A Discover magazine article about research suggesting that “T. rex brains brimmed with neurons” sparked my 11 remaining synapses, which perform at this point as if they might as well have been chewed by a mighty varmint with teeth the size of bananas.
Published last June in the Journal of Comparative Neurology by neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, the study extrapolated from the shape and size of the brain cavities of theropod fossils to conclude, in short, that Tyrannosaurus rex and its ravenous cousins “were the primates of their time.”
If Herculano-Houzel is right, the prehistoric monster every kid considers awesome “may have been capable of the same complex cognition that allows primates to produce tools and pass knowledge to offspring.”
I can’t see T. rexes working slide rules or unspooling measuring tapes with those tiny arms. Nonetheless, we’re eons away, as it were, from the lumbering, dull-witted dolts dinosaurs were presented as being in the ill-informed classrooms of our childhood.
I spent hours poring over the inaccurate illustrations in my paperback copy of 1960’s How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs, thrilling to the discovery that Brontosauruses were so big and fat that the only possible way they could have supported their bodies would have been to spend their entire lives lolling lazily in swamps, munching on moss and ferns and whatnot.
In fact, palaeontologists now know (or think they do) that members of the supersized sauropod lineages — those Brontosaurus-like beasts with long necks, long tails and small heads — walked around gracefully while tipping the scales at up to 150,000 pounds, like the Argentinosaurus of the Cretaceous period, which came to an abrupt end 66 million years ago when a massive asteroid smacked the Yucatán Peninsula.
Another discovery last year was that rather than roaring as in the movies, some dinosaurs likely tweeted, twittered and cooed like their modern descendants, the birds. Comparing the fossilized larynx of a heavily armoured ankylosaur to the sound-producing anatomy of birds and reptiles, researchers found that it was far more avian than reptilian.
Thus the tweet science.
To get to the heart of the matter, children, we were misled. Not often maliciously or with ill intent, but because the adults on whom we relied for information either didn’t have a clue themselves or were just funnin’ us. About lots of things. Not just dinos.
Rather than risking losing face by admitting their ignorance, or paying for things they didn’t want to pay for, or having us do things they didn’t want us to do, they resorted to — not to put too fine a point on it — fairy tales, fables, fake news, fabrication, deception, prevarication, half-truths, dissimulation, yarns, flights of fantasy, figments of the imagination, red herrings, cock-and-bull stories, whoppers, tall tales and outright mendacity.
At a minimum, terminological inexactitude. At worst, barefaced, threadbare lies.
You might have learned in school, as I did, that the red blood pumped through our arteries turns blue in our veins until being mixed with oxygen again in our hearts. Anyone who has ever cut a vein — that is to say, everyone — can readily observe that this isn’t true, but we accepted it as fact because veins in our hands appear bluish and, anyway, TEACHER SAID.
This is known in the critical thinking biz as argumentum ad verecundiam — appeal to BEd authority — about as fallacious as a logical fallacy can get. Too many dicks on the dance floor, as they say.
I remember asking my Grade 7 teacher whether stars could somehow be thrown out of the galaxies where they were born. The question landed like a fart at a funeral, amplified by a wooden pew.
Herr Professor deigned to assure the class that this was a completely imbecilic idea, and I was left feeling like a humiliated moron. But in fact we now know that stars are sometimes torn from the galactic arms where they were born and ejected into the void like loose bolts on a Boeing 737 Max 9 as a result of gravitational interactions among galaxies. Mine was actually a pretty precocious query, if I say so myself. And instead of playing Jesus to the lepers in his head with his dismissive de haut en bas approach to pedagogy, the teacher could have just admitted he didn’t have the foggiest notion. Few non-scientists would have in the 1960s.
After all, only 100 years have passed since Edwin Hubble was using the Hooker Telescope on Mount Wilson to prove that contrary to what was then orthodox belief in the astronomy establishment, the universe does not consist merely of the Milky Way galaxy, with our single planetary system at large in one of the outer arms.
Indeed, we in the Western world are only a few centuries out from near-unanimous belief in the picture of the Tinker Toy universe presented in the Bible, which biblical writers poached from ancient Sumero-Babylonian mythology. You know. What mythologist Joseph Campbell describes in his book The Inner Reaches of Outer Space as a “locally centred, three-layer affair, of a heaven above and abyss below, with an ocean-encircled bit of earth between.”
Alexandrian mathematician and astrologer Claudius Ptolemy would refine this vision about 100 years after Christ into a globular Earth suspended inside a well-ordered complex of revolving crystalline spheres. It was pretty to think so, but today this is known in Scott Norwoodian terms among Buffalo Bills fans of a certain age as a “wide right” hypothesis.
In fact, as astronomers now believe — gathering ever more evidence from sophisticated space telescopes capable of scanning remote parts of the universe as they were up to 13.5 billion years ago — we exist within what Campbell limns excitedly as “an inconceivable immensity of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and clusters of clusters (superclusters) of galaxies, speeding apart into expanding distance, with humanity as a kind of recently developed scurf on the epidermis of one of the lesser satellites of a minor star in (an) outer arm of an average galaxy, amidst one of the lesser clusters among thousands, catapulting apart, which took form some fifteen billion years ago as a consequence of an inconceivable preternatural event.”
