Little Richard on an effeminate manner canceling out racism and workplace dynamics for gay black men today
In this ^^ Sally Jesse Raphael interview with Little Richard, Sally Jesse refers to the “sociological” quirk that activist, web journalist, and hip-hopper Yitz Jordan (Y-LOVE) mentioned—and backed up with studies & statistics—on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, hear that July 2014 segment here…the reality that gay black men or black men perceived as effeminate are seen as less of a threat and more readily accepted for jobs.
In his exhaustively-well-researched Quartz feature, Yitz points out new survey results by “Princeton University sociologist David Pedulla,” “in Social Psychology Quarterly,” that proved for black male applicants, “coming out on your resume,” for example listing gay student organization membership, volunteer history with LGBT nonprofits, etc., “effectively cancelled out” negative stereotypes of black men due to “the feminine stereotype” of gay men. And as Yitz noted in the WNYC interview: these are two ugly and wrong stereotypes colliding, black men who’re gay might not be more effeminate or less of a so-called “threat” even—see Omar in The Wire, or, y’know, look outside and simply observe the staggering infinite diversity around you—and making goofy, ham-fisted blanket assumptions of broad human groups like these will inevitably offend and dis many individuals.
But, it being the second decade of the 21st century notwithstanding, hiring managers change their decisions predictably based on old-ass, hackneyed stereotypes and good ol’ fashioned racism, and their biases are so ingrained and foreseeable, applicants can game them to their advantage (ala “game theory”). Dr. Pedulla’s results quantify the effects in hard numbers and bar graphs; survey responses even suggest “that for black male applicants, coming out may actually result in a higher starting salary.”
Interconnection: Little Richard
What is shocking is that, according to Little Richard, this loophole or “canceling out” of reflexive distrust and anxieties held true even during the ugliest segregation… including in white night clubs in the early 1950s Deep South. The flamboyant costumes were an asset: he noticed rockin’ the full face-cake-makeup, mascara mustache and cape opened doors and allowed him to get gigs no other black man could.
Bull Connor-type night club owners be like COME ON IN… according to L.R., they’d let him in even when making his brothers and bandmates wait outside.
Fascinating loop-hole in the fear…I expanded my writing on the subject as it’s very interesting the way the anthropological imperative to mate so nakedly shapes social norms because of the stereotypes around black men’s virility, especially in the Jim Crow South, the assumption of “unfair competition” vis a vis the below-belt unmentionables…
But closer inspection reveals these phenomena to be more horrible and downright sad than anything else. MOST lynchings in the pre-war South were provoked by allegations of sexual impropriety and/or the social overstepping of color barriers.
Anywho….. Many of Little Richard’s contemporaries were shut out of the active touring in the Deep South he enjoyed, as Jim Crow blocked—and its raw vengeful intent really was more to “cockblock”—many black bluesmen and early rockers seeking a broader audience. Even in the late ’60s, Jimi Hendrix, who actually got his start running away from his Pacific Northwest home and, under a fake name, touring in Little Richard’s band, played on the tele via the BBC but got no airtime on American TV…
Little Richard on Sesame Street, 2010ish
This is the second episode in a new series, “Idiosyncratic Interconnections,” in which I unveil unusual connections betwixt two things that—most likely—only I would notice… realizing a seemingly unrelated thing unexpectedly interconnects with another thing to give insight into the first thing. Each episode connects two things. Let me know if ya’ll would like an Episode 3.
Bringing together strands of recent thoughts … the blues…
Recently I updated the “Got the blues so bad” mix/Nick’s True Blues Playlist – skewing heavily to the first bluesmen recorded vs later interpreters, the Southern backwoods “sundown comin’ & klan caught up to me at the crossroads” blues and that type of bluesman. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, John Lee Hooker, the genuine article, the real bluesmen and those true to their spirit, like The Animals, or The Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton in their harder blues moments…
Mick Jagger knows the old blues lyrics, somehow Muddy Waters and Harpo Slim and recordings like that made their way across the pond to London, but ol’ Mick doesn’t convey the visceral blues that caused early American bluesmen to shout and stomp it…maybe Mick Jagger could pull off “so many beautiful supermodels (Jerry Hall Blues)” or the “Bad Music Video Dancing Blues” but can’t convey the blues felt down on the plantation, the woes of the dispossessed sharecropper’s son turned-itinerant musician…though, in fairness, the Stones pulled off some authentic blues standards and genuinely bluesy original tunes, and Keith Richards certainly comes from the ugliest corner of the wrong side of the tracks, England, and can definitely firmly grasp the blues, could shout the “1950s dentist got no anesthetic Blues“.
But I’m talking about the Southland that birthed the blues (about the song), the blues that began as slave stomps and chain-gang hollers, then grew increasingly sophisticated with the addition of guitars, harmonicas, piano, and eventually electrified instruments (none have really plumbed the depths of fully electric synthesizer blues, The Animals did lots with the organs and early synth-keyboards available in the ’60s, Steve Winwood had the whole enchilada of synthpop tech but just scratched the surface).
Listening to the electric blues on Florida St. and Imogene by the old freight train junction, Mobile, Alabama, thanks to fellow-Spring Hill College Class of 2004 Mobile kid Daniel Spotswood, I learned something about the blues that isn’t in the books, that the blues isn’t just a musical style, it’s an emotion. It’s something visceral, intangible, possibly magical or at least existing in the undefined anthropological ether… something that might be non-recordable on tape.
The blues, the Real Blues, came from the systematic oppression, de facto (sharecropping) and actual outright slave economy of the deepest Deep South, songs of hell, songs of humanity persisting within the fieriest of Beelzebub’s trials…
The life of Robert Johnson illustrates what I mean. He was born from Julia Dodd’s re-marriage after Mr. Dodd got run out of town by a literal lynch mob over a woman and the white plantation caste that owned the area probably dispossessed the Dodds of everything. In the Mississippi Delta counties especially, generational socio-economic gains could be washed away as fast as the Mississip’ risin’ if you were on the wrong side of the vicious legal and police-state-enforced Apartheid system—AKA Jim Crow— in effect in the first half of the 20th century. In Robert Johnson’s times, racism wasn’t just hateful attitudes but enshrined in law, enforced by the state; segregation, oppressive discrimination, denial of economic advancement/freedom in socio-economic space, and sudden death sentences by angry mob… all of this was essentially the law.
One of Johnson’s most covered songs, “Crossroads Blues”—even Cyndi Lauper recorded a rendition, 2010—refers to these Jim Crow laws. The second verse includes “the sun goin’ down now boy, dark gon’ catch me here”: alluding to the “sundown laws” or curfew, that was ubiquitous in the Deep South. The blues still have a great deal of saliency.
When unrest erupts following the conflicts in Ferguson, MO, for example, and the news is analyzing the sundown curfews, few grasp the painful history. It’s shrugged off as necessary “to maintain order.”
But, when black people hear “sundown curfews imposed in Ferguson,” many probably think of “don’t be found when the sun’s gone down.”
“Down in Mobile they’re all crazy, because the Gulf Coast is the kingdom of monkeys, the land of clowns, ghosts and musicians, and Mobile is sweet lunacy’s county seat.”—Eugene Walter
So I was in Mobile, AL, a port city as complex as it is old, the Confederacy’s “undefeated” city, and my hometown, and I move from the Fox News in the pulmonologist’s office to the Fox News in the psychologist’s office.
It’s late 2004. George W. Bush already won reelection and both camels of Congress are firmly Republican-controlled. This is a red state epicenter, and the receptionist slowly shakes her head at all the evils of them dadgum liberals in Washington.
The Fox News reporter on screen is in Iraq, sandy winds off the desert dunes whip his polo shirt’s sleeves back, and he tries to keep his pencil-like physique upright as he shoves his big fuzzy Fox News-emblazoned microphone into soldiers’ faces. He was asking almost Colbert-like questions of the desert camo-wearing Army men, like how much have Senate Democrats harmed the war effort? and do you think the recent comments of Senate Democrats constitute treason?
