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Dinosaurs, Bad Politics and Ghosts of Christmas Past: The Fallacy of the Single Cause  

saturn1019 60M
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12/15/2019 11:25 am
Dinosaurs, Bad Politics and Ghosts of Christmas Past: The Fallacy of the Single Cause

Christmas season always brings back fond memories of childhood and for some of us, the warm delights of those happy Christmas mornings. I have many wonderful memories of the toy dinosaurs that frequently showed up under my childhood tree. There was one particular set of toys I remember that contained a triceratops, a T-Rex, a stegasaurus, a delightful looking duck-billed dinosaur called the trachodon, and, of course, the most popular dinosaur that never existed; the brontosaurus.

We now recognize the factual animal today as the apatosaur. The legend of that particular non-existent sauropod, the brontosaurus, grew out of the "bone wars" rivalry between O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope in the late th century. These two giants in the history of paleontology, whose combined egos and dislike for each other led to both enormous strides in our knowledge of dinosaurs and, in at least one instance, led to the creation of an animal fabricated out of the imagination. That is not to mention the deplorable incidents of bribery, ad hominem attacks and the casual destruction of valuable fossils both men to promote their own reputations and destroy that of their rival. That is a story for another time.

Along with the aforementioned dinos, there was a small plastic cave complete with a palmtree and 3 cavemen. The creators of the set even spared fortunate enough to receive this magnificent collection the necessity of giving them names. They came with the pre-assigned monikers, Uga, Mugga and Sam. Sam was the one carrying a large club.

My education at the time was insufficient to understand the vast gulf of time that seperated Sam and his party from hanging around with the trachodon and his taxonomic clade cousins. The inclusion of early humans and dinosaurs in the same set did seem to imply a prehistoric temporal simultaneity. That could easily have been reinforced one of the most popular television offerings of the time. In those days, the Flintstones paraded through prime time with their litany of dinosaur servants. The seemed to serve early humans in every fashion from garbage disposals to mass transit and even air travel. However, Fred and Barney's daily commute to the rock quarry and wherever Barney worked was still accomplished through the courtesy of Fred's 2 feet.

The notion that dinosaurs and humans might have coexisted, at least at some point in time, came in handy for enhancing my own imagination. One gift I remember from an early birthday was a large set of toy soldiers with a green army and a yellow-green army, a couple of tanks, a helicopter and a cannon. Even in those days, the idea of the men shooting at each other struck me as somewhat appalling, so a better idea occured to me. On one side of my room I lined up my army men and their barrage of weapons. On the other side I gathered my herd of dinosaurs. The battle that ensued resembled one of those entertaining but notoriously bad Japanese monster movies of the era. Before you ask, I have no recollection of which side Uga, Mugga and Sam joined in alliance.

In my childhood, my took my 2 brothers and I on bi-weekly excursions to the local public library. In those days, computers were large devices that filled entire rooms and had less actual computing power than the cell phone presently in your pocket. The internet was still decades in the future, a remarkable invention that came to us so unexpectedly that not one of the great science fiction visionaries of the past ever came close to imagining or predicting its eventual existence. So we learned from books.

The public library in my city was a large and imposing building, at least for a of my size, with 2 floors. Adult books were down on the first floor and the 's books were upstairs. My would seat us on the steps on the 's floor, then take us one at a time to pick out a book. It never took me very long to find one: I always picked out a book either about dinosaurs or the stars and planets. I seriously doubt that my hometown library actually had a whole lot of 's books about either topic, so it will remain a point lost to history as to how many times I checked out the few available books about dinosaurs.

