History

The Lost World

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Stop wondering what would have happened if Hitler had won or if Lee had defeated Grant. Georgie Hatt-Cook of the BBC has set her sights on a bigger alternate-history question: What if the asteroid had missed?

The extinction of the dinosaurs was most probably caused by an asteroid hitting the Earth—but what would have happened if the giant space rock had missed?

For a long time it was thought that dinosaurs were a lumbering, cold-blooded extinction just waiting to happen. Even the word dinosaur has come to mean something that has outlived its time.

The scientific argument was that as cold-blooded creatures, dinosaurs would not have stood a chance of surviving an ice age….

But more recent discoveries, such as dinosaur fossils in both polar regions, reveal that these animals were far more adaptable than previously thought….The evidence points to them being fast-growing and, crucially, that at least some of them were warm-blooded to some degree.

Before long we're knee-deep in sci-fi speculations:

Adaptable dinosaurs had it all covered. Dinosaurs could have comfortably colonised many environments, from polar conditions to regions of rivers and forests, jungle and deserts.

danny

A world with dinosaurs in it would be at the expense of most, if not all, of the mammals that we are familiar with today—and all that we rely on them for. No cows, no sheep, no cats equal no milk, no leather, no wool, no domestic companionship.

But milk aside, there could be perfectly suitable dino-substitutes of all kinds. A Protoceratops could be as farmable as a pig with the bonus of providing eggs. And an amenable Heterodontosaurus might make a perfect pet. Great with children.

They could even have adapted to current-day habitats, dining on suburban dustbins.

She doesn't explain how human beings would manage to emerge and build suburbs, but I'm not complaining. I'm still waiting for the David Irving school of paleontologists to weigh in and say the asteroid did miss and the great extinction never happened. Dinosaurs are so adaptable, they'd claim, that they live among us unseen. Maybe you're married to a dinosaur, raising a flock of half-dino kids. Hell, maybe you're a dinosaur and no one ever bothered to tell you. Better sleep with a gun under your pillow, just in case.

Elsewhere in Reason: Charles Paul Freund defended counterfactual history back in 1999. He offered some counterfactuals of his own a few years later.

Elsewhere not in Reason: A travel guide for alternate timelines. My favorite is still the one where Stalin becomes mayor of Chicago.

Update: I don't have to wait any longer. James Anderson Merritt informs me that the Extinction Denial movement is already active and peddling those very ideas, cleverly disguised as a series of detective novels.

NEXT: Creeping Anti-Hagelism (and Bonus Pro-Romneyism!)

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  1. “I’m still waiting for the David Irving school of paleontologists to weigh in and say the asteroid did miss and the great extinction never happened”

    I think you mean David Icke.

  2. Obviously, such a world would be exactly like Dinosaucers.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zjhJSD8RU4k

    They’d have much more advanced technology given an extra 65 million years in evolution.

  3. If dinosaurs are sooo adaptable, how come they failed to adapt?

    I know, I know — birds are the ancestors of the dinosaurs. But that’s evolutionary adaptation, while she’s talking about adaptability within a lifetime or over a few generations.

  4. Yeah, David Irving would tell you that the dinosaurs weren’t killed by the asteroid, or if there was an asteroid, its size was greatly exaggerated.

  5. “No cows, no sheep, no cats equal no milk, no leather, no wool, no domestic companionship.”

    Either Georgie can’t fathom the idea of domestic companionship with another human, or she’s milking her cat. Or both.

  6. I think you mean David Icke.

    I meant Irving, but Icke works too.

    birds are the ancestors of the dinosaurs

    I think it was the other way around.

  7. Hmm, This explains a lot. Like Pelosi’s unblinking stare….Cheney’s Komodo like viciousness….

  8. David Irving: Holocaust Denier
    David Icke: Guy who thinks that lizards rule the world, a la They Live

  9. I always feel slightly guilty whenever I read any alternate history. Arguably, it’s just authorial masturbation, but then again so is SF.

    I’m reading Kin Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt right now and I enjoy it and at the end of the day no one is hurt by it.

  10. According to my 20something son, I killed the dinosaurs, to which I turn to his grandmother and say “yea, my generation had to solve all the problems that yours ignored.”

  11. Stop wondering what would have happened if Hitler had won…

    Who’s wondering?
    The Japanese legalized reefer and the Germans wiped out Jews and the blacks and drained the Mediterranean.

    Duh!

  12. David Irving: Holocaust Denier
    David Icke: Guy who thinks that lizards rule the world, a la They Live

    Like I said, the joke works either way.

  13. What asteroid? I’m interested in the alternate history in which the flood didn’t happen, and unicorns, dragons and faeries survived instead of being refused a spot on Noah’s ark.

  14. David Irving: Holocaust Denier
    David Icke: Guy who thinks that lizards rule the world, a la They Live

    I thought that was ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper?

  15. Didn’t Dilbert figure this out a long time ago? The dinosaurs couldn’t all be extinct, so they’re just….hiding.

  16. Just clarifying for all.

    Also, what’s the point of evidence that there are fosssils in polar regions? Continents move after all.

