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Still Walking with Dinosaurs: Marxist Reflections on Evolution and Mass Extinctions

Josť Villa

WHEN I showed the title of this article to friends they assumed that I was using a metaphor to refer to some unfashionable political apparatus. The term "dinosaur" has been popularised to designate orthodox Marxists, who after the collapse of the Soviet bloc are supposed to be undergoing a process of extinction. In fact, I shall be writing precisely about the real prehistoric animals which ruled the earth for around 140 million years and which today are still alive Ė and indeed could even survive us, if humanity destroys itself. This article is intended as a contribution to the discussion opened up by the popular BBC television series Walking with Dinosaurs and will attempt to offer some socialist comments on the scientific question of evolution.

Most socialists like to read political, social or economic history. They are interested in studying events that involved humans and happened relatively recently. It is unfortunate that the same enthusiasm is not put into the study of natural history. Societies and technologies can change in years, decades, centuries or millennia. In nature the process of evolution is much slower Ė but it is more radical.

Why do we have to be concerned with fossils and with ancient worlds and species? The study of evolution helps us to understand dialectics and a materialist conception of life. It also allows us to see phenomena in a much more broader scope and to make valid speculations on the destiny of humanity and the millions of species that share this globe with us. We tend to forget that humans are a minority of animal life on this planet and that we have been on earth for less than 0.1% of its existence. We are also part of an environment that powerfully interacts with us and can have a decisive effect on our prospects for survival.

Palaeontology and ideology
In history and archaeology many disputes over the past are part of the battles of today. The same is true of palaeontology. The old dinosaurs, despite having disappeared 65 MA (million years ago), are still the subject of very vivid ideological and political debates in our own time. The discussion over their very origins and existence, and the reasons why they vanished, affects our present and could influence our future.

Until less than 200 years ago humans didnít know of the existence of dinosaurs. Large ancient bones found before this were identified as the remains of dragons and mythical monsters. It was only after the French and industrial revolutions that we could begin to scientifically reconstruct these ancient skeletons and to understand what they were. Until then, the religious dogma that humans and other living animals were the creation of a supreme god appeared indisputable. In the West the common belief was based on the biblical story that Jehova created the earth and all that inhabit it in one week Ė an event that was understood to have occurred only a few thousand years ago. The bible didnít mention other solar systems or extinct species.

Now, entering into the third millennium, we know that the old religious texts are completely wrong. There are at least trillions of other suns in the cosmos, and many more millions of planets can be expected to have some form of life. The bible only mentions large species that are found in a small part of our planet, ignoring the flora and fauna of the Americas, Australia, East Asia, the Poles or Southern Africa. More than 99.9% of the animals that have existed on earth had become extinct when the "book of books" was written, and its authors didnít have the slightest clue about the previous existence of these species.

Institutional religions dominated human ideologies for millennia, and our modern knowledge of prehistoric animals challenged these mystifications. The conception that all living creatures evolve and can become extinct is a subversive idea, which is why it is denounced by creationists who fanatically believe in the supremacy of a celestial authority (and consequently of terrestrial rulers). In Kansas, one of the states of the technologically most powerful country in the world, as a result of a campaign by these Christian fundamentalists the teaching of evolution in the schools has been forbidden.

Why did the dinosaurs become extinct?
The reason for the extinction of the largest animals that ever walked on earth has puzzled scientists. Over the last two decades the most common explanation has been that these great creatures perished after a massive meteorite/comet impact. This conclusion was drawn after Luis and Walter Alvarez discovered that the geological stratum that divides the dinosaur-dominated Mesozoic era (248-65 MA) and our current Cenozoic era contains a small layer which has an unusually high level of iridium, an element which is found in high concentrations in volcanos and asteroids. A huge crater produced around 65 MA ago was later discovered in Chicxulub (YucatŠn peninsula). Taken together, these facts seemed to suggest that, in a region close to the convulsive Chiapas, an enormous explosion, equal or superior to all the existing nuclear bombs put together, was Dinosauriaís mass murderer.

This theory became popular at the time when Reagan started the "Star Wars" programme. The militarisation of space, aimed at the Soviet military and economic machine and a contributory factor in that systemís future downfall, was initially presented as a means of self-defence against "evil communism". But it also finds a justification in the idea that it is an indispensable tool to destroy a threat from outer space. Recent Hollywood films have shown US nuclear-armed forces in space rescuing mankind from the same extraterrestrial cataclysm that supposedly destroyed the dinosaurs. (Ironically, some pacifists also find grounds for their campaign against any sort of atomic energy or weaponry in the theory of a massive explosion as the dinosaursí killer.)

