Aaron R. Davis
Let me preface this whole discussion with this: triceratops still exists.
Everyone chill out.
Over the weekend, word reached the Internet that two of the world’s preeminent paleontologists, John Scanella and Jack Horner, had published a paper arguing that triceratops may not be its own species of dinosaur, but simply a juvenile form of the less-famous torosaurus. Both dinosaurs were discovered in the late 1800s by Othniel Marsh, who considered them two separate species.
Right away, we’re dealing with some major problems.
First, we have no dinosaur DNA. So we can’t exactly do genetic testing.
Second, dinosaurs have been extinct for millions of years. No one’s ever seen one in the wild, so no one really knows from experience what these things are supposed to look like.
Third, Othniel Marsh engaged in a war for years with paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope that involved, at various times, dynamiting fossil sites, discrediting each other in papers and haphazardly assembling bones — sometimes bones that didn’t even go together — in an attempt to “discover” more new species than anyone else.
Scientists are still fixing errors made, sometimes deliberately, by Marsh and Cope.
So the situation we have here is as though some future naturalist who had never seen a caterpillar or a butterfly had no idea they were actually developmental stages of the same animal. Why would you, just to look at them? Hell, I know kids who don’t realize that the white, puffy weeds on the lawn are dandelions simply because they aren’t yellow.
Now, I’m fascinated by the world of paleontology; I have been since before I can even remember. Dinosaur bones captivated me at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago when I was a child, and they’ve held me in thrall ever since. So I considered this story a fascinating find. And in fact, the article linked above goes on to say that Scanella and Horner have made similar assertions about other species, and gone some way towards supporting a theory that dinosaur diversity was on the decline before they were wiped out by an extinction level event in the form of an asteroid. Which itself may explain something to us about the evolution of species. If widely accepted, this could change how paleontology is approached in the future.
In other words, this is a big freaking deal.
So, of course, the Internet had a nerd meltdown over it.
Typically, the bloggers seized on the most simplistic aspect possible: “The triceratops never really existed.”
Almost immediately, the memes started flying around. “Everything I’ve ever known was a lie!” “Scientists are taking my whole childhood away!” And the inevitable t-shirt that reads “I still believe.”
We’ve got a few generations cruising the Internet now, so you’d think people would be used to rapid changes. But there are still people out there who are butt hurt over the loss of Pluto’s status as a planet; they’re so upset over it you’d think they vacationed there or were building a beach house. (Yes, I know it’s a ball of ice, I just needed an analogy there.) There are people who just won’t let this go, and they manage to turn it into a whole “science be damned, I’ll believe what I like” argument. With all of the problems in the world, this is what the nerds want to go down fighting on: the classification of a planetoid.
And now they want to go down fighting over the existence of triceratops, which is not actually the issue. The issue is whether the classification of dinosaur bones is incorrect or not.
Keep in mind how hypothesis works. Paleontology hasn’t made some blanket acceptance of this new idea; this will need to be tested. Some paleontologists have already wondered aloud if triceratops and torosaurus aren’t still two separate but closely-related dinosaurs, and there’ve just been a lot of mistakes in classifying baby torosaurus fossils.
But leave it to the Internet to get into fights over the dumbest aspects of actual science. And really, that’s my whole point. This is the constant stupidity of being on the Internet: someone says that someone said something and no one bothered to verify it. Instead, it’s a visceral reaction and a weird decision to not trust actual scientists or even to look up the actual facts being tossed around and alluded to. And it’s something that just kind of worries me as a skeptic and an atheist. People don’t just get religious about religion. People get religious about vegetarianism or being a Lady Gaga fan or thinking the triceratops is awesome. And while the triceratops is awesome — full disclosure, it’s always been my favorite dinosaur — I think new scientific knowledge is something to get excited over, not something to fight against because you might have to call a dinosaur by a different name.
And, actually, if they had bothered to read the article itself, they would’ve seen the following line: “Torosaurus will now be abolished as a species and specimens reassigned to Triceratops, says Horner.”
But, you know, why have all the facts when you can just freak out and maybe make a t-shirt to make some money off the confusion?
This is the biggest problem with the way news travels on the Internet. Too often, you’re getting stuff filtered by people’s initial, often confused impressions. People take sides on all kinds of non-issues they don’t fully understand simply because of momentary passions, or in reaction to someone else or for stupid reasons I can’t even fathom.
I’m not going to be the adult here who says something like “If only people got all worked up like this where it really matters” and then mumbles something about what things were like in some imagined past.
But I am going to roll my eyes pretty damn hard and just leave the science-ing to the scientists.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.