Glossary: Evolution update: dinosaur trumps fuzzball

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THE CARTOONIST Gary Larson has made at least two memorable contributions to the scientific debate about the extinction of the dinosaurs. One of his hypotheses was illustrated by a drawing of a surly huddle of tyrannosauri in black leather jackets furtively1 passing round cigarettes. The other was represented by the same delinquent gang uproariously mocking the furry coat of a passing mammal: at the back, a single dinosaur looks up quizzically as the first snowflake falls from the sky. Both cartoons were bad science but a witty encapsulation of the old, received opinion about dinosaurs - that they were the slow learners in evolution's school, back-row oafs given to whining, 'but Sir . . . what use is adaptability in the real world?'

Certainly this has been their place in the language up till now. After giving its straight definition, the Oxford English Dictionary adds a second meaning: 'someone or something that has not adapted to changing circumstances; also an object, institution, etc, that is extremely large and unwieldy'. One typical example of usage is the phrase 'those great dinosaurs with brains the size of teacups'. Just as the prehistoric silts preserved the dinosaurs' bones, the language preserves this metaphorical fossil2 - of something aggressive, lumbering, hopelessly out of date.

Ironically, if there was ever an idea that was a dinosaur this is it. Recent discoveries, some of which prompted Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park and feed into Steven Spielberg's movie, suggest that dinosaurs were possibly warm-blooded, fast on their feet, very varied in their behaviour, highly colourful and protective of their young.

Some of these contentions have kicked up dust in the world of palaeontology (where there is no shortage of dust for the kicking) but there seems no doubt that dinosaurs should get a better metaphorical deal. According to some theories, they deserve sympathy for their extinction, not triumphal contempt, having been subjected to the sort of catastrophic disaster that would today result in the immediate issue of a fund-raising pop record.

If you're dinocentric for a moment, you can see the injustice more clearly. You rule the world for 100 million years, you develop a large range of highly successful adaptations, you discover flight (though the patent jury is still out on this one) and what do you get? Bad taste jokes about brain size from the descendants of little fuzzballs that weren't even worth bending over to eat.

To add salt to the wound, if the Cretaceous extinction hadn't occurred (whether it was caused by an asteroid impact or by wild-fire epidemics as new land bridges mixed previously separated populations), the same little fuzzballs might never have reared up on their hind legs in the first place.

Jurassic Park alone is unlikely to render the old phrase extinct. Dinosaurs have always exerted a tyrannosaurus's bite on the popular imagination - a fact recognised by Spielberg's Victorian predecessor, Waterhouse Hawkins, a businessman who constructed 29 life-size dinosaur models in the grounds of Crystal Palace.

Even the scholars made a nod to showbiz in naming the beasts they disinterred from chalk pits and gravel-workings. Dinosaur itself (as any three-year-old dino-freak will tell you) derives from the Greek words for 'terrible' and 'lizard'; and aggression and terror are at a premium in early namings, from Megalosaurus (great lizard) and Triceratops (three-horned head) to Tyrannosaurus Rex (tyrant lizard). Even apparently descriptive names, such as Stegasaurus (from the Greek word to cover, a reference to its armoured plates), imply a realm of primal combat, lit, as in fanciful illustrations, by the violent chiaroscuro of volcanic eruption.

The monstrous3 charm of brute force survives, in Jurassic Park's seat-edge sequences and in more recent namings, such as Velociraptor (swift hunter). But here and there a single snowflake is visible, evidence of a climatic change: one of the most recent discoveries, a genus of duck-billed dinosaur, has been called the Maiasaura (good mother dinosaur). Perhaps it's time to rehabilitate dinosaur as a far less complacent metaphor, one that would remind us that however highly developed and adaptable a creature is, however secure in its supremacy (and however good its special effects), it can still fall prey to the contingent cruelties of fate.

1 From the Latin fur, thief. Cf furtum, theft and furtim, by stealth.

2 Fossilis, dug up, from the Latin fodere, to dig.

3 Monstrum, something marvellous, a portent. From monere, to warn.