The difficulty of self critique.

AngelicFerret | January 30, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)

In the 1980s there was a handful of magazine articles speculating on a sentient dinosaur species that could have existed some 100-150 million years ago. It started as a thought experiment in 1982 by Russell & Séguin where the authors pointed out the following observations:

  • Theropods have a basic body structure that could easily evolve to accommodate tool use and other environmental manipulations that we presume are a driving force for human-like intelligence. They are bipedal, have claws that could evolve into hands and a brain cavity that could easily evolve to accommodate a sentient brain.
  • Modern birds are the closest living things to dinosaurs, and they most likely evolved from there. Many birds demonstrate impressive intelligence even for their small size. There is no reason intelligence couldn’t have evolved earlier in their ancestors.
  • Many birds are warm blooded, and conventional thinking at the time that article was written suggested that this was a prerequisite for intelligence.

This speculation triggered a frenzy which led some science journalists to go so far as speculate on what such a creature looked like. (pictured below, I do not own this image)

Rebuttals came in, among them the obvious problem with anthropocentrism and the unlikelihood of a creature evolving from a theropod to what can only be described as a lizard man. But even this objection was overcome:

The above image is a much more plausible outcome of theropod evolution. Once this was introduced the speculation erupted into a frenzy as people started expanding on the previous ideas and projected culture, fashion and even technology onto them. Books have been written to feed off this, and over time many of the speculators involved began to believe that they were onto some sort of scientific breakthrough.

Could these intelligent dinosaurs have caused one of the mass extinction events that dinosaurs faced? Could they have had agriculture, herded and slaughtered multiple herbivore species thus explaining some of the excavation sites we now have? Could they have invented advanced weapons of mass destruction and wiped themselves out?

This is all fun to think about, but there’s no evidence whatsoever for it. That doesn’t faze any of the fans of this theory, if humans got wiped out there wouldn’t be much evidence for our existence in 100 million years either. Besides, I can’t prove that these intelligent theropods never existed. The evidence surely exists. We just haven’t found it yet. After all, they say, to assume that we are so special to be the only sentient life to have ever evolved is itself anthropocentric.

Looking at this whole circus from an outside perspective I’m inclined to be open to the idea (you never know!) but skeptical to the point that I am reasonably certain this early civilization never existed. Though I recognize that this hypothesis allows ample time for evidence to be destroyed, one could reasonably expect to find *some* evidence of mining, burial/rituals, moved or cut stones, and even trash. There are counter arguments for this (mostly involving the relative scarcity of evidence for early human civilization despite knowing it’s there) but no positive evidence and nothing more than pure speculation.

Do you believe an early civilization of advanced dinosaurs existed? If not, why not? The implications of such a civilization existing are astounding, and could change the way we look at dinosaurs and paleontology. Perhaps the fact that it hasn’t says something about how much weight most scientists working in the relevant fields give to this hypothesis.

One of the things that makes the purging of indoctrination such a challenge is the difficulty of critiquing ourselves. At first glance I knew that the chances of sentient, talking dinosaurs was ridiculous, and even gave the idea a fair shot by reading their arguments (noting the complete absence of evidence) even before I learned how openly dismissive other paleontologists have been in their responses. But do I hold any beliefs that an outsider would see as ridiculous? Do any of those beliefs lack evidence, and exist purely on speculation?

This obviously does not mean that everything should be questioned, if you brought up in conversation that you ate Froot Loops for for breakfast and I demanded evidence that would be obnoxious, but what about things that affect actual decisions you must make? What about things that affect your health (don’t drink coffee, which is healthy, but it’s okay to drink soda which is not), things that affect your financial stability (pay 10% of your earnings even if you can’t afford it, and have as many children as possible), your marriage (if your husband looks at porn he doesn’t love you, only heterosexual relationships are valid, etc), your career (you can’t work on Sundays), and your emotional well being (you’re a sinner unworthy of the Celestial Kingdom, and surely would not get there save for God’s mercy).

Yet most people who subscribe to Mormonism would immediately dismiss the idea of sentient dinosaurs and largely cite many of the same reasons I did, and many could even articulate the reasons for their dismissal even more coherently and thoroughly. That means that most of these people, without even realizing it, already have the tools to break free. Our own natural inability to see flaws in ourselves despite noticing them in others is the glue that holds religions together in an environment where every believer thinks all those other belief systems are wrong. On the other end of the spectrum, many commentors leaving positive feedback on articles promoting the sentient dinosaurs self identified as atheists in other threads where the topic came up (but not all of course) and some even cited lack of evidence as their reason for disbelief.

Ultimately things like this serve as a great reminder how easy it is to find ourselves guilty of the very same things we criticize others for.

So, what do you think? Did the talking dinosaurs live in huts, teepees or stone buildings?

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