A few years ago I interviewed paleontologist Jack
Horner for the DSIs, and, as he is one of the leading lights in paleontology
it is nice to follow up, so to speak, with one of the leading bringers of what
is too often seen as an esoteric field to the masses. This interview is with
Gregory S. Paul, whose website can be found here.
He is a man whose illustrations, mainly, have garnered him acclaim as this
century’s version of Charles. R. Knight, the first great popularizer of
dinosaur images to the masses a century ago. In a series of illustration s and
books, over the last few decades, Paul has helped clarify the more ‘modern’
assessment of dinosaurs as often warm-blooded, feathered, and far more
interesting creatures than the sluggish (albeit grand) swamp beasts of yore
(including my childhood). Thanks for consenting to my grilling, which will
likely be a bit different than other interviews you’ve done over the years.
But, since I try not to presume too much, let’s assume most readers have never
heard of Gregory Paul, and only have a passing interest in the world before Man.
Could you please briefly introduce yourself? I.e.- who you are, what you do,
what your aims in your career are, and your general philosophy on life, science,
and the cosmos?
GP: I’m a scientist and artist who pushes the boundaries of knowledge with innovative technical research in the past, current and future evolution of biology and technology, and is a skeptic of all unsubstantiated things paranormal and supernatural, and then attempts to present my analysis to the public through words and art. I have been a leader in presenting the “new look” of dinosaurs, advanced the state of paleontological science in a number of areas including showing that some dinosaurs were secondarily flightless, explored possible, extreme future developments in cybertechnology, and solved some basic questions concerning religion including why no pious nation can be socioeconomically successful, why religion evolved and is and is not popular, and why it is not possible for a good intelligent designer to exist. This has culminated in an exceptionally wide read (80,000 Facebook recommends for the online version, half million plus print circulation) Washington Post opinion piece calling for the civil rights of atheists, backed up with lots of sociological data
Let us start from the beginning, with some biographical plumbing of your past,
then move on to paleontology, your career, your views on science and religion,
and then some queries some might not expect. You were born on Christmas Eve,
1954, right in the middle of the Baby Boom. To what extent did your early youth,
the Eisenhower years, have on you, if any, or were you more influenced by coming
of age in the Summer of Love era?
GP: I barely remember the Eisenhower era. The first period to have a major influence was the Kennedy years, which I remember pretty well including the missile crisis that I did not entirely comprehend, and his killing by Oswald (and no one else). In some regards my rising middle class parents were attempting to live a Camelot/Dick Van Show lifestyle, albeit from a right wing/Jaycees perspective in the suburbs of the nation’s capital. Boy, you should have seen the alcohol fueled parties they used to hold down in the basement.
You came of age in the 1960s. Were you a hippy? What sorts of things were you
involved with, politically or socially? Recreational drugs, free love, or were
you already dreaming of dinosaurs? What were your views on the Vietnam War?
GP: I loved the Beatles as soon as they came onto the American scene in early ‘64. I remember riding in a car on a cold 72/73 winter night up onto the George Washington Parkway having just been on a Boy Scout swim in a hotel pool in downtown DC when Love Her Madly came onto the radio blowing my mind about The Doors – still have a thing about Jim Morrison. I have always been socially liberal. Although I thought Woodstock was cool was not at all a hippy, and I’ve literally never come close to using any mind altering recreational drug and do not use alcohol. My parents were the only ones I knew who voted for Goldwater. In grand politics I was an political/economic conservative until the late 70s. I supported Nixon until the day in August 74 that I was just driving off the Northern Virginia Community College campus to head west to Fairfax library when the news came over the radio that he admitted he had lied about the Watergate cover up. I looked at the radio and said “you son of a bitch.” My interest in military items further eroded my conservative naivety. Back in the 60s the aviation tome warned how the Commie Reds were building an offensive oriented air force unlike ours which of course were solely for the defense of the free world. In the 70s Aviation Week and Space Technology was saying that the Soviet bloc air forces of the 50s and 60s were defensive in nature because of their fighter’s short range and small weapons loads, but they were now building an offensive configured air forces. I could see from the performance figures that our fighters built back in the 50s and 60s had the long range and heavy weapons capacity characteristic of offensive aircraft, and the Russkies were only then beginning the build comparable machines. The hawks were also claiming the Soviet bloc was building many times more combat aircraft than the USAF. Well I was not that dumb. The correct comparison was between NATO as a whole and its allies versus the Warsaw Pact, and the production figures were about the same for both sides. I began to realize that the conservative elites are not patriots, they are in it for the money. Have never voted for the corporate party since Ford. Their greed based class warfare has wrecked much of the nation’s economy and if pursued will convert the US into a socially Darwinistic 2nd world plutocracy.
When talking to Dale Russell in 79 he was all upset about the poor Afghans being invaded by the Soviets. I advised him otherwise By then I knew enough about the Potemkin village that was the CCCP to understand that the Afghans would kick their asses and that the Russian empire was on its last legs. Sent an essay to Atlantic Monthly in the late 80s explaining why having gone capitalist China was on its way to becoming the global power of the new century – they rejected it the clueless fools.
Do you see any parallels between the current Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and
Vietnam? What are your views on these two current wars, Iraq and Afghanistan?
GP: Hell if I know, I have no particular solutions. I do have a pretty good grip on the errors in these conflicts but whether any were or are winnable is questionable.
What I can go on about is WW II, the Great War, the Civil War etc. I would like to do a book about the endless myths of the last World War. How Hitler was not going to invade England in 1940, why the Hood really blew up in ‘41 (as well as the Brit battlecruisers in Jutland in 1916 – it was dangerously explosive cordite), why the Doolittle raid was a dumb ass move that probably cost us a couple of carriers at Coral Sea and Midway while saving one or more Nippon fleet carriers, why (as I noted in Air & Space the Me-262 was not a swept wing fighter and was a waste of effort, why it was the Soviet attack on Japan and not the nukes that forced Hirohito to surrender, and so forth. Don’t get me started on why there is no way of explaining why the Arizona blew up.
