Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Birds And Other Dinosaurs

If I don't start drawing again, I'm going out of my mind. Plus, I'm out of the loop with my paleo-pals, which sucks.

So my publisher and I have agreed that it might be nice to have a little background material on the Henry stories. Normally my work is meticulously planned and executed, but these were whipped out at a speed that basically demanded automatic writing. I’m still surprised by some of what came out, and it’ll be interesting to try and figure out what I was trying to get at. While these aren’t hard science fiction by any stretch of the imagination – they are fairy tales with a technical gloss – they still reflect a lot of the preoccupations of an armchair naturalist.

In Dinosaurs, eleven-year-old Morrie Flores ‘dinosaurs’ a chicken. The idea isn’t new or original. I first read it in Carnosaur, by Harry Adams Knight, Michael Crichton riffed on it in Jurassic Park, and more recently John Horner discussed it in a TED talk.

The idea is that certain physical traits, like vestigial tails in humans, or legs in whales and dolphins, are the result of archaic chromosomes being activated. If you were locate the specific genes that guided the growth of particular physical characteristics possessed by ancestors of the animal in question, you could activate them and produce an animal that looked more like one of its ancestors.

In theory, this could be done. They have grown teeth from chicken tissue – in one case, by implanting it into the jaw of a mouse.

But the idea of turning a chicken into a dinosaur is like the idea of turning a coffee table into a table. You stick some legs onto it, now you can pull up a chair and sit at the son of a bitch – but it was a table in the first place.

Birds are dinosaurs.

Not descended from dinosaurs, but actual, real, little dinosaurs bopping around your lawn and screaming obscenities at one another. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct; there are twice as many kinds of living dinosaur as there are mammalian species. They wake you up in the morning, startle you at night, and every so often, a cassowary or ostrich will kick the life out of some poor bastard.

Dinosaurs are also tasty little devils, both grown and unborn.

The bird/dinosaur connection has been a great source of pleasure in my life. I’ve been hiking regularly with my father for quite a while now, and he’s a birder. As a result of our discussions on our nature observations and my paleontological readings, we’ve both become intuitively aware that these animals are a direct connection with deep time.

When I see a turkey hen leading her chicks through a sun-dappled patch of ferns and horsetails, it is impossible for me to shake the thought that I could have seen damn near exactly this scene at any time since the Triassic. A theropod is a theropod is a theropod.

Of course, in Henry’s story Dinosaurs, the dinosaur in question talks. That’s an entirely different subject, and I’ll talk about that in a future episode.

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