What's It Like to Be a Dinosaur?

Guest blogger Ross Barham writes …

elliott bolt barham caricature extinct high res.jpg


There’s a scene in Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life, that depicts a brief interaction between two dinosaurs of different species. One of the dinos, which looks to be predatory, comes across the other more herbivorous-looking one, lying vulnerable on the rocks of a riverbed. The first roughly stands on the head of the other, pushing it against the rocks, but then gently lifts its foot as if to suggest that the other stay down, before withdrawing into the distance with a quick, quizzical, look back at the spared creature.


In writing about this scene for Slate, Forrest Wickman confirmed from both a draft of the screenplay and the testimony of the visual effects supervisor of the film, Michael Fink, that it is meant to depict the first ever Earthly instance of compassion. Wickman, also, however, sought to evaluate the paleontological plausibility of the scene via Slate’s science writer, Brian Switek, who not only denies that creatures with bird-sized brains could tell right from wrong, but further suggests that since “there’s no fossil record of thought, or of empathy”, “we will never know what the internal lives of dinosaurs were like.”

While I’m happy to allow that a singular (let alone fictional) instance of a dinosaur declining from attacking potential prey is insufficient to establish the existence of prehistoric compassion or morality, Switek’s position is at least superficially inconsistent. If we really could know nothing of the internal lives of dinosaurs, then we couldn’t know if they did or didn’t have them to begin with. But, putting aside this rather superficial inconsistency, I do think it’s worthwhile to more carefully think through the not uncommon, skeptical view that we can’t know what it was like to be a dinosaur. 

In this regard, I can think of at least two quite prominent philosophical positions that deny the possibility of what might be called ‘paleo–phenomenology’.




In his 2006 monograph, After Finitude, Continental philosopher, Quentin Meillassoux outlines what he calls ‘the problem of ancestrality’. The problem is essentially how it is possible to think about the existence of the world prior the emergence of thought. Here’s an analogy that might help make clearer what’s at stake: 

I suspect that when most of us imagine the Big Bang, we do so from ‘the outside looking in’ as a giant flash of light. But there is no outside to the Big Bang, just as there was no matter to illuminate.

Similarly, Meillassoux maintains that when we think of the time prior to the emergence of thought, it isn’t straightforward as we might suspect to suppose that we can say what it is that we are thinking about. As he puts it: 

"…what is it exactly that […] paleontologists are talking about when they discuss […] the date of the appearance of pre-human species […]? How are we to grasp the meaning of scientific statements bearing explicitly upon a manifestation of the world that is posited as anterior to the emergence of thought […] – posited, that is, as anterior to every form of human relation to the world?’" (pp. 9-10)

Here wehave a clear instance of a philosophical position that at least problematises the notion that we might know anything about what it was like to be a dinosaur. However, given that Meillassoux not only presumes paleo-phenomenology to be impossible, but, moreover, that normal, ‘artifact’ paleontological theorizing is also in need of defense, it might seem like something of a Pyrrhic stance. That is, if we allow for the possibility of paleo-phenomenology, then artifact paleontology will likely be secured as a corollary; or, if we take Meillassoux’s position as compelling in its denial of the possibility of paleo-phenomenology as a result of it problematising artifact paleontology, then we have much more pressing issues to deal with in explaining how normal paleontology is possible. Again, to quote Meillassoux:

"… the problem of the arche-fossil is not the empirical problem of the birth of living organisms, but the ontological problem of the coming into being of givenness as such. […] at issue here is not the time of consciousness but the time of science… " (p. 21)



Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson

Donald Davidson (1917-2003) infamously claimed in his 1982 article, Rational Animals, that creatures (prehistoric or otherwise) can only have thoughts and beliefs if they also have language. He later came to amend this claim (2003) by reserving the term ‘concept’ for the kind of propositional thinking he claimed was only possible in the presence of language (1994). That said, he nonetheless persisted in supposing that any creature whatsoever – even one seemingly equipped with language (1992) – could not be said to have thoughts (propositional or otherwise) unless it were actually observed interacting with another relevantly similar creature. His reasoning here is that nothing in a creature’s interactions with the objective world could determine, either for the observer or the creature itself, the content of its beliefs. As Davidson puts it (1992):

If we consider a single creature by itself, its responses, no matter how complex, cannot show that it is reacting to, or thinking about, events a certain distance away rather than, say, on its skin. The solipsist’s world can be any size; which is to say, from the solipsist’s point of view it has no size, it is not a world.

Such skepticism, however, not only precludes the possibility of a pale-phenomenology, but, moreover, flies in the face of the possibility of the current standing of ethological science. As Jason Bridges argues against Davidson (2006):

"… we do have grounds, indeed extremely compelling grounds, for linking animal behavior to distal causes. The grounds are constituted by our holistically supported conception of the life of whatever species of animal is in question. We have the same grounds for viewing animals as perceptually sensitive to local material objects and events. And we have the same grounds for viewing animals as driven to avoid predators, seek mates and so forth. Each of these supports the others, and together they add up to a conception of an animal’s life as taking place at the level of its engagement with its local middle-sized surroundings, and not with, say, excitations of its sensory receptors." (p. 310)

If we are to accept Davidson’s skepticism regarding the possibility of paleo-phenomenology, then it once again seems somewhat Pyrrhic in that we would also have to deny the possibility of ethological science altogether.



I remember watching an episode of Walking with Dinosaurs with my 6 year old, called ‘Giant of Skies’ [Season 1, Episode 4]. In it, we followed the last migratory journey of a Tropeognathus (said to be an Ornithocheirus) with a wingspan of 8 meters! The ageing giant of the skies flew night and day, took shelter from the rain, was plagued by bugs which it tried to groom itself of, and finally arriving exhausted at its destination, it lost its prior status as a viable mate. 


Obviously, no one is claiming we could know exactly what it was like to be a Tropeognathus, but, that said exhaustion is exhaustion, pain is pain, and the fundamental presumption of Liberal Naturalism, that we share such experiences not only with other human beings, but other species even in distant locations and times, is, I think, essential to our humanity and to our ability to comprehend the significance of paleontological claims, such as when Switek himself writes (emphasis added):

"The nests [of Maiasaura], and the baby dinosaurs within them, hint that these dinosaurs provided at least some degree of parental care during the early lives of their offspring."





Bridges, Jason. (2006) ‘Davidson’s Transcendental Externalism’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXIII, No. 2, pp. 290-315

Eds. De Caro, Mario; Macarthur, David. Naturalism in Question (Harvard University

Press, 2008)


Davidson, Donald. ‘Rational Animals’ (1982), Essays and Actions and Events (Oxford

University Press, 2001)

Davidson, Donald. ‘The Second Person’ (1992), Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective

(Oxford University Press, 2001)


Davidson, Donald. ‘The Problem of Objectivity’ (1995), Problems of Rationality

(Oxford University Press, 2004)

Davidson, Donald. (2003) ‘Responses to Barry Stroud, John McDowell, and Tyler

Burge’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Vol. 67, No. 3, pp. 691-699

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Trans. R. Brassier (Bloomsbury, 2010)

Wickman, Forrest. ‘What Terrence Malick Meant with The Tree of Life’s Dinosaurs, Revealed’ (Slate, 12.04.2011)