Dino e Sauro, by Umanoid, 2018, Unsplash license.

Consider the Dinosaur

Toward a philosophy of the asteroid

The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction,
and the Beginning of Our World, by Riley Black, St. Martin’s Press (2022)

Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction
by Thom van Dooren, Columbia University Press (2014)

Jurassic World trilogy, by Amblin Entertainment & Universal Pictures et al, directed by Colin Trevorrow & JA Bayona, written by Colin Trevorrow, Derek Connolly, Emily Carmichael, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, based on the novels by Michael Crichton (2015-2022)

It was “the worst single day in the entire history of life on Earth,” writes science journalist Riley Black. “The worst day in history … the single worst day the planet ever experienced.”1 The Last Days of the Dinosaurs: An Asteroid, Extinction, and the Beginning of Our World by Riley Black, 2022. She places a slight caveat in the appendix, referring to the day of impact as “a strong contender for the single worst day in the history of life on Earth” Rather than the outright champion.

The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake? The completion of the atom bomb? The election of Donald Trump? No, Black means something a bit further back: the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs, careening 25 times faster than a bullet into the Yucatán Peninsula. 

Black’s choice of Earth’s worst day seems to be fairly standard in paleontology. Steve Brusatte, for instance, in The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, calls the collision “the single greatest catastrophe in Earth history, literally the worst day our planet has ever endured.”2The Rise and Reign of the Mammals: A New History, from the Shadow of the Dinosaurs to Us by Steve Brusatte, 2022

On one level it’s an obvious choice. It’s a dinosaur-killing asteroid! But we are a culture that questions whether—in the absence of humans—a tree falling in a forest even makes a sound. If an asteroid falls and no humans are around to hear it, can it really be a great catastrophe?

It’s natural that Black and Brusatte should think so. Paleontologists live and breathe the long sweep of geological time, in which all human history is but a smudge on the edge of a far larger canvas. There is a humility, I imagine, that comes from dedicating your professional life to 30-foot gargantuans like Tyrannosaurus rex

But it’s worth unpacking what the “worst day” assessment implies. First, that what happens to other animals matters for its own sake; it can be good or bad, better or worse, even when no humans are involved. Second, that what happens to humans is not necessarily more important than what happens to other animals. What is worst (or best) for us does not automatically trump what is worst (or best) for all. And finally: that we are the lucky beneficiaries of an unprecedented tragedy. After all, had an asteroid not eviscerated the dinosaurs, it’s very likely nothing like Homo sapiens would be around today (not to mention all the other large mammals with whom we share the planet).3“Share” should perhaps be in scare quotes. Also, just how big an impact random events like the asteroid have upon the course of evolution is an active debate among biologists, to which I will return later.

Here we have three provisional bases for a philosophy of the asteroid. It’s a philosophy that does not yet totally exist—much has been written on present-day extinctions, but the moral significance of pre-human extinctions is less of a hot topic. Perhaps this is just as well: present-day extinctions are the ones that should worry us, and it’s far too late to do anything about the dinosaurs (excluding today’s birds, who are technically dinosaurs).

But it’s a mistake to call the past irrelevant. The asteroid is considered the fifth mass extinction in the history of animal life—an estimated 75% of species went extinct in its aftermath. Today, we may stand on the cusp of a sixth.4Are we already within the sixth mass extinction? At the beginning? Or is this more a mid-level extinction event, dramatic but not quite at the level of the Big Five? Scientists continue to debate, but for our purposes it does not matter: species are going extinct more rapidly than they were before humanity’s spread (and especially so since the rise of global capitalist societies), and if this continues indefinitely it could wreak lasting damage upon Earth’s ecosystems. The asteroid is still a useful comparison point. See: Ceballos et al., “Accelerated modern human—induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction”; Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction; Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World; chapter 6 of David Sepkoski’s Catastrophic Thinking. Surely, there are lessons hidden for us in the rock.