What I am writing about is how the Catholic and Protestant churches invented Nazism and put Hitler into power, and how he was a super right wing theist.
Having followed your work, your take on World War Two sounds an interesting
viewpoint. I hope it gets out there. What was your youth like, both at home and
in terms of socializing with other children? Were you drawn to the outdoors, or
were you more of a geek with a book at all times?
GP: Having grown up in the predigital, prescheduled 60s I spent lots of time outdoors mucking about. When we lived in Arlington there were woods across the street and open high school grounds (where Obama gave a talk in 2009) at the end of the street. My mother’s dream house (with central air) we moved into in ’64, in Fairfax; house had a creek in the backyard and there were no fences in the new subdivison barring us kids from wandering about, the pool was a two minute walk down and across the creek. I did read a lot – Hornblower sagas (the O’Brien series is crap), Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, SciFi, Twain, Poe, Conan Doyle, the entire Bond series. I had a small clique of friends. Was not popular in school. In my teens attended the Mormon church largely because of friends and Boy Scouts.
DS: When I interviewed Jack
Horner, he wrote of his dyslexia and the problems he had with learning in
school. In a sense, he sort of fit into that old mold they use about Albert
Einstein- the genius who failed in the rote didactic system. Also, many studies
have been done that show that valedictorians and salutatorians generally do not
do particularly well in life after school, particularly in terms of creative
endeavors- like the arts and sciences. What sort of a student were you? Do you
think you fit this archetype of an ‘outside the box’ thinker? How have you
applied this paradigm into your scientific and artistic work?
GP: My performance in grade school was variable, depending on part on my interest in the subject, A’s to a few D’s. In my junior year the science teacher was out of her depth and unable to control the exceptionally thuggish students who were annoyed how I was driving down their grades on her extreme bell curve where I was getting Bs.
Damn right I’m outside the box. Regularly putting feathers on dinosaurs
when it was still scandalous – I was not surprised when the Sinosauropteryx
photos were being shown around the New York Society Vertebrate Paleo meeting in
‘96, arguing that some dinosaurs were secondarily flightless back in the early
80s, showing that super-pterosaurs weighed as much as moas about the same time.
The first to statistically show that nonreligious democratic societies are more
socioeconomically successful than more religious ones while going the furthest
to explain the origins and superficial nature of religion (www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP07398441_c.pdf)
and revealing that the only sure way to suppress Amerocreationism is to run the
country well enough to suppress the religiosity that sustains it, the first to
calculate the historical loss of the children and explain why it disproves the
existence of a benign monotheistic creator deity (www.gregspaul.webs.com/Philosophy&Theology.pdf).
If there is anyone that deserves one of those out-of-the-box ground breaker
McArthur grants it’s me. Seriously, when are you guys going to get your act in
Do you have any siblings? Did your siblings follow you into the sciences-
GP: I have one older brother, he is not involved in science.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
pursuit of science? Often you hear of parents chiding such nonconformist dreams
as being unrealistic? Did they want you to ‘be reasonable,’ and get a job
where you could ‘make money’?
GP: My father was into sales of various sorts and my late mother was a housewife. Both were or are very intelligent but nonintellectual. My father takes credit for my artistry because when he worked for R. P. Andrews paper products company he brought me home reams of high quality paper that I drew upon since before I can remember, mother saved a lot of them. She was often a strong supporter of my efforts.
What were some early works or scientists that influenced you? Name some of your
favorite science books, even to this day, as well as those you think among the
best ever published, in the earth sciences or other sciences?
GP: Well of course there is your Darwin. Was a big Arthur C. Clarke fan. I knew about Roy Chapman Andrews but he was not a profound influence. But I cannot think of a particular scientist who inspired me in my youth.
The power of dinosaur images on my young self was typical of boys from my
generation. We dreamt of big things: the moon race, the stars, skyscrapers,
dinosaurs. In my day the best source of dinosaur information and imagery, for
tots, was the How And Why Wonder book series. However, one cannot speak of dinosaurs and images without
mentioning the gigantic influence of the painter Charles
R. Knight. Although most of his images are now anachronistic, they still
possess a power. I still can visualize some of his more famous ones, like the
iconic confrontation between a T.
Rex and a Triceratops, or the leaping
Laelaps. The latter painting stuck with me for years, and it seems that
Knight anticipated the more vigorous paradigm of homeothermic dinosaurs that has
been notable in your career. I wrote this poem in response:
“When you lose, do not lose
the lesson.”- Dalai Lama
by Charles R. Knight
AS AN AGE-REDDENED LIGHT
Dryptosaur (neé Laelaps) leaps
the green painting (acquainting
with its sibling?). In a new kind of way
scene portrayed everything now known
their brows are too prominent, and their toes
few, and no ridge ran down the back of their spine,
their hue is nonexistent as their gonads, too.
it has a hold no photograph knows.
the plight of so many other beasts
that day: the way Iguanodon squatted
its namesake today, or the Megalosaur’s
muted and on all fours, like some lizard bear.
the dismembered innocence of a bestial mind
itself to vitality on that long ago day,
these two are vital, with a fullness rare
until their possibility was stripped
demeaned by the day. No light droned through.
transparency it vibrated through decades, void
care, as if some chocolate for a dying dog-
worse: disrepair in search of an ending
objection. There are two forms
light: the glow that illumines, the glare
obscures, the shadow of one- the aggressor
mere projection of a truth
through error. The sun is still another thing.
are your views on Knight and his work? What sort of influence, if any, did he
have on your ideas, especially early on? The Laelaps imagery, especially, seems
almost visionary because here we have a pair of seemingly highly active
predators, more or less, at play; thus suggesting warm-bloodedness, and a
certain level of social development, as play is indicative of higher cognitive
function. Did any of this ‘prescience’ touch a chord in you, or was it
strictly the power of the image?
