October 16, 2012
For over a century, non-avian dinosaurs have been symbols of extinction. Our awe at their success, and our puzzlement at their ultimate demise, have made them perfect foils for our worries and fears. During World War I, for example, anti-war protestors cast dinosaurs as brutes who drove themselves into extinction by investing too much in their armor and weapons. Later, during the Cold War era, the asteroid strike that closed the Age of Dinosaurs was presented as a Mesozoic precursor to what mutual assured destruction might do to the planet. Not only have we looked to dinosaurs for lessons about what the future might hold, but we’ve also used them as icons of what might happen if we trade compassion for size and strength.
The 1967 Russian cartoon Mountain of Dinosaurs used extinction in a more specific and culturally subversive way. Rather than a literal lesson about dinosaurs–the fossil record doesn’t contain any hint that courting sauropods gave each other edible bouquets of ferns–the short warns about what happens if powerful stewards meant to care for individuals actually stifle those they are charged to protect. Dinosaurs didn’t die because of climate change, the short says, but because their eggs became so thick-shelled in response to colder temperatures that the baby dinosaurs couldn’t hatch. The shells (yes, the eggshells speak) mindlessly drone that they are doing their “duty,” but by growing thicker and thicker they kill the nascent sauropods. The scene is the saddest dinosaur cartoon I’ve ever seen, and it seems to be a metaphor for the Soviet government suppressing the rights of individual citizens. Indeed, the death of dinosaurs was not only used by Americans to issue dire warnings–they are an international symbol of extinction.
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