Above all, I believe, the asteroid helps us look beyond ourselves. Much discussion of today’s biodiversity crisis is couched in how it will affect humanity: food insecurity, disease spillover, unraveling ecosystems. But does it matter for the rest of life? And if so, in what ways does it matter? The answers to these questions might not change whether we oppose the destruction of species, but they affect which solutions we fight for—and, perhaps, how hard we fight.

Chapter 1: Impact

If we have any hope of divining lessons from the last mass extinction, first we need to understand what actually happened. As we will see, much of extinction’s harm lies in the details.

Both dinosaurs and mammals first evolved in the so-called Triassic period,5Dinosaurs and mammals shared the stage for three geological periods—the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous—which together make up the Mesozoic era. The asteroid marks the end of the Mesozoic and the beginning of what’s known as the Cenozoic, the era we are living in now. The Cenozoic itself consists of multiple periods; the present is called the Quaternary. These periods are in turn made up of epochs; ours today is the Holocene, though many argue we have transitioned to a new epoch, the Anthropocene. Regardless, terms like “period” and “era” have more specific meanings in geology than they do in day-to-day life, and I’ll try to be careful throughout this essay. Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz. which began 252 million years ago, far enough back to make the asteroid seem recent. Earth’s continents were joined together in one gigantic landmass known as Pangaea, whose most conspicuous fauna included a diverse array of land-dwelling crocodiles.

Then came disaster: the sundering of Pangaea, a supercontinent split in the middle with lava and greenhouse gasses seeping out of the rent. Deadly flows of molten rock and devastating warming6 More than once in Earth’s past, megavolcanoes have spewed carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, resulting in several degrees of warmingn and ushering in widespread extinctions. Greenhouse gases, it turns out, are quite dangerous! resulted in a mass extinction, the fourth in animal life’s history. Most of the crocodiles died off, but this time, both dinosaurs and mammals would survive.

After the Triassic came the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, a break between mass extinctions of 135 million years.7In other words, more than twice as long as the era since the asteroid. Dinosaurs became wildly successful at being big, with predators like Tyrannosaurus rex up to 40 times heavier than an adult male lion, giraffe-necked sauropods long as a blue whale, and even the mid-sized Triceratops as heavy as an elephant. Some dinosaurs even grew feathers and wings, learned flight, and became today’s birds.

If big brains are what get you excited, several dinosaurs were growing them, specifically theropods (including tyrannosaurs, raptors, and birds). In Brusatte’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, he notes that the “encephalization quotient” (EQ), a rough measure of brain to body size, was comparable in a T. rex and a chimpanzee.

But mammals were just as successful at being small, modifying their teeth and jaws to eat insects, flowers (newly evolved in the Cretaceous), and in some cases meat—even, evidence suggests, baby dinosaurs. While none were larger than a badger, they represented a diverse and vibrant range of life. We cannot know their minds—perhaps they were miserable, constantly terrified of the giants around them—but I like to think that like mammals today they were fond of their young, took satisfaction in finding food, and found joy in play.

An oft-repeated fact is that a much longer time passed between the Jurassic Stegosaurus and Cretaceous T. rex than between T. rex and us. This was not a fragile world, somehow deficient, waiting for a more advanced species or a mass extinction to shake things up.8Well, probably not. Some paleontologists do argue the dinosaurs were starting to face challenges even before the asteroid. It was a remarkably durable world, successful on its own terms, each creature beautifully evolved for its particular role.

Until, of course, the worst day in planetary history.


“There was no impending sense of doom,” writes Riley Black in The Last Days of the Dinosaurs (St. Martin’s Press, 2022). “There was no shift to the wind, or darkening of the clouds.” But somewhere in what is now Mexico, “a chunk of extraterrestrial stone more than seven miles across just slammed into the Earth. This is how the end of the world starts.”

No dinosaur watched the asteroid streak across the sky—it was moving far too fast for that, nearly 45,000 miles per hour. But when it struck, most would have noticed within minutes. The collision had “an explosive force 10 billion times greater than the atomic bombs detonated at the end of World War II,” Black writes. “Physicists calculated that the initial impact … would have been powerful enough to blow many terrestrial dinosaurs in the vicinity off into space.” Can you imagine? A triceratops corpse, floating in the void?

