Walking with Dinosaurs

January 10, 2009 | By | Reply More

Over the recent holiday I was fortunate to find several good films on DVD at my local public library. One I have just mentioned — The Ox-Bow Incident. Another is a trilogy about evolution, produced by the BBC. The films are titled, “Walking with Monsters,” “Walking with Dinosaurs,” and “Walking with Beasts,” and cover, respectively, the evolution of the animal kingdom before, during and after the age of dinosaurs. The films are fabulous not just for their scientific content and provocative suggestions about the cause-and-effect processes that might have driven various evolutionary changes, but also for their special effects, which successfully merge convincing animations with real landscapes.

I probably wouldn’t show the films to children under the age of about 10 (because the Brits are apparently much more fascinated with excretion and copulation than are most U.S. audiences), but for older viewers the films are both entertaining and thought provoking. For example, they point out that the Cambrian explosion (the seemingly sudden appearance of many different complex organisms around 530 million years ago) appears to coincide approximately with the earliest known evolutionary development of the eye — suggesting that perhaps the ability of predators to see and target their prey (or prey to see and avoid predators) was a major factor that caused species to diversify and specialize.

They also give a compelling explanation for how sea mammals might have evolved, and for why the mammalian ear apparently evolved from jaw bones: perhaps our ancient ancestors laid their chins on the ground to sense vibrations of approaching food (or threats) and this ability gave them a competitive advantage. The films also point out that most of the major extinction events that are seen in the fossil record appear to coincide with significant changes in global climate — a story that of course has considerable importance right now. The films also do a nice job of showing how the theory of evolution by natural selection is supported not only by the fossil record of animals, but also by climatology, botany, geology and other branches of science.

Evolution by natural selection is, thus, not merely wild speculation about bones found in rocks, but a coherent theory that unifies observational data from a wide range of diverse, independent fields. For example, it’s not just that particular evolutionary changes can be dated to particular epochs, but that changes in climate and plant varieties can also be dated to those same epochs. For example, an increase in the average size of land animals coincides with a decrease in the ratio of tree seeds relative to other plants, suggesting that animals grew larger as forests disappeared. Why would this happen? Because large size is a detriment to herbivores living in a forest (since they have a harder time running away from predators) but a benefit to herbivores living on a prairie (since they can travel greater distances without food or water).

And, needless to say, creationism — which cannot even begin to explain the scientific observations, much less make accurate predictions about as-yet undiscovered phenomena — is nowhere mentioned.

I would recommend watching the films in the sequence I mentioned above, corresponding to the chronological order of their content. The films were actually produced out of order, with ‘Dinosaurs’ first, ‘Beasts’ second and ‘Monsters’ third. This will be obvious because the animation improves with each film (making the transition from ‘Monsters’ (best animation) to ‘Dinosaurs’ (worst animation) somewhat jarring visually), but comprehension is best if the films are seen in chronological order.

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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

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