Monday, September 5, 2011

Discovery Dinosaurs: Fiction more than Fact

Growing up I have always been fascinated by dinosaurs, the big lumbering creatures from Earth's past. They hold a mystery and excitement that enthralls young boy's imaginations. I have never given up my interest in them. Any chance to learn about or watch a show that contains them is almost never missed. Perhaps in a strange way they were my first foray into the world of science fiction since we know so little about them and yet so much has been said. What they were really like even after years of progress in studies of their remains is still mostly speculation. Because of the relatively blank slate, the Discovery Channel has taken speculation of dinosaurs to a whole new level. The line between science fiction and science fact in not blurred, but completely imbalanced with the fiction side taking most of the space.

This drift from presenting research and doing more dramatic presentations has been going on for years. It all started with the documentary Walking With Dinosaurs where scientists presented the latest discoveries, and artists and film makers imagined them visually. This inspired more shows of a similar style, but a smaller amount of science was presented to the audience. The most recent incarnation almost does away with any scientific evidence.

Dinosaurs Revolution is a Discovery Channel series that follows the "lives" of creatures long since extinct. The first episode introduces a protective mother and father dinosaur protecting its new born baby from the horrors of rampaging meat eaters. Before hatching, the little one's potential siblings' eggs were already feasted upon by small mammalians. Despite the gory "re-enactment" of hungry monsters dining and dying in a Darwinian paradise, humor abounds among the vignettes. The newborn baby who survived the egg disaster, for instance, is represented as a cute klutz who is always falling over rocks with its new legs. Similarly there is a scene of a well colored bird, I mean dinosaur, strutting and dancing in front of a female to get her attention. His "macarana" like mating dance ends with a foot getting stuck in a hole. She hastily sniffs the air and walks away unimpressed.

The Fox News online headline says it all: In New TV Drama, Dinosaurs Are the Actors. Every now and then a scientist, mostly the same one, will pop his head in to tell a tidbit of what research has found to support these imaginative representations. Beware of these scientific explanations. The scientists admit it is all speculation and don't talk at all about actual fossil evidence. There is nothing about what the bones might mean, and a lot of comparisons with modern bird behavior. It often comes down to "We know that modern birds . . . and therefore the dinosaurs probably . . . because they are related so far as we can tell." A person can find more scientific information watching the movie Jurassic Park than in these presentations.

Thomas Holtz, a paleontologist with the University of Maryland's Department of Geology is quoted in the above articles saying, "Some of the stories are honest-to-goodness comedies. Some are dramas. But they're all told by the actions of dinosaurs and fossil mammals and marine reptiles," while admitting that some scenes were inspired by old Warner Brothers cartoons. I love watching computer enhanced cartoons, but learning something scientific on a station called the Discovery Channel would be an added bonus.

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