However, the mass extinction that happened 65 MA was not the only one to occur in our earthís history. There were many previous ones, and some of them were even more devastating. During the dinosaur era a mass extinction happened between the Triassic and Jurassic (213 MA). The dinosaurs themselves appeared after a great extinction at the end of the Permian age (248 MA). This was preceded by mass disappearances of flora and fauna 360 and 505 MA. Hard-bodied animals only appeared around 600 MA after several mass extinctions of other forms of life. Nevertheless, no iridium boundary has been found in the geological limits of such periods and there is no proof that an unusual asteroid impact produced these catastrophes.

As Robert Barker has suggested, an explosion on such a scale would have killed not only the dinosaurs but also more fragile species. Today several species of frogs are being wiped out each year as a result of minor ecological changes produced by humans. Nevertheless, most frog species survived the extinction that happened 65 MA. The Sauropods, the largest ever land animals, disappeared before the great extinction. Most of the marine reptiles and one of the two flying reptile sub-orders were also already extinct by then. Researches in the fossil-rich areas of Montana have proved that two-thirds of the very last dinosaur species disappeared a few million years before the date of the iridium boundary.

The earth has been bombarded from outer space from its very beginnings and it will receive millions of new impacts in the future. It is possible that the process of life was catalysed, or even that life-forms were transported to the earth, through asteroid crashes. However, the meteorite/comet impact 65 MA in Chicxulub is unlikely to be the main reason for the downfall of the large dinosaurs. Mass extinctions were mostly produced by gradual climatic, atmospheric and geological transformations. A single minor change in the ecological chain can have a major effect on the rest of it. A series of radical alterations can have much larger repercussions.

Mass extinction has not only affected dinosaurs and big animals but also diminutive creatures. The disappearance of species of plankton or other micro-organisms can wipe out the bigger creatures that feed on them. Paradoxically, larger species are the most vulnerable. They need more food. When continents are linked with new land bridges they tend to cross them and to interact with new species, catching new diseases. Smaller animals are usually larger in number and even if very few of them survive mass killings they can repopulate and evolve. Having a shorter life span and being able to reproduce more rapidly has some advantages in a period requiring sudden adaptation. At the end of the dinosaur era the sea level diminished rapidly, affecting the weather. Also the oxygen content of the air was reduced by around one-third. Larger animals that couldnít evolve quickly enough were unable to modify their lungs to cope with the new conditions.

The idea that an unpredictable outer-space phenomenon could have changed the destiny of life on earth is something that appeals to people who like to explain many things as a result of intervention by a powerful outside creator/destroyer. However, the idea that extinctions donít happen in a few days, but are rather the result of progressive radical ecological changes, is very important to grasp in order to understand what is happening to our planet today.

According to some scientists, we are now entering into a new great extinction. The difference, compared with the previous ones, is that it is being produced by the predominant attitude of a single species: us. Every year species vanish, sometimes even before being discovered by science. Anarchic industrial capitalist production is overheating the atmosphere, extending the Sahara and other deserts, raising sea levels by melting the solar icecaps, diminishing the level of oxygen and producing an expanding hole in the ozone layer. The destruction of forests, the pollution of air, rivers, lakes, seas and lands, and other crimes against nature, are being produced by our species only because we are organised under a very bad system. In his study The Rise of the Mammals, Michael Benton argues that, if we continue at the current rate of human-made extinctions, all wild species of mammals, except perhaps rats and mice, will have gone by the year 2500.

Our societies are ruled by the pursuit of profit. Trying to achieve the maximum benefit for themselves, an extremely small minority of mankind exploits the majority of our species and destroys the environment. Here, as with much else, the collapse of the Soviet bloc has had an enormously damaging effect. The Stalinists too contaminated the environment, but the capitalist victory over them has left the profit-makers with even more of a free hand to do whatever they want with labour and with nature. If we donít radically change this system and create a new global one in which the aim of profit has been replaced by a plan centred on the protection of all humans and the environment, it is possible that the present extinction is going to be worst, and will be much faster than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs.

There is an extremely small chance that in the next hundreds of years a large asteroid could hit our planet. The huge comet impact that happened on Jupiter a few years ago shows that the gravitational pull of the larger outer planets of the solar system will tend to attract objects that come from outer space, thus avoiding a collision with small inner planets (like ours). The real danger to our species and the environment is our own social and political system. Capitalism is the cancer that is altering life on earth in a way and at a speed that has never been seen before. Despite all the Hollywood propaganda, the US and the imperialist powers are not going to save our globe from an outer-space catastrophe, but are the ones responsible for the main threat of a mass extinction originating on earth itself.