More than one serviceman laughed the guy off. None of them knew what comments Democrats had made. The questions were totally removed from the Army’s mission in Iraq and mostly seemed the ramblings of another clueless civilian or rear guard patriot. Really apparent was the complete disconnect from the composition of government: Republicans unified the federal elected bodies and the executive branch under their control from 2002 and gained even biggier majorities in the 2004 elections, but it sounded like the Senate Democrats ran everything on Fox News. The ever-present librul conspiracy is all-powerful and ALWAYS the problem.
This idea of eternal opposition is easy to understand in the undefeated city, our lady of perpetual defiance. This I understand easily, the rebellion is deeply ingrained in Mobilians’ DNA. Over time, surrounded by Confederate ghosts (some of them your relatives) and architecture, the big bronze Admiral Raphael Semmes statue looking at you, marinating in that culture and place and tripping over its ghosts in the lit beams of fog, you start to understand that the port cities have a different narrative from that of the plantationocracy, that for the urban South it’s more utopian.
Yes it’s about a slave economy and getting them dadgum liberal Abe Lincolns off your lawn, but it’s also this idea of Alabama knowing how best to build Alabama. There’s nothing libertarian about the state that they would choose; the vision is more Thomas Paine than Edmund Burke. There’s this idea and utopian dream of all types of creation-energy and creativity and building being unleashed once you get that damnable federal boot off your neck.
It’s mostly a pipe dream—AKA a dream you get after hitting dat pipe o’ opium—and also there’s NOTHING morally justifiable much less utopian about the reasons why the feudal lords of the Southern interior supported secession, that is slavery slavery and slavery. But the port cities that were bustling centers of New World civilization already when George Washington was in diapers really complicate whatever narrative of the Confederacy you have. They resist simplicity. The port cities (Charleston, Mobile, New Orleans) are/were full of madmen and poets and dreamers like Eugene Walter described. And they were not only about wiping out the invaders, but also trying to create a better society that isn’t trying to out-hustle the North but wants to make a nation that is culturally if not economically independent (slavery spreading because of capitalism on steroids, often with northern financing).
As uber lefty cultural historian Morris Berman often says, a Southern victory in The WONA (“War of Northern Aggression”) would not have necessarily “given us a better world–slavery having been the obvious dark aspect of the Southern way of life–but the destruction of a gracious, slow-moving, community-oriented society in favor of a frantic, commercial one is nothing to crow about.”
So I always try to understand the ideas behind the arguments. Wanting to get dem dadgum bluebacks out of your hair I understand.
But if your side never has to shoulder the responsibility of governance, is perpetually in opposition vs. having a share of the credit and consequences of success or failure as part of a ruling coalition, your party can become badly warped.
I think it’s advantageous to understand all sides as much as possible. I got really confused during the federal gov’t shutdown of 2013, especially as to the predominant ideas underpinning it, so I listened to right-wing talk radio for the week and tried, to the best of my ability, to explain Teapublican thinking at the time on this blog. I think that it is more radical to attempt to get your head around the other side’s ideas than to knee jerk oppose, and more interesting.
Even the SHUT IT DOWN extremism I could eventually understand somewhat, but there are things I seriously can’t grasp at all except as purposefully misleading, disinfo more than misinformation, especially with Fox News. It worries me about our nation’s ability to learn, to adapt to multiple decades of scientific data, move forward and lead the way so humans don’t end up extinct.
Concerned about Fox Newsification of Medicine and Science
On the medical front, there are obvious policy differences on substantive issues, like the stem cell lines kerfuffleearly on in Bush Jr’s presidency, but I mean things like blaming John Edwards and “librul trial lawyers” for the flu shot shortage of 2004. This was a talking point on Fox News repeated again and again, part of the “scandal of the day” format Faux News sticks with throughout its lineup of programs.
Like the disloyal Democrats’ comments brought up over and over again, even by FNC’s Iraq correspondent in lieu of actual reporting, there’s this consistent appeal to some story example that acts as a code word or proof-text of Demonrat perfidy—this time the librul conspiracy has gone too far!! A good contemporary example is Benghazi, which for several years now is a code word for Barack Obama is a radical Islam and MURDERED that ambassador to cover up his traitorous support for terrorists OMG!!
In a way I understand this as coming from the story-example way of communicating so prevalent in the South, you can look back at 19th century newspapers and see how the openly partisan news media of the South would fixate on whatever meme of “Yankee radical” treason or perceived slight and milk it.
21st century partisan news media fixates on whatever obscure example and rides it for as many news cycles as possible, but an important difference is the whole South understood the example stories of 19th century newspapers, more or less, whereas the example stories of Fox News are little known outside of the conservative media bubble. Few know what Benghazi is or understand why Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl being brought home from being a Taliban POW per no man left behind is another traitorous plot of the Obama. Example narratives like these circulate only among the conservative media niche, have no traction outside that narrow audience and even within the alternate reality of the Rightosphere they create a terrible hew and cry but aren’t salient past the few news cycles they’re designated talking points for…
So on this day, Faux News’ librul conspiracy meme of the day was this thing about John Edwards and the dadgum ambulance chasing trial lawyers. The pulmonologist and nurse were discussing the flu shot shortage crisis affecting us and the other patients, and that the lawsuits pursued by John Edwards and his parasitic ilk are the primary cause of vaccine factory closures and the shortage of flu shots. Conservative media was citing this as a proof of lawyers ruin health care and pass legislation to further immunize vaccine makers from lawsuits!
Depictions of Radioactivity Fears in 1936 Flash Gordon Serial
Defining my terms: Up until at least the mid-1950s, newsreels, cartoon shorts like Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry, and this week’s chapter of your favorite movie serials were shown before or between the feature(s)—the full-length movies—and the afternoon at the movies was the main audio-visual mass media form people consumed, the core method industrialized societies used to spread images, information and propaganda. Before being supplanted by TV shows, movie serials were hugely popular.
Lest I sugarcoat, I say this up front: the problematic aspects of the old serials are… well, glaring and intensely pre-civil-rights in content and tone. “Talkie” film serials are part of American culture in the 1930s and ’40s mostly, so they’re a time window showing a very different country… in the Flash Gordon serial, the first ever space adventure on the silver screen, the supervillain Ming the Merciless is obviously in the mold of the Fu Manchu evil genius. The imperial court, the costumes and sets, the official state cult of Tao, and high concentration of non-Earth humanoid races give the series a definite otherworldly—even bizarro world—look and feel, and that mitigates the Fu Manchuness of Ming. At its worst the Ming depiction is tame compared to the WW2-fueled anti-Asian hate that pervaded later serials¹, but this early Flash Gordon has no shortage of very Earth-like sexism (despite the uber-strong Princess Aura²).
I dig movie serials because their story structure is really prominent, clear, and crucial, the story mechanics are visible like exposed wooden planks and beams. Serials also offer a bounty of delicious cultural tropes and images: fresh, raw, not adulterated or distilled, as they originate here or appear for the first time in this new visual form, the picture show. For example, most subsequent space operas imitate, derive from, or refer to Flash Gordon, since it invented the opening crawl, and, along with the comic strip it sprung from, created the first visual depictions of sci-fi elements—themselves mainly borrowed from pulp writer and space opera originator E.E. Smith—including the space fleet, the tractor beam/gravity beams, the Evil Interplanetary Overlord, the planet of crystal spires and togas (proto version) and more…
Even The Sky City Has an Energy Crisis
Spoilers ahead: The hawkmen’s sky city, and it is truly the “city of the hawkmen,” with not a hawkwoman or hawkchild ever seen, and no women in the city at all excepting visitors Princess Aura and Dale Arden and background servant-girls who don’t wear hawk gear. The spire-laden city
The sky city feels both medieval and high tech, great lumber doors like a castle and moody candlelit walls, for example, the mega technology backgrounded (as befitting a civilization of togas and crystal spires). The underlying technology is abruptly foregrounded, however, when King Vultan sentences Flash and his bros to feed the steampunk-looking atom furnaces piles o’ radium with the other prisoners (apparently we’ll use manual labor, slaves doing rote grunt work in the space age).