  17. Ah, another opportunity to quote one of the best .sigs in history…

    Some of the more aware dinosaurs were worried about the environmental consequences of an accident with the new Iridium enriched fusion reactor. “If it goes off only the cockroaches and mammals will survive…” they said.

    Derek Tearne. — derek@nezsdc.icl.co.nz — Fujitsu New Zealand —

  18. My favorite is still the one where Stalin becomes mayor of Chicago.

    Other than all that genocide and mass murder and stuff, he probably wouldn’t be that different than Richard Daley.

  19. What if the asteroid had missed?

    We’d have to build a taller, stronger fence to keep those pesky illegal dinosaurs from crossing our borders.

  20. Also, are we sure that Dinosaurs didn’t cause the asteroid to strike?

    http://www.pbfcomics.com/?cid=0PBF45025BC-Dinosaur_Meteors.jpg#47

  21. If there were velociraptors running around, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be wasting so much energy arguing about the 2nd amendment…

  22. Dinosaurs continued, with advanced technology into a time of humans: Harry Harrison’s “West of Eden.”

    Dinosaurs survived to live among us in secret: Eric Garcia’s “Casual Rex.”

    Dinosaurs escaped the asteroid, colonized space and forgot where Earth was: Star Trek TNG (“Distant Origin”), by way of Battlestar Galactica.

    These are just three interesting examinations of the ideas that come to mind.

  23. I think the reason the dinosaurs became extinct was their dietary habits. Too much of one thing isn’t good for you. If the carnivores had added some fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains to their diet, and the herbivores had encorporated some lean meats, this never would have happened. Let this be a lesson to all of you.

  24. harry harrison covered something along these lines in his ‘eden’ trilogy, which pitted primitive human civilization against super-advanced cold-blooded reptile civilization.

  25. whoops, james anderson merritt beat me to it.

  26. Thanks to this post, I’ve spent the last hour contemplating the weaknesses of my dog vis a vis its theoretical dinosaur replacements.

  27. “She doesn’t explain how human beings would manage to emerge and build suburbs, but I’m not complaining.”

    What, you’ve never seen the “Flintstones”?

  28. Dinosaurs and birds evolved hyper-efficient lungs; a much better model than what we mammals have to live with. That’s what got them through the oxygen-starved Triassic. I recommend Peter Ward’s “Out of Thin Air”.

    But as for the late Cretaceous: when you’ve ceded the “rat niche” to the mammals and pigeons, then I guess you’re pretty much screwed when a sudden disaster hits…

  29. Don’t we have the world that God intended when he designed things? That asteroid hit the planet because the dinos were probably into homo activities, smoking weed, gambling, or some other vice that is abhorrent in the sight of the Lord.

  30. Creech | March 14, 2007, 12:35pm | #
    Don’t we have the world that God intended when he designed things? That asteroid hit the planet because the dinos were probably into homo activities, smoking weed, gambling, or some other vice that is abhorrent in the sight of the Lord.

    Like being libertarian.

  31. What if the asteroid had missed?

    Churchill would have fought the dinosaurs, as George W. Bush fights the war on terror today.

  32. Hmm, This explains a lot. Like Pelosi’s unblinking stare….Cheney’s Komodo like viciousness….

    Thank you, tomWright! I woke up “on the wrong side of the bed” this morning. The belly laughs you gave me help a lot.

  33. “If there were velociraptors running around, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t be wasting so much energy arguing about the 2nd amendment…”

    It would certainly change the local PETAphiles.

  34. Dinosaurs survived to live among us in secret: Eric Garcia’s “Casual Rex.”

    I just Googled that, and…well, the bad news is that my idea isn’t as original as I thought it was. The good news is that I’ll probably have a lot of fun reading the book.

  35. IIRC, SciFi channel made Casual Rex into a movie*.

    *Which probably sucks, big time, if the other SciFi Channel-produced movies I’ve seen are any indication.

  36. Thanks for the citation in the main entry, Jesse, and I hope you enjoy the Rex novels.

    By the way, I mis-typed on the Star Trek reference. “Distant Origin” was actually a Voyager episode: http://www.startrek.com/startrek/view/series/VOY/episode/69006.html

    If you don’t mind a little preachiness on the topic of the tension between religion and politicized science, this is actually one of the better ST episodes I’ve seen, of any of the several series.

  37. Uh, doesn’t she realize that the fossils were found on plates that had drifted towards the polar regions long after these creatures died. They aren’t as adaptable either behaviorally or evolutionarily as she thinks.

  38. JAM,

    I saw that episode recently. I quite enjoyed it.

  39. Uh, doesn’t she realize that the fossils were found on plates that had drifted towards the polar regions long after these creatures died. They aren’t as adaptable either behaviorally or evolutionarily as she thinks.

    The older I get, the more I realize that journalism is filled with the very ignorant (Reason staff excluded). I had a hint that this was the case while in college; the weakest students were often journalism majors (who, of course, wanted to “change the world,” never “report the facts”).

  40. Uh, doesn’t she realize that the fossils were found on plates that had drifted towards the polar regions long after these creatures died. They aren’t as adaptable either behaviorally or evolutionarily as she thinks.

