Segment from The Departed

Dinosaurs and Us

Brian sits down with science writer Brian Switek to discuss American “dinomania,” and the way ideas about dinosaur extinction have paralleled concerns about threats facing humanity.

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**This transcript comes from an earlier broadcast of this episode. There may be slight differences in content with the audio version above**


BRIAN: More than a century after Jefferson tried to get his hands on an entire skeleton from a mastodon, Americans were much more interested in a different creature from the past– the dinosaur. People flocked to the halls of the Field Museum in Chicago, the Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. They were there to see the breathtaking remains of the T. rex and the brontosaurus. And museums jockeyed to get their hands on the biggest skeletons they could find.

BRIAN SWITEK: In one case, you, had Andrew Carnegie, the famous philanthropist, who saw a news article about a giant sauropod dinosaur– it’s one of these long necked, heavy bodied dinosaurs– being found out west.

BRIAN: This is Brian Switek, a science journalist who’s written about this period of dino-mania.

BRIAN SWITEK: And there’s an illustration in the newspaper of this dinosaur standing up on his hind legs and looking into, I think, the 10th story window of an early skyscraper. And he said, I want one of these for my museum. You will go and find this for me.

And they did. They found out diplodocus, actually, and named it after him–the specific species– Diplodocus carnegii.

BRIAN: Americans, at this time, we’re also getting much more interested in the reasons dinosaurs went extinct. As we mentioned earlier in today’s show, extinction up until this point, had been seen as a gradual process of nature. But right around the time of World War I, people started coming up with more cataclysmic theories. Theories that, Switek says, map very nicely onto the social and political realities of the day.

BRIAN SWITEK: You start getting ideas about– that, maybe, mammals are eating all the dinosaur eggs. So rather than dinosaurs, sort of, evolving themselves to be extinct, you have this outside pressure– mammals eating all the eggs that are driving them extinct. So you know that hasn’t been taken seriously.

That didn’t actually work, but you’re starting to get those sorts of ideas. So you have that within science, but then you also have, sort of, dinosaurs becoming symbols of extinction. So there was a pacifist group during World War I called the Anti-Preparedness League and as a mascot–

BRIAN: They must have had very poorly– they must have had very poorly organized meetings.

BRIAN SWITEK: Yeah, who’s going to organize the next meeting ? Uh, I don’t want to do it.

BRIAN: So these folks were against preparing for World War I?

BRIAN SWITEK: Right they’re a pacifist group. They didn’t want America to get involved in World War I. And as their mascot, they picked stegosaurus– this armor plated dinosaur with a spiky tail. They called it Jingo, because of the jingoism that they were pushing back against.

And the slogan that they put it underneath their paper mache stegosaurus, that they took out on parades, was “all armor-plate and no brains.” And this was going into this idea that, you know, this dinosaur invested so much energy in it’s own militarization, that it wasn’t smart enough to think of any other solution.

So, basically, this huge dumb brute that was destined to go extinct. And if the US got involved in World War I, we’d be, basically, the giant stegosaurus. You know, the brain the size of a walnut and lots of armaments.

BRIAN: I’ve actually owned some old cars like that in the 1970s, but– any other examples you can share with us?

BRIAN SWITEK: So another example for the dinosaurs– in the middle of the 20th century you had Rachel Carson’s highly influential book Silent Spring. And part of that book was identifying that DDT was a major environmental problem. It was thinning eggshells of many raptors and other predatory birds, and causing these birds to go extinct.

Well after, this is a little bit delayed, but about 20 years after Silent Spring came out, there was a set of papers about dinosaur eggs found in Europe. And they seem to have thin eggs for dinosaurs. And they had egg deformities where you had a couple different egg shell layers, and the scientists said that there’s this out-gassing of, sort of, these toxins that came from volcanoes and were having a very similar effect. In the past– and I don’t know if the hypothesis ever would have been presented, I guess, without an awareness of ecological problems that people were facing at the time.

BRIAN: Larger concern about the food chain during the time of Rachel Carson.

BRIAN SWITEK: Food chain, chemicals in the environment, and that sort of thing– this awareness coming from another branch of science and another branch of cultural awareness and feeding back into theories about what happened to the dinosaurs.

BRIAN: So how else have human fears crept into theories about dinosaur extinction?

BRIAN SWITEK: Well certainly the greatest one has to be the asteroid impact hypothesis– now the asteroid impact fact. Basically 1980– it was this very controversial idea, based upon this layer of a rare element called iridium found all around the world right at that spot between the end of the age of the non-avian dinosaurs, 66 million years ago, and the beginning of what was often called the Age of Mammals.

And people in other sciences actually picked up on this– people like Carl Sagan. You know, this was during the Cold-War era where people were worried about mutually assured nuclear destruction. And as paleontologists and geologists looked at asteroid impact and said, OK, the asteroid struck the earth. There would have been months, if not years, of darkness. It would have thrown all these chemicals into the air. The world would have chilled.

Basically, the idea of nuclear winter was drawn at least, partly, from the asteroid impact. That this was, basically, a proxy for what we might do to ourselves. So the asteroid impact was brought into these political debates about getting rid of our nuclear arsenal.

BRIAN: So do present concerns like climate change– have they made their way into the scientific theories of dinosaur extinction?

BRIAN SWITEK: I think it certainly does in terms of how science is reported, and the sort of media hooks that are used. There’s a paper that came out, I think, about two years ago about dinosaur farts, of all things. And how much, basically, one of these long-necked sauropod dinosaurs would have produced. And could they have altered the global climate through this.

And it had nothing to do with extinction, because these dinosaurs had survived for millions and millions and millions of years. They showed no sign of petering out. But the news media, especially outlets like Fox News and stuff, immediately latched on to this and started saying that dinosaurs must have farted themselves into extinction. And anything where you can tie dinosaurs to climate change and extinction– that’s an immediate news hook for anyone looking for an easy story.

BRIAN: So some of this has less to do with changes in the scientific theory itself, and a lot to do with what the media translates for larger public’s. And, of course, I want underscore you are a science writer. So do you contribute to this phenomenon?

BRIAN SWITEK: I think I certainly do. At least, I’d like to think that I do. That means people are reading what I have to say and, therefore, taking it in. But I remember those documentaries I saw about the asteroid impact, and other paleontologists of my generation– I’m 31, if it helps put a time stamp on it– are now starting to be curators and starting to have an influence in the field and writing scientific papers.

And there seems to be this generational difference between the people who are active as academics in these debates who are still, sort of, not skeptical, but still, very actively debating what role did asteroid impact versus volcanic activity have in this extinction. And people of my generation who grew up with all these dinosaur shows and media saying, the asteroid is the answer. And then I think there’s a greater acceptance with us about that. So it can take a little bit more work, I think, especially for me as a science communicator–

BRIAN: Right, that’s interesting

BRIAN SWITEK: To remember these other ideas, and say, OK, this is what we know, and this what’s still being discussed. And that’s a responsibility that I have to remind myself of is am I accurately reflecting the state of the science, and what we don’t know yet?

BRIAN: So as a science communicator, tweet to me the reason that the dinosaurs went extinct– your understanding.

BRIAN SWITEK: Murder weapons, asteroid, volcano– motive unknown.

BRIAN: Thanks so much for joining us.

BRIAN SWITEK: Thank you very much.

BRIAN: Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus– On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs.


ED: It’s time for another short break. When we return, the story of the little fish that threatened a really big dam.