Renowned astrophysicist and educator Carl Sagan took a more sober but reverential approach more than four decades ago in the companion book to his legendary television series, Cosmos:
The ancients knew the world is very old. They sought to look into the distant past. We know that the Cosmos is far older than they ever imagined. We have examined the universe in space and seen that we live on a mote of dust circling a humdrum star in the remotest corner of an obscure galaxy. And if we are a speck in the immensity of space, we also occupy an instant in the expanse of ages. We know that our universe — or at least its most recent incarnation — is some fifteen or twenty billion years old. This is the time since a remarkable explosive event called the Big Bang. At the beginning of this universe, there were no galaxies, stars or planets, no life or civilizations, merely a uniform, radiant fireball filling all of space. The passage from the Chaos of the Big Bang to the Cosmos that we are beginning to know is the most awesome transformation of matter and energy that we have been privileged to glimpse. And until we find more intelligent beings elsewhere, we ourselves are the most spectacular of all transformations — the remote descendants of the Big Bang, dedicated to understanding and further transforming the Cosmos from which we sprang.
Even consigning throngs of whirling putti and seraphim to the dustbin of theology, there is (almost) infinitely more grandeur in modern conceptions of the cosmic fugue than in the ancient world’s dome over a flat earth or rinky-dink crystals. I’m reminded of the moment when Toto-toting Dorothy lands in Oz and the world switches from sepia tones to oversaturated Technicolor, as strains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” play in the background.
This is Sarah Bakewell in her excellent 2023 book Humanly Possible: Seven Hundred Years of Humanist Freethinking, Inquiry, and Hope:
Science tells us things I can only describe as sublime: that we live in a universe estimated to contain 125 billion galaxies, of which our galaxy alone contains some 100 billion stars, of which our particular star shines upon our planet and fills it with some 8.7 million diverse species of life, of which one species is able to study and marvel at such observations. That makes us a marvel, too; somehow, our three pounds or so of fleshy brain substance are able to encompass and develop such knowledge, and to generate a whole mini-universe of consciousness, emotion, and self-reflection.
However much the eternal silence of infinite spaces could terrorize a 17th-century thinker like Blaise Pascal when the old Catholic certainties to which he clung were falling away, I can’t haul my rudimentary telescope to the backyard on a starry summer night without slightly swaying where I stand, sessile, immobile, as profound feelings of awe, wonder and mosquito bites wash over me. The veil lifts and for a moment I am in heaven. Frost my tips and log me in.
It’s showtime, folks.
“To be on the wire is life,” Joe Gideon (Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical avatar, played by Roy Scheider) remarks to the veiled Angelique, Angel of Death (Jessica Lange), in 1979’s musical drama All That Jazz. “The rest is waiting.”
That’s how it feels to be out there — just before the wire walker misses his step and plunges to the net below. No waiting around.
Or as illustrator and children’s book author Tove Jansson might have described this joy (and did in 1948’s Finn Family Moomintroll), “O, to be a newly-woken Moomintroll dancing in the glass-green waves while the sun is rising.”
And then she asks me, “Do I feel all right?” And I say, “Yes, I feel wonderful tonight.”
Bridge to Engineering: This rhapsodizing is getting out of hand. Be sure to hand Tove the keys to the Mother Ship before she helps you to bed.
Three quick tweaks to the elegant, hypermediated prose of Campbell and Sagan, based on more recent discoveries: The current commonly accepted estimate of the age of the universe is about 13.8 billion years, give or take a month of Sundays and donkey’s years. Detailed mapping 30 years ago by NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission of the omnipresent radiation left over from the Big Bang shows that the radiant fireball that filled all of space in the beginning wasn’t perfectly uniform as it inflated, thus creating the conditions for galaxy cluster formation in slightly denser regions.
And third — the one that counts for our purposes here — the vast majority of remote descendants of the inconceivable preternatural event that kicked off the whole shebang aren’t remotely as interested in devoting their three pounds of fleshy brain substance to understanding the Cosmos as they are to watching reruns of Three’s Company and forwarding social media bunkum.
Which brings us to the fallacy of argumentum ad consequentiam: The facile willingness to believe something is true (or false) because of how much one likes (or dislikes) its consequences. Hence the easy vulnerability of the greedy, the gullible and the aggrieved to Ponzi schemes and QAnon-style lunacy.
Even before the advent of social media to supercharge human stupidity and cupidity, our heads were full of bogus information (aka conventional wisdom, stereotypes, superstitions — i.e., old wives’ tales, a term which is itself loaded with gender-inflected bias). You likely will have heard, for example, that:
All mammals are warm-blooded and all reptiles are cold-blooded.
The Chevy Nova bombed in Latin American markets because “no va” means “it doesn’t go” in Spanish.
Coca-Cola created the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly bearded old duffer in a red suit.
