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Richard Ellis on Dinosaurs

Posted on Dec 11, 2009

By Richard Ellis

Dinosaurs? DINOSAURS? The very word bespeaks obsolescence, inefficiency, failure to adapt to changing conditions. Isn’t Truthdig supposed to be about current events? What are dinosaurs doing in a Truthdig book review? First, “Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life” is a wonderful book, crammed with information that will surprise you, especially if you thought you knew something about the thunder lizards. Because dinosaurs ruled the Earth for more than a hundred million years, compared with the measly 10,000 that Mr. Homo sapiens has been mucking up the planet, they represent one of the great success stories in evolutionary history, the diametrical opposite of obsolescence, inefficiency and failure to adapt. Moreover, unlike Mr. sapiens and his cohorts, dinosaurs left the planet pretty much as they found it; the Cretaceous asteroid impact wasn’t their doing.

Surprise No. 2: Dinosaurs never really left. They’re still here. Perhaps the most startling news item in Scott D. Sampson’s brilliant book is this: “Today, most experts agree that birds are the direct descendants of dinosaurs and thus are, in a very real sense, dinosaurs themselves.” Oh no, you say, birds have feathers. Of course they do. And so did dinosaurs. Remember Archaeopteryx, the 150-million-year-old German fossil that was long considered the first bird? It’s now been shown that the raven-sized Archaeopteryx wasn’t a bird at all, but a dinosaur. Birds have porous, light, fast-growing bones, but when researchers examined tiny chips of Archaeopteryx fossils they found dense, slow-growing bones, typical of dinosaurs. (In addition to changing Archaeopteryx into a dinosaur, they opined that it probably couldn’t fly very well either.)


book cover


Dinosaur Odyssey: Fossil Threads in the Web of Life


By Scott D. Sampson


University of California Press, 352 pages


Buy the book

OK, an anomaly: an early dinosaur with feathers. Big deal. Ready for another shocker? Many dinosaurs had feathers. As Sampson put it: “To date, more than a dozen different kinds of feathered nonavian dinosaurs have been found in China, and that number increases with every passing year. One of the most exciting examples is Microraptor gui, a diminutive dromaeosaur therapod bearing feathers not only on its forelimbs but on its hindlimbs as well.” In “Unearthing Dragons,” Mark Norell, curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, wrote, “The feathered animals from Liaoning are some of the most unusual that anyone could ever imagine. Caudipteryx has a long, striped tail plume, a tiny head, and four small teeth at the end of its beak. Beipiaosaurus has goofy enormous forelimbs, nasty claws and strange ‘feathers’ sprouting from the backs of its arms.” Tyrannosaurus rex is scary enough (think “Jurassic Park”) without imagining a flying version, but juveniles might have had a coat of down-like proto-feathers that served as insulation. The feathered remains of an early tyrannosaurid, which lived some 130 million years ago, were unearthed in Liaoning, a region rich in fossils and the only place in the world that has yielded dinosaur fossils with feathers. 

Everybody knows about the giant asteroid that slammed into the Earth 65 million years ago in the vicinity of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula and created such havoc—explosions, tsunamis, worldwide fires, acid rain, darkened skies, a halt in photosynthesis—that the dinosaurs were wiped out. Right? Well, not exactly. The evidence for the Chicxulub event is not in dispute, but the elimination of “the dinosaurs” didn’t quite happen that way. Over their 170-million-year tenure, many dinosaur species—in fact, most dinosaur species—had gone extinct long before the Cretaceous asteroid impact (the “K-T Event”), but as we can see by looking at our bird feeders, birds (which are really dinosaurs) made it through. As Sampson wrote, “With on the order of ten thousand living representative species [of birds] you could even make the argument that dinosaurs remain a thriving success story to the present day.” So dinosaurs still roam the Earth. So what?

To see long excerpts from “Dinosaur Odyssey,” click here.

