|Sinornithoides youngi, a long-legged, gracile troodontid from China. But why are he and his contemporaries so darned popular, and particularly with children?|
Of course, interest in fossil vertebrates is not confined to academics and, in fact, the largest audiences for prehistorically-themed topics is under 10 years old. Of all fossil animals, the appeal of Mesozoic reptiles to young individuals is particularly well known, and encouraged by adults for good reason. Mesozoic reptiles introduce children to important concepts of science and the natural world, provide wonderful material to teach mathematics, literary and drawing skills, and, unlike many other things kids are interested in, they represent reality. Learned information about Mesozoic reptiles are learned facts about things that actually happened, not some silliness about Pokémon, ThunderCats, or... blast, who the devil do children like?... Or Morgan Freeman.
Young interests in palaeontology aren't really questioned, they're just accepted and ran with. Discussions as to why young people are so interested in Mesozoic reptiles aren't uncommon, but they're of secondary concern to nurturing childhood interests in the topic. As Dave Hone wrote about this topic at his Lost Worlds, " I won't pretend to know why, but kids really do love dinosaurs and the important thing is that they do." There's certainly nothing wrong with this attitude, but the why of this question has been on my mind of late. My second cousin is as dinosaur-obsessed as any young boy should be and I'll be spending the day with him next week. I'll also be gaining a nephew before too long. Between these two small members of my family clan, I'm expecting to have to play the cool, 'dinosaur'-researching relative for a while yet. All of which makes me wonder why, why why are small people so interested in these animals?
|Proof that I liked 'safe monsters' as much as anyone when I was small. What's a 'safe monster'? Read on! (image by me, age 7[ish]. My younger self bore amazing powers of prediction for my own future with the pterosaur attacking dinosaur).|
The most common explanation I've heard to this question is stressed in this article and others like it. Mesozoic reptiles are monstrous, and kids like monsters. They like these even more however, because they're long dead, and therefore 'safe'. Unlike real monsters, like the bogeyman, things that live under the bed and recent Discovery Communications documentaries, Mesozoic reptiles can't hurt us any more. Under this logic, extinction is the key agent here. Kids like the security that extinction offers between themselves and the monsters they're reading about.
Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton offered a completely different explanation, linking dinosaurs with authority figures, like parents. He wrote in his 1993 novel:
"...he mused on what it was about Dinosaurs that appealed to kids. He decided that dinosaurs represented a sort of symbolic authority to kids, a sort of surrogate parent. Just like a parent, they were simultaneously frightening yet accessible, and they presented an authority figure they could love. He also thought that children found satisfaction in saying the names of the animals, as that represented a sort of power of the vanished giants, showing a form of control."Here, it would seem, it's not extinction at all that's key: it's the perception of authority and accessibility that Mesozoic animals seemingly offer children, and their own desire to master and control their expression. Other common explanations include an escapist quality to learning about the distant past, being able to express our childhood selves through acting out dinosaur fantasies, and because dinosaurs are strange, and yet real beings.
I've got to admit that I cannot really reconcile any of these explanations with what I know about being interested in Mesozoic animals, either as an adult or a child. They - particularly the first two suggestions - seem to complicated, too 'psychological'. I cannot ever remember associating Tyrannosaurus with my parents, or disliking other monstrous creatures because they weren't long extinct. I don't think the 'distance' between myself and dinosaurs, or any other monsters, really mattered. The fact that Mesozoic animals once existed was kinda cool I guess, but clearly not a deal-clincher: I was interested in plenty of make-believe things when I was small. And while kids are undoubtedly irrational sometimes, I don't think their grasp of what is a tangible, 'real' threat and slightly scary but fantastic beast isn't as blurred as the above explanations suggest. I note that many of the suggested points are rather anthropocentric, explaining that our childhood selves are interested in these animals because they reflect our own lives somehow, but that also doesn't seem right. My childhood interest in dinosaurs and the like seemed more innocent than that: I just wanted to know more about them and play within their universe. These ideas don't even seem like explanations which, in hindsight, chime with a deeply buried feeling associated with my childhood obsession with all things Mesozoic. Conversations with friends and colleagues suggest these explanations are similarly unfamiliar to them.
This makes me wonder if we're thinking about this the wrong way. We seem to expect that the appeal of Mesozoic reptiles to children is a unique trait, an X-factor, something inherently mystical about these animals which mean most children will be under their spell at some point. There may be, but I wonder if we're over-thinking this. Perhaps there is no unique factor behind the popularity of Mesozoic reptiles with young humans, and they're popular with kids for the same reasons that a lot of things are. Maybe the reason children like Mesozoic reptiles is very simple: they're just really cool.
