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Digging Up the Dinosaurs (September 2020): Conclusion

by Larry T. Spencer


Having traced the story of North American fossil collectors and their subject matter through the group of works cited here, we may well ask: Why should humans have put so much time and effort into the collection and study of prehistoric vertebrates, particularly dinosaurs? Answers to this question may range from the lighthearted to deadpan serious. Most importantly, the study of vertebrate paleontology provides strong evidence for evolution and evolutionary theory. If one is a deist, one may believe the world and all the creatures in it to be God’s creations; yet if one is a strong believer in science, one still needs a conceptual framework to bind together all of life. The conceptual power of knowing that all of life is bound together by evolutionary descent can provide a sense of meaning. When Thomas Henry Huxley visited Othniel Marsh in New Haven, the two spent most of a day together looking at the bones of horses, with Marsh showing Huxley the plausible transformations that could turn a small dog-sized animal into the precursor of the modern horse. Huxley went away deeply impressed and incorporated this evidence into his public lectures. Huxley’s US tour provided support for Darwin’s theory of evolution close to the time it was proposed, and the same theory still drives fruitful scientific discovery today.

Happy memories of being serenaded to sleep by a purple dinosaur named Barney, or of having laughed at the “Stone Age” behaviors of Flintstones characters Fred and Wilma, may provide a humorous motive for understanding the science of vertebrate paleontology. True, humans and dinosaurs did not coexist. True, the footprints found by Roland Bird in the limestone bed of the Paluxy River are not human prints. And yes, the Earth is more than six thousand years old. The study of dinosaurs supports this understanding.

The partial extinction of the dinosaurs can also provide us with material for sober introspection. After all, they were the dominant form of life on Earth for over 165 million years, yet as the story goes, with the impact of one meteorite striking the Yucatán Peninsula most of them were gone, through no fault of their own. We humans have been present for a mere million and a half years, but given the many disasters we have visited upon our planet we, too, may suffer extinction. In such case, responsibility will be ours to bear.