Palaeontology and capitalism
The discovery of dinosaurs could only be produced with the arrival of capitalism, but this system has also heavily distorted the research into them. There is a long history of profit-motivated manipulation from the early beginnings of unearthing dinosaurís bones. In the last century Othniel Marsh and Edward Cope were the two great fossil hunters and they named tens of the first known dinosaurs. However, they embarked on an egotistic war in which each of them destroyed the fossils of their rivals. Many good specimens were lost in that capitalist competition.

Perhaps the most well-known recent scandal concerning a profitable war over fossils is the affair around Sue, the most complete Tyrannosaur ever found. Sue was unearthed by a private company that made profit from dinosaur bones. They were accused of violating communal lands. Despite no proof being found, the bones were seized by the authorities and later on sold in the most expensive fossil auction ever. Disney and McDonaldís were part of the leading pool that paid millions for Sue. Today, Disney is recovering its investment by selling tickets to one of its amusement parks in which a copy of Sue is being displayed.

Palaeontological activity needs to be funded, and usually only universities and companies in the imperialist countries can afford it. The National Geographic or the Discovery television channel are able to invest in and make profits from fossil hunting. Extraordinarily rich fossil deposits have been found in Argentina, Mongolia, the Sahara, China and other poor countries, but there is little local money to fund research. Many fossils in these countries are illegally extracted on a commercial basis, which deprives scientists of the rest of the bones and of knowing in which layer and around which other fossils they were unearthed. In China there is new and conclusive evidence that many dinosaurs had feathers, but the deposits have been vandalised. A later discovery was produced by pure accident when a scientist discovered one of these fossils on sale on the black market in the USA.

One way in which capitalism distorts the scientific understanding of Dinosauria can be seen in the tourist or cinema industries.

At one time "Nessie" became Britainís most popular tourist attraction. Millions were accumulated from the story that in Loch Ness there was a monster akin to the plesiosaurs. A minor exercise of intelligence would suggest that the plesiosaurs were marine reptiles and consequently, like marine turtles or snakes, they need to leave part of their body out of the water to breathe air many times each day. Furthermore, a viable colony needs tens of individuals, and it is impossible that these numbers of large marine reptiles could be hidden in a small lake. Nevertheless, this legend produced a lot of revenue and many other countries fabricated their own lake monsters.

Almost all cinema companies have made a movie with dinosaurs, but I never yet saw one which is scientifically accurate. Prehistoric animals from different periods and regions are often put together and even depicted as interacting with humans. Steven Spielberg made a fortune showing cartoons of dinosaurs playing like kids or with them. In his Jurassic Park, he changed the size and features of many of "his" prehistoric animals, and almost all the dinosaurs displayed come from an age chronologically closer to our own than to the Jurassic.

The latest aberration is Godzilla. Originating as a mutated dinosaur in a Japanese movie of the 1950s, in the Hollywood remake it is transformed into a Pacific reptileís offspring which magically, as a result of nuclear waste, multiplies twelvefold in size, becoming the first vertebrate ever to have asexual reproduction and the first cold-blooded animal ever to travel from the tropics to a cold place infested with humans (New York) to lay its eggs.

Dinosaurs are being transformed into the modern equivalents of dragons and goblins. Children are able to sing with Barney, enjoy The Flintstones or fight with dino-robots. Turning them into fantasies obscures the revolutionary consequences of the dialectics of evolution.

Nevertheless, capitalism has a contradictory face. The technological and scientific progress that it allows can also undermine it. The new developments in the science of evolution need to be assimilated by those of us who want to overthrow this system.

The understanding of dinosaurs has been radically changed in recent decades. Originally it was believed that they were stupid, slow and clumsy creatures. Now it is known that some of them were extremely agile, intelligent, fast or shrewd. Whereas it was once assumed that they were cold-blooded reptiles, it has since been proved that many of them were warm-blooded animals, like birds and mammals, who could generate their own energy without needing to rely on periodically re-energising by lying in the sun.

What is more, it is now recognised that dinosaurs survived the great extinction and that around 9,600 species of them are still alive. It is quite unusual not to see a dinosaur every day. We can fry or scramble dinosaur eggs or eat dinosaur meat in a grill or with tikka masala sauce. Some of the surviving dinosaurs are able to imitate the human voice or produce amazingly beautiful songs. Yes, today the largest dinosaurs are the ostriches and the smallest ones the hummingbirds. A new scientific classification is that there are two types of dinosaurs: avian (birds) and non-avian. Birds are part of the dinosaur class. More exactly, they are part of the therapods, one of the five dinosaur sub-orders that includes carnivores from the Tyrannosaur to the raptors.