GP: As it happens I
have no recall of seeing the aberrant for Knight Laelaps
image until the ‘80s and it had not the teeniest, weeniest influence on my
work. I grew up under classic Knight and to a less degree Zallinger and Burian
and so forth knowing that dinosaurs were rather sluggish, often amphibious, slow
witted, cold-blooded reptiles. The first indication I came across otherwise was
when I ordered the Time/Life prehistory series and the first volume, Life Before
Man in 1972 and it included theories by some fellow, what was his name, oh yes
Robert Bakker that dinosaurs had four chambered hearts and were highly active
and so forth, although full blown endothermy was not proposed. As I have
discussed in Scientific American (www.gspauldino.SciAmCharlesKnight.pdf)
I immediately realized that the old style was defective due to chronic problems
in restoring the avian-mammalian structured dinosaurs as reptiles. Of course the
artists aside from Knight who had the major influence upon moi were Matternes
through his Smithsonian Cenozoic murals, Scheele via his triology of charcoal
prehistoric animal and people books, and Berry by his Dinosaur National Monument
Are you married, with any children? If so, what are their professions?
Where did you go to school- elementary and high school? What was the education
system like in that time and place?
GP: The best grade school I went to was Claremont Elementary school in Arlington to the 3rd grade. I was always the top boy in the class. I was fairly traumatized by the much more regimented system at Stenwood Elementary in Fairfax, I dropped a grade level and am still getting over the shock of the first day. Then Thoreau Junior High where the hawk-nosed Guadalcanal vet James T. Michener was a significant influence, followed by Marshall High which was a mediocre institution.
Where did you go to college, if at all? What did you study?
GP: So was a relieved to get to NOVA where I was treated like an adult. In ‘77 started informally studying at Hopkins when Bakker was there until ‘84.
In recent decades, a vast for profit business has arisen for dinosaur bones.
What do you feel about that industry- a help or a hindrance to ‘pure’
GP: I stay out of that complicated situation, since am not heavily involved in searching for fossils it is not my direct problem.
Let’s turn to dinosaur physiology. Aside from thermal regulation, one of the
most interesting things in the dinosaur field, of the last few decades, has been
the proof that some dinosaurs had feathers, and it sure seems that a goodly
number of small dinosaurs did. Does this lend any weight, one way or the other,
to the debate over whether or not birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs, or
that they first gained flight from a trees
down gliding or running
and leaping ground up start method?
GP: We don’t yet know how extensively distributed protofeathers were in archosaurs, even some thecodonts and protodinosaurs might have had them. The presence of dinosaurian feathers does not currently strongly impact the ground up versus trees down scenarios, although I lean more towards the latter.
In that same vein, since feathers seem to have been established as fact in some
dinosaurs, what of dinosaurs with fur? Did therapsids have fur, and if they, an
earlier form of life, had fur, could not dinosaurs in high mountain ranges or
the arctic regions (even if warmer than today there would still have been
sub-freezing weather in some places around the globe for most of the year) have
developed fur? It is even better insulation than feathers, right?
GP: Because most fur is not hollow it is inferior insulation to feathers. The data for therapsid integument is shockingly absent. We have abundant evidence that dinosaurs of all sizes inhabited polar winters with substantial snow falls and months of darkness.
The 1950s were sort of a Golden Age for dinosaurs, in the mind of the public.
With films like The Beast From 20,000
Fathoms, Godzilla, and myriad other B
films, perhaps only UFOs provided a greater popular escape. What effect, if any,
did pop culture, have on your love of dinosaurs? Was there a first ‘thing’-
book, film, museum trip- that first resonated with you, where you had an
epiphany and knew this was to be your career?
The scene from The Beast From 20,000
Fathoms scared the crap out of me when it bit down on the cop reloading his
gun. The Japanese films were silly to me even then. Much more influential was
the superb King Kong from 1933. I
remember the Smithsonian Victorian style marine life hall circa 1960, but not
the dinosaur hall. I suspect it was being overhauled. Nor did we see the
dinosaurs at the American Museum when we visited in the early 60s for some
reason. We did stop at Dinosaur National Monument in ‘62 on our way to Salt
Lake, but so little was exposed at the time I was disappointed. The How
and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs, Life’s Prehistoric Animals: Dinosaurs and other Reptiles and Mammals, The Giant
Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles, and the Classics
Illustrated Prehistoric World were favorites.
The books you name were all ones I grew up with, and the drawing of the lime
green anorexic Allosaur still sticks in my mind, to this day, from the How
and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs.
I asked of influences earlier, so let me turn to the other end of the
spectrum: antagonists. When I interviewed the philosopher Daniel
Dennett I was taken aback by the amount of vitriol he still held for Stephen
Jay Gould, as they were opponents in some evolutionary quarrels.
Have you your own bête noir, in illustration or what not, and if so,
who, why, and what is the substance of your disagreement?
GP: I had a running battle with dinosaurs and early birds were cold-blooded John Rueben going for awhile. Once he called and said he would become my enemy if I did not publicly retract my statement that you could park a Buick in a ceratopsid nasal cavity.
I ask because, some years ago, there was a famed brouhaha in illustration
circles between Wayne Barlowe and Dougal Dixon, two other well known
illustrators of dinosaurs and fantastical creatures, wherein Barlowe accused
Dixon of ‘plagiarizing’ some of his creature designs for a book Dixon did on
speculative future evolution. First, what did you think of that controversy, and
have you ever been accused by another illustrator of plagiarism, or have you
ever felt your own work was ‘lifted’? If so, how was the issue resolved?
