Why Dinosaurs Matter

Author: Kenneth Lacovara

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Part of series: TED Books (#17)

Published: 2017

I read it: March 2018

why dinosaurs matter

Apparently TED talks sometimes expand into books, which is handy for someone who finds it easier to read 156 pages than to watch a 20-minute video. That’s just the way it works for me these days. No screens before bed!

Anyway, the orange cover caught my eye on a library display. Our household has a somewhat renewed dinosaur interest sprouting from my four-year-old, so I figured what the heck. I need to brush up on my dinosaur factoids. Perhaps we could call them dino… droppings? Droppings?

As expected, Jurassic Park is referenced by page 7, preceded by a reference to Fantasia. I saw the dinosaur sequence in Fantasia for the first time only just this past winter, and I remember being impressed. Lacovara explains how fascinating the scene was upon its release, even if socio-religious pressure did cause the filmmakers to cut a coda which continued the evolutionary story up through humanity. The author praises the cartoon’s relative accuracy, but bemoans how it ends with the majestic beasts becoming sad, unadaptable creatures on a changed planet.

Lacovara’s opening argument is how our figurative use of the word “dinosaur” is all wrong. We use it to mean outdated, obsolete, or adamantly stuck in the past. He passionately explains how dinosaurs were a tremendously successful branch of the evolutionary tree, quite adaptable, prolific, and varied. Their reign was stunningly long, and only by a freak astronomical accident did 75% of the creatures on the planet die during the fifth extinction. We humans have a long way to go to reach the dinosaurs’ level of success.

The book provides a fast-paced, conversational overview of all things dinosaur, such as an anatomy that conveys “vigor and power” in contrast to flattened, ground-crawling reptiles. We get clarity about what evolutionary branches actually mean, and why it’s correct to say that dinosaurs are still around today, in the form of the penguin or the humble backyard chicken. Lacovara drills this into the reader so thoroughly that he finds the need to use the term “non-avian” on a regular basis to set apart the other kinds of dinosaurs.

I could go on and on. There’s the helpful chapter devoted to the mighty T. Rex that lays out why exactly those arms are so small. There’s the overlooked Hadrosaur, whose highlights include complex dentition and the prize for the most frequently fossilized dinosaur. There are reminders about what were not dinosaurs, such as pterosaurs and most of the sea creatures you can picture. Then there’s the massive Dreadnoughtus (“fears nothing”), which competes for largest sauropod (and therefore largest land animal ever), and was discovered by Lacovara himself.

As for the answer to the prompt in the book’s title, the final chapter opens with the classic Carl Sagan quote: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And for us to know ourselves, we must know our past, and therefore be reminded that we are the cosmos. The difference between us and dinosaurs is that we may be inviting our own asteroids, causing a sixth extinction that could include ourselves (or at least something along the lines of that frightening 75%). Our reign will end, surely. But if we pull ourselves together perhaps we can get a few more million years out of the deal before it happens.

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