The atom furnaces look and feel like relics of the bygone days of steam power, Vultan’s prisoners seemingly shoveling coal just like in an old steamboat engine room, but the narratives around these “atom furnaces” are unambiguously modern.
King Vultan tells Dr. Zarkov that the sky city is held aloft with gravity beams run on radium-fueled atom furnaces, but there are fears of running out of radium. Like concerns today around peak oil, peak coal, peak uranium, and increasingly, peak water, King Vultan is—between bursts of boisterous laughter—worried about “peak radium,” having neared or passed that point of no return or peak where the depletion of a finite resource is only a matter of time thereafter, raising the possibility of the hawkmen’s sky city crashing to the ground and bringing an ugly, apocalyptic end to hawk-civilization.
Vultan wants Zarkov to discover a “new force” to hold up the sky city, which sounds funky, but it is 1936. Einstein had published Special Relativity just 20 years previous, electromagnetism as one invisible force was being translated into radio and other magic things, new theories of physics droppin’ right and left, and amidst all that a “new force” or new field being discovered didn’t seem so implausible. Sci-fi stories and novels of the ’20s and ’30s—I’m particularly thinking of E.E. Smith “the father of space opera”—often draw on a hypothetical fifth force of nature³ being discovered and harnessed to propel space adventurers through the solar system and used to beam at foes.
Dr. Zarkov replies to Vultan with concerns that Flash and friends will get lethal doses of radiation from shoveling radium. The subtext is our fear as we enter “the atomic age.”
Vultan answers “it’s a pleasant death! LOL!” and that they’ll indeed be radiated until Zarkov invents a new alternative energy source. Dr. Zarkov does eventually discover a new force of physics to beam the city aloft. He turns on the new beam, powered by an unexplained new infinite force, just in the nick of time, right after Flash Gordon + super-bros explode the atom furnace. No word on what happened with the deadly radioactive fallout from all that radium goin’ up like a roman candle.
there are some disturbing (mildly disturbing, depending on your perspective) themes, images and subtexts in the Flash Gordon serial… pretty sure that I would want to give younger or more sheltered teens an explainer/guided watching… and most of the more disturbing aspects aren’t about radiation…
I understand that the writers want to set up King Vultan and the hawkmen as formidable opponents, so when they turn to aid Flash Gordon against Ming the Merciless, it is a really high stakes event, Vultan and Flash shaking on a Fire Forged Friendship that really matters. In all Flash Gordon incarnations, Vultan ends up friends with Flash Gordon on an “enemy of my enemy” basis, and in the 1979 animated series Flash goes from forced labor at the atom furnaces to Fire Forged Friends in the course of one episode—view it free on Hulu—and his threatening turn feels more like a Challenge of the Week. But here, King Vultan is closer to a serious villain. Though he has some human moments, like trying to get Dale to eat her roast beast, Vultan electric-tortures, radiates, and almost executes Flash!
And then there’s this…
Thank you for reading! Hope I gave some nutritious food for thought…
The hawkmen continue to echo down the decades, not just in the many subsequent and new Flash Gordon works, but in the DC universe, the Justice League and related content… since the DC Comics heroes Hawkman, Hawkwoman, Hawkgirl, et al were inspired by the Hawkmen in Alex Raymond’s founding Flash Gordon comic strip. Hawkman creator Dennis Neville said that he modeled his Hawkman design on the hawkmen of the sky city on planet Mongo. I feel that the Silver Age Hawkman, Hawkgirl and other Hawk-characters, hailing from crystal spiresque high towers (sky city-like) on the distant planet Thanagar, are an even more direct homage to the old Raymond comic strips.
1. Especially during the War with Imperial Japan, racist depictions of Asians hit an all-time low. In the original Batman serial (1943) they refer to Japanese internment as “…the wise government rounded up the shifty-eyed japs” (view on youtube). Though the concept of internment is inadvertently revealed as failed and ineffective moments later, when the evil genius and supervillain Dr. Daka, Hirohito’s baddest agent, is introduced as the antagonist, conspicuously non-imprisoned and unfettered in his evil-doing. I hate the sugarcoating and outright omitting of the ugly moments of our history, and I want my descriptions of the past to feel near as close to the real and biting reality of the people who lived it as possible in blag format.
2. Princess Aura is one badass woman, probably ahead of her time, but she is also really complicated. She can evil-rescue Flash, seem the heroine one moment, seem villainess the next… In the animated series, done by the He-Man producers, she’s largely a copy/paste of their She-ra animations, but is more the Action Girl than in the old serial, where she’s daddy’s little villainess exemplified, but villainess wanting the hero always applies…
3. something akin to a fifth force of nature may still be possible, if physicists can figure out dark energy/matter.
Tidbits of Colonial Mobile’s Economic and Legal History Through a 19th century Jewish Lens
The rare book “A History of the Jews of Mobile,” a brief monograph published by Springhill Avenue Temple rabbi Alfred Geiger Moses in 1876 on the Jewish history of my hometown Mobile, AL, and now available online, records some fascinating facts. I’ll get into the super weird history of Mobile Jews serving in the Twelfth Alabama for the CSA in the Civil War in a future post. In this post I’ll go over the most interesting bits of history I was able to glean of the legal and regulatory system early Mobile had in place (when it was considered part of French Louisiana, then British West Florida, then Spanish West Florida).
Mobile was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville on his brother Pierre de Iberville’s advice. Both young explorers had sailed from their birthplace, Quebec, in search of advantageous spots to put trading posts to cash in on trade with the Indians. The earliest decades of Mobile’s existence saw sparse settlement and several relocations of the colony due to flooding and swamp epidemics. Everything was in flux, and often, like the Dutch,¹ the French only supplied enough money and people to support the bare necessities for trading. But slowly, the Louisiana colonies eventually added settlers.
New colonial societies can’t function or generate sustainable populations (and are totally depressing) without women. Bienville wrote of the sex ratio emergency to his royal backers in France, and in 1704, Mobile was the first port to see “casquette girls” arrive to be the colony’s first official wives. Bienville went on to found New Orleans, Natchez and New Biloxi after Iberville founded Old Biloxi near what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi. “Consignments” of casquette girls reached Biloxi in 1719, and New Orleans in 1728, and to this day a mythos surrounds the casquette girls as the most virtuous religious women of France, like Virgin Marys founded the old Louisiana families. To claim descent from one of them is to gain auto-nobility in the Louisiana context. Like most lore, the legend that the casquette girls were nuns and Joans of Arc is mostly false. But the dynamic honors founding mothers and mostly omits founding fathers, a notable reversal.
Jews, being strictly banned in the “Code Noir,” weren’t much of a presence in Mobile’s early years. Alfred Geiger Moses noted:
The first two articles of the code read as follows: “Article I: Decrees the expulsion of the Jews from the colony. Article II: Permits the exercise of the Roman Catholic worship only. Every other code of worship is prohibited.” Strange to say, the rest of the code deals with laws regulating the sale and conduct of negro slaves. Gayarre finds the reference to the Jews irrelevant to the general subject-matter of the code. My own explanation of the anti-Jewish laws, which is supported by a good authority, is that they were merely a repetition of the similar legislation current in France at the time of Louis XIV. Drastic as the law appears, it was probably never enforced, because there are no further references to it in Louisiana records. The expulsion of the Jews from America would have been in the sixteenth century an event worthy of the chronicler’s notice.
The Code Noir was developed in France and strictly regulated every corner of economic life that related to the (highly active) slave trade, all activities of the enslaved and freed black population, in enormous detail. And of course a perfunctory ban on all Jews, though Jewish settlement nonetheless accelerated, especially during the subsequent periods of British and Spanish quasi-control.
The main point of controlling Mobile was its lucrative port, so imports and exports were heavily regulated and taxed for the crown’s benefit, and if you didn’t interfere with that imperial extraction process you were relatively free, hence “quasi-control.”