GP: I have no familiarity with the Dixon/Barlow controversy. Having set the standard I am the most original paleoartist around. The problem of paleoart that is derivative of mine has become so serious that I have had to issue a statement against others basing their imagery on mine.
I think science writing is in a Golden Age since the mid-1970s or so. From E.O.
Wilson, to the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, to Carl Sagan to Jared Diamond to
Martin Rees and Timothy Ferris to Jack Horner and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Daniel
Dennett, Steven Pinker, and a few dozen others, the world of science is
bristling not only with ideas, but people who can clarify and excite the public.
Science books often make best seller lists, yet, if that is so, and more
Americans than ever are college educated, then why are Americans so ignorant on
things like abortion, stem cells, evolution, race, sexuality, and on and on?
Things like paleontology or astronomy, as example, are never even mentioned,
unless some discovery is made or some celestial event is impending. If the
quality of the writers’ prose is insufficient to turn on the bulk of the
nation to science and the wonders of the cosmos, does one merely have to resign
oneself to a certain amount of intransigent scientific ignorance being
immutable? If not, what can be done to change this?
GP: As far as I know levels of general science knowledge are not much better in western Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia than the US. My sociological research agrees with others that most folks are too involved in their daily lives and commerce driven culture to care all that much about what the egghead nerdy scientists are coming up with which seems to change all the time anyway. It may be that not much can be done to change this. Consider how the BS about ancient aliens has become mainstreamed on the cable “science” and “history” channels.
To give an example of what I mean by intransigence, despite the seemingly
endless love the American public bestows on dinosaurs, the truth is that they
are almost as ignorant on that subject as well. Many a time some very otherwise
intelligent people, while discoursing on a subject, will draw a historical
picture along these lines, going backward chronologically: Vietnam, World War
Two, Lincoln and the Civil War, the Pilgrims and Columbus, Jesus Christ, the
Pyramids, cavemen and dinosaurs, with the last pair thought of together,
existing simultaneously. Why do you think this is? And, trust me, I’m not
Do no quite understand the question.
One of the most famous scientific sayings is geologist James Hutton’s claim,
regarding what has been called Deep Time, that ‘we see no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’
While we are now pretty certain that the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years
ago, and life appeared less than a billion years later, all of these sorts of
numbers- millions, billions, etc., seem to blur in most people’s minds. In the
above example, people jump from decades to centuries to millennia to eons
without a pause at how grand the leaps they are making really are. Do you
believe that most layfolk really understand how long
even a million years is? I mean, the earliest vestiges of human society are only
1% of even that length, and this includes the first 60-80% of even that time
being just scattered names and references. It’s not until three or four
thousand years ago that we start to get real human history. And, if as I
believe, most people fundamentally do not understand Deep Time, can they, or is
this just so antithetical to everyday human experience that it will always be
somewhat fairy tale-like?
And, do you believe concepts of Deep Time are similar, in their inability to
properly be comprehended, as are concepts of stellar distances, where people
bandy about terms like light years, as if they were merely a few miles? What do
you think is behind this human tendency to blur such big concepts?
These matters are just beyond human scale. It does not help that illustrations
of the solar system for instance make the sun and planets way overscale so they
can be seen – many assume that it is the true scale.
What specifically do you think it is that draws young American males,
especially, to love dinosaurs? I think it’s the awe of big things, because
little boys are also drawn to outer space, airplanes, skyscrapers, etc. Do you
The size factor is a big part of the interest. So is their semi-alien nature.
Sickle-clawed dromaeosaurs do seem to be out of a SciFi flick.
The last few decades has seen a movement toward a more integrated and holistic
view of the cosmos and the sciences. In your field, the acceptance of the K-T
Impactor, and its likely role in either aiding or totally causing the demise of
dinosaurs, is a good example of where another science- that of astronomy, had a
direct impact on your more terrestrial science. Is there more unity in the
sciences than would have been reflected a couple of decades ago?
GP: Probably so.
What do you feel is the next ‘big’ thing in paleontology?
GP: Am not sure,
although cybertech should have an increasing impact on research as I noted in The
Scientific American Book of the Dinosaurs.
To what extent do you think we currently understand dinosaur genera and how they
speciate? How well do we understand the mechanisms of dinosaur evolution, how
they differ, perhaps, from other groups of animals?
GP: This is not well understood due to insufficient data. Back in the ‘90s I noted as did others that the rapid reproduction of even the biggest dinosaurs due to their laying lots of eggs helps explain their propensity towards gigantism.
To what extent do you think external events that shaped dinosaurian evolution-
things such as mountain-building, continental drift, etc.?
GP: It is well understood that the splitting of the supercontinent during the Mesozoic boosted their diversity over time.
Let me digress, for a moment. Intelligent Design is really a very dumbed down
attempt to insert Creationism into science. What are your views on the mixture
of religion and science. Do not both fields suffer ?
GP: Religion is sheer superstition regardless of whether its followers try to accommodate science or take the Bible literally or something in between. Also, ID goes back to the classical Greeks and became Paleynism before it was refuted by Darwin so it is not particularly new.
I’ve mentioned Stephen Jay Gould before, so let me ask you on another of his
famous ideas: that religion and science form Non-Overlapping Magisteria.
Richard Dawkins states that the claim of a Deity has to be subject to science.
I’m on the fence. As a materialist, Dawkins is right. But, if there is such a
thing as an immaterial God, or any immaterial ‘thing’- if such can logically
exist, then Gould is right; but the onus is on Gould, as it is on all religion.
GP: Gods are as subject to scientific investigation and refutation or confirmation as other supernaturalistic items as ghosts, fairies, poltergeists. In any case people do not really care about the existence of god/s per se, what they are wishing for is good god/s. As I scientifically showed in Philosophy and Theology, it is literally impossible for a a benign and moral creator deity to exist (www.gregspaul.webs.com/Philosophy&Theology.pdf). There is no way a good god would have killed off 50 billion or so kids.
