Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Dinosaur! The zombie metaphor that won't die

Britain’s trade unions are declining: only 11% of private-sector workers are members. Of these, few are activists. Outfits like Unite are thus prone to capture by eccentric lefties: only 9.7% of its members voted for Mr McCluskey, for example. With some honourable exceptions ... the unions have fallen into the hands of ageing dinosaurs.
"Glenfiddle" writing in The Economist digs up the obligatory prehistoric union metaphor. We've all heard these fossilised clich├ęs about dinosaurs before - fresh and relevant they ain't:
When you use the word "dinosaur," you're probably thinking about one of two things. On the one hand are distinctive reptiles like Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor, Triceratops or Diplodocus. On the other is anything that's too big, too heavy or generally obsolete. That photocopier at the convenience store that's built like a tank and threatens to vibrate the floor to bits when you use it? It's a dinosaur. A boss or teacher who's behind the times and reluctant to change is a dinosaur, too. So are rotary phones and 300-baud dial-up modems. 

Dinosaurs came to symbolize everything that's ponderous, slow and doomed to extinction because of the way most people perceive them. The study of dinosaurs hasn't been around for long -- the word "dinosaur" didn't even exist until the mid-1800s. But for a while, the general consensus was that dinosaurs were slow moving, cold-blooded animals, some of which were too big to support their own weight without wallowing in swamps and muck. Many dinosaur skulls didn't have much room for a brain, especially in comparison to the rest of the body. And, of course, they became extinct 65 million years ago -- so they couldn't have been too great, right?

As every schoolchild knows, it's actually a bit more complicated than that:
Although they are now extinct, the dinosaurs were among the most successful large animals ever to live on Earth. The dinosaurs arose during the interval of geologic time known as the Mesozoic (middle life) era, often called the "golden age of reptiles" or "the age of dinosaurs." Radiometric dating of volcanic rocks associated with dinosaur fossils suggests they first evolved 225 million years ago, during the late Triassic Period and became extinct 66 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period. Dinosaurs lived for about 160 million years and were the dominant terrestrial animals on Earth throughout the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods—a span of over 100 million years.

Interestingly, mammal-like animals co-existed almost continuously with the dinosaurs and obviously prospered after the last of the dinosaurs became extinct. Although they co-existed in time with dinosaurs, mammals were clearly subordinate to these reptiles. It was not until the disappearance of the last dinosaurs that an adaptive radiation of larger species of mammals occurred, and they then became the dominant large animals on Earth.
Dinosaur - Biology Of Dinosaurs, Fossils And Other Evidence Of The Dinosaurs, Major Groups Of Dinosaurs, Carnivorous Dinosaurs (JRank Science & Philosophy website)
Myth 6: Mammals survived the K/T Extinction because they were "more fit" than dinosaurs.
This is an example of the circular reasoning that plagues students of Darwinian evolution. There's no objective measure by which one creature can be considered "more fit" than another; it all depends on the environment they live in. Until the K/T Extinction Event, dinosaurs fit extremely well into their ecosystem, with herbivorous dinosaurs dining on lush vegetation and carnivorous dinosaurs dining on the herbivores. In the blasted landscape after the meteor impact, small, furry mammals suddenly became "more fit" because of the drastically changed circumstances (and drastically reduced amounts of food).

Maybe some of the subtleties that aren't lost on well-informed eight year olds should inform what the "serious" commentariat has to say about "union dinosaurs."

There's no such thing as "fitness" without context - organisms (and organisations) are "fit" when they fit well enough into into a specific environment or ecosystem to prosper. Change the environment rapidly, or radically, or unpredictably enough and anything was "fit" and "efficient" in yesterday's context is heading for extinction in today's. And when the dice are rolled again, tomorrow's historians will go on to dissect the inevitable failure of what was hailed as "fit" and "efficient" in today's world.

Maybe dominating your ecosystem isn't just about your relative fitness for that environment, anyway. Getting there first matters. Whether or not dinosaurs were functionally more efficient than the mammals in the prevailing environment, they may have crowded them out from lots of niches once they'd become established. Perhaps the incumbent's advantage was what condemned the mammals to 160 million years of cowering underfoot and meant they were only able to dislodge their saurian overlords when a sudden, global environmental catastrophe destroyed all the dino-dominated niches.

Extinction doesn't equal failure. Over 99.9% of all species that ever lived are extinct. Extinction is as natural as death. And we don't tend to treat the inevitable mortality of individual humans as a badge of failure ('people bang on about that Marie Curie being the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win in two fields, and the only person to win in more than one science, but in the end it turned out she was rubbish 'cos she went and died').

And spare us the moralizing fairytales about success being the inevitable result of innate superiority, the triumph of the "modern" over the "outdated." Sometimes, it's all down to pure, dumb, luck:
Lystrosaurus must beconsidered a strong candidate for the earth's All-time Ugliest Animal Award. About the size and approximate appearance of a large pig (a comparison probably unfair to pigs), the lystrosaurs seem to have existed in huge numbers at the start of the Mesozoic. They preferred wetter habitats and must have been ponderous, slow-moving (and probably slow-witted) plant eaters not unlike water buffalo. Their bones are found in vast numbers in the Karroo, India, Russia, and Antarctica, a fact causing paleontologists to speculate that these odd herbivores lived in giant herds. They were certainly the most populous land vertebrates in the earliest millennia following the First Event [the mass exticntion at the end of the Permian Period].

Although lacking looks and surely charm, the lystrosaurs appear to have been among the luckiest creatures ever to have lived, for two reasons. First, they (or their immediate ancestors) survived the First Event, beating one-in-ten odds in doing so. (Imagine a revolver with ten bullet chambers, nine of which are loaded. Spin the cylinder, put the barrel in your mouth, and pull the trigger. Lystrosaurus got the empty chamber.) But the lystrosaurs had far more than mere survival to be thankful about; following the First Event they found themselves in a world devoid of large predators...

...lystrosaurs ... simply lucked into a world where all of the large predators had been killed off by mass extinction. 
Peter Ward The End of Evolution 

Like Lystrosaurus, the plodding dino metaphor has lucked into a friendly media/political ecosystem where it can happily waddle about, mindlessly grunting to its fellow swamp dwellers, without being torn to pieces by anything large and fierce enough to attack even the laziest and most unoriginal of sound-bites. So it lumbers on, safe and sound, until the day when some big predator evolves teeth sharp enough to pierce its thick, leathery hide.