One large Tyrannosaur we know had feathers — Yutyrannus — doesn’t automatically mean all large Tyrannosaurs had feathers, too. The region where most of the known feathered dinosaurs lived — China and Mongolia — was, if I remember correctly, a colder region at the time, which would be conducive to feathered dinosaurs, at least when the feathers are being used as insulation against the cold (Note: please correct me on this and show your sources if I’m wrong!).

[Additional note: Yutyrannus is much more closely related to the other feathered Tyrannosaur we know of — Dilong — than it is to T. rex, so strutting around and pretending this is “proof” that T. rex had feathers is overreaching with the available evidence.]

T. rex and other large Tyrannosaurs, on the other hand, seem to have inhabited warmer climates, where they might not have needed any such insulation. Nothing to do with feathers that are used for display, of course. Tyrannosaurus rex may very well have had feathers anyway. I grant that. But it’s a plausible scenario, for the time being. Not knowledge. Until we can confirm it through physical fossil evidence, please don’t tell me we “know” T. rex had feathers. I don’t dread a discovery of T. rex having feathers, but I worry that it’ll be abused as another cudgel, wielded by OCD dino-nerds against those Ignorant Masses they love to rail against.

Five

So Jurassic Park IV isn’t going to put feathers on its raptors. Yes, I know it’s a huge fricking deal. Museums will have to close their doors. Paleoartists will be forced at gunpoint to strip their paintings and sketches of every quill and feather, because that’s how much people hate scientific accuracy. People will riot in the streets. Fossils will be smashed.

It’s a movie, guys. A movie that includes “Genetically engineered theme park monsters” in the words of Alan Grant. Dinosaurs that can change sex thanks to frog DNA being used to patch up their degraded genomes. Maybe they look a little different than the creatures from prehistory? It seems the OCD dino-nerd crowd is just hurt that the Jurassic Park franchise isn’t catering to their demands.

Consclusion

If I read one more of Brian Switek’s tantrums on this subject, I’ll need to visit my physician and request some blood pressure medication. I know, I’ve complained about him before. My apologies; I ought to be better than picking on one person. But I don’t like it when someone sneers at others who appreciate dinosaurs in a different way than he does, and I hate it when his fans join in with outright insults and ill will.

I am excited about paleontological discoveries. I’m grateful that there are surprises around every corner, that a new discovery can change our view of these animals completely upside down. But a smarter-than-thou attitude ruins the fun for everybody.

EDIT: I’m not sure if it’s Brian or me who’s doing the most whining, but I know one thing for certain: This has got to stop.

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One thought on “Another feathered dinosaur ramble?! On Jurassic Park IV, Science, Plausible Doubt, etc.

  1. Pingback: A Brighter Day for Paleontology? Switek Steps Down | John K. Patterson

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