DS: In recent years, there have been a number of best selling books written advocating agnostic and atheistic positions in society. Some have been written by well known scientists like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the aforementioned philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am an agnostic, and have a rather dim view of all organized religion, based upon history and the fact that I generally separates the individual from contact with reality. Yet, the vituperations of a Dawkins, Dennett, or some others, seems to turn off often receptive people because of the delivery. Have you encountered these hardcore types? If so, do they give you as much grief as the hardcore religiots who think what you do is Biblical heresy?
GP: I personally know Richard and the ground breaking Washington Post op-ed I initiated (www.gregspaul.webs.com/WPoped.pdf) would have included Daniel if more than two signers were allowed. The term vituperatous is rather biased, assertively honest is more correct. As Dennett and LaScolla observed (www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf), some ministers have become atheists after reading those guys. I have been labeled the churches public enemy # 1 by MSNBC, and my teenage skepticism firmed up when reading Twain’s Letters From the Earth that makes the Four Horseman look tame. That was because Clemens was the first person to tell me the truth about the viciousness of god in case one or more actually exists, a thesis I took its ultimate scientific expression in the P&T paper. Similarly Julia Sweeney went from increasingly devout Catholic to atheist after first reading what Penn of he and Teller calls the damn Bible, and I know many atheists who did the same. All successful movements need a hard hitting leading edge that does not pull the punches.
In this online essay, and
others, you are highly critical of religion, as well as the sort of ‘mushy
science’ of religion, wherein scientists speak of ‘God particles’ and
there possibly being a gene that predisposes humans to believe in gods and the
supernatural. You also correlate that the relative prosperity of a nation seems
to be a factor that mitigates religiosity. Some people claim that America
violates this claim of yours, but I do not agree. Here’s why: yes, Americans
trumpet their religiosity more than Europeans or Far Eastern countries, but the
truth is, despite that, America has many more Homer Simpsons than true
believers. I.e.- people who give lip service to religion, and even if they go to
church, are either sleeping, texting, or going through the motions, usually
presuming it is beneficial ‘for the kids,’ or some such other piety. Do you
agree with my belief, and, if so, what do you see as being behind religion’s
hold on the human animal? And do you think that, in the next few centuries it
will fall away?
GP: I have been documenting that contrary to some theocon academics such as the notorious Rodney Stark that although the US is the most religious 1st world country it is about half as religious at the most pious nations and is experiencing rapid secularization (www.secularhumanism.org/greg-paul-baylor.pdf & www.secularhumanism.org/reply-to-rodney-stark.pdf). I’m the first to show that religion is a superficial opinion in most persons, and it is popular only when socioeconomic conditions are sufficiently dysfunctional to keep the populace anxious enough to seek the aid and protection of made up beings. Religion should be killed off when the self conscious robots take over, possibly in this century (www.edge.org/q2009/q09_2.html#paul).
In the essay I linked to in the last question, you end with this question of
your own: Although scientific research
by myself and others (Zuckerman, Rees, Norris, Inglehart and Bruce among them)
are solving many of the questions surrounding belief and nonbelief in the
supernatural, many questions remain. Such as why a large minority of
well-educated, science oriented persons with secure incomes continue to ardently
believe in deities despite the lack of compelling evidence? One of those people you mention happens to be a friend and mentor of
yours, Robert Bakker, who along with Jack Horner, is one of the two most well
known American paleontologists of this era. Have you ever asked him that
question, given that he is an ordained minister? What was his reply? How did you
reply to that?
GP: I have not had much contact with Bakker since he left Hopkins in ‘84. He is not happy with my nontheism.
Have you ever read Pascal Boyer’s Religion
Explained? An pal of mine
recommended the book to me, but it was not well written and its ideas were
dubious. Basically, Boyer’s explanation boils down to the
fear and the bush analogy. If there
are two people, and there is a mysterious rustling behind the bush, the person
who is fearful and immediately runs away is likely to pass on more of his genes
to the next generation because, while the brave person may be braver, if there
was a saber-toothed tiger behind the bush, the brave person is dead, and bravery
is weeded out. Similarly, religious people and beliefs dominate because fear is
good for spreading one’s genes, and beliefs in the supernatural are
fear-based. While fear is no doubt a part of religion- i.e.- the fear of death,
Boyer’s is too simplistic an approach. Thoughts on the idea, and on
GP: That some hunter-gatherer peoples as the Hadza are not particularly religious (www.gregspaul.webs.com/sciletter0415.pdf ), and that hundreds of millions have easily dropped religion in the modern democracies without thinking about it that much, disproves the hypothesis that religion is strongly genetically programmed in the manner of truly universal human aspects as materialism and language skills.
When I interviewed philosopher Mark
Rowlands we mentioned conundra that seem irresolvable, a thing his
colleague, philosopher Colin McGinn, calls the New Mysterianism. Certainly, such
problems exist in science. What are some of them? And, if they exist, does this
mean that you have to resort to a ‘God
of the gaps’ answer?
GP: I am not sure
that there are major mysteries that cannot be scientifically analyzed.
What new information has come to light re: dinosaurs, in regards to their
parenting or familial situations? Were any dinosaurs truly social animals, in
the way simians or some insects are?
It is pretty well documented that dinosaurs often moved in herds and flocks via
trackways and mass single species accumulations. On the other hand it is very
doubtful whether these were all parent-offspring associations because very small
juvenile dinosaurs could not keep up with gigantic adults that would have
stepped on them anyway. We know that sauropods wer abandoning their nests
immediately upon laying the eggs. Only smaller dinosaurs had the potential to be
parental beyond the nesting stage, and this has been recorded for psittacosaurs.