Sampson asks that very question in his epilogue, which he calls “Whispers from the Grave,” and answers (in italics, no less): “Dinosaurs may well be crucial to the continued existence of humanity and much of the planet’s biodiversity.” THE CONTINUED EXISTENCE OF HUMANITY? Holy velociraptor! If indeed it was an asteroid that caused all that damage to the planet 65 million years ago, maybe we ought to be thinking about what could happen to the human race in the event of a nuclear war:

“The study of the K-T ‘impact winter’ scenario—that is, the global fallout resulting from a major asteroid strike—helped define the ‘nuclear winter’ scenario—the global catastrophe that could follow an all-out exchange of thermonuclear weapons. The latter idea, presented to the U.S. Congress by such well-known scientists as Carl Sagan, has been a profound deterrent for those who might contemplate such military madness.”

Nuclear deterrence is a pretty strong justification for the study of dinosaurs, but there is, suggests Sampson, an even more persuasive reason: science. Paleontology is the science of fossil forms; creatures (and plants) that lived on Earth thousands or millions of years ago, but are now extinct. These fossils are the undisputable evidence of evolution.

Nowadays, there are those who do not believe Darwin, do not believe in fossils, do not believe in evolution. In the hill country of Kentucky (near the Cincinnati airport), you can visit the Creation Museum, whose Web site advertises “a state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum [that] brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Majestic murals, great masterpieces brimming with pulsating colors and details, provide a backdrop for many of the settings.” The museum, which is said to have cost $27 million, is privately funded through donations to the ministry Answers in Genesis (AiG) and opened its doors to the public on May 28, 2007. Since its opening, the museum has counted more than 600,000 visitors. [One visitor among a group of paleontologists that visited the facility labeled it the “Confusion Museum.”]

The exhibits reject universal common descent, along with most other central tenets of evolution, and assert that the Earth and all of its life-forms were created 6,000 years ago over a six-day period. In particular, exhibits promote the claim that humans and dinosaurs once coexisted, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. The Creation Museum insists that people rode around on dinosaurs (like Fred Flintstone) and that fossils were formed when certain animals were drowned in Noah’s flood. There are as many arguments for and against creationism as there are angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but denying the prehistoric existence of dinosaurs is an insult to science and to education. Sampson writes:

“For several reasons, dinosaurs offer a superb vehicle for teaching science through a combined eco-evolutionary approach. First, unlike many topics in science, dinosaurs inspire rather than intimidate our imaginations. Second, as primary exemplars of prehistoric Earth, dinosaurs serve as able, even ideal guides to an exploration of the deep past. Third, the living descendants of dinosaurs, birds are much beloved and keenly observed, forging a robust link between past and present.”

You shouldn’t need a “reason” to read a terrific book like “Dinosaur Odyssey,” but if you need one, look out the window. City dwellers can see dinosaurs every day, although they might be no more exotic than pigeons, starlings or sparrows. (Non-urbanites might have a much greater range of possible dinosaur sightings.) Even the humble sparrow can brighten your life when you realize that its ancestry can be traced back for millions of years. Come to think of it, so can yours.

Richard Ellis is a celebrated marine artist and the author of more than a dozen books. He has written and illustrated articles for numerous magazines, including Audubon, National Geographic, Discover, Smithsonian, and Scientific American. His latest book is “On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear,” published in November.

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By Inherit The Wind, December 18, 2009 at 9:31 pm Link to this comment

Darwin didn’t truck with the idea of “inferior” & “superior” peoples. But others did and “Social darwinism” is just a patina of pseudo-science on a religious concept promulgated among the wealthy. Dr. Stephen J. Gould wrote about it in his classic book “The Mismeasure of Man.” It is a misrepresentation of history to say that both Hitler & Stalin followed anything concerning evolution. Himmler was in charge and his was a mission to incubate a “superior race” or “theozoa” to mate with some other unknown entities to produce their “New Man” in some occult ritual. It had nothing to do with science or Darwin same with Stalin even though logically he should have but then a charlatan named Lysenko who was a follower of Lamark convinced him to derail the ground breaking biological work going on and follow him. It set back their sciences by 40 years. Himmler‘s and others views on human husbandry set back Germany’s gene pool for much longer. Vain fools who had their own agendas and ignores Nature around them—-one of our worse and most dangerous traits. It could be our downfall.

