If I went back to the dinosaur books I loved as a kid, I’d probably find that half the information in there has since been revised or refuted. Just in my lifetime, paleontology has made stunning progress, changing much of what we “know” about long-extinct reptile species, from how they reproduced to their natural posture. A popular line of thinking now holds that, contrary to the Jurassic Park franchise, many dinos may have been feathered and brightly colored. And overall, there’s a newfound interest in portraying these animals as something more than cold-blooded terrors.
You could call this a cynical ploy for clicks, and you’d be right. However, the line that choosing not to portray the Tyrannosaurus as king of the monsters is some attack on traditional values also plays to a demographic of stubborn armchair naturalists. Around the internet, you can find guys — and is it any wonder they’re guys? — objecting to the notion that a vicious carnivore might have had feathers. Some think it’s an LGBTQ conspiracy. Others claim the idea is “ruining childhood memories,” or at least those not already sullied by a women-led Ghostbusters reboot.
In response to The Sun’s piece, paleoartist Joschua Knüppe rounded up some wild examples, including an article that accused researchers of trying to “emasculate” Tyrannosaurus (many of which, it should go without saying, were female), and a 4chan post in which the author contends that feathered dinos are “propaganda” concocted by Jews to counteract European dragon folklore. Elsewhere on that forum, a user who advocated for feathered dinosaurs in video games was told to fuck off and kill themselves. Whether writing sincerely or trollishly shitposting, these men sustain a form of protest that recalls the furor over casting people of color in the new Star Wars movies, but also the arguments presented by deniers of climate change and COVID-19.
Will these poor fellows ever come around to basic tenets of empiricism? An understanding that our read on ecosystems millions of years in the past will always be incomplete, none of it ever truly certain?
I doubt it. Fragile masculinity makes a prison of nostalgia, and shackles of one’s prior assumptions. To allow that the mighty T. rex could have been fuzzy, furry or feathery would be worse than saying that old consensus was wrong; it would be an admission that you, as a nine-year-old imagining a terrible, vicious lizard, were wrong. And that fantasy carried too great a projection of your own power — male power, evidently — to be given up so casually.
Don’t worry, boys. You’re still very fearsome to us in the way that only a scaly beast can be. Keep stomping around. Give that roar everything you’ve got. Watch out for the asteroid.