Non-paying the right amount of tribute/taxes, though, could imperil your ability to operate within that colony, and if you were seen as thieving, speculating or profiteering to the detriment of the power people’s loot, you could be imprisoned or death-penaltied.
Rabbi Alfred G. Moses explains:
In the British epoch of Mobile’s colonial history, which extended from 1763 to 1780, an interesting reference to a Jew is citable: Major Robert Farmer, the British commandant of Mobile, was accused, among other charges, of selling flour belonging to the King to New Orleans, or selling or attempting to sell it there by means of “Pallachio, a Jew.” The Major was afterwards acquitted of the charges.
What became of poor Pallachio isn’t known, but it was quite possibly a noir fate.
The concept of “the King’s flour” is really hard to grasp in the 21st century but I think of it as explicitly royalist mercantilism.
Mercantilism meaning “2: an economic system developing during the decay of feudalism to unify and increase the power and especially the monetary wealth of a nation by a strict governmental regulation of the entire national economy usually through policies designed to secure an accumulation of bullion, a favorable balance of trade, the development of agriculture and manufactures, and the establishment of foreign trading monopolies” (see Merriam-Webster dictionary definition)
The “foreign trading monopolies” were the point of colonization, and more purely about royalist monopolies for the French, being less encumbered by entrenched notions of self-sufficient land-ownership meaning individual freedom and citizenship.
Political rants invoking a bygone golden age of “the free market” and no regulation are misinforming the people. “The American Way” is another term for the American System, the tariff-heavy economic plan that predominated in the 19th century, mercantilism in reality. The next time a buffoon is waxing nostalgic about an economic past completely unlike anything we had in North America, remember Pallachio and remember royalist mercantilism.
An Independence Day post (belated) – bloggery for the Founders
We would do well to mark the 4th not with the flag-waving militarism and “fighting for freedom” boo-yahs that typify so many public Independence Day events, and focus on the thing that Independence Day was really commemorating: the Declaration of Independence (adopted prior to large-scale war), our separation and unique vision for our republic. It should be a day of reading the Declaration of Independence and Constitution first and foremost, and yes, as John Adams wrote, “It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other…”
And in addition to a day of remembering the actual founding documents and principles, which include freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures of your files, we should have a day of loudly reading, painting, sequential art explainer-drawing, studying, and debating the ideas of the founding brothers and sisters (their actual ideas, which are really diverse and disagree with each other). We can glean relevant lessons for today from all our founding people.
Today I’m talking about George Washington’s ideas. Exalted as the first General of the first-ever separate American army and victor of the War for Independence, his actual words and ideas get lost. John Adams objected to this oversimplified exaltation of the revolutionary generation more than anyone else. Adams was always writing letters lamenting the editing out of the Revolution’s complexities, that the Revolution was a process not an event and its processes were as diverse as the 13 colonies that fought, and that the gruesome War for Independence was waged at great cost of life and limb and nothing to boo-yah about! He hated
the prospect of the Independence struggle being dumbed down so badly that kids think “Washington chopped down a cherry tree,” the redcoats ran, and everything was copacetic. In the years prior to John Adams’ death, the leading figures of the revolutionary generation were increasingly remembered in low-information hagiographies, a trend that was yet to peak. Throughout the 1800s, the founding fathers were so ridiculized and mythologized, you end up with craziness like Constantino Brumidi’s 1865 fresco The Apotheosis of Washington on the oculus of the capitol dome ceiling to this day, depicting Washington ascending to the heavens and becoming a god, AKA apotheosis,
surrounded by figures from classical mythology, the goddess Victoria (draped in green, using a horn) to his left and the goddess Liberty to his right (seriously).
But George Washington wasn’t a deity like Zeus. George Washington was a person, and as much as he preferred to stay atop his white horse looking majestic and being “above the fray,” he was often forced into the fray. He had opinions, and if you think of late 18th century American politics as a spectrum—Jeffersonians with states’ rights positions and a vision of the United States as an almost E.U.-like confederation with a tiny low-tax federal gov’t that’s big enough to do foreign policy and raise armies (kinda) in the event of national emergencies but little else on one end of the spectrum, and the Hamiltonians who advocated a strong national gov’t with united goals, federally funded “internal improvements,” more spending for a federal military, and the taxes to pay for such a robust federal gov’t. on the other end of the spectrum—Washington was more of a Hamiltonian, through this vastly oversimplifies Washington. George Washington adopted Alexander Hamilton as a political right-hand-man of sorts, and though that relationship got very fraught and cranky and “good day to YOU, sir!” even breaking up sometimes—read Ron Chernow’s excellent biographyAlexander Hamilton for the details—Hamilton’s influence on the old dude was unmistakable, especially when it comes to things like Washington’s famous Farewell Address, where Hamilton’s ideas are particularly prominent.
But Hamilton and Washington were very different men. Being roughly a generation older, and a pious Virginia landowner, George Washington always saw the world through a distinctly “landed Virginia gentry”-type of lens, and definitely held a vision for the United States of a republic of white yeoman farmers independent of corrupt cities, similar to the vision of fellow Virginia bros Jefferson and Madison, though better on the question of slavery. Washington was definitely way better than Jefferson at freeing the slaves on his estate; Jefferson only freed five slaves in his will, all males of the Hemings family. two of whom have DNA-tested positive as his sons.
With George Washington, after his presidency and time teamed with Hamilton, you get a man applying the federal “internal improvements” concept, a robust program of road-building and canal-ing, to his goal of a nation of republican landowners. You get Washington: rural technocrat. This is super interesting in light of today’s infrastructure problems, rural America being in its death throes and so on. But there isn’t much written about “Washington the technocrat,” aside from chapter five of Paul Johnson’s George Washington: The Founding Father, available as a stand-alone book, or as part of the Eminent Lives presidents collection as an ebook or audio conglomeration.
Back in Mount Vernon, Washington, now fifty-two, took stock of his personal state… Not for the first time he reflected that America’s first problem was the tyranny of distance. It was vast, and growing each year, and communications were not keeping up. … He saw America increasingly in unitary terms and this vision was strengthened by further travels… His diaries show what chiefly interested him: the impact of distance on the economy, social life, and opportunity. Any steps to speed up travel were central to the country’s future. He noted that stagecoaches ran three times a week from Norfolk, Virginia, up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But just to get from Richmond to Boston by stage might take twelve days. There was one good wagon road into the interior, but south of Virginia, roads, stages, and tracks were so bad that people preferred to travel by sea, a sure sign of a primitive transport economy.
…Washington was the pioneer. He realized early that the tyranny of distance could be reduced by intelligent use of her tremendous rivers, having canoed some of the fiercest himself. As early as 1769 he tried to promote the use of lock canals to improve natural waterways like the Potomac and Ohio. The canal (linked to improved post roads) was the dynamic of the revolution in transport of the eighteenth century, just as steam was for the nineteenth, and the internal combustion engine, in cars and aircraft, was for the twentieth. Washington’s diaries show that as soon as the war was over he turned again and again to canals. In September 1784 he traveled across the Alleghenies partly to inspect his western lands but also to plan canal routes (and roads) to link Ohio tributaries to the Potomac. …In May he became president of the Potomac Navigation Company, empowered with a joint charter from Maryland and Virginia to improve roads and build canals throughout the area. As always, Washington pushed for the rapid development of the area, emphasizing that improved transport to the whole Ohio valley was the surest way to bind the settlements there to the states, and encourage new ones.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine Washington enthusiastically advocating and
planning high-speed rail lines today if his head were preserved Futurama-style, or planning for freight trains for the underserved Southern states during the 19th century rail revolution he didn’t live to see. He was also big on Ag innovations and new technology to improve livelihoods for American farmers.
Most of Virginia’s representatives today are skittish at best about any sort of centralized infrastructure planning, but George Washington wasn’t. When reading the aforementioned chapter, it comes through clearly: Washington expected people to get behind things like the Potomac Plan. Building infrastructure so your country can function is simply leadership, and he was disgusted by the federal Congress’ inability to deal with the desperate need for transportation infrastructure. The system now is even more unable to do things; we’ve got corruption in Congress and federal agencies rivaling only the capital’s “Gilded Age” machinations.