Wow! Nice job, N-G! I knew some of this stuff, but couldn’t put it all together so nicely.  Dictators think they can bend natural law to their whims.

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By Leefeller, December 17, 2009 at 7:55 am Link to this comment

One can kick theories around until the cows come home or a leg falls off,  thanks Night Gaunt, I suspected “Social Darwinism’ was a take off from social anything. Damn…name droppers!

Interpretations purposely misleading to support a certain premise or religion, where have we seen that before?

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By Night-Gaunt, December 16, 2009 at 9:57 pm Link to this comment

Robinhoodstfrancis those “shrews” became the precursors of monkeys, pro-simians and simians called lemurs. You can only find them on the island of Madagascar. They have hands, forward looking eyes an live in trees to survive. There are many types though some have died due to the human extinction factor at work on the 6th Extinction going on right now. [Lose one every 20 minues or so.]

Behavior is as important as any other adaption—if the environment changes and your behavior doesn’t then out you go. Ask our cousins the Neanderthals about that. (If they actually go through and gestate one from the reconstructed DNA from 6 specimens 38,000 years old, it would be fascinating indeed. I’m one of those that Michael Chreiton wrote novels against on such topics.)

Darwin didn’t truck with the idea of “inferior” & “superior” peoples. But others did and “Social darwinism” is just a patina of pseudo-science on a religious concept promulgated among the wealthy. Dr. Stephen J. Gould wrote about it in his classic book “The Mismeasure of Man.” It is a misrepresentation of history to say that both Hitler & Stalin followed anything concerning evolution. Himmler was in charge and his was a mission to incubate a “superior race” or “theozoa” to mate with some other unknown entities to produce their “New Man” in some occult ritual. It had nothing to do with science or Darwin same with Stalin even though logically he should have but then a charlatan named Lysenko who was a follower of Lamark convinced him to derail the ground breaking biological work going on and follow him. It set back their sciences by 40 years. Himmler‘s and others views on human husbandry set back Germany’s gene pool for much longer. Vain fools who had their own agendas and ignores Nature around them—-one of our worse and most dangerous traits. It could be our downfall.

Happy Holidays!!!

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By robinhoodstfrancis, December 14, 2009 at 11:54 pm Link to this comment

FRTothus, your statement may disavow creationism, but the simplistic way you refer to evolution is nothing else than creationist ideology.
    They find plenty of “missing links” for all kinds of situations.  One of James Mitchener’s books on the West, maybe Centennial, gives a fascinating narrative encapsulation of the evolution of the horse.  You need to research the subject in sources that do not distort science.  They have found fossil evidence of simple celled organisms over 3 billion years old, and chemical evidence of life more than 3.5 billion years old, as I recall.  The transition from Dinosaurs to mammals involved evolutionary appearances of rat-like Megazostradon 100 or 200 million years ago.  Primates descend from a rat-like mammal who evolved to climb trees like a tree shrew or squirrel about 60 million years ago.
    As for greed and Social Darwinism, I may actually have a lot of sympathy for your view.  An important point for scientists to remember is that the scientific method is the technical part of a world view.  The world view itself is part of a philosophy and theology of science.  As someone who went from aetheist to Taoist, and got a degree in human evolutionary biology years ago, I have now looked closely and untangled these philosophical twists and turns.
    Modern science emerged historically out of Christian University practice.  Christian scholars resuscitated Greek logic.  That is, modern Greek logic is Greco-Christian.  It functions because of some fundamental Christian cultural truth.  My attempt at scientifically discerning the Christian cultural matrix necessary for science focussed on the sufficient loving regard of a universe created by some creative entity, and the sufficient loving regard of truth and community.
    Guilt complexes derived from doctrines may have had their influences, but the ability to develop the consistent scientific method and community went beyond Grecian polytheism.  Without St. Thomas of Aquinas of the Dominican monks at the University of Paris in the 13th C., Newton would have had to fulfill his role of applying Christian concerns to employ Aristotelian Greek thought to organize Christian thinking itself.  Stanley Jaki has written extensively on this kind of thing.  He can be intense, but ultimately illuminating.
    The key is to distinguish Christian doctrines and dogma from the principles of positive, spiritual regard and process, historical community, and ultimately personal and social responsibility.
    Science has often denied its social responsibility.  No sacred love of neighbor and self is an invitation to destroy the foundations of science itself.  Not because Aristotle said it, but because Christ did and it was sustained in Christian community just enough.
    I submit that these distinctions require some careful reflection and study by not only Creationists, but also scientists from the view of the history and philosophy of science, religion, and culture.  The abuse of technology by a corporate consumer culture of greed creating debilitating inequalities and environmental disaster is not going to permit being taken lightly for much longer.  Greenpeace’s Green Electronics campaign and UNEP’s Interfaith Environmental Partnership are indications of the convergence of evolutionary awareness and its cultural underpinnings needed for healthy self- and community protection.