Let me digress. In astronomy, there was a bit of a dust-up, a few years ago,
when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who runs the Hayden Planetarium,
unilaterally demoted Pluto from the ranks of planethood. The International
Astronomical Union then followed suit, and there was a controversy over the role
of politics trumping science. What have been similar instances where politics
trumped science in your field?
GP: Fellow nontheist Tyson is right that that oversized comet is not a planet. I am not sure how politics trumped science in that case since Pluto is now properly classified as a dwarf planet. Politics is currently contaminating the creationism problem in that many are out there saying that it is impolitic to note that religion is not compatible with Abrahamist doctrine, or that the one sure way to suppress creationism is to suppress religion via secure prosperity and the corporate-consumer culture as has been occurring in the advanced democracies (www.gregspaul.webs.com/sciletter0415.pdf).
To return again to Stephen Jay Gould; one of his most famous essays and books is
Bully For Brontosaurus,
where Gould attacks the priority system in naming over that of aptness. Of
course, I speak of the replacement of the great, iconic, and apt term Brontosaurus
with the wan and inapt Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard).
This was due to scientific priority given for naming rights, correct? Gould,
perhaps the top evolutionary pedant for the general public, derided the loss of
Brontosaurus as being an example of science missing an opportunity to remain
relevant to the public, in favor of placating obscure rules regarding a century
old mistake by the man, O.C. Marsh who discovered both the correctly identified
Apatosaurus and incorrectly identified Brontosaurus. Which position and name do
you favor, and why?
GP: The last Apatosaurus, A. ajax from the tippy top of the Morrison, is sufficiently proportionally distinct that it may be a subgenus relative to the earlier Apatosaurus. However, A. louisae in more distinct in detailed bone morphology from A. ajax and A. excelsus than the latter two are from each other. On the other hand, the type of Apatosaurus, A. ajax, is very poor and might even be from more than one infividual, while the type of Brontosaurus, B. excelsus, is most of a skeleton, so it might be a good idea to declare Apatosaurus indeterminate and return to Brontosaurus. Ex B-29 aircrewman Jack McIntosh does not like this idea.
I mention this, because in my
review of your latest book, The
Princeton Field Guide To Dinosaurs, I
Of course, the most egregious renaming of a genus in dinosaur history, and one which shows that scientific priority has FAR more to do with scientific ego than accuracy or aptness, is the horrendous renaming, shown on page 192: Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) excelsus, wherein the great Thunder Lizard of yore has been reduced to the wholly inapt Deceptive Lizard of now. These sorts of scientific stupidities rank alongside the demotion of Pluto from a planet to a….dwarf planet. Enough said. Of interest, though, is this, from the same page, under Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus) parvus:
NOTES Brontosaurus is the shorter, narrower-necked version of Apatosaurus from the lower and middle Morrison.
Does this mean that there was a difference between the two? Does that mean that Brontosaurus could re-emerge as a species of the genus Apatosaurus? As Apatosaurus bronto (or brontii)? If so, that would satisfy both the supporters of the egotistical scientific priority and those enthusiasts for nominal aptness and coolness. Unfortunately, the entry does nothing to answer this query, but it is one of a number of entries that provokes queries in a reader, as well as satisfying most other ones.
Can you answer those questions I raised?
This book was more of a standard scientific book, in the sense that it is
literally a field guide, whereas Predatory
Dinosaurs Of The World, which came
out in the late 1980s, and is your most well known work, was not. It was also
vastly influential because there was much more narrative about the lives of the
dinosaurs, and it appealed to both the expert and the layman. If you were to
rewrite the earlier book now, what corrections- if any, would you make, given
the discoveries and expanded knowledge since?
GP: Field guides are inherently entirely popular books with limited information. PDW was much more technical because it included specimen numbers and the like. There is far too much stuff that would be corrected if I did a second edition of PDW, a lot of it is in PFGD.
Regarding the use or terminology re: priority and such, a pet peeve of mine is
when I read or hear paleontologists claim that birds are dinosaurs or that
dinosaurs are reptiles. This seems silly to me because both groups have clearly
advanced beyond the other progenitor groups. We do not call reptiles amphibians.
Dinosaurs were clearly advanced animals, not slow-moving reptiles, and birds are
clearly NOT dinosaurs, just as mammals are not therapsids nor reptiles. Is this
just verbal sloppiness or what?
Birds are literally and merely flying dinosaurs just as bats are literally and
merely flying mammals.
Let me toss out that old question: if you could sit down and break bread for an
evening with folks from the past- scientists or not, which folk would you most
like to engage with, and why?
GP: Eh, I’m not all that much into those sort of scenarios. I hear that Twain, Franklin and Lincoln could be amusing at dinner.
To what extent have we uncovered the dinosaurian past? Given that we only have a
fraction of a fraction of the remains of all the dinosaurs ever alive, can we
pretend to know that we have even 1% of the answers?
We probably have recorded a few percent of dinosaur species. We know whole lots
– about their growth rates, energetics, lifestyles, habitats, habits, athletic
What are some of the other tidbits that have been revealed, in recent years,
regarding other life cycle phases, etc., of dinosaurs? As example, do we have
viable estimates of how long a typical T. Rex, Stegosaur, Brachiosaur, etc.
lived? How about their maturation rates? Can we tell if certain species paired
off as exclusive mates? Were some polygynous?
Using bone ring counts growth curves have been constructed for a number of
dinosaurs. Monogamy is very rare in animals.
Let me turn to one of the older controversies I recall from my youth as a
dinosaur lover: do we now know if the stegosaur’s plates were used in
thermoregulation or as defensive weapons? Or both? The tail spikes, of course,
seem to plainly be defensive, or offensive, weapons, right? And, did stegosaurs
really have pea-sized brains?
