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Thursday, 8 August 2013

Childhood dinomania: the greatest of all palaeontological mysteries?

Sinornithoides youngi, a long-legged, gracile troodontid from China. But why are he and his contemporaries so darned popular, and particularly with children?
Perhaps the greatest question that surrounds prehistoric animals is nothing to do with their palaeobiology or evolution at all. An enormous question, and one that perhaps continues to defy satisfactory answer, concerns their endless cultural appeal. Why are these long-dead animals so darned fascinating to us? Internationally, vast sums of money are spent on research into them, the care of their fossils and the educating of others about them. We put their remains on display in vast, elaborate museums, write no-end of books and articles on them. But why? Why are we do dedicated and passionate about these animals, to the point of near obsession in some individuals? I can understand that a few components of palaeontology have clear rewards. Palaeontologists specialising in invertebrates and microfossils are essential components of any team hoping to find hydrocarbon reserves, giving their research obvious application and financial implications. Such studies may also shed light on rates and mechanisms of evolution, which has bearing for the conservation and preservation of our modern biota. Most fossil vertebrate lineages, however, are of little use for, well anything. They may be interesting, but the scant nature of their fossil record doesn't allow their use in any applied studies. Our interest in them is purely academic. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge, I guess we could say.

Minor interests
Of course, interest in fossil vertebrates is not confined to academics and, in fact, the largest audiences for prehistorically-themed topics is under 10 years old. Of all fossil animals, the appeal of Mesozoic reptiles to young individuals is particularly well known, and encouraged by adults for good reason. Mesozoic reptiles introduce children to important concepts of science and the natural world, provide wonderful material to teach mathematics, literary and drawing skills, and, unlike many other things kids are interested in, they represent reality. Learned information about Mesozoic reptiles are learned facts about things that actually happened, not some silliness about Pok√©mon, ThunderCats, or... blast, who the devil do children like?... Or Morgan Freeman.

Young interests in palaeontology aren't really questioned, they're just accepted and ran with. Discussions as to why young people are so interested in Mesozoic reptiles aren't uncommon, but they're of secondary concern to nurturing childhood interests in the topic. As Dave Hone wrote about this topic at his Lost Worlds, " I won't pretend to know why, but kids really do love dinosaurs and the important thing is that they do." There's certainly nothing wrong with this attitude, but the why of this question has been on my mind of late. My second cousin is as dinosaur-obsessed as any young boy should be and I'll be spending the day with him next week. I'll also be gaining a nephew before too long. Between these two small members of my family clan, I'm expecting to have to play the cool, 'dinosaur'-researching relative for a while yet. All of which makes me wonder why, why why are small people so interested in these animals?

Proof that I liked 'safe monsters' as much as anyone when I was small. What's a 'safe monster'? Read on! (image by me, age 7[ish]. My younger self bore amazing powers of prediction for my own future with the pterosaur attacking dinosaur).
Standard responses
The most common explanation I've heard to this question is stressed in this article and others like it. Mesozoic reptiles are monstrous, and kids like monsters. They like these even more however, because they're long dead, and therefore 'safe'. Unlike real monsters, like the bogeyman, things that live under the bed and recent Discovery Communications documentaries, Mesozoic reptiles can't hurt us any more. Under this logic, extinction is the key agent here. Kids like the security that extinction offers between themselves and the monsters they're reading about.

Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton offered a completely different explanation, linking dinosaurs with authority figures, like parents. He wrote in his 1993 novel:
"...he mused on what it was about Dinosaurs that appealed to kids. He decided that dinosaurs represented a sort of symbolic authority to kids, a sort of surrogate parent. Just like a parent, they were simultaneously frightening yet accessible, and they presented an authority figure they could love. He also thought that children found satisfaction in saying the names of the animals, as that represented a sort of power of the vanished giants, showing a form of control."
Here, it would seem, it's not extinction at all that's key: it's the perception of authority and accessibility that Mesozoic animals seemingly offer children, and their own desire to master and control their expression. Other common explanations include an escapist quality to learning about the distant past, being able to express our childhood selves through acting out dinosaur fantasies, and because dinosaurs are strange, and yet real beings.

