Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Objectification, War Crimes, and Dinosaur Bones

Cross-posted at Alas, a Blog.

Picture of Raptor by Ursula Vernon

Copyright Ursula Vernon: Behold the velociraptor, the terror of the Cretaceous...--pictured here with beloved stuffed T-rex "Mr. Gobbly."

I love dinosaurs.

Well, I do. Actually, make that extinct things. I love extinct things. Glyptodonts, for instance: giant, ice age armadillos with big club tails. And titanis walleri which is like the bird version of a T-rex, complete with wings that have devolved into little hands. And for sheer weird you can't beat the Cambrian fauna like opabinia, the five-eyed critter with a vacuum mouth, or hallucigenia, the spiky creature so strange that for a long time paleontologists were unable to tell which way went up.

At this point, I should make the disclaimer: I'm sheerly a hobbyist. I rely on my fiance for most of my information. He comes home from paleontology classes, or reading sciency things, and gives me the digest version (unless it's something like the BBC that I can pop over and read without confusing my social-science-addled brain). I don't always repeat things accurately. So, take me with a grain of salt.

Still, I love reading about extinct things -- probably in the same way that I love reading really weird science fiction novels. There's that sense of wonder: a creature that looked like this really lived? And dinosaurs have only gotten more exciting since I was little. No longer the grey and brown reptiles that lumbered across text books, looking only slightly more intelligent than heads of cabbage, we now know that some dinosaurs were probably closer to warm-blooded than cold, and thanks to lithographic limestone in China, we can even look at the impressions of dinosaur feathers.

Reveling in the nerdy joy that is extinct critters, my fiance and I have a collection of dinosaur books. This year, for my birthday, my fiance flew out to see me in Iowa and gave me, besides a week with his wonderful self, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon.

This is a really good book. Apart from gorgeous, colorful illustrations (mmm, gorgeous colorful illustrations), it has different kinds of information than I've found in other books on dinosaurs. It features a number of drawings showing how dinosaur bones are found from different eras and ecosystems, for instance, and while my fiance is a geologist, I've never before appreciated the rock-heavy end of paleontology.

Alongside pictures of the dinosaurs, it also features descriptions of how paleontologists have come to the conclusions they have about certain animals. For instance, rather than just saying that caudipteryx couldn't fly, the book explains that the asymmetry of the feather mpressions we've found from the animal lead us to that conclusion. It's also very clear about when we're guessing. Many animals are known from only a specimen or two, often an incomplete one, and we don't really know what they looked like.

I had known before that we knew many dinosaurs from very few bones, but every time I learn anew how few, it astonishes me. Skulls in particular, the part of the animal that allows us to look dead creatures "in the eye," are especially likely to be crushed and destroyed.

We know so little of what life was like on the planet before we were here. What little we have are tiny snapshot glimpses: this dinosaur with a fan of feathers like a peacock, this gigantic devonian fish with a head covered in armor of bone.

And as I'm thinking these thoughts, I flip to the entry on Spinosaurus, and draw entirely the wrong conclusions.

Spinosaurus is a Cretaceous (that's the middle period of the dinosaur age) therapod (the meat-eating bipeds like T-Rex) with quirky crocodilian jaws and a gigantic sail on its back. At the risk of violating someone's copyright, it looks like this:

picture of Spinosaurus

It's about 50-60 feet long, which makes it one of the biggest carnivorous dinosaurs that we've found (it's been called the biggest, but paleontologists are always finding new biggests, so I'm going to avoid the superlative). It was also the villain of Jurrassic park... 2? 3? One of the JP sequels, anyway. Note the big, weird sail on its back, which many paleontologists think was used for temperature regulation (you can find similar sails on a number of extinct animals, including a couple of the sauropods (the big dinosaurs with long necks like brontosaurus or brachiasaurus) and older creatures like dimetrodon).

Spinosaurus was originally found in Egypt in 1912 and its bones were displayed in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, Germany. In 1944, after sustained allied bombing, the fossil was destroyed.

Reading about that, I had that swift punch to the gut feeling of loss, that "oof" which isn't really conscious. These bones survived 95 million years. They survived the asteroid impact that caused the mass extinction event at the end of the Jurrassic. They survived ice ages. They survived humans poking around in the Egyptian desert, being generally destructive. They were mounted, and studied, and sketched, giving us a glimpse of our world's ancient past, and then they were wiped out by a bomb.

When was the last time I had that "oof" feeling when I was reading about human war casualties from World War II?

Oh, I have that "oof" feeling fairly regularly. I had a much more severe reaction recently when Twisty Faster at I Blame the Patriarchy posted a video of an Iranian girl being stoned to death. I wouldn't even call that an "oof" feeling, really. It was a terrible moment of grief and inadequacy which lasted, oh, 12 hours, before my brain reasserted its general keel of optimism, for better (I remain functional) and for worse (functional, but skimming triviality).

And I got the "oof" and worse from reading We Would Like to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families and watching Hotel Rwanda. But when was the last time that the horrors of World War II pried open my desensitized skin? I think it was reading The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, four or five years ago.

It took a moment, but as the "oof" feeling receded, I started to feel guilty.

And then, as the initial wave of guilt passed, I started to try to convince myself that my initial impulse had been reasonable. After all, a spinosaur fossil is unique and irreplaceable. When it's gone, it's gone, and all the opportunity to reclaim it is also gone. It signifies knowledge that will be forever missing.

I grieve for lost spinosaur bones. I grieve for the lost knowledge of what our planet's past looked like. I crave to hold our history in my hand, and really look back into time. I grieve for the lost opportunity to do that.

But what part of my reasoning about why spinosaurus is irreplaceable and worth grieving for does not apply equally -- and with, indeed, more strength and fervor -- to every lost person? Each of the eleven million casualties of the Holocaust were unique and irreplaceable; with their deaths, their uniqueness was lost to the world. By human action, they are forever missing.

Six hundred thousand in Iraq. Six hundred thousand in a day in Rwanda.

I can cite these stastics, and yet I still grieve for spinosaur bones?

It's a different kind of grief, I suppose. Yet when I consider the people that must have died in that bombing, and concentrate my attention on the fossil that was lost instead, I am objectifying the dead. I am judging their worth as objects against the worth of another object. By a subconscious absorption of economic law, I automatically value the rare object over the conscious one, and this, I suppose, is what Marxist analysts mean when they say that capitalism leads us fetishize other people.

How easy it is to make people into things with worth and value that can be placed in opposition to objects, like fossils, or even abstracts, like knowledge. How we suffer from trying to make people into objectified abstractions that we can move around like cogs in our head. This child's life for that man's freedom. Those people's deaths for these people's sense of security. This life for that ideal. So easy to slip unconsciously into the edges of it. I want to know about this ancient thing. I do not want to have to stop and consider the fullness of a human life, prematurely ended, and fit the full, incomprehensible breadth of it into my head.

1 comment:

Ted said...

(Sorry this comment is so belated; I was just looking through some older posts.)

Six hundred thousand in Iraq. Six hundred thousand in a day in Rwanda.

According to We Wish to Inform You, the genocide in Rwanda took about 100 days to kill 800,000 people. That's remarkably fast, but not quite as fast as 600,000 in a day.