Random Thought: Has Anyone Really Looked at Dinosaur Sapience?

I was driving home from work today, and the most random question popped into my head: How do we know there weren’t any Dinosaurs species capable of creating a civilization on even a hunter-gatherer level? Has anyone taken a look to see if there’s any evidence of it? What kind of evidence would we need to look for?

A quick dive into Wikipedia provided me with two terms to consider: sentience and sapience. Sentience is the ability to feel or perceive subjectively. Avoiding the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing can be tricky, but I would argue that any animal that can recognize itself in the mirror, or dream, or figure out a simple problem should lay some small claim to sentience. Sapience is the the trickier one: For the purposes of my essay, lets call it a combination of sentience, self-awareness, conciousness, memory and judgment.

People, all joking aside, are both sentient and sapient. Good arguments are being made that Cetaceans like whales and dolphins are pretty damned close; so are elephants. So are crows and ravens and parrots and magpies. Do I need to mention Chimps, bonobos, gorillas? We’re only just starting to come to grips with the idea that we aren’t as unique as we think we are. What separates us from the animals isn’t so much the sheer capacity of our minds as our opposable thumbs, our social nature (in that we communicate our individual experiences in a number of ways to a larger collective who can understand and process that information), and our tool making. Brains, hands, gadgets and a willingness to share and teach what we figure out to others: That’s how we conquered the world.

Who’s to say dinosaurs didn’t do the same?

We know from over a century of paleontological progress that dinosaurs were not the cold-blooded, stupid, swamp-dwelling leviathans we once took them for. Dinosaurs filled all the evolutionary niches of land, sea, and air, and ruled the world as the dominant air-breathing fauna for around 160 million years. In just 65 million years of evolution Humanity went from something the size and nature of a field mouse to putting a man on the moon. Is it such a stretch to imagine dinosaurs could have spun off a sentient, sapient species in almost thrice as long? Especially when you think that we’re still discovering new dinosaur species all the time, and there are many more that we will never find?

There are dinosaurs in the Theropoda branch (raptors, for a start) that had large brains, binocular vision, grasping hands, and show signs of pack hunting. Perhaps that makes them no better than wolves who could pick things up, but let’s entertain the possibility that some of them might have become something more. What would that look like?

Elephants, dolphins and whales communicate information in a way we are only beginning to understand. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say even non-sapient dinosaurs had the same ability. There’s a lot of fossil evidence that hadrosaurs could make a lot of different, specific noises. That’s clearly the product of evolution, and shows that the sounds conveyed an evolutionary advantage. There’s a wide gap between that and language, but at least it shows that dinosaurs were no more mute than the animal kingdom of today. If you were to combine those vocalizations with our big-brained, grasping, pack-hunting dinosaurs, could it have developed into a language? If so, how far does it go from there to a parallel to human development?

Archaeology studies the physical remnants of humanity’s past, and it has done an admirable job of tracing us back over hundreds of thousands of years. From cities back to towns back to villages back to pastoralists back to hunter-gatherers, there are remnants of mankind to be found and studied. If humanity disappeared tomorrow, there would be plastic and radioactive material that would exist for hundreds of thousands or millions of years to remember us by. Would it still be there 65 million years from now? Probably not. That poses a problem in our search for sapient dinosaurs.

65 million years is a longer period of time than the mind can easily wrap its head around. 65 million years ago the Rocky Mountains were just foothills. The Great Plains were at the bottom of a tremendous inland sea. The Atlantic Ocean was about the same size as the modern Mediterranean. Ground level 65 million years ago can be miles underground today, or ten thousand feet up in the air, depending on the whims of continental drift. We’re not going to find anything from a lost dinosaur culture today using the tools and methods archaeology has left to us. If there was ever a dinosaur village, its ruins are now twisted into unremarkable bedrock. If there was ever dinosaur cave paintings or carvings, those two have now been folded back into the earth. The fossilized dinosaurs we have today are mostly the result of sandstorms or flash floods. The skeleton of a man caught in such a disaster will look just as wild and unsapient to the unimaginably distant future as the dinosaurs do today, especially when you consider that for the vast majority of human history, that skeleton isn’t likely to be wearing a wrist watch or a pair of glasses to show he can fashion things out of the natural world.

That does bring us to an interesting point, though: For most of our history, Mankind has had a toolkit to be discovered. From the time we were still walking the plains of Africa, we were knapping flint and shaping obsidian to make our lives easier. Would dinosaurs have ever needed stone tools, though? Modern men faced with a box wrapped up in packing tape resort to their teeth and nails when left without a cutting implement. Dinosaurs would have been much better equipped with claw and fang than we are. Killing prey and cleaning carcasses would have been much easier for them. They very well could have found a use for ropes, leathers, woodwork, decorations of bone or ivory, the domestication of fire to make their lives easier and better, but those are difficult to find even a few tens of thousands of years later for men. If they ever existed, they are surely lost after tens of millions of years of geological progress. What, then, can we look for?

I can think of only one thing guaranteed to have survived the immense time between then and now: Alloys. If dinosaurs brought copper and tin together to make bronze, that will survive, even if the immense pressures of weight and time have flattened their implements into unrecognizable lumps. Bronze does not happen naturally. If we find bronze artifacts in the strata of the Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous Periods, then they were wrought by a species and civilization that has been lost to us, and can only dimly be imagined. I would argue, though, shouldn’t someone be keeping an eye out for them? Are paleontologists looking for any signs of prehistoric metal working, and, if they found it, would they have the courage to advance the theory as to their origin?

Understand, I’m not saying Dinosaurs had a civilization, or, if they did, it only advanced as far as the Bronze Age. If it went at least as far as the Bronze Age, though, it will leave Bronze behind, even where all other traces of it are lost. Finding bronze embedded in rock sixty to a hundred million years old will be as clear a sign of a lost civilization as finding a dinosaur lunar lander on the moon: We won’t know anything about them, except that they existed. That, in itself, would be remarkable.

What if sapient dinosaurs never made it out of the Stone Age? We were content to linger there for the vast majority of our own existence. What if they never progressed further than the San of the Kalahari, or the Australian Aboriginies? Then, if they existed, they are lost to us. Short of finding a new species of dinosaur improbably clutching a shaped stone implement –something, by the way, we can’t even claim to have found from paleolithic humanity yet– we will never know for sure.

It’s still a fun think to contemplate, though. Isn’t it?

Further reading, collected quickly from Google:

http://www.howardism.org/Philosophy/Questions/Troodon.html

http://www.daviddarling.info/encyclopedia/D/dinosaurintell.html

http://www.strangehorizons.com/2009/20090713/trent-a.shtml

http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2009/11/richard_dawkins_smart_dinosaurs.php

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4 Responses to Random Thought: Has Anyone Really Looked at Dinosaur Sapience?

  1. LJV says:

    Hey there. A cool thought to have had while driving home…And you tackled it in an intelligent way. Something funny is that at the point of or just below the K/Pg boundary (it’s not supposed to be called K/T anymore) the world is covered with carbon spheres. A particular type of soot. As produced by INDUSTRY. Industrial burning. The charcoal expected from mass post-asteroid forest fires is nowhere to be seen. Industry?

  2. the webpage photo is just not repowering

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