I've got to admit that I cannot really reconcile any of these explanations with what I know about being interested in Mesozoic animals, either as an adult or a child. They - particularly the first two suggestions - seem to complicated, too 'psychological'. I cannot ever remember associating Tyrannosaurus with my parents, or disliking other monstrous creatures because they weren't long extinct. I don't think the 'distance' between myself and dinosaurs, or any other monsters, really mattered. The fact that Mesozoic animals once existed was kinda cool I guess, but clearly not a deal-clincher: I was interested in plenty of make-believe things when I was small. And while kids are undoubtedly irrational sometimes, I don't think their grasp of what is a tangible, 'real' threat and slightly scary but fantastic beast isn't as blurred as the above explanations suggest. I note that many of the suggested points are rather anthropocentric, explaining that our childhood selves are interested in these animals because they reflect our own lives somehow, but that also doesn't seem right. My childhood interest in dinosaurs and the like seemed more innocent than that: I just wanted to know more about them and play within their universe. These ideas don't even seem like explanations which, in hindsight, chime with a deeply buried feeling associated with my childhood obsession with all things Mesozoic. Conversations with friends and colleagues suggest these explanations are similarly unfamiliar to them.

This makes me wonder if we're thinking about this the wrong way. We seem to expect that the appeal of Mesozoic reptiles to children is a unique trait, an X-factor, something inherently mystical about these animals which mean most children will be under their spell at some point. There may be, but I wonder if we're over-thinking this. Perhaps there is no unique factor behind the popularity of Mesozoic reptiles with young humans, and they're popular with kids for the same reasons that a lot of things are. Maybe the reason children like Mesozoic reptiles is very simple: they're just really cool.

The Anatomy of Cool
Let's run with this idea for just a moment. Mesozoic reptiles certainly tick all the boxes for Cool Things That Kids Like. Starting with the most obvious: they look awesome. Innumerable cartoons and comics featuring appealing characters and creatures are testament to the power awesome-looking beings have over children. The muscular bodies, dynamic postures, horns, frills, teeth and claws of many Mesozoic reptiles are clear signs of badassery, and kids of all ages respond positively to that. Perhaps the consistent choice of favourite dinosaurs in youngsters reflects this. Although most children's dinosaur books introduce a wide selection of species, it's the most anatomically extreme and charismatic species that are picked out by generation after generation as Top Dino. Triceratops, TyrannosaurusBaryonyx, VelociraptorAnkylosaurus, Brachiosaurus and so forth are consistent favourites. Some kids - especially cootie-ridden girls, because they're rubbish and smelly - might like prefer cuter, baby versions of dinosaurs,  but they still pick babies of the most immediately interesting taxa. By contrast, no kid has ever said that their favourite dinosaur is Iguanodon or Hypsilophodon, because they're freakin' boring to a sub-10 year old. This is despite them being among the 'safest' dinosaurs, bearing no real offensive equipment and having no interest in eating children. Kids dig awesome, even if it's a little scary, and their favourite dinosaurs are full of it.

Do kids like Sinornithoides? I don't know that they do, but it would definitely score Cute Points when they realised that the holotype was found in a Mei-like sleeping posture. Of course, Sinornithoides was described by Russell and Dong way back in 1993, including discussion of its sleeping posture, meaning it pre-dates the announcement of sleepy Mei by over a decade. This fact seems mostly overlooked nowadays, however.
Mesozoic animals are also immediately characterisable. A cursory glance at a menagerie of Mesozoic animals reveals which ones are 'good' - the plant and fish eaters - and which are 'bad' - the carnivores. Universes designed with young people in mind go to great lengths to give their characters similarly recognisable traits of good and bad. They also, as with Mesozoic reptiles, make their characters wear their lifestyles on their sleeves. It's immediately clear that they spend their time doing interesting things because their appearance (clothing, physical characteristics, objects they carry) consistently reflects their habits. When do we see warrior characters in children's shows put their weapons down, or adventurers leave their backpacks and hats behind? Never, because it's part of who they are. The same is true of Mesozoic reptiles: their lifestyles are clear from their anatomy, and their habits are obviously interesting. As with invented universes, this allows even young children to have a fairly immediate, if very basic understanding of the dynamics of the Mesozoic world, and that makes it fun to play with and think about. I've written before about how some Mesozoic creatures even come with pre-conceived ideas of 'character': the frills and horns of some dinosaurs recall the armaments of knights, the powerful jaws and teeth of tyrannosaurs make them obvious threats, and so on. These perceived anthropomorphisms may tie into the choice of favourite species among children, perhaps reflecting elements of wish-fulfilment and reflection of individual  personalities, but the same applies to their selection of a favourite Transformer or mutated ninja turtle.

