In one of the filmís more horrifying scenes, Dilophosaurus turns out to be armed with a sticky, poisonous venom that he spits into his victimís eyes, reducing him to a blind and helpless prey.
A similar ambivalence surrounds the whole question of whether the dinosaur is an important cultural symbol. On the one hand, we are told that dinosaurs are mainly for children, and that adults are bored with the whole subject. On the other hand, some adults have invested a great deal of time and money in the excavation and display of the dinosaur.
To understand the importance of the dinosaur, we need only return to the McDonald's commercial. As the giant T-rex skeleton makes its way through the hallways of the natural history museum in search of its prey, its ghastly, skeletal shadow passes over a row of other images that one would certainly expect to find in such a museum: Native American totem poles whose carved animal and human faces glare out of the shadows as the T-rex passes by them. This unobtrusive transitional moment, this image of passing from the role of impressive public monument to abject, humiliated pet, reveals the very special class of images with which the dinosaur is usually contrasted-but to which it belongs. It is not just ìaî totem animal of modernity, but the animal image that has, by a complex process of cultural selection, emerged as the globally popular symbol of modern humanityís relation to nature.
Imagine a distant future in which the iron law of Darwinian necessity has taken effect, and human life has vanished from the earth. Visitors from another galaxy-erect reptilian bipeds, naturally-arrive on this planet and try to reconstruct a picture of human civilization from fragmentary fossil remains. They hold a symposium in which they attempt to make sense of this strange race of bipedal mammals, Homo erectus, and reconstruct their culture.
It would not be surprising if the visitors saw the dinosaur figure as absolutely central to human civilization, especially in the late 20th century. If they dug up the ruins of a major metropolitan natural history museum, they might imagine the giant figures were animal deities erected for public worship like the golden calf of biblical fame. The resemblance of the giant reptiles to the physiognomy of the visitors themselves might lead them to conclude that human beings worshiped the visitor's own primitive ancestors, Reptilicus erectus, as an obviously superior life-form. If they happened upon the ruins of a first-grader's bedroom, they might regard dinosaur images as fetish objects associated with a private cult.
The rarest specimens by far would be the relics of the ritual practice that human beings called "scientific research." The authentic bones and fossils housed in paleontological archives would not just be relatively few in number compared to the replicas and reproductions. They would also be quite fragile and biodegradable, especially when excavated from their protective matrix in the earth. By contrast, the plastic models and bronze statues and laser discs would be relatively intact.
The alien visitors would discover similar proportions if they dug up a library. For every book on the scientific study of dinosaurs, they would find a hundred for children or for popular consumption. Among these books, letís suppose they find one that was written with them in mind, in anticipation of their visit. It is a book that attempts to look at the dinosaur in a rearview mirror, from a perspective that treats both the real and imaginary, the scientific and the popular dinosaur as fossils in a common archaeological dig. It is called The Last Dinosaur Book.
The Last Dinosaur Book begins by acknowledging the inevitable certainty that a time will come when there will be no more books about dinosaurs; a time when all the dinosaur images in the world, like the real creatures they stand for, will exist only as relics of a lost world. It recognizes that the very idea of the dinosaur depends on our ability to conceive of what the historian Martin Rudwick calls "deep time," an unimaginably distant past measured in hundreds of millions of years. The Last Dinosaur Book is written in anticipation of an equally deep future, when our present will have become our remote past and we ourselves will have gone the way of the dinosaurs.
The Last Dinosaur Book will certainly not be the last book about dinosaurs. Thousands of books about dinosaurs will continue to appear, and The Last Dinosaur Book might even produce a few sequels. But the future visitors from outer space will recognize this book as the first one written with their interests and questions in mind. From the point of view of the alien visitors, the ordinary behavior of human beings toward erect reptiles will probably look strange, contradictory, exotic-perhaps even ridiculous. Things that seem obvious to us will have to be explained to them. Jokes and clichés we understand without a second thought will require interpretation, the way we excavate, assemble, and decipher the fragmentary remains of a buried city.
The biggest problem facing The Last Dinosaur Book will be the question of what to select. Dinosaur paleontologists have the opposite problem: They have to construct their picture of the dinosaur from extraordinarily skimpy evidence. For scholars who study dinosaur images, on the other hand, the problem is overabundance. Written at the end of the 20th century in the midst of the greatest dinosaur craze the world has ever seen, The Last Dinosaur Book will be a kind of "Jurassic Ark," preserving only enough examples to give some glimpse of the varieties of species. There is no possibility of encyclopedic comprehensiveness.
For the world is overrun with dinosaurs, or rather with dinosaur images: pictures, descriptions, narratives, models, toys, replicas of bones, footprints, and skeletons. There are probably more dinosaur images on the earth during the late 20th century than there were real creatures in ancient times. They have left the laboratory and the museum, cropping up in shopping malls, theme parks, movies, novels, advertisements, sitcoms, cartoons and comic books, metaphors and everyday language. "They are," as one eminent paleontologist recently said to me, Ēa disease."