November 24, 2009
The vision of dinosaurs that I grew up with in the 1980s is very different from the one we are familiar with today. It is no longer appropriate to show a Brachiosaurus wallowing in a lake or a Tyrannosaurus dragging its tail on the ground. Yet these changes are relatively minor compared to the transformations dinosaurs underwent during the 19th century.
Although the term “dinosaur” was formally coined by the anatomist Richard Owen in 1842, by this time naturalists had already been arguing over the bones of dinosaurs for decades. One of the first to be described was Megalosaurus, a creature that we now know to be a theropod of uncertain relationship to other predatory dinosaurs. When it was named by the geologist William Buckland in 1824, however, Megalosaurus was interpreted as being an enormous, crocodile-like animal.
The first dinosaur bones to be recognized by science were extremely fragmentary. If relatively complete, articulated skeletons had been found first perhaps the history of science would have been different, but as things were Megalosaurus was primarily represented by a portion of lower jaw and assorted other bones. Buckland considered that the bones were most similar to those of reptiles, and the serrated teeth in the jaw made it clear that Megalosaurus was a carnivorous animal. While not exactly the same as any living reptile, Buckland interpreted the dinosaur as being a huge terrestrial crocodile with a narrow snout.
But Buckland did not simply stop with description. He was a fervent Christian who believed that there was geological evidence for a worldwide deluge as described in the Bible. (Though it should be noted that even in Buckland’s time this view was falling out of fashion. His geologist peers were not happy with the way he crammed geology into a literal reading of Genesis even if they, too, were Christians.) His familiarity with both faith and science led him to contribute to the prominent book series on natural theology called the Bridgewater Treatises, and in it Buckland considered the divine message Megalosaurus embodied.
The sharp teeth of the prehistoric monster made it clear that it was a predator, Buckland argued, and surely it was a terror during the time that it lived. Yet predators were necessary in the economy of life. The jaws of Megalosaurus were not cruel but brought swift death, and Buckland thought this was consistent with Christian theology, as a kind God would make predators so efficient that they would not bring undue suffering to their prey. Buckland concluded:
The provision of teeth and jaws, adapted to effect the work of death most speedily, is highly subsidiary to the accomplishment of this desirable end. We act ourselves on this conviction, under the impulse of pure humanity, when we provide the most efficient instruments to produce the instantaneous, and most easy death, of the innumerable animals that are daily slaughtered for the supply of human food.
Today, however, we know that Megalosaurus was quite a different animal than Buckland envisioned and the natural weapons it used to kill were derived via evolution, not a fiat of divine creativity. Nor do paleontologists worry themselves about finding spiritual lessons from the life of the past. What is “natural” is not always good, and I sincerely doubt that anyone should take lessons on morality from a Megalosaurus.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.