What about complicated Latin and Greek names? Surely they must have some unique appeal? It's perhaps no coincidence that many favourite Mesozoic animals are also those with the coolest names. Animals with undoubtedly disastrous (Futalognkosaurus) or boring (the infinite numbers of Placename-osaurus we now have) names are unlikely candidates for being any child's favourite. The strong, weighty names of DeinonynchusPteranodonPlesiosaurus and Diplodocus are where it's at. Really, they aren't actually too different or more difficult to say than invented names of child-approved fantasy universes. A of extinct animal names are no trickier or less familiar to children than the names of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings characters, for instance. There may be no more psychological significance to a child saying the word 'Gallimimus' than there is them saying 'Legolas' or 'Dagobah'.

The stats and factoids associated with Mesozoic reptiles are perhaps also factors in childhood palaeo cool. Any juvenile palaeo nut worth their salt knows the size, mass, biogeography, geological period, lineage, and diet of a hundred extinct species. Our brains are sponges for that kind of stuff when we're small, but not only for Mesozoic animals. Kids get obsessive about all manner of data, hence the success of all these newfangled Japanese card playing games with weird animals and, before them, things like Top Trumps, complex board and video games and RPGs. It seems that, if children like a topic, and the information is there to be learned, they'll take it in whether it has a dinosaur stamped on it or not.

Sinornithoides again, acting as end-of-post wallpaper
We've now also created a rich array of Mesozoic reptile merchandise for children to enjoy - toys, games, books, films and TV shows and so on - which, again, mirrors the development of universes invented for child consumption. These are food in the purest form for the imaginations of small children, enhancing their ability to play out their own interpretations of the Mesozoic in the same way that the merchandise of invented franchises allows kids to play within other universes. Unlike many franchises aimed at children, however, Mesozoic reptiles rarely disappear from fashion, and their merchandise is always easy to obtain. Indeed, I wonder if the perpetual availability of Mesozoic reptile merchandise and media has made it almost certain that child interests in these animals will never go away. Given the ripeness of childhood minds for the awesomeness of Mesozoic reptiles and the associated financial gain from making Mesozoic merchandise, we may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that children will always be introduced to and inspired to learn more about these animals.

The discussion at the end
With all these things considered, I really wonder if Mesozoic reptiles have, or indeed need a mysterious 'X-factor' to explain their appeal. I don't think it's been an intended goal of palaeontologists or merchandisers, but these two contrasting industries have created a window into the Mesozoic that children can enjoy on many levels, developing a world which couldn't be more child-friendly if someone designed it. The many parallels we see between childhood palaeo culture and industries designing universes to interest children are surely a reflection of this. Cool, identifiable creatures with interesting lives, awesome names and stats, and a wealth of merchandise. That description could describe how children will interpret palaeontology, or it could describe the way they'll interpret Doctor Who.

As a final point to chew on, I think it's interesting that we don't really feel a need to explain the childhood appeal of superheroes, spaceships and giant robots by means of an X-factor', but we do for Mesozoic reptiles. Adults just accept that kids find these more anthropocentric topics inherently awesome and interesting, and that's good enough. Why doesn't that work for palaeontological topics? Is it a little worrying that we think like this? That the raw appeal of the natural world, which kids seem to intuitively grasp as interesting and awesome, isn't a strong enough draw on it's own, and requires rationalising into a more a anthropocentric model to explain it's childhood appeal? Maybe there's something to be learned from that. General knowledge and understanding of the natural world is critically poor, biological education is consistently being attacked by anti-scientific groups, and media groups increasingly think that the natural world needs sexing up with human interaction and made-up science. Maybe if we just remembered that it's OK to find the natural world fascinating and awesome because it is, and that we don't need to make ourselves the centre of everything, these issues wouldn't be anywhere near as big and worrying as they are.

Reference

  • Russell, D. A., and Dong, Z. M. 1993. A nearly complete skeleton of a new troodontid dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of the Ordos Basin, Inner Mongolia, People's Republic of China. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 30, 2163-2173.

15 comments:

  1. As a former dinosaur-obsessed child, I personally think part of what made dinosaurs so appealing was the element of mystery, which leaves some room for imagination. For example, dinosaur color used to be a complete mystery-- thought I think it's awesome that we now have some actual information in this area.

    I also wonder how the recent proliferation of feathered-dinosaur discoveries will affect childhood dinomania. Will young dinofans evolve into birdwatchers?