The Anatomy of Cool
Let's run with this idea for just a moment. Mesozoic reptiles certainly tick all the boxes for Cool Things That Kids Like. Starting with the most obvious: they look awesome. Innumerable cartoons and comics featuring appealing characters and creatures are testament to the power awesome-looking beings have over children. The muscular bodies, dynamic postures, horns, frills, teeth and claws of many Mesozoic reptiles are clear signs of badassery, and kids of all ages respond positively to that. Perhaps the consistent choice of favourite dinosaurs in youngsters reflects this. Although most children's dinosaur books introduce a wide selection of species, it's the most anatomically extreme and charismatic species that are picked out by generation after generation as Top Dino. Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, Baryonyx, Velociraptor, Ankylosaurus, Brachiosaurus and so forth are consistent favourites. Some kids - especially cootie-ridden girls, because they're rubbish and smelly - might like prefer cuter, baby versions of dinosaurs, but they still pick babies of the most immediately interesting taxa. By contrast, no kid has ever said that their favourite dinosaur is Iguanodon or Hypsilophodon, because they're freakin' boring to a sub-10 year old. This is despite them being among the 'safest' dinosaurs, bearing no real offensive equipment and having no interest in eating children. Kids dig awesome, even if it's a little scary, and their favourite dinosaurs are full of it.
pre-conceived ideas of 'character': the frills and horns of some dinosaurs recall the armaments of knights, the powerful jaws and teeth of tyrannosaurs make them obvious threats, and so on. These perceived anthropomorphisms may tie into the choice of favourite species among children, perhaps reflecting elements of wish-fulfilment and reflection of individual personalities, but the same applies to their selection of a favourite Transformer or mutated ninja turtle.
What about complicated Latin and Greek names? Surely they must have some unique appeal? It's perhaps no coincidence that many favourite Mesozoic animals are also those with the coolest names. Animals with undoubtedly disastrous (Futalognkosaurus) or boring (the infinite numbers of Placename-osaurus we now have) names are unlikely candidates for being any child's favourite. The strong, weighty names of Deinonynchus, Pteranodon, Plesiosaurus and Diplodocus are where it's at. Really, they aren't actually too different or more difficult to say than invented names of child-approved fantasy universes. A of extinct animal names are no trickier or less familiar to children than the names of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings characters, for instance. There may be no more psychological significance to a child saying the word 'Gallimimus' than there is them saying 'Legolas' or 'Dagobah'.
The stats and factoids associated with Mesozoic reptiles are perhaps also factors in childhood palaeo cool. Any juvenile palaeo nut worth their salt knows the size, mass, biogeography, geological period, lineage, and diet of a hundred extinct species. Our brains are sponges for that kind of stuff when we're small, but not only for Mesozoic animals. Kids get obsessive about all manner of data, hence the success of all these newfangled Japanese card playing games with weird animals and, before them, things like Top Trumps, complex board and video games and RPGs. It seems that, if children like a topic, and the information is there to be learned, they'll take it in whether it has a dinosaur stamped on it or not.
|Sinornithoides again, acting as end-of-post wallpaper|
The discussion at the endWith all these things considered, I really wonder if Mesozoic reptiles have, or indeed need a mysterious 'X-factor' to explain their appeal. I don't think it's been an intended goal of palaeontologists or merchandisers, but these two contrasting industries have created a window into the Mesozoic that children can enjoy on many levels, developing a world which couldn't be more child-friendly if someone designed it. The many parallels we see between childhood palaeo culture and industries designing universes to interest children are surely a reflection of this. Cool, identifiable creatures with interesting lives, awesome names and stats, and a wealth of merchandise. That description could describe how children will interpret palaeontology, or it could describe the way they'll interpret Doctor Who.
As a final point to chew on, I think it's interesting that we don't really feel a need to explain the childhood appeal of superheroes, spaceships and giant robots by means of an X-factor', but we do for Mesozoic reptiles. Adults just accept that kids find these more anthropocentric topics inherently awesome and interesting, and that's good enough. Why doesn't that work for palaeontological topics? Is it a little worrying that we think like this? That the raw appeal of the natural world, which kids seem to intuitively grasp as interesting and awesome, isn't a strong enough draw on it's own, and requires rationalising into a more a anthropocentric model to explain it's childhood appeal? Maybe there's something to be learned from that. General knowledge and understanding of the natural world is critically poor, biological education is consistently being attacked by anti-scientific groups, and media groups increasingly think that the natural world needs sexing up with human interaction and made-up science. Maybe if we just remembered that it's OK to find the natural world fascinating and awesome because it is, and that we don't need to make ourselves the centre of everything, these issues wouldn't be anywhere near as big and worrying as they are.
- Russell, D. A., and Dong, Z. M. 1993. A nearly complete skeleton of a new troodontid dinosaur from the Early Cretaceous of the Ordos Basin, Inner Mongolia, People's Republic of China. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 30, 2163-2173.