The Way of the Dinosaur

After visiting the “Dinosaurs Unearthed” exhibit at the St. Louis Science center a few weeks ago, it got me thinking about the reality of extinction and fallacy of immortality.  Dinosaurs were the dominant organism on this planet for 160 million years; compare that to humans who’ve dominated this planet for not even 1/4 of one million years.  That fact alone is astonishing.  It’s also amazing to realize that it’s been 65 million years between the dinosaurs and us, and for almost all of that time we were not the dominant creatures on this planet.  And with the planet itself being 4.5 billion years old, our entire human history-even before crude pictures drawn in caves-is just a small blip on the radar, a tiny flash in the grand scheme of the planet.  Just a galactic sneeze.

The concept of immortality is attractive to humans since most of us are afraid to die.  The thought of living forever is romantic; it helps ease our anxiety and depression.  There’s no proof it’s true but most people don’t let a lack of evidence influence their opinions.  Bertrand Russell said that Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones. Because we’re typically small-minded and self-centered, humans have created an entire planet’s history around our own timeline.  We’re also guilty of assigning purpose and design to the entire universe based on this inflated sense of self.  To the believers and perpetrators of myth, Earth’s history began with humans.  To many of these same types, the universe works in accordance with our wants and desires; for time out of mind we were convinced we were the center of the universe, torturing and murdering those who would disagree.  Only now, due to the brave and thoughtful work of our scientists and Freethinkers, (and not coincidentally, those most derided by myth-perpetrators) we’re now aware of our place in the universe and just how fractional and fleeting our existence really is.

The existence and subsequent extinction of the dinosaurs really spoke to me about this fallacy of “forever”.  For 160 million years these creatures ruled this planet,  evolving and changing, unchallenged in their dominance.  These creatures themselves weren’t self-aware and subsequently able to ponder their own existence and future, but a sentient observer of the time could have appreciated their tenure as rulers of the planet and reasonably supposed it could continue until the end of the planet itself.  Barring some catastrophic event, such as a large comet or meteorite, or maybe an ice-age, it’s not an unreasonable assumption.  Of course they were all wiped out, probably by said comet or asteroid, all but the few who became our birds of today.

So it got me thinking.  If the dinosaurs could have lasted for 160 million years, over 600 times longer than humans have been alive today, and could just “go away” almost overnight, why couldn’t we?  What’s even more frightening is the rapidity of their extinction.  The day before the comet or meteorite hit it was business as usual.  Sunny days, dinosaurs stalking the land for food, unimportant mammals scurrying in the underbrush.  All of them unaware of their own existence and fate.  Then the world changed in a moment; one species went away forever and another, mammals, hung on to become what we are today.  Neither of them could have imagined the outcome.

What made an even bigger impression on me though was the fact that the dinosaurs lived for over 600 times longer than humans, were completely exterminated 65 million years before the first human, and we had no idea they’d even existed.  We literally spent the better part of our human existence completely unaware they’d ever been here before us, that we’d shared the same planet.  Their lives, their deaths, and the extinction of virtually every member of their species had come and gone and there wasn’t a single creature left alive to tell their story.  Humans learned to walk upright, to think, to talk and write, and built an entire history for the planet that included not a single dinosaur.  To us it was as if the dinosaurs had never existed.  Millions upon millions of distinct living things, gone forever, with nothing left alive that could remember them.  I find this incredibly fascinating and humbling at the same time.

The idea of that “end of the world” cataclysmic event and its inevitable outcome, reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road.  Not coincidentally it’s been mentioned that he was inspired by the extinction of the dinosaurs when he created the global, life-ending event in the book.  In that book we’re presented with the last shreds of humanity, the last stragglers unlucky enough to have survived the event, dying slow, painful deaths.  The reality that our entire existence, all our achievements and history, has been wiped away in a single event.  Just like the dinosaurs.  Would the next dominant species even know we existed?  In that scenario our buildings, our monuments, our achievements will all be gone by then, erased by the natural elements and cycles of the Earth.  Statistically speaking it’ll happen again.  It’s just a matter of time.

In the end no one remembers us.  Not as individuals, at least.  Family members who live on will eventually die and with each passing generation our relevance wanes.  Eventually we’re forgotten, as if we’d never existed at all.  Just like the dinosaurs, or any of the other creatures completely unknown to us who might have come and gone well before them, all we really have is the here and now.

Now is the time to make the most of it.

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