Friday, February 5, 2010

Feathery, Orange Dinosaurs

A recent report on CNN International highlighted the latest scientific discoveries about dinosaurs. The scientists used electron microscopic tools for sophisticated analysis of tiny flecks of pigment among the ancient, fossilized remains of the Sinosauropteryx and Sinornithosaurus. The results, based on samples uncovered in a dig in northeast China, suggest that pre-flying dinosaurs actually had feathers, and that they probably used them for purposes other than flight.

In addition, the report summarizes the scholarly consensus on the color of these “critters.” While you and I may spend little time worrying over the actual patina of prehistoric animals, this is, nevertheless, important to scholars. To the scientists’ apparent surprise, evidence indicates that these dinosaurs were colored a kind of orangey ginger! Who knew?

More intriguing to me, however, was not the supposed colors of the creatures; what interested me, as a non-scientist, about this news segment was an accompanying interview with little children. When asked “What color do you think dinosaurs were?” the kids resolutely answered, “purple.” After the interview, the reporter suggested(correctly, I suspect!) that their impressions about dinosaur color were most certainly influenced by their exposure to the TV dinosaur, Barney – the soft, non-feathery and loveable cartoon character creature brought into their living rooms by PBS Kids. Who can blame the children for thinking that dinosaurs are purple when the only one that they have seen and the one that they think they “know” personally is … well, purple!

Methinks a shrewd epistemological principle has been uncovered here amid the rubble of ancient fossils and modern kids’ colorized impressions. All of us - little kids and big kids - “know” primarily that to which we have been exposed. Even innocent children, typically so open to mystery and possibility, can uncritically become captive to their own limited perceptions. Regardless of what the truth may actually be, like the children, you and I can easily become convinced of the accuracy of what we think we “know,” based on what we have seen or experienced and based on our interpretation or someone else’s interpretation of our sense experience!

When looking out at the world, we generally begin with the unexamined presupposition that our reality perceivers are correct. We all have a deep-seated need to believe this – whether or not it is, in fact, true! And, of course, this is very helpful. It allows us to proceed through the universe with some confidence that we actually “know” things and that we are in touch with “reality.” I would not want to try to navigate life without this.

The problem arises, however, when our sense of reality is as far off as that of the kids who honestly believe that dinosaurs were purple. Since all of us are susceptible to this “perception is reality” affliction, it would behoove us all to be a little more humble and a tad more open in our erstwhile confident assumptions about “what is” and “what isn’t!” Sadly, but most assuredly, we have all narrowed the world and the realities both within and beyond it far too much by this all-too-human tendency to “lock-in” reality to our penultimate perceptions. One of my favorite verses from Holy Scripture has always been Paul’s candid acknowledgement: “We know in part.” (1 Corinthians 13:9a)

Wonder what might happen if, like an uncluttered child, still filled with wonder, curiosity and imagination, and with all due respect for the trustworthiness of my own perceptions, I went out into my world tomorrow with fewer presuppositions about what dinosaurs might look like?