This scale is almost impossible to process. But it almost wasn’t that way at all. Everything from the angle of impact to the geology of where it hit conspired to make the effects as deadly as possible. In fact, a similarly sized asteroid would hit another part of the Earth 30 million years later with a fraction of the damage. The fifth mass extinction was cosmically bad luck.

Dino e Sauro, by Umanoid, 2018, Unsplash license.

Black takes on a faux-documentary style, rooted in fact but with speculative details filled in. She situates us about 15 minutes after impact in what is now Montana, introducing an Ankylosaurus (you’d probably recognize one, with its armored scales and a club tail). As the dinosaur bends her neck to take a drink at a lake, “The ground rumbles and shifts, as if the very soil beneath her hooved feet might be yanked away at any second.” And then, a few minutes later, a second tremor “jolted and shifted the stone beneath the soil.” The tank-like dinosaur, armored and dangerous enough to take on a T. Rex, can do nothing against the impact. “The defense that had served her so well, the strategy that had seen off the worst and most terrible of rotten-breathed carnivores since she was a yearling, seemed foolish now. What could she do against the earth beneath her feet?” And it’s not just Ankylosaurus: “There was no way for any species to prepare.”

This echoes a point stressed by the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould: in mass extinctions and other random catastrophes, survival isn’t necessarily awarded to the fittest. Nothing about being “fit” in the Cretaceous forests of Montana required also being able to survive an asteroid impact. To at least some extent, it’s survival of the luckiest.9See Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History.

The Ankylosaurus would not be lucky. Seismic energy races through the Earth’s crust and the lake she was drinking at is hurled out of its basin, sweeping the Ankylosaurusaway in the flood. And the deadliest phase is still to come.

In the image of extinction I remember from childhood, the sky is filled with ash, forests are burnt to a crisp, and dinosaurs search hopelessly for food, slowly dying off in a years-long winter. Something like this world would come, but few if any non-avian dinosaurs would live to see it. Most, perhaps all, were dead within the day.

The collision throws up dust, rock, and other pieces of Earth into the atmosphere—some 12,000 cubic miles of it. These projectiles “rub against the atmosphere, generating heat as they fall.” The world becomes unbearably hot, and fallen leaves are set aflame. It eventually reaches 500 degrees Fahrenheit—those who could not burrow, swim, or otherwise take shelter were broiled alive. “Tens of millions of years of evolution, undone in mere moments.”

This, then, is Earth’s worst day. While past mass extinctions “unfolded slowly and relentlessly,” Black explains, “This calamity was as immediate and horrific as a bullet wound.”

The next day marked the beginning of a new nightmare. Soot had filled the sky, and those burrowing survivors who emerged found only darkness. Over the months to come, photosynthesis collapsed, oceans acidified, and plenty more starved to extinction, including many mammal species. 

The book shines most when Black’s speculative narratives highlight the ways that organisms shape their ecosystems and vice versa. The movement of massive dinosaurs kept forests from growing too dense; without these girthy giants, trees eventually fill the gaps, creating new arboreal habitats for the remaining mammals (who include an early primate). Insects who relied on dinosaur dung died off. Today we live in a world still shaped by the asteroid.

But Black does not end her story with destruction. She tells the stories of survivors—mammals, birds, reptiles and others. She takes us 1 million years after the impact when increasingly diverse mammals are eating some of the first beans. To her, amid the bleakness we find a story of life’s resilience, our collective ability to withstand almost anything

Chapter 2: Loss

“When most of the dinosaurs died off, was it a tragedy?” The eco-modernist and socialist science writer Leigh Phillips asks this question in his 2015 book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts: A Defense of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. His answer is cavalier. “I know I’d pay top dollar for a ticket to Jurassic Park if it were real … but I am quite happy for humans to be around as a consequence of the [end-Cretaceous] extinction event.”