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    1. "I personally think part of what made dinosaurs so appealing was the element of mystery, which leaves some room for imagination."

      Doesn't the same apply to other childhood fascinations like astronomy and planetary sciences, deep-sea exploration, paranormal phenomena* and the like, though? I don't doubt that it adds a layer of intrigue and fascination but I do question whether this is a unique factor of the appeal of Mesozoic reptiles.

      "I also wonder how the recent proliferation of feathered-dinosaur discoveries will affect childhood dinomania."

      I've also wondered this, especially in light of the backlash that is so prevalent in some adult dinosaur fans. I wonder if children will be a lot more accepting of feathered dinosaur hides than their parents.

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    2. "I also wonder how the recent proliferation of feathered-dinosaur discoveries will affect childhood dinomania. Will young dinofans evolve into birdwatchers?"

      My two favourites as a child were Baryonyx and Oviraptor. The reason behind my fascination with Oviraptor in particular was one image in a dinosaur book I had: it depicted Oviraptor with a shaggy mane of feathers on it's neck. This would have been in the early 80s and no one had ever drawn them like this before. I remember thinking it looked so *awesome*, and all featherless Oviraptors seemed suddenly odd to me after that. All my own childhood scribblings of them from then on had feathery manes (albeit, just on the neck!).

      I, too would be interested to see how feathered dinos influence the perceptions of the next generation. :)

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    3. @Mark: "Doesn't the same apply to other childhood fascinations like astronomy and planetary sciences, deep-sea exploration, paranormal phenomena* and the like, though? "

      For what it's worth, I was fascinated with all of those things at various points in my childhood, too. But I agree, it's hard to find what you call the "X factor" for dinomania.

      Maybe another factor is that dinosaurs are "liminal" creatures, culturally occupying the borders between life and death, fiction and reality. They definitely existed (unlike, say, Bigfoot) but they cannot be encountered in the flesh; they're all dead, but they can "live" again in reconstructions. Of course, like the "big, fierce, and extinct" explanation, this doesn't explain the popularity of dinosaurs compared to other creatures like Tertiary megabeasts.

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    4. @Mark: "Doesn't the same apply to other childhood fascinations like astronomy and planetary sciences, deep-sea exploration, paranormal phenomena* and the like, though?"

      To be fair, we can still go into space & observe planets in their natural environments. Barring the invention & mastery of time-travel, we'll never be able to observe living non-avian dinos, hence the greater element of mystery.

      @Emily: "Of course, like the "big, fierce, and extinct" explanation, this doesn't explain the popularity of dinosaurs compared to other creatures like Tertiary megabeasts."

      To be fair, the most popular megabeasts are those most like today's large mammals (E.g. Mammoths & saber cats vs. elephants & big cats, respectively). Non-avian dinos, on the other hand, are MUCH more different from today's non-avian reptiles at least in terms of general appearance.

      -Hadiaz

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    5. "we can still go into space & observe planets in their natural environments."

      Well, sort of. We can look at them with sophisticated telescopes and probes, but we're still dealing with relatively limited amounts of data. This will only improve with time, but the next few generations at least at still going to be dealing with plenty of unknowns about our own solar system, let alone the rest of space. That element of mystery is going to be hard to shed in such a vast subject.

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  2. Although I don't pretend to have been a "normal" kid, the reason why I liked dinosaurs so much was that there were so many kinds, so many facts to learn, so much diversity and strange forms that I just didn't see as a kid. Sure, I was interested in all other animals as well- Zoboomafoo and Zoo Tycoon helped fuel that- but dinosaurs were always sort of in a class of their own. They seemed to take everything to extremes, with the longest necks, the biggest teeth, the strangest adaptations. And it was always so fascinating that they were all extinct (to my perspective at least) and that made them even more interesting, since there would always be something that no one knew, and new discoveries could be made all the time. I guess they were so different from any living animal that I simply could not be absolutely fascinated with them.

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  3. My own childhood fascination with dinosaurs went hand in hand with a love of sharks, as well as giant squid, sea serpents, crocodiles, etc.

    I think giant predators, the more alien and otherly the better, are inherently fascinating and particularly so for kids. It's been argued that this has an evolutionary basis: fascination breeds knowledge, and knowledge breeds preparedness.