But I think we would do well to internalize ol’ GW’s ideas about internal improvements.
Evolution is not the study of life’s ultimate origin as a path toward discerning its deepest meaning. Evolution, in fact, is not the study of origins at all. Even the more restricted (and scientifically permissible) question of life’s origin on our earth lies outside its domain. (This interesting problem, I suspect, falls primarily within the purview of chemistry and the physics of self-organizing systems.) Evolution studies the pathways and mechanisms of organic change following the origin of life.
The when and what and the how of hereditary changes, for example the theropods (suborder Theropoda, from Greek, meaning “beast feet,” a broad category encompassing all bipedal-running carnivores like T. Rex and Velociraptor) or… more specifically, maniraptoran (“thieving/snatching hands” or “raptor hand”) dinosaurs becoming birds, these are the study of evolution’s main points of inquiry.
My questions are: why did some landlocked dinosaurs evolve feathers, while their airborne cousins, the pterosaurs—the first flying vertebrates—did not? Why would flightless bipedal predators like Deinonychus and Microraptor (and their other raptor descendants) develop feathers instead of pterosaur-style fur-like pycnofibre coats? Basically, what is the evolutionary advantage of feathers vs. pycnofibres if you’re a theropod?
First, the issue of maniraptoriforme dinosaurs (trying to use a broad category for all the raptory dinos close to birds, though it is likely I’m using the wrong one).
Yale paleontologist John Ostrom unearthed Deinonychusfrom Montana in 1964, and though Deinonychus wasn’t the first raptor described, Ostrom’s detailed monograph on the specimen (published in 1968) provided the clearest evidence yet that bird-like theropods existed, and shed new light on dinosaurs. Deinonychus was obviously built for speed and speedily tearing prey, their scary claws inspired the Greek name Deinonychus (“terrible claw”), and, along with their big brains and eyes, did not match up with the prevailing view of dinosaurs as fairly slow, cold-blooded cousins of crocodiles. What I call the warm-blooded birdosaur theory, proposed by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1868 along with his observations about Archaeopteryx (the small, bird-like dino “transitional species” found in 1861, “intermediate between birds and reptiles”), was revived thanks to Ostrom’s work. His work on the similarities between Deinonychus and Archaeopteryx put the theory on such solid ground, few try to disprove that “some dinosaurs were warm-blooded.” And subsequent discoveries established it so well, warm-bloodedness is hardly doubted nowadays even in lumbering herbivores like Stegosaurus Stenops.
Viewing dinosaurs as bird-like endotherms (animals that create their own heat via metabolic processes, AKA “warm-blooded”) was a big breakthrough, re-shuffling the family tree so all birds are derived from dinosaurs, and broadening what are considered “reptiles.” And it also allows dinosaurs to make sense. For example, the height of a brontosaur‘s neck would break the laws
of biological possibility for an ectothermic (cold-blooded) creature with the limitations of a reptilian circulatory and respiratory system, but could be possible (though still “redonkulous”) with a powerful, avian-type of cardiopulmonary system. Likewise, understanding how pterosaurs vaulted themselves into the air and then sustained the movements of powered flight for extended periods is near-impossible assuming ectothermic metabolisms, especially considering the biggest, giraffe-sized pterosaur species, but begin to make sense for an endothermic creature.
When I say “subsequent discoveries” confirmed the birdosaur theory, I’m referring to the series of fossil “transitional species,”or more informally, “dino-birds,” that have been found in the late ’90s and throughout the ’00s up through today, mostly in China and environs. A surprising number of these seriously freaky-deaky species, Archaeopteryx-like “dino-birds,” have been identified and studied in recent years.
Insofar as a species can be freaky-deaky, these “dino-birds” are… though in my opinion, plenty of existing species fall into the freaky category: turkeys, vultures and ostriches from the birdosaur lineage, bats who arrived at scary, pterosaur-like wings independently, etc. But I guess if you’re a member of one of the aforementioned species, you don’t seem so freaky.
First described in 2011, Xiaotingia zhengi is the closest relative of Archaeopteryx found so far, and one of the basalmost (earliest, most “basal,” preferred over the term “most primitive” since later stages of evolution aren’t necessarily “better”) “transitional species” identified to date, more basal than Archaeopteryx. Like Archaeopteryx itself, the phylogenetic categorization is murky indeed: it’s debatable whether Xiaotingia counts as a straight-up bird (“early avian species”) or an “intermediate species” (dino-bird) somewhere amongst the roots of what became the bird family tree (the classAves). Its dino characteristics exist mostly in certain non-avian skeletal features, not in visible form (excepting the long, bony, maniraptoriforme tail).
Tianyuraptor. Really bizarre and amazing dino-chicken Tianyuraptor ostromi (named in honor of John Ostrom).
In September 2007, researchers found “quill knobs” on the forearm of a Velociraptor found in Mongolia. These bumps on bird wing bones show where feathers anchor. This, along with other finds, including multiple discoveries of fossil feathers with these ‘raptors, proved that later raptory theropods often had feathers, strengthening Ostrom’s birdosaur theory even further
and rendering Spielberg’s scaly Jurassic Park velociraptors (and NBA team Toronto Raptors‘ velociraptor logo) inaccurate.
Why would some theropods, landlocked carnivores in an environment of ferocious dino-eat-dino competition, evolve feathers? Why would the development of feathers make the evolutionary to-do-list for these predatory dinosaurs who needed to devote all the biological resources they could accrue to gain an edge in the game of kill-or-be-killed? This is especially puzzling when one considers pterosaurs’ featherless physique; now that we know more about pterosaur evolution, it’s clear that their fuzzy, partial pycnofibre coats weren’t helpful for flying and bore no resemblance to proto-feather layers. We can conclude the weird partial coats of pycnofibres (which kind of remind me of humans’ internal cilia) were sufficient for pterosaurs’ thermoregulatory needs and feathers weren’t crucial to being a flying predator. Additionally, pterosaur evolution was so radically different from all other archosaurs, they must’ve split from the herd very early in their development.
Predatory raptors, under intense evolutionary pressures constantly (driven by climate change, ecological shifts disrupting the food chain, plus fearsome competition for prey with other predatory species),
wouldn’t’ve invested evolutionary/mutagenic energies into feathers unless out of necessity, so I tend to view their feathering-up as a thermoregulatory aid, essential for smaller species (microraptorians for example) that are especially vulnerable to heat loss. Eventually, climate swings into colder temperatures may have wiped out featherless theropods while feathered species survived, or perhaps a time period of the only sustainable sources of prey being in cold parts of Earth disadvantaged featherless predators, or something far more complicated, but somehow feathers gave enough benefit that they continue in the gene pool from at least the Late Jurassic to today.
In Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, the author, British ornithologist and natural historian David Norman, described proto-feathers as beginning for heat-conservation purposes, but suggested the development of “genuinely bird-like flight feathers,” and perhaps bird flying itself, originated as byproducts of their primary function – mating displays:
…so small, active endotherms would be expected to insulate their bodies to reduce heat loss. Small theropod dinosaurs, therefore, evolved insulation to prevent heat loss because they were endotherms -not because they ‘wanted’ to become birds!
Liaoning discoveries indicate that various types of insulatory covering developed, most probably by subtle modifications to the growth patterns of normal skin scales; these ranged from hair-like filaments to full-blown feathers. It may well be that genuinely bird-like flight feathers did not evolve for the purposes of flight, but had a far more prosaic origin. Several of the ‘dinobirds’ from Liaoning seem to have tufts of feathers on the end of the tail (rather like a geisha’s fan) and fringes of feathers along the arms, on the head, or running down the spine. Clearly preservational biases may also play a part in how and on which parts of the body these may be preserved. But for the present, it seems at least possible that feathers evolved as structures linked to the behaviour of these animals: providing recognition signals, perhaps, as in living birds, or being used as part of their mating rituals, long before any genuine flight function had developed.
In this context, gliding and flight, rather than being the sine qua non of avian origins, become later, ‘add-on’ benefits. Obviously, feathers have the potential for aerodynamic uses; just as with modern birds, the ability to jump and flutter may well have embellished ‘dinobird’ mating displays. For example, in the case of the small creature Microraptor, a combination of fringes of feathers along the arms, legs, and tail would have provided it with the ability to launch itself into the air from branches or equivalent vantage points. From just this sort of starting point, gliding and true flapping flight seem a comparatively short ‘step’ indeed.
It’s kind of romantic if you think about it, devoting millions of years in order to move from carpet-esque proto-feather fuzz to a covering with more “bling,” to impress a mate.
It also underscores how features often evolve in animals in indirect and unexpected ways.
In another unexpected quirk of evolution, the dating of dino-bird specimens, even basal “intermediate species” like Xiaotingia, and oldest, basal microraptorians like Sinornithosaurus, shows they were around after, and coexisted with early avians. That freaky dino-birds like Sinornithosaurus rubbed elbows with ducks, ostriches, quail, turkeys, etc. means birds “spun-off” from an earlier common ancestor, likely an even more basal microraptorian during the Jurassic period.
Think of Aves (the class containing all of today’s birds) as a TV show spin-off, but a spin-off that lasts much longer than the older show it branched-off from, like The Simpsons, which was originally a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show, was spun-off as its own series, coexisted on the TV schedule with The Tracey Ullman Show for multiple seasons but ultimately outlived its ancestor and keeps going and going up to today. Similarly, Aves spun-off from the dino-bird show, coexisted on the Mesozoic schedule, living side-by-side throughout the Cretaceous, but the dino-bird show got canceled via the big, horrendous kablooie, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, and along with an estimated three-quarters of plant and animal species on the planet, didn’t live to see the Cenozoic (the consensus is still that something bad collided with the Earth). Somehow, Aves kept going and going, with nearly all its cast intact.
thus ends the big Dinocember series (though I may do a bonus post on pterosaurs and a quick note on stegosaurs)
For the other dinosaur-posts in my D-cember: Dino-cember! series, go to:
Part 3: Brontosaurus, you shan’t be forgotten
Note: I wanted to add the infamous Alabama State Board of Education “biology textbook insert” evolution disclaimer at the top of this post, but it is too long. The revised disclaimer seems 30-40% longer than than the original 1996 sticker I confronted in high school, though it’s still written in the same clunky, dense committee-ese that proved indecipherable for even the most bold, intrepid minds back then, so is skipped so thoroughly that few students could tell you it’s there. Read the 2001 “biology textbook insert” hereif you’re in need of an insomnia cure.
I heard on NPR’s TED Radio Hour in an offhand comment in the first segment of a November episode called Misconceptions, that the brontosaurus name is no more, and that kids today learn that it’s an apatosaurus (older name, same dinosaur).
Taken aback, I searched for the explanation… how could the brontosaurus name (meaning “thunder lizard”) be discarded in favor of apatosaurus (meaning “deceptive lizard”)??? Your average brontosaur—a median example, not the biggest—was roughly the weight of four bull elephants, and one individual’s thunderous stomp would have been about as “deceptive” as a gigantism-affected pachyderm herd stampeding x 50, i.e., not sneaky or deceptive at all.
In Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction, the author, British ornithologist and natural historian David Norman, described brontosaurus evidence: footprints of brontosaur herds that were found in Texas:
More convincing were some tracks observed by Bird at Davenport Ranch, also in Texas. Here he was able to log the tracks of 23 brontosaur-like sauropods walking in the same direction at the same time. This suggested very strongly that some dinosaurs moved around in herds. Herding or gregarious behaviour is impossible to deduce from skeletons, but tracks provide direct evidence.
… Some of the large sauropodomorph dinosaurs (the brontosaurs referred to above) may have weighed as much as 20-40 tonnes in life. These animals would have exerted enormous forces on the ground when they walked. On soft substrate, the pressure from the feet of such dinosaurs would have distorted the earth at a depth of a metre or more beneath the surface…
If herds of such enormous creatures trampled over areas, as they certainly did at Davenport Ranch, then they also had the capacity to greatly disturb the earth beneath – pounding it up and destroying its normal sedimentary structure. This relatively recently recognized phenomenon has been named ‘dinoturbation’.
… Great herds of multitonne dinosaurs moving across a landscape had the potential to utterly devastate the local ecology. We are aware that elephants today are capable of causing considerable damage to the African savannah because of the way that they can tear up and knock down mature trees. What might a herd of 40-tonne brontosaurs have done?
So, yeah. Just imagine it, the extreme damage a herd of brontosaurs could do, “dinoturbation” of the landscape still obvious from the Jurassic Era, 208-144 million years ago (and it makes sense that brontosaurs, unarmored, gigantic prey animals without many defensive adaptations, would travel in herds for strength in numbers). What might a brontosaurus herd sound like?? Thunder, rolling thunder, louder than anything. Thunder lizard (brontosaurus) is clearly the right name.
Take a little deception, add a little excitement, stir them with a century-long mistake, and you have the mystery of the brontosaurus. Specifically, you have the mystery of its name. For 100 years this 70-foot-long, 30-ton vegetarian giant had two names. This case of double identity began in 1877, when bones of a large dinosaur were discovered. The creature was dubbed apatosaurus, a name that meant “deceptive lizard” or “unreal lizard.” Two years later, bones of a larger dinosaur were found, and in all the excitement, scientists named it brontosaurus or “thunder lizard.” This name stuck until scientists decided it was all a mistake—the two sets of bones actually belonged to the same type of dinosaur. Since it is a rule in taxonomy that the first name given to a newly discovered organism is the one that must be used, scientists have had to use the term apatosaurus. But “thunder lizard” had found a lot of popular appeal, and many people still prefer to call the beast brontosaurus.
The American Heritage Science Dictionary, s.v. “brontosaurus,” accessed November 29, 2013
According to the brontosaurus information at the American Museum of Natural History, when paleontologist Elmer Riggs (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago) published his study in 1903 showing the apatosaurus found was actually a juvenile example of the genus, not separate from brontosaurus, it technically ended the matter, “officially” the apatosaurus name took precedent from 1903 onwards.
But there had to be more to it. I still learned about “thunder lizards” in elementary school. Amidst the late ’80s-early ’90s “dino-mania” brontosaurs were widely seen (and labeled brontosaurus), so when and how did apatosaurus displace the brontosaurus name?
Stephen Jay Gould provides the best explanation of how the hell this happened: in his humorous essay “Bully for Brontosaurus” (one essay in the book Bully for Brontosaurus, which mostly consists of his essays on non-dinosaur natural history subjects) he explores taxonomy and the rules of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), and explains that the apatosaurus name gained currency as an unexpected side-effect of the aforementioned dino-mania, mostly following all the whining over the 1989 USPS-special release of dinosaur stamps that labeled the brontosaurus as brontosaurus, like so:
These postage stamps were great; I was more inclined to mail letters when they could be stegosaur-stamped letters.
But the Postal Service got a mass of Comic Book Guy-type complaint letters demanding retraction of the brontosaurus name in favor of the apatosaurus name, and the media who had covered the release of the dino stamps since it was one of the first times USPS issued special stamps (unveiled at Disney World the year me/my family were there), got similar complaint letters. Soon, apatosaurus was widely known as the “correct” and “scientific” name.
In “Bully for Brontosaurus,” Gould explains:
I hate to be a shill for the Post Office, but I think that they made the right decision this time. Responding to the great Apatosaurus flap, Postal Bulletin Number 21744 proclaimed:
“Although now recognized by the scientific community as Apatosaurus, the name Brontosaurus was used for the stamp because it is more familiar to the general population. Similarly, the term “dinosaur” has been used generically to describe all the animals, even though the Pteranodon was a flying reptile.”
Touché and right on; no one bitched about Pteranodon, and that’s a real error.
The Post Office has been more right than the complainers, for Uncle Sam has worked in the spirit of the plenary powers rule. Names fixed in popular usage may be validated even if older designations have technical priority. But now…Oh Lord, why didn’t I see it before! Now I suddenly grasp the secret thread behind this overt debate! It’s a plot, a dastardly plot sponsored by the apatophiles–that covert society long dedicated to gaining support for Marsh’s original name against a potential appeal to the plenary powers. They never had a prayer before. Whatever noise they made, whatever assassinations they attempted, they could never get anyone to pay attention, never disturb the tranquillity and general acceptance of Brontosaurus. But now that the Post Office has officially adopted Brontosaurus, they have found their opening. Now enough people know about Apatosaurus for the first time. Now an appeal to the plenary powers would not lead to the validation of Brontosaurus, for Apatosaurus has gained precious currency. They have won; we brontophiles have been defeated.
According to the ICZN Code, the first designated name for the species reigns, but the Zoological Congress of 1913 in Monaco added the plenary powers rule, an appeal process whereby applications to “suppress” the oldest name, if the current name is better and more well-known, could be reviewed. Gould describes the 1913 adoption of the plenary powers rule as a response to what I’d call griefers (a term from the world of massively multiplayer online games—MMOs—meaning someone whose primary means of enjoyment is the intentional griefing, verb: present participle, of other players, the ruining of others’ fun).
Some were using the ICZN oldest-name-gets-priority-rule just to derive pleasure from the panic and discomfort wreaked on the Zoological Congress when a well-established name was apt to get toppled; Gould describes an attempt to replace the name boa constrictor with an unknown obscurity that was ultimately suppressed using the plenary powers rule.
The plenary powers rule seemed to set the table for brontophiles to appeal the apatosaurus name. After all, the brontosaurus was everywhere, probably second only to the T. Rex in cultural ubiquity, commonly seen in comic books, comic strips (Alley Oop), cartoon shows and movies, The Flintstones, even as the mascot and logo of Sinclair Oil, and in U.S.-written animated shows, it was akin to visual shorthand for “Jurassic Era” or “dinosaur.” The brontosaurus is the dinosaur, what people picture when the word “dinosaur” is mentioned.
As dino-mania really took hold, Was (not was) had a big hit in 1987 (UK) and 1989 (US) with “Walk the Dinosaur,” which featured a dance in the music video, “the dinosaur,” done with forward motions of the hand/wrist to mimic a brontosaur’s neck, the most recognizable neck of all Dinosauria.
An aside: though “Walk the Dinosaur” became a dance craze song
like The Twist or The Hustle (but the dinosaur dance never caught on that much beyond the cave-girls in the music video) originally it wasn’t a dance song. MTV and near-mandatory music videos for singles changed everything: prior to the music video with cave-girls and dinosaur dance—complete with “follow the dancing ball” caption-instructions to teach you the three steps to the “do the dinosaur” dance—“do the dinosaur” was a reference to the extinction of humanity via global thermonuclear war, the “Boom! Boom! Aka-lacka-boom-boom!” was the bombs falling to start armageddon.
I think the brontosaurus sticks in the popular imagination because it is such a huge, ridiculous animal, straining our ideas about the laws of physics and biology. Its short, stubby legs relative to its massive body brings to mind a cross between a dino-dachshund and Godzilla. Its feet look like elephant feet, big, padded oval-shaped feet with three or four front-facing, prominent toe-nails that looked a lot like this. Its absurdly-long neck shouldn’t even be biologically possible; getting consistent bloodflow up the neck to the brain and down to the tail—a 70-feet-long circulatory system—would have required
an incredible, 500-liter, mega-efficient, four-chambered bird-type heart, avian-esque but on a massive, big, big scale that is hard to fathom. With a reptilian circulatory system it really would be impossible.
Such an outlandish creature is hard to forget. Its image has real staying power. And it provides us a reminder of how beautiful and weird the natural world can be, how it tends to zigzag while our expectations go straight.
As for the brontosaurus name, it wouldn’t win an appeal to the plenary powers since the postage stamp kerfuffle (though it totally would have won such an appeal in 1965, 1975, even 1985) but we can still use the name. “Brontosaurus” (thunder lizard) is the more appropriate name and, as a slightly newer (1879) synonym, shouldn’t be seen as incorrect, no matter what they say. The best thing we brontophiles can do is keep the name in circulation on the internet, refer to brontosaurus in posts and comments whenever possible (and whenever impossible is fun too). Keep saying “brontosaurus” to keep it alive: brontosaurus, brontosaurus, brontosaurus.
A haiku I wrote, an ode to retaining the beautiful brontosaurus name:
oh great brontosaur
noble herbivore, thunder
feet ain’t “deceptive”
For more on the brontosaurus naming controversy, check out:
Originally written December the 5th, 2006, I’ve revised and re-named it to be part 2 of 4 of my D-cember: Dino-cember! series
Tananim Gedolim, in English, “Great Reptiles”
The Spiritual Can Illuminate The Scientific. The Scientific Can Illuminate The Spiritual.
There has been (and will continue to be) debate about evolution and the age of planet Earth.
Among Christians, especially the growing fundamentalist groups, creationism is often embraced, stating a literal 6 day creation of the Earth. Some Charedi Jews (i.e. ultra Orthodox) hold to the Earth being 5767 years old, though an important distinction should be noted: the “literal” reading—the idea that the text shouldn’t be interpreted as much as simply “read”—taught by many forms of fundamentalist Christianity, isn’t really possible within Judaism because we work with the original Hebrew of the Torah which, by definition, can only be interpreted into English, ancient Hebrew worldview converted into English thought and words. So even the more hardline factions that strictly hold to the 5700+ Hebrew calendar years timeframe for the Earth’s age (not meaning 5700+ years from Adam and the human spirit’s first run-publication, or something else) aren’t fundamentalist in the same way strict, sola scriptura literalists are, as they don’t insist that this is the only meaning within the passage. Within Judaism it’s taken for granted that multiple meanings and explanations, even hidden mystical interpretations, exist on every page, with numerous wisdom and commentary texts relied upon to “bring down” (from Sinai) right interpretations, not the “one book, one meaning” mentality associated with the sola scriptura-thinking prevalent in Protestant versions of Christianity.
21. And God created the great sea monsters, and every living creature that crawls, with which the waters swarmed, according to their kind, and every winged fowl, according to its kind, and God saw that it was good
The Hebrew words “tananim” (reptiles, serpents, Leviathan) and gelodim (great, plural) are translated here as “great sea monsters.” The term gelodim, the greats, is clear and unambiguous, “the greats” is frequently used by itself as a noun, especially to refer to the Talmudic greats, the great sages. Tananim is the area of difficulty. Most translations render “tananim gelodim” as great sea monsters, great serpents, or the Leviathan…the King James Version goes with “great whales.” The Leviathan is an ancient mythological sea monster, think Loch Ness Monster, a massive marine reptile described as a fire-breathing dragon in Job 41:
“18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.”
It’s unmistakable that tananim are giant reptiles or members of a terrifying reptiloid species of some kind. In modern Hebrew, “tananim” are crocodiles.
Rashi, the famous Torah commentator and rabbi from 11th century France, offers more insights into the tananim gelodim, which he sees as the Leviathan. Rashi is so foundational because he focuses on the basic meaning of the Hebrew words, the grammar, and decoding ancient idioms. He typically keeps it brief, not getting into hidden interpretations, but for the Leviathan he makes an exception, since the letters in tananim gelodim led to the midrash (retelling) cited. Rashi writes:
the sea monsters: The great fish in the sea, and in the words of the Aggadah (B.B. 74b), this refers to the Leviathan and its mate, for He created them male and female, and He slew the female and salted her away for the righteous in the future, for if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them. הַתַּנִינִם is written. [I.e., the final “yud,” which denotes the plural, is missing, hence the implication that the Leviathan did not remain two, but that its number was reduced to one.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 7:4, Midrash Chaseroth V’Yetheroth, Batei Midrashoth, vol 2, p. 225]. Source
Okay, come on… c’mon, we’re talking about ancient giant reptiloids that emerged before birds and mankind, and have to go extinct before humanity can begin their world, being too mean, too enormous, too terrible, to co-exist with humans. The preponderance of the evidence indicates the tananim gedolim are dinosaurs.
