Paleontology is a human endeavor, and like all human endeavors, ideas have changed as the context in which those ideas developed has changed. Our earliest suggestion that humans may have seen and taken note of dinosaur fossils comes from the recognition that mythical creatures may have been inspired by observations of very large or unfamiliar-looking dinosaur fossils.
Paleontology as a science began in the Enlightenment with the recognition that observation in combination with logic and rational thinking could reveal truths about the natural world. The earliest dinosaur fossil explicitly identified as something quite unlike anything alive today was found in 1822; within 40 years, not only was a variety of extinct animals recognized, but a relative geological timescale had been constructed. It remains valid in its essentials to this very day. In 1842, English anatomist Richard Owen established the word "Dinosauria" for an extinct group of reptiles, partly to demonstrate that organisms had not evolved. His concept of dinosaurs was one of bulky, elephantine quadrupeds.
Charles Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection was published in 1859, and, with it, the burgeoning fossil record came to be seen as making sense in an evolutionary context. The idea that other worlds had existed that were very different from our own gained broad currency. At the same time, Dinosauria became far better known, and its members seemed so disparate that they were divided into two groups (Ornithischia and Saurischia) and thought to have had separate origins within early archosaurs (which were all lumped together as a group called "Thecodontia"). The rise of dinosaurs was interpreted in Darwinian terms as the competitive success of the superior forms (dinosaurs) over inferior forms (primitive archosaurs and advanced, non-mammalian synapsids).
The first 70 or so years of the twentieth century were all about collecting, describing, and enhancing knowledge of the different forms of dinosaurs. This abruptly changed with John Ostrom's 1969-1970 interpretation of Deinonychus as endothermic and his reevaluation of Archaeopteryx as a theropod. These revolutionary views came as the field of paleontology was revitalized as paleobiology, and as phylogenetic systematics came to be recognized as a truly scientific way of inferring relationships among even extinct forms. Phylogenetic systematics demonstrated the fundamental monophyly of Dinosauria (also affirming, parenthetically, the monophyly of Saurischia and Ornithischia), destroyed "Thecodonta," and clearly showed that birds are dinosaurs.
When, in 1980, it was postulated that an asteroid caused the end-Cretaceous extinction (which obliterated the non-avian dinosaurs), paleontologists came to recognize that extraterrestrial events can have a profound effect on earthly events; that extinctions can occur regardless of how well-adapted a particular group is. It was at this time that a re-evaluation of the rise of Dinosauria was carried out, in which the success of the group was no longer ascribed
Was this article helpful?