In the second half of the 1990s tens of feathered dinosaurs have been found. Many large dinosaurs didnít need feathers because their huge bodies helped them to conserve heat, but this bird-like feature was indispensable in many smaller therapods. National Geographic (November 1999) has even suggested that Tyrannosaur babies could have had feathers, something that could change the picture shown in Jurassic Park and in Walking with Dinosaurs.

Walking with Dinosaurs
This television series has great merit. It is a very ambitious attempt to combine a traditional documentary on dinosaurs with the most advanced computer and animatronics techniques. Its producer Tim Haines travelled to remote places to find forests without grass or flowers that could match the ones from the dinosaur era. In the middle of these landscapes he introduced his electronically animated prehistoric animals as though they were real living creatures.

Walking with Dinosaurs is divided into six episodes which cover different periods.

The first one (220 MA) shows how dinosaurs appeared and started to displace other reptiles like the proto-mammals. At that time there was only one super-continent which was like a big Kalahari (most of the year in a drought, with a few months of heavy rain and vegetation). Haines focused on the Coelophysis because hundreds of them were found in 1947 in New Mexico.

The second episode focuses on the Sauropods, the largest walking animal ever, 150 MA. Based on accurate scientific data, it shows them as very social animals. Diplodocus or Brachiosaurus were at least six times larger than elephants and they had these huge bodies because they needed big stomachs to digest the raw leaves that they swallowed.

The third and fourth episodes show marine reptiles 149 MA and flying reptiles 127 MA. These kinds of animals were not dinosaurs and donít have any living descendants. The series successfully confronts the challenge of imagining forms of movements (like the four-flipper diving or the pterosaurus walking) which donít have any contemporary parallel.

The fifth episode (106 MA) reveals the new discoveries from Alaska to Australia, which prove that dinosaurs could survive polar weather. The last episode is centred around the most popular dinosaur (the Tyrannosaur) in the few months before and during the supposed great asteroid-made extinction 65 MA.

The series, however, has many limitations. Despite its efforts to make the dinosaur environment as real as possible, the programme combines animals whose fossils were discovered in very different places. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the North American Coelophysis and the South African Thrinaxodon Cynodonts inhabited the same place and even less that they lived by stealing eggs from each other, or that the American Utah-raptor lived in "Europe", or that the Anurognathus flying reptile found only in Germany lived on the body of the giant North American Diplodocus as modern birds live around large African mammals. In the fifth episode a modern Amazonian Coati appears living in the Antarctic 100 million years before this placental mammal appeared.

The series tries to portray many forms of prehistoric animal behaviour without scientific foundation. Haines displays the Cynodont reptiles as dog-like creatures who produced milk. But reptiles do not have mammary glands. He decided to show the breeding habits of animals whose eggs or nests have never been found yet, and he even affirms exact dates for the process of incubation and parental care.

None of Hainesí dinosaurs hatched their eggs. Haines describes the reproduction of the Diplodocus as similar to that of the marine turtles. Hainesí Diplodocus has a muscular tube for laying eggs, which she leaves abandoned. If the thousands of newborn turtles have to run from the sand to the sea while most of them are hunted by other animals, Hainesí newborn Diplodocus has to run into the forest in order to escape predators. But the marine turtles are solitary reptiles whereas Diplodocus always lived in herds. Social animals tend to engage in parental care of the young and to be together from birth. According to Barker, the giant Sauropods like Diplodocus might have had big bodies because they were born live.

Only a few bones of the creatures shown in the chapter on polar dinosaurs have been found, but Haines presents an entire interactive fauna centred around Laellynasaura, which he describes as clan animals, with habits comparable to those of modern turkeys, that hibernated and were ruled by a dominant couple. The main actor in the episode on pterosaurs is the Ornithocheirus, whose fossils show that it was 3 metres long, but Haines decided to multiply that size by four. Flying mammals (bats) and insects have entirely different behaviour patterns from birds, but Haines displays the flying reptiles as having similar sounds, mating behaviour and transcontinental flying routines to those of modern birds.

In summary, Walking with Dinosaurs is a very admirable production which is highly recommended for introducing children and non-specialists to an understanding of evolution and extinction, though even this million-pound series couldnít escape using unfounded and distorted bourgeois-type fiction.

The revolution of the masses or mass extinction?
The dinosaur era is not over. For 140 million years dinosaurs were the dominant animal on land, but the sea and air were ruled by marine and flying reptiles. In the last 65 million years dinosaurs became only the second most numerous land animals, but they conquered the vast skies and started to colonise the seas. Not only are penguins the first fully aquatic dinosaurs, but the Emperor penguin is the only vertebrate animal that can hatch at minus 40 degrees Celsius.

Evolution is not lineal, but takes incredible detours. Something that should strike us is the fact that our direct ancestors (the proto-mammal reptiles) dominated the land from the end of the Carboniferous (around 300 MA) until the beginning of the Triassic (248-220 MA). In the Triassic they were progressively displaced by the dinosaurs. For around 140 million years our predecessors survived as mouse-sized creatures overshadowed by the mighty relatives of birds. Mammals could rule the land and humans could appear only as a consequence of the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs.

In the last 65 million years there has been a battle for the control of the continents between mammals and avian dinosaurs. Some post-extinction avian dinosaurs, like the Phorusrhacus or the Diatryma, used to kill and eat horses. They were carnivorous birds, 2 to 3 metres long, and some scientists believe that, instead of wings, they had small arms like the Tyrannosaur. The Phorusrhacus and huge condor-like meat-eating birds used to be the kings of the South American fauna before this island-continent was connected by a land bridge to North America.

Until recently there were places on earth completely ruled by dinosaurs. Several islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, including "small continents" like New Zealand and Madagascar were paradises for them. In New Zealand there were twelve types of giant Moas, and birds occupied all the ecological niches that in other continents are filled by mammals, from rabbits to deer. Madagascarís largest creature was the three metre tall elephant bird, whose eggs were bigger than those attributed to many of the larger prehistoric dinosaurs. Men produced the extinction of the larger surviving avian dinosaurs in these regions. Today mammals rule the continents and seas. However, the dominant terrestrial mammal is killing the main marine mammal (the whales) and thousands of other species.

As we enter a new millennium it is almost impossible to predict what is going to happen 1,000 years or even 100 years from now, so fast is the advance of technology and capitalist destruction. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: we are going to experience a radical transformation of our planet and contemporary creatures.

Our species (homo sapiens) appeared around 100,000 years ago. We are the result of around 5,000 generations. Today, it seems likely that in less than the next ten generations homo sapiens could evolve even further. Human population has expanded from a few tens of thousands to six billion, our planet is warming and ecological changes are profoundly reshaping our environment. In a few generations our earth could become even more unrecognisable than the one mankind knew in the Ice Age.

Palaeontologist Dougal Dixon, in his book After Man, A Zoology of the Future, has imagined a post-human world ruled on the land by rodentsí descendants and in the sea and air by avian dinosaurs. Elsewhere he has envisaged a situation in which mankind could be replaced by new species originating from our own evolution. New social divisions, based on biological mutations and not only on class, colour and gender, could emerge. Dixon has also presented a scenario in which new species could be created by genetic and technological manipulation.

This scenario is by no means unrealistic. Our increasing dominion over genetic engineering, cybernetics, space and undersea exploration and electronics could allow science to alter our species so that it can survive on other planets or under water. Tomorrow some humans could have chips in their brains or electronic body-parts. It is not inconceivable that the big corporations could introduce such genetic or electronic modifications into selected groups of people in order to create highly specialised soldiers, diggers, divers, etc.

Another very real prospect is that the dinosaur-size mega-corporations and the states that represent their interests could condemn humanity to suffer the fate of the non-avian dinosaurs. If the world remains under their domination it is possible that we will be destroyed by chemical-nuclear weaponry, or by new plagues from viruses produced in their laboratories.

It is capitalismís savage exploitation of labour and nature that is producing the threat of a new mass extinction and could even cause the disappearance of our species. Life on earth has existed for more than 3.5 billion years and humanoids first appeared 4-6 MA. Classes, states and private property are human inventions that only emerged in the last 7,000 years. Using these new tools our species was able to conquer the earth, but if we donít rapidly surpass these forms of social organisation we could be condemned to perish. Fire can help to cook or heat, but if we donít control it we can be killed by our own invention.

Today, after the Stalinist blocís disappearance and the triumph of the market, we Marxists have to see ourselves not as dinosaurs but as our mammalian ancestors waiting their turn to become the dominant species. However, the battle of the socialist working class to overturn the present episodic capitalist victory will have to be decided in the coming decades and not in millions of years. In an earlier period, Marxists saw the alternative confronting humanity as socialism or barbarism. Now the dilemma is even more acute: the revolution of the masses or mass extinction.