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By Inherit The Wind, December 14, 2009 at 9:27 pm Link to this comment

FR: What’s that stand for—Faith-based Retardation?

If you don’t know how evolution works, don’t guess and then try to “prove” it doesn’t work.

One OBVIOUS thing you miss is that random mutation mostly doesn’t work. It ONLY works when a characteristic enables a few individuals to survive and pass this trait on.  We see evolution happen all the time. In fact, modern medicine has to battle evolution every single day, inventing new antibiotics and new vaccines to combat changing bacteria and viruses, that evolve in front of us to survive. 

For example: In 1976 staph infections were routinely treated with penicillin, and only if they were resistant (and doctors were VERY skeptical that such strains existed) was Keflin or Keflex administered instead.  I know—I had one of those resistant infections and Keflex saved me.  Today, they don’t even bother with penicillin and HOPE Keflex works, if it isn’t MRSA.

That’s evolution in action, in our hospitals and pharma labs.

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By Thong-girl, December 14, 2009 at 7:09 pm Link to this comment

Oh DFC, I can just imagine how you must have had to fix the expression on your face when you wrote, “Science is not a belief system; a person who gives credence to evolution does not do so by “believing in Evolution”.”

Darwin’s travails and those who followed surely believed far more than your narrow perspective allows.  These were the biggest ideas man had ever had and for anyone to think they were simply gathering data and totally uninvolved in how it would affect the world, is delirious.  I mean, you write some nice sentences, and so I guess you know about Erasmus, the church connection and the weight he carried.  I mean, Walllace, Bates and others were tempting the Gods with this stuff, and no one thought it was simple science work.  But you knew that, just can’t figure out why you felt the need to make is so simplistic?

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By Thong-girl, December 14, 2009 at 6:20 pm Link to this comment

Darwin didn’t have the benefits of biochemistry, but today his work is still the substrate upon which every single top university biology department in the world steps.  Natural Selection may not have been responsible for the macro mutations some say exist, but it is still the engine that drives the diversity of life.  Other forms of acquiring new genetic material - such as symbiogenesis - are likely candidates for building organisms, especially in the plant world.  Don’t cut Darwin short though, there is no reason to do that at all.