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  4. "this doesn't explain the popularity of dinosaurs compared to other creatures like Tertiary megabeasts"

    One thing I cottoned on to even as a child was that the average reconstruction of the extinct mammals that you saw in the books, etc, was unrealistic. The animals could never really look like that in real life. With dinosaurs, there was nothing left alive really like them (relatively speaking) so a child was none the wiser and took the images they see of them at face value. If the average reconstruction of tertiary mammals looked more relate-able (although things have improved greatly in recent times) then perhaps there would be more of a chance of these animals being imprinted on children's imaginations.

    As a young child, I didn't know I wasn't in a minority in having an interest in dinosaurs and for me it may have started as a slightly older child of 10 (at the latest.

    I tend to think that a child's interest in dinosaurs is no different to a girl's interest in dolls or a boy's interest in toy cars, for instance. At least part of it is conditioning, for better or worse. I just think the former stays with those who are inclined to have an interest in nature and/or science.

    For me, I have an interest in both nature and in the unknown (or, to be more precise, 'the un-knowable') so dinosaurs seem to straddle those interests.



    Paul W.

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  5. I liked dinosaurs as a child because they were just ... weird; because there was nothing really quite like them anywhere else in the world. I also liked parrots for the same reason (because they were weird for a child growing up in Sweden). And I liked deep-sea creatures as well: especially anglerfish and luminescent squid. For me the alienness about them wasn't part of the appeal: it *was* the appeal. (For the record I also liked aliens and I remain a die-hard Star Trek-fan to this day.) And the love of *weird* continues: right now I'm trying to find a PhD project and I'm being torn about aphids and aspergillus fungi. Why? Because they're weird: just like dinosaurs and aliens. :)

    I really liked your take on the topic, by the way. I think you're onto something -- we don't need any postmodernist flummery to explain dinomania: it's right what you say, the only appeal is 'cool'. (Do kids need more reason that that?)

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  6. Hey now, pokemon might be "silly" but lots of them are often based on obscure creatures both extinct and still alive (as well as mythologies, folk tales ect). Don't write them off just for being fantasy, because they too can function really well seeds of interest to send a child off into the real world. (the civilization games have the same effect a lot in getting people interested in world history).

    I really loved dinosaurs as a child (and marine mammals), I think the main reason is because they are both alien, yet still of this world, which is just amazing the sorts of things in nature! I tend to like animals in general, as well as all the weird mythologies we as humans have come up with, so it really is fun seeing things like pokemon and learning their real world inspiration that I and others would have never known about otherwise.

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  7. My son has been in dino phase now for 4 years. He can name 50 off the top of his head. I fuel it because he loves them....and all animals. But I guess ...how long does it last and should I continue to fuel the dino obsession...? 4 years is a pretty long time to be stuck on them for a kid?

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    1. There's no end to it . . . if he's still interested after 4 years, he'll probably still be interested when he's 80.

      That's not to say he'll make a career out of being a dino-nerd, but having /some/ kind of science-based obsession will stand him in good stead when it comes to taking interest in other things, which may well lead to an interesting career at some point. It's something well worth fuelling as long as he's still into it.

      himi

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  8. I know for a fact that in my case them being extinct had very little bearing on my fascination with dinosaurs. That is because I became enamored with these creatures before I knew that they had died out. I think that I learned of the existence of dinosaurs when I was about 4 years old through cartoons, but back then I considered them merely an exotic curiosity - no more mysterious than monkeys or kangaroos.
    What I do know is that I have a distinct memory of walking up to my mother one day and announcing that "when I grow up I am going to travel to the land where dinosaurs live".
    And for my fifth birthday I received my first book on prehistory.

    I know that I had, at one point, been obsessed with every mesozoic animal I'd gotten my hands on, from tyrannosaurus to ornithocheiruses, but I never developed a "favorite" dinosaur. I think that the closest things to my "favorite" dinosaurs were actually not the traditional T-Rexes and stegosauruses, but relatively small things, like archaeopteryx or WWD's leaellynasaura. I drew the former a lot and made the latter into an intricate paper doll with flexible limbs and all. Then again that might be because I'm a cootie-ridden girl who likes cute things with big eyes.

    I think my fascination was fueled by how exotic these creatures were. They were so...on the verge, almost close enough to be touched. The knowledge that they existed, that we knew what they looked like, yet could never meet them. They just looked so cool and the wish to see one of them with my own eyes fueled me to know more about them. That's what I remember from that phase - an almost painful desire to meet a real dinosaur which fueled me to read (or be read to) more and more books and make more and more paper dolls of species none of the other kids could even pronounce.

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