Regular readers will know that I’m not exactly a fan of the idea – discussed here and there in the technical (Russell & Séguin 1982, Russell 1987), popular (Hecht 2007, Socha 2008, Naish 2008) and speculative literature (McLoughlin 1984, Magee 1993) – that non-avian theropod dinosaurs might have evolved into humanoids had they not bought the farm 65 million years ago [image below by Matt Collins].
The hypothetical (emphasis: hypothetical) evolution of big brains, intelligence and so on among imaginary post-Cretaceous deinonychosaurs is not (in my opinion) all that unreasonable, and I base this assertion on what birds have been doing over the past 65 million years. Look at parrots and corvids. Parrots overlap with primates in brain : body size ratio, intelligence and abilities, and evidence suggests that they (and corvids) have sophisticated emotions that aren’t much different from ours (or from those of other primates; humans are not magic animals different from all the others, but part of a spectrum). You probably heard the recent reports about funeral rites in magpies. This was in the news thanks to the publication of Bekoff’s paper (Bekoff 2009), but stuff like this has been widely reported anecdotally and there’s every reason to take it seriously [Alex the grey parrot (1976-2007) shown below, from wikipedia].
However… as for the idea that those bird-like dinosaurs might have evolved into bolt upright, tailless humanoids… well, it’s a thoroughly stupid idea and I’m sure you don’t need me to go through the arguments again (see the links below if you’re unfamiliar with them). To put it as succinctly as possible, our body shape is the product of our very specific evolutionary history, and can we be absolutely sure that it’s ‘the best’ body shape for the evolution of big brains or intelligence? Yes or no (I think no), there doesn’t seem to be any indication (either from fossils, or from actual post-Cretaceous dinosaurs, by which I mean birds) that dinosaurs would go this way, big brain or no.
So it’s slightly surprising to see well known evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins take up the mantle of ‘humanoid dinosaur’ supporter in an article Michael Shermer has written for Scientific American. Things started with Shermer’s argument that aliens – if real – will not resemble bipedal primates (he put this forward in a brief youtube video). Dawkins mostly agreed, but also responded with the argument that perhaps the odds aren’t so vanishingly small after all, citing Simon Conway Morris’s opinions and the dinosauroids of the speculative literature in his defence!
An interpretation of Conway Morris’s argument is that (1) the human body shape really is the best shape for intelligence and sentience, and (2) convergence is so rampant throughout life on Earth that it very likely extends to life on other planets too. Point (2) may be reasonable, but point (1) seems less so. Dawkins is quoted as saying that Conway Morris’s argument “is not to be dismissed”. No, sorry, that’s not how it works. It doesn’t matter if Conway Morris is the world’s bestest ever expert on… whatever he’s the world’s bestest ever expert on: he can still be wrong, or hold questionable opinions, just like the rest of us. If I may use a Carl Sagan quote, there are no authorities, only experts, and there are many who think that Conway Morris’s argument about the inevitability of humans or humanoids is only an opinion, and a dodgy, biased one at that. Our body shape clearly works well for an intelligent, tool-using, sentient animal, but where is the convincing evidence that it is the only possible body shape for such a creature, or the most likely one to evolve in distantly related, or unrelated, organisms? I’m afraid I can’t help but see promotion of ‘magic human syndrome’ in Conway Morris’s arguments (this being the widespread belief that humans are the most wonderful, most perfect creatures in all of existence).
To make it clear, however, Dawkins doesn’t necessarily support or endorse the possibility that non-avian dinosaurs might have become humanoid. Rather, he is merely pointing to the fact that at least a few scientists have speculated on this possibility. But I thought he would have known better, given that these speculations do not really seem justifiable.
For previous articles on ‘smart dinosaurs’, please see…
- Dinosauroid cave art discovered
- How intelligent dinosaurs conquered the world
- Belatedly, Nemoramjetia (= Avisapiens)
More on Libya soon, plus more toads and so on. Thanks to Nathan Myers for the heads-up. On the subject of dinosaurs, congrats to Adam Yates on Aardonyx, and to Herman Pontzer and colleagues for their PLoS ONE paper on dinosaur physiology. Empirical support for dinosaur endothermy: what a surprise 🙂
Refs – –
Bekoff, M. 2009. Animal emotions, wild justice and why they matter: grieving magpies, a pissy baboon, and empathic elephants. Emotion, Space and Society doi: 10.1016/j.emospa.2009.08.001
Hecht, J. 2007. Smartasaurus. Cosmos 15, 40-41.
Magee, M. 1993. Who Lies Sleeping: the Dinosaur Heritage and the Extinction of Man. AskWhy! Publications, Frome.
McLoughlin, J. 1984. Evolutionary bioparanoia. Animal Kingdom April/May 1984, 24-30.
Naish, D. 2008. Intelligent dinosaurs. Fortean Times 239, 52-53.
Russell, D. A. 1987. Models and paintings of North American dinosaurs. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume I. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and Washington), pp. 114-131.
– . & Séguin, R. 1982. Reconstruction of the small Cretaceous theropod Stenonychosaurus inequalis and a hypothetical dinosauroid. Syllogeus 37, 1-43.
Socha, V. 2008. Dinosauři: hlupáci, nebo géniové? Svĕt 3/2008, 14-16.