September 9, 2010
Since the time of their discovery in the early 19th century, dinosaurs have been pop-culture superstars. Beyond their scientific identities, they have a celebrity that has remained strong from decade to decade, and given their notoriety it is no wonder that they have been so often used as metaphors and symbols.
More often than not, dinosaurs have been used as icons of stagnation. They were creatures that seemed “too big to fail”—only to have their gargantuan size turned against them. This belief stemmed from uncertainty about the extinction of the dinosaurs. At the beginning of the 20th century, many naturalists thought that dinosaurs were either out-competed by mammals or became so big and grotesque that they could no longer adapt to changing environmental conditions. Either way, they ultimately failed because they were too large and ponderous to react appropriately in the face of new challenges, and so they became the perfect icons of big business. Jay S. Miller, in a 1913 issue of the Business Philosopher, put it this way:
But why was the dinosaurs, with all its size and strength, finally compelled to succumb to its weak and apparently helpless rivals [the mammals]?
The answer is easy. It was their degree of adaptability to changed conditions.
In spite of its seeming advantages, the dinosaur possessed little ability to respond to changed conditions. Just so long as its environment was favorable and congenial it continued to flourish. But when its surroundings began to change and become less favorable it failed to adapt itself to these changes and was necessarily slowly but surely exterminated.
The lesson behind all this was that, to survive in business, being able to swiftly adapt to new conditions was key. Better to be like the small mammals than the powerful dinosaurs. A May 1919 issue of The Shoeworkers’ Journal similarly admonished cordwainers to be more like mammals and less like dinosaurs. Of dinosaurs, the article’s author, Victor McCone, said:
They planned nothing. They were contented.
They produced nothing. They were contented.
They achieved nothing. They were contented.
They voted “no” on life above the dead line.
Once again, mammals showed the potential of mental agility and innovation, leading McCone to offer his readers a choice:
Will you be a man or a dinosaur? Are you going to be chained down by beef and boneheadedness? Or will you cultivate every personal excellence, all the skill you have no matter what you are doing, and rise out of the cellar of life? It is up to you.
A century later, these disparaging perspectives of dinosaurs seem rather silly. Dinosaurs were not a homogeneous group of large, lazy, and stupid creatures that died out one by one. They were a very diverse group of organisms, one lineage of which left living descendants, and they were done-in by a cataclysmic event that wiped out a variety of organisms (including some groups of mammals). If we look back even further, we can see that the kin of the first mammals were pared back by an even worse extinction, yet it would be ludicrous to say that the origin of mammals was delayed because their ancestors were so short-sighted and slothful that they ceded ground to the more agile dinosaurs. Ultimately, any use of dinosaurs as a metaphor or symbol for human endeavor tells us more about the way we view dinosaurs than what they were actually like.
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.