Netflix was created by co-founder Reed Hastings after he was charged a $40 late fee by Blockbuster.
Twinkies are edible (as edible as they get) for decades.
• Turkey meat causes drowsiness.
Fortune cookies come from China.
Spices were used in the Middle Ages to mask the flavour of rotten meat.
Wait! Weren’t these all episodes of Glee?
This dodgy enumeration could go on for pages, but the point is that none of these statements are true. The drowsiness one experiences after a big meal comes from overeating, not a soporific specific to turkey breasts and drumsticks. Fortune cookies were introduced to North America by the Japanese. In China, they are rare and considered an American affectation. Some mammals (sloths and platypuses, for example) are cold- or temperate-blooded, and some reptiles are warm-blooded. And for the record, microwaving food does not reduce its nutritive value, Ronald Reagan was never seriously considered for the part of Rick Blaine in Casablanca, the Inuit do not have a disproportionate number of words to describe snow and the Hopi actually do have a concept of time.
So there. Honey, disconnect the phoney.
The most ludic (and/or encrapifying) champions of fostering belief in ridiculous concepts are parents and grandparents, of course. It goes with the job description. And there’s no denying that messing with naive young minds can be highly satisfying, which is surely part of the problem.
One of my life’s most enjoyable hours was spent persuading my grandson, then five, that a tangled mass of kelp blades, fronds and bladders on the Pacific beach where we were strolling consisted of alien body parts that washed up after a flying saucer had crashed into the ocean. (Less traumatizing, he also fell for my story later that day that a neighbour’s llamas — we live in a rural area — were Santa’s reindeer.)
So it was with a mixture of guilty pleasure and latent remorse that I recently stumbled upon a Reddit thread featuring little white lies readers were fed as kids by parents, teachers and other authority figures. You’ll likely recognize a few from your own experience as either the deceiver or the deceived:
• I always thought adults were geniuses that knew everything. I once asked my dad how waves at the beach were made. He said by the whales. I believed that for years.
That moths were the ghosts of butterflies. Cheers for that one, Dad.
My grandpa told me he wouldn’t swim with me at the beach because he’s made of salt and he’ll melt. I believed him.
If you keep making that face, it’ll freeze that way.
Swallowed gum takes seven years to digest. (My cousin’s grandson was recently informed that swallowed gum congeals into tennis balls, which would surely put a bounce in your step.)
That the boys tease you because they like you. No, they were bullies.
That my pet ducks flew south for the winter. Apparently, we ate them for Thanksgiving. I learned this as a 40-year-old adult.
That “some day my prince will come.” Thanks, Disney.
Our D.A.R.E. officer in elementary school said the reason marijuana was so dangerous is because the smoke never leaves your lungs.
Cracking your knuckles is bad for you.
I asked my dad why his ear was pierced and he said that when he was a kid, little boys would piece their ears just in case they wanted to be pirates. It made lots of sense to me.
We can’t go to Bambi because it’s for adults only. (And also, it’s raining.)
You can’t swim directly after eating or you’ll get cramps in the water.
• I used to be told that if I sat too close to the TV, my eyes would turn square.
• My dad always used to tell me about the time he had a dream that he was eating a giant marshmallow, and when he woke up his pillow was gone.
When cartoons showed SpiderMan swinging with no buildings around and just a tippy coloured background, I asked my dad what he was swinging from. “The top of the inside of the TV.” Made sense to me.
• You’ll go blind if you keep staring into the microwave when it's running.
• The crust of the bread was where all the vitamins were.
• When we were young, Mother told my sisters and I that thunder is the result of clouds running into each other in the sky. As a 32-year-old, my husband heard me tell our children that same reasoning about what thunder was and said, “Good one!” I was confused. He told me the truth and still teases me!! I am a high school teacher with a Master’s Degree!!! WTH
• When the ice cream van is playing music, it means it’s run out of ice cream. (See also: “We have to leave because the park/circus/museum/etc. closes in 15 minutes.”)
OK, so we never believed it, but my dad loves telling kids that their “baby” arms will fall off (like baby teeth) and you grow “adult” arms.
“When you’re an adult you can do whatever you want, but for now … .” Actually, no, Mum. Adults can’t do “whatever they want” either.
That last one put me in mind of what might be the three biggest whoppers we were fed as children:
Only people who work hard get ahead in life. “I can totally relate with this one,” wrote someone who commented on this. “I was an ‘A’ student who went to college, while a classmate of mine blew off his schoolwork to smoke pot in the restroom. Now he’s a multimillionaire real estate developer while I’m an underpaid teacher.”
You’ll understand when you’re older. Another comment: “Biggest lie I believed as a kid was that adults had their lives together. Now as an adult, at work and in my personal life, I know most adults are just winging it. My job is 50% winging it, and 50% “oh shit oh shit oh shit, everything is breaking.”
Things will get better. As if. The trouble with normal is it always gets worse.
As a venerable hair colour commercial from the early Seventies assured us: We’re not getting older, we’re getting wetter.
Frost my tips and log me out.