We human beings are fascinated by dinosaurs. The first reports of the giant bones of extinct creatures caused a worldwide sensation, and in the century and a half since then, our interest has never diminished. In every country of the world, children and adults are entranced by dinosaurs.
It is often imagined that the current dinosaur mania is a recent phenomenon; in fact it is not. When I first started writing a novel about dinosaurs, back in 1981, I put the project aside because at that time, Americans seemed to be in the grip of an unprecedented dinosaur mania. There were dinosaur cups and saucers, dinosaur toys, dinosaur bedspreads; museums were having dinosaur shows; it seemed there were dinosaurs everywhere you looked. I did not want to write a book that exploited a fashion of the moment. So I waited. But year after year, the fashion never went away. Finally I realized that our fascination with dinosaurs is a permanent phenomenon. It is always there.
Children, of course, have always been captivated by dinosaurs. To go to a museum and see young children, barely able to walk and talk, shrieking ‘‘Stegosaurus’’ and ‘‘Tyrannosaurus’’ as they view the creatures is a very striking thing. Why does it happen? What is going on in their minds as they shout out those complex Latin names? How do we explain the fact that dinosaurs excite the imagination of adults and children throughout the world?
Over the years, I have entertained many theories. For a while, I thought the phenomenon might be characteristic of those countries, like the United States, where many fossils have been found—a kind of nationalistic interest, if you will. But dinosaurs are just as popular in countries such as Japan and Italy, where few remains have been found.
For a while, I thought it was primarily a childish interest. But in museums, you’ll notice that adults are equally fascinated. To be honest, it often seems that children are only an excuse for adults to visit the dinosaurs.
Later on, I suspected the interest in dinosaurs might be something that children passed on to each other, a trait of a children’s subculture. But my own daughter showed a marked interest in dinosaurs long before she went to preschool—indeed, before she was even very verbal.
Still later, I thought this enthusiasm was provoked by the great size of these creatures. But smaller dinosaurs excite just as much interest among children. Baby dinosaurs are very appealing. And in any case, the dinosaur toys are all small. . . .
For a time, I wondered whether the interest had something to do with the fact that the dinosaurs had become extinct. But children are not clear about this. When my daughter was two years old, she asked to see dinosaurs at the zoo. She had been to the zoo several times, and apparently believed the dinosaurs were housed in some section we hadn’t visited yet. When she was told that she could not see dinosaurs, she gave a resigned shrug—parents never do what you want them to do!
Perhaps, I thought, that was a clue. Children spend much of their lives powerless and frustrated. I began to entertain a Freudian notion that being able to pronounce the complex names of huge creatures afforded children a sense of control. In a child’s world, after all, everything is big—parents, cars, everything. And naming things is a classic human procedure to reduce anxiety. (Patients are always relieved to hear that they have ‘‘idiopathic hypertension,’’ even though the term is literally meaningless.) But once again, careful observation cast doubt on this idea. When my daughter was four, I took her and two friends to Stan Winston’s workshop to see the dinosaurs being constructed for Jurassic Park. I thought they’d enjoy it, but they didn’t. Although the dinosaurs were then only sculpted in clay, the girls were distressed by what they saw. The animals were simply too big, and too real-looking. It is one thing to play with little dinosaur toys. It is quite another to walk beneath the enormous scaly legs of a towering tyrannosaur, or to touch the big claw of a Velociraptor. The kids were very uneasy. They wanted to leave.
So in the end, I decided I just don’t understand why children are fascinated by dinosaurs. And I don’t believe anybody understands. In the end, it is a mystery.
And it may be that the mystery is part of the fascination. Certainly for adults, dinosaurs present an intriguing puzzle, in which fantasies are inevitably provoked. Although we know far more about dinosaurs than we did a few decades ago, the truth is that we still know very little. We don’t really know what these creatures looked like, or how they behaved. We have some bones, impressions of skin, some trackways, and many fascinating speculations about their biology and social organization. But what hard evidence remains of their long-vanished world is tantalizing and incomplete.
And so they still provoke our dreams. And, probably, they always will.
Copyright © 1997 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved