Sunday, June 14, 2009

Contingency


Two years ago, on April 1, I re-posted here a Boston Globe column from April 1, 1991. At the time, I couldn't find the drawing I had made to accompany the column, but recently I came across it in a pile of old papers (click to enlarge).

The column, of course was a spoof -- although not every reader got it. But what I had to say about Stenonychosaurus was true. Stenonychosaurus (Troodon) was a smallish, relatively big-brained dinosaur that lived near the end of the Cretaceous period of geologic history, just before the dinosaur extinctions. The paleontologist Dale Russell and others have suggested that if the dinosaurs had not become extinct (or almost so, excepting the ancestors of modern birds), then Stenonychosaurus or its ilk might have fairly quickly evolved humanlike intelligence and perhaps even civilization. After all, the several millions years of human evolution from similar ancestors are but a blink in geologic time.

Pockets? Just think of the selective advantages! A place to keep a jack knife. Loose change. Billets-doux. OK. OK. Just kidding. But the contingency of evolution is not a joke. We like to think of ourselves as the inevitable culmination of natural selection, as if the entire universe of galaxies labored and groaned to bring us forth. It ain't necessarily so. Just ask the pocket-lizard.