Hearing the dulcet tones of Fritz Weaver uttering the words “But all things must die” changes your view of life. That’s what happened to me while watching an episode of The Infinite Voyahe called “The Great Dinosaur Hunt.” I was four years old.
And then Stephen Jay Gould talked about how there’s no shame in extinction, how 99% of every species that has ever existed is gone forever, how the dinosaurs died out not because they were inferior but because of accidents and catastrophes. The mammals who survived the end Cretaceous extinction event weren’t any better than the dinosaurs–they were just better equipped to deal with sudden and dramatic environmental changes.
Thus the book of life on earth opened for me. And more than that, I gained perspective on my own existence. If the dinosaurs died, I would someday as well. Not really uplifting bedtime story material. But illuminating nonetheless.
I became both fascinated and terrified by death–as many, if not most, of us do. But dinosaurs seemed to provide a cautionary warning to Homo sapiens. If they could survive for nearly more than 150 million years, with descendants persisting into the present and flourishing, how foolish our species seems to struggle to achieve a fraction of that timespan. Whether through mistake or malice, we can destroy ourselves–and many of the other species on the planet along with us. No other singular species has ever had the power, or the strange inclination, to behave as we do.
These impulses led Carl Sagan, in Cosmos, to muse about the willingness of other hypothetical civilizations on other worlds and how they might go through similar struggles. Some, inevitably, would not survive the exhaustion of their resources or their lust for warfare. But some might rise above their pettiness.
As humans, we hope to continue on. Can we ever persist as long as the dinosaurs? Though many different dinosaur species rose and fell throughout the Mesozoic, the family persisted. But with our increasingly knowledge of biology and medicine, are we tampering with the forces controlling the development of our own species? Undoubtedly,the answer is yes, but what can we do about the future? And, even more pressing, what can we do about the present?
Dinosaurs–and the fossil record in general–give us fundamental and critical insight into the workings of our planet’s biosphere over hundreds of millions of years. These clues speak to the same unequivocal truths that face our species now: too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere will cause a devastating change in the climate, extinctions of too many parts of the food web result in its collapse, extinction on a global level does not affect only certain species–it affects them all. And, perhaps most ominously, we also have learned that we need to watch the skies. We must be prepared to deal with asteroids that could wipe out our civilization, along with other threats from other cosmic phenomena like solar flares.
Cultural views and attitudes change with frightening rapidity, especially in our technologically expedient age. But we are now at the precipice of ecological destruction caused by our own actions. Will we heed the warning of the dinosaurs or plunge into our own permanent oblivion?