Eventually I came to learn that the dinosaurs disappeared from the planet a long time before humans appeared, thus the inclusion of my three cavemen in the set was at best an inaccuracy. Sadly, this concept has still not become a matter of universal knowledge a decade into the 21st century, five decades removed from my own staged titanic battles between dinosauria and homo-sapiens. There remains a disquietingly large of people who believe that the Flintstones was closer to documentary than an animated whim, and that the dinosaurs very possibly disappeared in the same mythic flood that prompted Noah to take an unlikely, read: impossible voyage. It is a disturbing enough that anyone still believes in the ridiculous story of Noah and the universal flood in its own right.

The time scales of the existence of our universe are unimaginable to we poor humans and our planet has been around for only a fraction of the time the universe itself has existed. But even the billions of years that have passed since our Earth came into existense staggers our minds, perhaps leading to an understanding of why some folks try to scale the total history of existence into a few millenia. Thinking of history in terms of a couple of hundred generations is somehow easier to conceptualize than 4.5 billion years, out of which we have been around for only about 100,000 and most of that lost in pre-history.

One year is easier for us to understand, so suppose we imagine that the Earth was formed at the<b> stroke </font></b>of midnight on January 1, 20 and the moment you are reading this is 23:59:59 on the evening of December 31, 20. When did the major events on our planet occur on our one year calendar?

Not much happened back in January, February or March. The Earth was being bombarded heavily celestial debris in the opening weeks of January, forming its present size. Volcanoes and comets helped form the early atmosphere and oceans. the end of January the planet had taken its present size, violent storms swept over the world and the organic chemistry that would lead to life was brewing in the oceans.

The first simple life forms appeared in the oceans about April Fool's Day. The first more complex, multi-celluar forms evolved the end of April. Trilobites and their kin appeared the end of the first week in May and the vertebrates that would prey upon them showed up Memorial Day. The month of June passed with more of the same. Half our year is over and there still isn't a single life form on the land.

Plants colonized the land about the middle of July. They had a tough go of it at first, most of them being swept back into the ocean winds and rain, but the end of the month they had established a firm foothold. They would be followed the first lung fish, then amphibians about the third week of August. Insects made their appearance around September first.

Reptiles evolved from the line of the amphibians and the earliest dinosaurs made their appearance in late September. They would rule the planet throughout the month of October, developing a taste for some delicious little we would recognize as mammals who showed up around the middle of the month. Sometime close to Thanksgiving Day in late November, a large object collided with the planet that finished off the dinosaurs. It probably wasn't what actually caused their extinction. That is a point we will return to shortly.

With the dinosaurs gone, those furry little guys called mammals found a world better suited to their needs. They proliferated throughout December and thousands of new species were born. When the sun rose on December 31, there were still no true homonids on the planet. Our early ancestors finally arrived around noon on the final day of the year, more than a month after the last dinosaurs succumbed to extinction. Neanderthals and homo sapiens were finally roaming the planet at :00 PM. The earliest cave paintngs were created around : PM and humans created knives and spears minutes later. Recorded history begins at :55 PM and at :58:43 a guy named Jesus is believed to have roamed around telling people how to behave. Columbus "discovered" a new continent where tens of thousads of people were already leading happy, productive lives at :59:40. As noted, you are reading this at :59:59. Everyone we have ever heard of, or know anything about, lived in the last 5 minutes of the year. Our modern civilization has encompassed 20 seconds out of the year.

Condensed down to a scale where the history of the Earth is measured in a single year, everything vaguely human that has ever existed lived in the last hours of the last day of the year. True homo-sapiens have only been around for an hour. comparison, the dinosaurs lasted nearly 2 full months. In this context the famed paleotologist Jack Horner once observed, "The true question about the dinosaurs is not why they became extinct, but rather, how they lasted so long."

It has long been known that a mass extinction occured on the planet around 65 million years ago and whatever caused that event was probably also responsible for the disappearance of the dinosaurs. All sorts of competing theories were advanced, ranging from disease, volcanic eruptions, gradual climate change resulting from continental drift and other suggestions. When Louis Alverez discovered a worldwide layer of iridum in sediments dating to the time of the K.T. extinction, many scientist believed that they had discovered the long sought smoking gun. They should have known better.