I love dinosaurs. They did exist.
There are people who retcon history to erase the dinosaurs, or say dinosaurs coexisted with humans, or say that tananim gedolim being dinosaurs is Biblical proof that dino-human coexistence occurred. The Creation Museum in Kentucky has displays showing a vegetarian Tyrannosaurus in Eden, mankind (including human children) peacefully coexisting with predatory dinosaurs that somehow aren’t chasing and eating them, dinos saddled for riding… it’s crazy.
To assume that all Triassic fossils are 248-208 Million Years inaccurate
all Jurassic fossils are 208-144 Million Years inaccurate
and all Cretaceous fossils are 144-65 Million Years inaccurate is way too much for me to swallow.
We’ve proven that situations like The Lost World or The Flintstones didn’t happen.
It stretches credulity past the breaking point to think the dinosaurs (meaning “terrible lizards”), including Tyrannosaurus Rex, each tooth a scimitar-looking kill-blade, chilled with early homo sapiens, just kicked back and watched Eden flag football together with mankind like bros, and didn’t make a midnight snack out of the human race and end it forever. Velociraptors would see humanity as a feast, raptor-christmas!!!
Dinosaurs are called dinosaurs, “terrible lizards,” for a reason—not because they did a terrible job of lizard-ing—because they terrorize us, and can strike terr into the hearts of man, even in crumbly fossil form. Listen to Rashi, gigantic dragon-like predators aren’t compatible with the world of man; “if they would propagate, the world could not exist because of them.”
But of course, dinosaur fossils and an Earth that is demonstrably billions of years old doesn’t necessarily contradict the Torah. To insist on a literal six-day Creation is to have a shallow understanding of a Creation story that has infinite depth in each verse. There’s much more to it. There is so much more to Torah, so much more depth and color, so many layers and intricacies to the numerous interpretations and subtexts, not to mention the richness of the oral tradition (the aggadot, midrashim, etc.)
Dr. Gerald Schroeder makes a convincing case that the six days are six epochs, and brings down several Tanakh passages that substantiate that idea.
Dr. Gerald Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew and MIT-trained scientist who has made it his life’s work to teach that the Torah can offer enriching perspectives to verifiable science and visa versa. His lectures are the source of much of what I’m about to tell you.
What is a day? All sides can agree that day, by definition, is the time between sunrise and sunset. We know that since Torah tells us the sun wasn’t created until day 3, it can’t be referring to literal days (because a day requires a sun) so these 6 days refer to epochs of Creation. Psalm 90:4 says “a thousand years in Your sight are as but yesterday.”
The Jewish sages of the Middle Ages tell us the Earth is billions of years old, and they weren’t bending to science, because science didn’t even exist in their era. Nachmanides described all matter of the universe expanding from the size of a seed (the big bang) in the 13th century… scientific truth mirroring spiritual truth.
In Genesis, you see one beginning, not a cyclic universe. This has been shown by science, a big bang booting-up the universe and linear time.
The second description of Creation describes Adam not finding a mate among the animals. “And man named all the cattle and the fowl of the heavens and all the beasts of the field, but for man, he did not find a helpmate opposite him.” (Gen. 2:20) Obviously, Adam in sinless Eden is not a sheep molester. The Midrash explains among the “beasts of the field” were animals who looked and talked just like people! Prehistoric man! And since he couldn’t find a soul mate among Neanderthals, Hashem created the male and female soul. 5767 years isn’t the age of the Earth, but the time since the human soul was bestowed. 5767 in history mirrors what has been discovered by archeology as about the time organized civilization arose. I don’t think this is a coincidence; this is obviously an important break in human history.
Astronomy has shown that light exploded into the matter of suns, then suns exploded into chunks, element-rich planets which spawned life, i.e. we come from light beams. This is confirmed throughout Judaic thought, as we are called “beings of light.”
Spiritual truth can mirror scientific truth. There are countless examples of this. Another was how a Talmudist, going on kabbalistic teachings, deduced a major descending artery in the brain that was later confirmed to exist by science.
Both the scientific and the spiritual are very exciting to study, because they have the potential to expose and confirm the deepest, most visceral truths of our existence. Science should be embraced by the religious, and it’s very frustrating to see them bashing science. They align themselves with the same mentality of those who insisted the world was flat. Our global reality would be greatly improved by a new Renaissance or Islamic Golden Age that harnesses the best thinkers, undivided: theologians, scientists, anthropologists, everyone toward a goal of bettering the world of man, without heeding specialty boundaries and the counter-productive “thinking from silos” that’s so prevalent today. Unity. Unity would be great.
I recommend checking out Dr. Schroeder’s take on the dinosaurs and the translation of tananim. Dr. Schroeder isn’t one of these “Answers in Genesis” types, he’s more a physicist who’s well-versed in Torah and takes you deeper. His explanations add richness to our understandings of the cosmos and Torah alike. It’s good to seek out scientific truths, (“…the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” Deut. 29:29) and the exciting scientific discoveries ahead can only help us understand ourselves and all creation.
Without further ado, here is my June 25, 2007 post on the history of the griffin and its potential dinosaur origin story!
I saw this thing on the History Channel the other day about the origins of mythic creatures.
Scythians spread the legend of the Griffin, and Griffin stories quickly spread to Greece and throughout the ancient world, even to the Jews. The Torah says don’t eat griffins (always good advice). The “New Testament” uses a griffin as a metaphor for Jesus or something.
The Scythians would use the Griffin to scare off enemies, letting it be known that their treasure is guarded by a Griffin and if you invade, the Griffin will eat you, etc. An ingenious defense strategy, and evidence has been mounting that the steppe horsemen-warrior cultures (Scythians, Mongols, etc) had griffin encounters for real, it’s just that the griffins seen were very complete Protoceratops fossils. Griffins were really dinosaurs.
This idea has become so established that it even made it into the opening pages of Dinosaurs: A Very Short Introduction by David Norman (three cheers for the Very Short Introductions series!)
Here is part of what Norman said about the griffin-dinosaur connection:
“…as early as the 7th century bc the Greeks had contact with nomadic cultures in central Asia. Written accounts at this time include descriptions of the Griffin (or Gryphon): a creature that reputedly hoarded and jealously guarded gold; it was wolf-sized with a beak, four legs, and sharp claws on its feet. Furthermore, Near East art of at least 3000 BC depicts Griffin-like creatures, as does that of the Mycenaean. The Griffin myth arose in Mongolia/north-west China, in association with the ancient caravan routes and gold prospecting in the Tienshan and Altai Mountains. This part of the world (we now know) has a very rich fossil heritage and is notable for the abundance of well-preserved dinosaur skeletons; they are remarkably easy to find because their white fossil bones stand out clearly against the soft, red sandstones in which they are buried. Of even greater interest is the fact that the most abundant of the dinosaurs preserved in these sandstones is Protoceratops, which are approximately wolf-sized, and have a prominent hooked beak and four legs terminated by sharp-clawed toes. Their skulls also bear strikingly upswept bony frills, which might easily be the origin of the wing-like structures that are often depicted in Griffin imagery. …it would appear to be highly probable that Griffins owe their origin to genuine observations of dinosaur skeletons made by nomadic travelers through Mongolia; they demonstrate an uncanny link between exotic mythological beasts and the real world of dinosaurs.”
Griffin-looking dinosaur skulls (pictured here) have been laying around in the heart of what was Scythian territory. Read more about this at the American Museum of Natural History: Griffin Bones. The Scythians would have seen these skulls and, understandably, assumed beasts of this nature were nearby, or maybe just thought it was great propaganda material to scare enemies.
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