    Uh, yes and no. There were dinosaurs in the polar regions during the Cretaceous; but it was also alot warmer then, too.

  41. I’d like to point out that I brought up the continental drift issue first.

    Also, Voyager sucked.

  42. = Gozer

  43. MASSIVE TIME-CONSUMING MAD GEEK-OUT FUN ALERT!

    The Speculative Dinosaur Project is a large, collaborative site dedicated to speculating about how evolution might have continued if the dino-killer asteroid had never struck.

    Go to the “beasts” section and look around to see all the pictures of the hypothetical animals. Some of the art is very good.

    Example.

  44. Gozer- I was never much of a fan of Voyager myself (though I did see every episode, what to make of that?). I preferred Deep Space 9 and was very pleased to see an alumnus of that show, Alexander Siddig, play a “good” “bad guy” in recent episodes of another numeral-based show, “24.” So far, we think his character is dead, but on “Jack Bauer: Federal Zombie,” important characters to have a way of, shall we say, coming back! Much like the sapient dinosaurs we thought long gone (or never were!).

  45. C’mon, we all know that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that “dinosaur” fossils were planted in the ground by Satan as a hoax to tempt us away from the true path of righteousness. Isn’t that what they’ve been teaching in Kansas?

  46. I think you mean David Icke.

    I meant Irving, but Icke works too.

    birds are the ancestors of the dinosaurs

    I think it was the other way around.

    Perhaps both commenters are living in different possible worlds than Mr. Walker, in which case all are correct.

    Anyway, if I recall correctly, the idea of humans and dinosaurs living together is just a wee bit older.

  47. Thanks for the Danny and the Dinosaur pic. I’ll have to send the link to my mom; that was our favorite book when I was 5.
    Nothing else; just a nostalgic comment.

  48. Anyway, if I recall correctly, the idea of humans and dinosaurs living together is just a wee bit older.

    And before there was that, there was this.

  49. …and on the 7th day, God gave man the 30-06 to shoot those pesky dinosaurs and there was much rejoicing.

  50. “That asteroid hit the planet because the dinos were probably into homo activities, smoking weed, gambling, or some other vice that is abhorrent in the sight of the Lord.”

    That reminds me of the story that paleontologists had discovered a species of lesbian dinosaur. They named her the Lickalotapuss.

  51. It’s interesting how we all forget the Permian fauna. Most were wiped out by . . . well, we’re not sure. Not as sure as we are about the dinosaurs. A recent book on the subject of the end Permian extinction (which killed off far more species than did the KT event) speculates that volcanic activity leading to global warming and then a series of methane burps did the deed, destroying as much as 96 percent of all species on the planet.

    The record shows anoxia (lack of oxygen) gone mad at Permian/Triassic boundary. This was a horrendous event, worse than the KT event’s killer meteor. (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/050028573X/reasonfoundation-20/

    Why don’t we think more about it? Why are we obsessed with dinosaurs, and not the Permian creatures? (http://www.palaeos.com/Paleozoic/Permian/Lopingian.html)

    My guess? Aesthetics. Dinosaurs are beautiful in their own way; well, at least sublime. Many are fearsome, but elegantly balanced. The Permian beasts are ugly, lumpy, stubby, and just not pleasing to our tastes.

    So, we are obsessed with dinoasaurs and not the Permian fauna, which are actually our ancestors.

    So, what would have happened if the End Permian Extinction not happened?

    Perhaps intelligent life would have evolved. But politics would have been much uglier. By definition.

    Oh, and by the way, the Garcia books didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps I’ll try “Anonymous Rex” again. But, on first try, the book didn’t seem worth more than 20 pages of reading.

  52. My guess? Aesthetics. Dinosaurs are beautiful in their own way; well, at least sublime. Many are fearsome, but elegantly balanced. The Permian beasts are ugly, lumpy, stubby, and just not pleasing to our tastes.

    I dunno, I always thought trilobytes were kinda cool, actually.

  53. I’m glad you liked one of my old Usenet posts, Jesse. It was intended to be satirical, mainly-I still think the cult of Mayor Daley I is comparable to the nostalgia some Russians express for Stalin. If I wrote it now, I’d have Harold Washington, not Daley, be the guy who gives the “secret speech.”

    For the most part, I look back at those posts and think they’re not terribly good, though my really bad moments came in 2001 and 2002, when I was old enough to know better, but wrote some jingoistic crap that, when I read it now, makes me feel rather embarrassed. I also wrote one post which I really should have edited before posting, and which I repudiated swiftly, but but which will no doubt be dragged out if I ever come to any prominence in any field. Fortunately, I am obscure, so my dumb mistakes of no great interest to society at large.

    But hey-I was 28 at the time, so if I manage to become a figure of note, I can claim the “youth” exemption which, nowadays, seems to excuse prominent people from any culpability for anything they did before they were 30.

  54. 54 comments and nothing about sleestacks. Seriously wtf.

  55. I don’t think anyone has brought this up yet, but some years back, Harry Harrison wrote a book called “West of Eden”, which was based on the scenario that the meteor missed and that dinosaurs did not become extinct. A pretty good sci-fi/fantasy novel for those interested.

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