The plates were probably mainly display organs, although thermoregulation and
defense may have been additional purposes. Pea-brain is a rhetorical
exaggeration except for those very small animals that actually have brains the
size of peas.
How about the color and texture of dinosaur skin?
There are many types of dinosaurs whose basic skin texture is now known largely
from impressions. The color of the skin is not known. It has been realized that
the microscopic pigment capsules of feathers are well preserved so the
coloration of those dinosaurs is becoming much better understood.
How about many of the frills and crests that some dinosaurs had? Were these used
mostly for defense- as likely for Ceratopsians, or perhaps as sexual displays?
Could some of the crests, especially on the duck-billed dinosaurs, have been
used for assorted differing vocalizations?
GP: Crests and frills were largely for display, although the frills of ceratopsids did protect the neck. Hadrosaur nasal passages may have been used during vocalization.
What is your take on the latest claims that Triceratops
was merely a juvenile form of Torosaurus?
And, unlike the Brontosaurus/Apatosaurus
flap, there’s really no loss in coolness factor if Triceratops hits the
dustbin of scientific priority.
GP: I tend to favor the hypothesis that Torosaurus (junior synonym in this case of Triceratops which remains the operative name) was the adult of Triceratops horridus from somewhat lower level beds, while only Triceratops prorsus was the shorter frilled and snouted species from the very latest Maastrichtian immediately before the extinction, This is somewhat altered from the field guide because I am now aware of the stratigraphic distinction. More analysis is required.
In The Princeton Field Guide To
Dinosaurs you write more of sexual
dimorphism than I’ve seen in most popular dinosaur books. Could the
Triceratops/Torosaurus controversy be an example of this? What percentage of
known dinosaur species do you think might be eliminated as more advanced
techniques come to show they were merely male and female versions of a single
GP: It now appears that what was once sexual differences are time related evolution in Triceratops. This is already been demonstrated for Corythosaurus and Lambeosaurus as noted in the field guide.
Here is another query I recall being raised, about twenty years ago, but have
never heard the answer to- did dinosaurs have lips? I forget the book’s title
and author, but I recall reading and seeing illustrations that suggested that
the aforementioned Brachiosaurus’s (as well as its sauropodian cousin,
Diplodocus’s) placement of nasal passages on the top of its skull may have
been a sign that they had elephantine trunks, for elephants have similarly
constructed skulls, and that evidence of dinosaurian lips could have been a big
boon to the idea of trunked dinosaurs. Has anything come of that posit, research
into lips or trunks, and if not, was it just a passing fancy? If so, what other
pet theories have blown in and out of dinosaur research in the last decade or
Most prosauropods, sauropods and theropods has immobile lips like those of
lizards. There is no evidence for mobile lips or trunks in any dinosaur.
How do you assess the current state of dinosaur awareness, worldwide and in
America? By that I mean not just a recognition that they existed, but a
knowledge of when they existed, where, etc. As I mentioned earlier, I find some
people, in this day and age, still believe cavemen co-existed with dinosaurs.
Have you? And, do most dino lovers realize that popular creatures like
Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, and Mosasaurus were not technically dinosaurs?
Dinosaur knowledge is very variable among citizens ranging from extensive to
minimal. Most adults are not deeply interested in them and some are semi-hostile
in that they are seen as unhip. Then there are the creationists. Almost all
dinosaurphiles know what is and is not a dinosaur.
Let’s get to some superlatives, since that’s one of the main attractions of
dinosaurs. Which of the dinosaur species were the largest? As a child that title
was held by Brachiosaurus, as both the tallest and heaviest, and by Diplodocus,
as the longest. But, in the decades since, other sauropds, such as Titanosaurus,
Ultrasaurus, Argentinosaurus, Supersaurus, Sauroposeidon, and Bruhathkayosaurus,
have seemed to displace them. Which is the champ? Were some sauropods able to
whip their tails at supersonic speeds?
GP: It currently looks like an extremely large mamenchisaur skeleton from China and the long lost partial vertebra from the Morrison called Ampicoelias fragillimus are the largest known dinosaurs at around 80 tonnes. The titanosaurs so far seem to top off at around 60 tonnes.
I tend to favor whip tails going supersonic, kind of hard to see how they wouldn’t considering the tonnes of muscle powering them.
What thing about the dinosaurs that we currently believe do you think, in a
century, will prove silly? Conversely, what outlandish claim made for dinosaurs
will prove correct, in your estimation?
GP: I do not work
on this problem much. Do suspect mass vulcanism of the time was involved since
this also occurred at the end of the Permian, but I could be wrong.
How about a little speculation, here? What do you think of claims that certain
theropods were developing larger brains and opposable digits, which may have led
to a humanoid creature? Pop culture, such as Star
Trek, have made such speculations,
and even some UFO enthusiasts have posited that the Gray aliens they claim
abduct humans, may actually be dinosaurian descendents. While silly, from a
speculative viewpoint, what do you think would have happened to dinosaurs
without the K-T Impactor? Would they have bitten the dust, anyway?
GP: If not for the
K/P (no longer K/T since the Tertiary no longer officially exists, its Paleogene
and Neogene) dinosaurs would very probably be the dominant beasts these days. I
doubt dinosaurs would have become highly intelligent that I cannot come close to
disproving it. Initially arboreal primates might have still evolved and become
intelligent at some point.
I earlier mention Scottish illustrator and geologist Dougal
Dixon? He has taken speculative evolution in many interesting directions.
Most apropos to this discussion, have you ever seen his The
New Dinosaurs: An_Alternative Evolution? If so, any thoughts on the credibility of some of his speculations?
And, as an illustrator, what do you think of his creatures, and the
representations of them in his art?
GP: I reviewed his speculations in Evolutionary Theory (its at my website). I am not terribly interested in his ideas and his representations of real dinosaurs are deficient.