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By FRTothus, December 14, 2009 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment

What is Darwinism but the new accepted religion?  The notion of creationism is without validity, certainly, but so is the generally accepted notion of evolution.  The Darwin mythology revolves around the mistaken notion that animals adapt to their environment through random changes at the gene level. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how ridiculous that is.  Case in point: the Cambrian Era.  For millions of years we see no evidence of any kind of development, and then, all of a sudden, in the Cambrian Era, the fossil record shows animals, fully formed, everywhere, practically all at once, matched and fitted to their environment, not adapting to their environment over some long, slow, gradual process, but matched to it.  We treat the environment and the plants and animals in it as two separate things, when the truth is that they are one and the same.  What we do not find in the fossil record are “missing links” because there are none, nor do we find “transition” species.  Yet, despite a lack of confirming evidence, and much contradictory evidence, Darwin’s theories, and the terrible ‘social Darwinism’ that has been used to justify greed and selfishness, continues to be supported by those who believe themselves “modern” and “enlightened”. 

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence that it is not utterly absurd.”
(Bertrand Russell)

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By M Henri Day, December 13, 2009 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment

Note that the period of 10000 years mentioned by Mr Ellis refers not to the length of our species has been around, but rather to the amount of time it «has been mucking up the planet», which, if the advent of agriculture is dated to around that time, is not such a bad estimate after all. Mr Ellis’ more serious error lies in his statement to the effect that «dinosaurs ruled the Earth for more than a hundred million years» and his implicit assumption that our species does so at present. I suggest that a more objective, if less palatable view would be that, then and now, bacteria rule the roost, with the only significant challenges to their dominion coming from various viruses. Both these types of creatures will still be around when we finally muck up things so badly that human life comes to an end, and aside from regretting the loss of an item in the food change, they probably won’t notice our disappearance, any more than our appearance in Africa some 200000 years ago was to them a world-shaking event….


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By Fred, December 13, 2009 at 7:02 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Just making a small correction, the number of people through the Creation Museum is 900,000

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By DFC, December 12, 2009 at 3:45 pm Link to this comment

Science, unlike religion—a belief system—is in a state of continuing revision. Scientific knowledge, upon which the theory of evolution is founded, is strengthened by skepticism, review and argument; indeed, these are components of the scientific process.  Systems of belief—religions—are weakened by skepticism (critical thinking).  My beef with the author is his choice of words—semantics—I know what he means, but it’s an incorrect and common misuse of the word, “belief”, to describe how Evolutionary science is interpreted. The late Stephen Jay Gould’s book, _The Mismeasure of Man_, about the history of science is a good starting place for Leefeller to better understand my point.

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By RW, December 12, 2009 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

While I like the basic idea of this article I really think TD should stay away from this cutesy type of writing—it’s not funny and it’s annoying.

I also think that the fact this article had to be written at all says something very disturbing. While the information is worthwhile, most of it should be old news. If our schools were doing their job (or were allowed to do their job) this kind of basic evolution exploration would already be common knowledge to everyone other than young children (who are not exactly reading TD in droves).

As others have pointed out, the 10,000 year date for human antiquity stated here is a bit embarrassing. Perhaps, though, he’s referring to the advent of agriculture, which is when human impacts on the planet increased exponentially. If that’s the case he’s still a bit off. Archaeological evidence strongly suggests that humans began domesticating plants and animals in the Middle East (except for the dog, which was domesticated by foragers a bit earlier in central Asia) by around 12,000 years ago.

All this said, I probably shouldn’t nitpick. In today’s climate of hysterical religiosity it’s nice that articles on evolution still appear in the popular press at all.

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By Night-Gaunt, December 12, 2009 at 11:39 am Link to this comment

Actually I was mistaken at least 200,000 years ago Homo Sapiens sapiens appeared (maybe older than that) but they first migrated out 100,000 years ago. I am sorry for the error.

It, the super volcano was Mt. Toba which is now a huge lake that caused upheaval and destruction of Humanity about 70,000 years ago.

One project going on now is to see if a dino-bird can be created since birds still retain dinosaur genes that are dormant. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

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By Leefeller, December 12, 2009 at 9:15 am Link to this comment


After some mental gymnastics, point taken! But if one does not believe in science what is that? Global Warming for instance?

One can accept science not as a belief but as close to reality or fact as can be experienced? 

Sometimes scientific research is inconclusive and creates a disagreement.  A premise, until it is proven otherwise beyond a doubt, so maybe a premise is a from of belif or (I prefoer opinion). Hypothesizes?

Seems scientists are in disagreement on GMO’s for instance. Depends on who is paying the bills, of course some are paid to be contentious and tainting data has been known!

It is possible, even Darwin could be contended by fact not fiction!

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By DFC, December 12, 2009 at 2:51 am Link to this comment

“Nowadays, there are those who do not believe Darwin, do not believe in fossils, do not believe in evolution.” 

Yes, that’s right.  They’re called “scientists”.  Science is not a belief system; a person who gives credence to evolution does not do so by “believing in Evolution”.

Religions are belief systems. Evolution is science, and science itself is evolving as scientists continue to make discoveries and build upon and synthesize their findings—and in the process discarding ideas proven incorrect.

Systems of belief are the opposite of science. They are about the preservation of wishful thinking and, unlike science, are necessarily unavailable for falsification by their caretaker institutions.

So please, writers, et al., stop referring to Evolution as something to “believe in”. It’s about knowledge, not belief.

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By esau, December 11, 2009 at 5:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

yes, current evidence states that we’ve been human for 80K-100K years. stating
that we’ve been human for a mere 10K is an embarrassing error, more aligned
with the ‘facts’ found in the creation museum

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By Andrew Cornelius, December 11, 2009 at 2:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Even H. sapiens sapiens goes back farther than 10,000 years. Ellis, please correct that claim. It’s not accurate.

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By Night-Gaunt, December 11, 2009 at 11:48 am Link to this comment

Dinosaurs were not reptiles though they had scales and feathers. They were the other version of mammals. Feathers work just as well as fur. Mammals just weren’t good enough to take over as long as the dinosaurs were in most of the available niches. Though recently a large mammal from the Jurassic was found about the size of a sea otter, and lived much like one. Most unusual.

Some life has reached a stage where it is optimum for many changes in climate from snakes to roaches. But they have changed as well just not what they do or how they generally look. Roaches used to be 3” or more long when the earth had a 30% oxygen level.

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By Leefeller, December 11, 2009 at 8:46 am Link to this comment

If one says science is real and there can be no phony science, what does that make religion?

Interesting article, if I remember reading correctly,  lizards as reptiles and birds are related, scales are similar to feathers?

Hell, I still find some people who do not believe deer loose their antlers every year.

Makes me wounder if birds have evolved but snakes and Lizards have not?  All in 6000 years even. Does this entail Chicken Little to have new meaning?

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By NYCartist, December 11, 2009 at 8:21 am Link to this comment

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that human beings brains are too big.  To be pondered.  I think we shall learn about extinction first hand via wars,nuclear and other, climate change in its aspects in addition to the species that humans have removed from this planet.

What amazes me is the chutzpah of humans.  One example is the drive to imitate science fiction’s more dire examples, such as messing up other planets in the universe, some of it as solution to making this planet unlivable.  There’s already lots of garbage in space, floating abandoned crap and now on the moon.  (PS I won’t argue with climate change deniers, who are often overlapping with evolution deniers/creationist religious people.  There are more of each of those two groups in the US than other countries, as cited in surveys posted on the BBC News or Guardian websites.)

  There is science. On the other hand, there are fake claims, unreliable data, in re some alternative medical therapies, climate change denial (some based in oil/gas/energy industry propaganda) and there is religion.  There is not “phony science”.

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By Night-Gaunt, December 11, 2009 at 8:16 am Link to this comment

Humanity as we know them have been around a mere 100,000 years with the last 10,000 being the most recent when we flowered into our present condition. The age of the dinosaurs was some 180 million years right after the greatest extinction event that ended the Permian Age 250 million years ago.

Oh yes the dinosaurs never left and the chicken is directly related to Tyrannosaurus Rex! We been eating the big guy’s family—-what a come down!

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