There can be no question that a large asteroid impacted the area that is now the Gulf of Mexico which was at least a contributing factor to the mass extinction that occured at the end of the Cretaceous. It can also be reasonably argued that it was the event that likely put an end to what was left of the dinosaurs. But the simple fact is, most dinosaur species existing at that time were already in signficant decline.

The spate of new theories that continue to surface every few years as to the cause of the disappearance of the dinosaurs is testimony to the bias even scientists can fall into: Major events rarely to never have single causes. The dinosaurs as a class were well on their way to extinction the time the asteroid came along. There is almost certainly no single smoking gun, but rather a witch's brew of events that led to a long decline, followed the single, Earth-changing event from which the dinosaurs could not recover. A lot of species not nearly as stressed went with them.

Viruses or bacterial infections can decimate, but never entirely wipe out a single species, let alone an entire clade. Volcanic activity can cause havoc locally or in some instances even globally, but the inconvienences it can cause to life would be similarly unlikely to cause an extinction event on the scale of the K.T. event. A combination of sudden events in concert with more gradual changes brought about a changing climate, with the possibility of an unknown cataclysmic environmental trap, or even severe events caused a stressed system suddenly changing to find a new equalibrium could also create enormous difficulties.

The bottom line is that there is signficant evidence that the disappearance of the dinosaurs can be explained a long decline that likely resulted from a confluence of events, with the collision acting as the coupe de grace. The object lesson here is that if you want to explain big occurrances, a lot of events are not only more likely necessary to satisfactorily explain the phenomenon, it is virtually certain that one of any size alone will never do the job.

Lessons learned in biology frequently apply to the human realm. I frequently hear comparisons between excesses or problems glaring in the Roman Empire offered in comparison to situations in the modern U.S. "That is the reason why Rome fell!" is the typical lament. Curiously, I have heard at least 50 different lessons the Romans offered that should give us pause to clean up our own act. The conclusion? Well, it sort of looks like Rome fell for a lot of different reasons. If our great nation ever is dispatched to the dust bin of history, not only will we be likely to take global civilization with us, but it will probably be for a myriad of reasons, a few of which might coincidentally mirror the fall of ancient Rome.

That brings us to one of the modern mythologies of American political conservatism: The warrior on his white (at least in the conciousness of adherents) marched into the White House circa 81, put on his blue costume adorned on the front a giant red letter "S" and single-handedly banished the evil Soviet Union from the planet. He even labled the old U.S.S.R. as "the evil empire" just before his act of selfless heroism lest anyone should fail to understand the necessity of sending it to its demise.

There is just one problem with this myopic exercise in revisionist history. The observations of Professor Horner with regard to the fate of the dinosaurs applies equally to the Soviet Union, but not in a positive context. It isn't surprising they fell apart, what is surprising is that they lasted so long. It was an inefficient, top-heavy, bureaucratic state that struggled to implement even simple, vital programs to enhance their own general welfare. Decades of excessive spending in unproductive economies, bad investments to poor nations that had no prospect of ever returning the investment, numerous and regular seasons of agricultural failure devastated their economy and balance of trade, overspending on military endeavors and finally, reckless foreign military adventurism, capped off a disasterous invasion of Afghanistan are just a few among many other obvious causes.

Of course it is much easier and perhaps intellectually rewarding to attribute complex events to easily definable causes. It rewards a world view in which we are emotionally invested and prevents us the necessity of expending valuable energy and time on the grander cause of gaining a less superficial grasp on the complex world we inhabit. That is a bias that applies, as I have demonstrated, to both the natural and political world.

Correlation is not causation, and failure to grasp the inherent complexity of events in their true nature can be a dangerous path to walk. The belief that simple solutions can be applied to remedy complex issues can lead to failed policies: A lesson we humans should have long since learned, yet we stubbornly fail to grasp.

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