Are you an avid reader of fiction that includes dinosaurs? What are your
favorite tales or authors? Have you ever read the famous Ray Bradbury dinosaur
Sound Of Thunder? Since I
mentioned the speculative alternate history of a non-K-T Impacted Earth, that
famed sci fi story literally deals with causality and the Butterfly
Effect, as a time traveler
accidentally kills a butterfly and changes his and human history. Other than the
K-T event, what do you think would be the most interesting change you would make
to terrestrial history if you had God-like powers?
GP: I do not read
much SciFi these days, and was not particularly into dinosaur related genre. I
did read the short story about time travel to the Mesozoic accidentally altering
the time path.
The late historian, Daniel J. Boorstin, penned a famous book on the history of
the sciences, called The Discoverers.
I’ve often felt that art and science were two halves of the same creative
coin. I.e.- that in science, creativity is used in service to the discovery of
facts that are extant, while in art, discovery is used in service to the
creation of things that are non-extant. As a discoverer yourself, would you
ascribe to that view of art and science, creativity and discovery?
GP: Am not quite
sure I get the thesis. I am not very philosophical anyhow, in practical terms I
use science and art to compliment one another much more than all but a few,
there not being many scientists who are serious artists and not many of the
latter who conduct peer reviewed science on a regular basis.
DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees, but, let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary literary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And aMRo to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is also applicable. When I interviewed Steven Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense, this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences, the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Are their current paleontologists who might be considered visionaries in a hundred or more years? Who are they? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
GP: The most visionary dinosaur paleontologist was Bakker who pushed the concept of energetic dinosaurs when it was still taken very skeptically by a substantial portion of the paleo community.
Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure Of
Scientific Revolutions, claimed that
scientific theories are disbelieved at first, then grudgingly accepted, then
become dogma, then are tossed out. Do you agree?
GP: Sometimes true but way too simplistic. Ever since the 1600s it has widely been accepted that the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun. I don’t see germ or atomic theory ever going away.
What do you see as the role of a ‘public intellectual’ in this century? And
do the constant controversies that surround someone like linguist Noam Chomsky
make you, and others less apt to speak out on political hot potatoes outside
your recognized fields? Or, do you think it’s best to stay focused in your
area of expertise?
Since I have gone from dinosaurs and other aspects of evolutionary science into
becoming a leading researcher on various aspects of religion I cannot criticize
the Chomsky model. Huxley, Gould, Dawkins have gone the same way, not surprising
regarding the creationism problem.
On the subject of human thoughts, let me turn to a related topic, human
discourse. One of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the
utter dearth of really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the
exception of the Playboy
interview, such venues are nonexistent. Furthermore, many people actively
denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse, such as this, preferring to read
vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions designed to be mere advertisements for
a work, sans only the page numbers the canned answers are taken from. Why do you
think this is? What has happened to real discussion? Old tv show hosts like Phil
Donahue, David Susskind, Dick Cavett, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or
hate him. Only Charlie Rose is left on PBS, but his show airs near midnight.
I am not sure if this is restricted to the U.S., so is hard to comment. If such
lengthy discourse has also declined seriously in other 1st world
countries then it might be attributable to evolving media and digital
technologies shortening our attention spans. If Euros are still into extended
interviews then something specific to the U.S. is operative, perhaps the
polarization of the culture war that is fairly unique to America.
How about discourse in the sciences? Is it alive and well, or do people hunker
down in camps and refuse to budge? Do tempers flair, and are there still ad
hominem attacks in scientific claims?
Scientific discourse is alive and well, and people hunker down in camps and
refuse to budge. The latter has always been going on. I am not aware of a
technical study of this issue so it is difficult to comment.
Of the books you have written, which have had the most impact- in terms of
public reaction, and which have had the most resonance to other scientists?
PDW. Beyond Humanity had
more influence outside paleo even though its sales were too limited because of
an inadequate publisher.
DS: Let me wind down this interview by asking what big things that are still unknown to current science do you want answered before your life ends? Do you think that these unanswered questions can be answered in your lifetime? If not, why not? And, are you doing anything to elicit these answers?
GP: Obviously far
and away the most important question is whether or not it is possible to
generate conscious minds on devices other than meat, and if so when. It is
possible this will be known in my conventional lifespan in view of the extreme
pace of artificial information processor development, and it may well be known
this century. Also important is whether my lifespan can be lengthened
sufficiently to be around if and when the cyberrevolution occurs.
Finally, what is in store, in the next year or two, for you, in terms of books
and your work?
GP: I have no idea
because it depends on what can be published in an increasingly difficult
environment. Wish to do books both on paleo and religion.
Thanks for this discourse, and me end this interview with a thank you, and,
since I’ve been guiding us along, let you have the final word, on whatever
GP: A book that had considerable influence on my core mindset was in the Marshall high school library, where I spent a lot of my time. In my early teens, I read the daily horoscope because my housewife mother did and I did not know better, and I thought aliens were here and now because my father subscribed to “true tales” magazines like Argosy that pushed the myth, and extraterrerstials had been featured in episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea so it all had to be real, right? Very probably my freshman year I discovered a new book about UFOs. I started reading it expecting exciting, professional verification that extraterrerstrials were indeed visiting planet Earth. To my surprise -- and to my even greater interest -- the work proved to be a debunking of the best known UFO cases, using rigorous techniques to expose the distortions and deceptions underlying the ET fantasies (the volume was most likely the 1968 skeptics classic UFOs – Identified by Philip Klass). For the first time I realized that a lot of what was out there in print was/is unreliable if not outright lying crap, and that I should treat extraordinary claims with skepticism unless strong evidence backing them up could be produced. My beliefs in all things paranormal including the gods went into rapid decline.
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