Human arrogance. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I think that we, even as individuals, grow with a number of assumptions about the world that are simply false. In particular, it seems to me like we all share an over-simplistic view of our planet and the natural world. I suppose that we must try our best to organize our world if we are going to make sense of it, but I always try to keep in mind that our labels and concepts are entirely artificial, and in all likelihood, totally inconsistent with reality.
To demonstrate what I mean, I want to discuss the animal kingdom. Consider that mankind was faced with a daunting task: he beheld the world and all the millions of creatures that dwelt upon it, and he assumed the responsibility of naming and categorizing all of them. It is an incredibly complicated task. In fact, today we are still trying. We call it “taxonomy,” and it is the science of classification.
Categories, by their very nature, are static and unmoving. Categories cannot be bent or twisted. They are utterly discreet, like conceptual brick walls. For example, we have invented one such classification called “mammal,” which includes any animal on Earth that is warm-blooded and produces milk.
However, looking at mammals, we see that they are all very different. Since humans are warm blooded, and because we produce milk, we are considered to be mammals. Whales do the same thing, so they are called mammals too, even though our first inclination would be to think of them as “big fish.” Clearly, some categories include a very large diversity of creatures.
Because life on Earth is an interconnected web of related species, we inevitably end up organizing animals by relationship. Scientists call this a “cladogram.” Here is an example of what it looks like:
This “tree” is connected into a bigger tree, which is connected to an even bigger tree, and so on, until you eventually get an enormous matrix of biological relationships; a grand map of life on Earth, and how it is all genetically related. All of the names, levels of classification and labels we are familiar with (bacteria, arachnids, plants, reptiles, avians, primates, marsupials, etc) are all derived from this huge system of classification. In other words, the very fact that we accept these names at all means that we all recognize that all life on Earth must part of a grand system.
The problem with trying to categorize life on Earth is that it is, by it’s very nature, highly dynamic and ever changing. For example, every year microorganisms such as viruses adapt and mutate into bizarre new strains. Even domestic animals such as dogs are interbred creating new undefined lineages of canines. They’ve even succeeded in cross-breeding a lion and a tiger (the famous Ligers and Tigons.) And so our systems of classification are always in need of revision, updating and correction.
Unfortunately, certain orthodoxies develop over time with regards to how animals ought to be grouped. People tend to “get stuck in their ways,” and rarely accept drastic revision of their long-held beliefs. People have always been naturally reluctant to accept scientific updates (the roundness of the Earth, the centrality of the Sun, to name a few obvious examples) but even within the world of science, it is difficult to accept new theories, especially if they contradict long-established or widely accepted pillars of scientific theory.
So why do I bring this up? Earlier this afternoon I was sitting in my backyard watching a bunch of birds. They’re very interesting creatures: they have very few natural predators, incredibly advanced vocal chords, complex patterns of social behavior, and of course, they have the unique ability to fly. But that’s not why I find them so fascinating.
I think they are fascinating because of their clear relationships to the dinosaurs. The concept of a “dinosaur” is tricky. Science has revealed (relatively recently) that there are very few biological dinstinctions between dinosaurs and modern birds. On the contrary: there is an overwhelming number of uncanny similarities. For me, the most thrilling piece of evidence has only been discovered by paleontologists a few years ago: mud imprints of remains showing, with near certainty, that many dinosaurs were feathered:
One might wonder: “If mammals are characterized by producing milk and warm-bloodedness, then how are dinosaurs characterized?” Well, it should come as no surprise that scientists have great difficulty reaching a consensus on this point. What exactly makes a dinosaur a dinosaur? Well… nobody really knows. They’re all so different from each other, in much the same way animals living on Earth today are different from each other.
Dinosauria is clearly a subgroup, but it’s an enormous subgroup. It spans hundreds of millions of years, and encompasses an astonishing range of living creatures. This is where human arrogance comes into play; because we tend to assume that we’ve got it “all figured out.” In fact, I’d bet that the everyday person actually believes that they could realistically describe a dinosaur based on the myth that we’ve written for them:
I hope that people realize how restricting this kind of attitude can be. Science, after all, has only begun to guess what these creatures were actually like. What do you think are the odds that our initial guesses were actually right? My common sense tells me that those chances are slim, and I imagine that most people would agree. Thus, we really have no clue what the dinosaurs were like, and their relationship with animals living today is even more obscure. More and more scientists are telling us that the Cretaceous-Tertiary “extinction” was technically NOT a full extinction; that small dinosaurs were adapted to the apparently drastic changes in the Earth’s environment.
Personally, I think it’s more fun to imagine for myself. Look at a bird’s feet, then look at a dinosaurs feet, and ask yourself: “Considering how life is all connected on Earth, what are the odds that this relationship is just a huge coincidence?” I think one of the coolest scientific realizations, in my lifetime, has been the realization that the birds in my backyard are, in a way, just little dinosaurs. It makes me want to learn more.