He briefly sheds this human-oriented perspective, trying to “forget about what was most optimal for our species, but rather try to think about what is optimal for life itself.” Even then, however, he sees little to mourn. “Are horses better than t-rexes? Clearly, the words ‘better’ or ‘superior’ are meaningless here.” For Phillips, human consciousness alone is the source of value: “Prior to the advent of humans, nature was indifferent to the particular form that it took.”

In 2016’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, socialist Peter Frase echoes this view of nature’s indifference: “It has neither interests nor desires; it simply exists.” Even the desire of environmentalists to save the whales, according to Frase, is ultimately because they prefer “being able to live in a world with whales in it”—the whales themselves make no moral or political claims.

I find this absolutely ludicrous.

Sure, abstract entities such as capital-n “Nature” or “the planet” are not the sorts of things that care whether there are dinosaurs or whales. But it is a defining feature of all sentient10I use “sentience” and “consciousness” synonymously, meaning some level of subjective awareness or experience. As others have framed it: If a creature is conscious, there is something it is like to be that creature. life forms—whales, dinosaurs, fish, you and me, octopuses, crabs—that they are not indifferent about what happens to them.11Some might say this is a defining feature of all life; of course, they might also maintain that all life is sentient. As the stars of this essay are dinosaurs and mammals, I will leave for the future what the moral status of plants, fungi, and unicellular organisms may be.

Animals don’t need the large brain of an elephant or sperm whale to have goals, things they fear and covet, joys and pains, even curiosity. Some level of consciousness is likely widespread throughout the animal kingdom (some would say farther), and with the advent of feeling came the end of indifference. Having “interests and desires” is what separates most animals (and perhaps all life) from a rock; to pretend nature “simply exists” is to inhabit an incredibly boring fantasy world.

If value is created by humans, as Phillips and Frase insist, it is also created by any other creature with preferences, needs, and desires. Once you concede this, it is hard to argue that what’s valuable to one particular group of primates is automatically more important than what’s valuable to any other creature—even if we ourselves are the primates in question.

To be clear, whales or dinosaurs might not have conscious preferences about such abstract concepts as “biodiversity.” But animals’ well-being or lack thereof depends upon broader ecosystemic conditions, making them in practice extremely invested in what we happen to call biodiversity. On a more individual level, a whale is far from indifferent to whether it is harpooned, or drowned in a tangle of fishing lines. Frase fails to consider that environmentalists might be acting ethically, in the very real interests of the whale.

Phillips, to his credit, concedes that whales along with apes and elephants—those creatures whose cognitive capacities most resemble humans’—might have some inherent moral worth. But to him this “question of animal ethics” is “beyond the remit of the current discussion,” tangential to the ethics of biodiversity loss and extinctions.

Many environmentalists agree. Scientist Michael Soulé, a founder of conservation biology, explicitly put individual well-being outside of his field’s purview: “Although disease and suffering in animals are unpleasant and, perhaps, regrettable,” he wrote, “biologists recognize that conservation is engaged in the protection of the integrity and continuity of natural processes, not the welfare of individuals.”12 From “What is Conservation Biology?,” a 1985 essay by Michael Soulé. Quoted in Emma Marris’ 2022 book Wild Souls: Freedom and Flourishing in the Nonhuman World, by far the best work I’ve yet encountered on the tensions between individual animals and the ecological whole.

This outlook extends to modern-day climate technocrats. In an analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, philosopher Katie McShane finds that animal suffering gets only one ambivalent mention, whereas species as a whole are considered at greater length and in more detail.13“Why animal welfare is not biodiversity, ecosystem services, or human welfare: Toward a more complete assessment of climate impacts” by Katie McShane, https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/ateliers/2018-v13-n1-ateliers04192/1055117ar/

But when assessing the asteroid, individual trauma is key to what made the extinctions so terrible. Consider again Black’s Ankylosaurus, desperately searching for somewhere to cool off as the post-asteroid heatwave cooks her alive. We have lost the plot if this doesn’t tug at the heartstrings; basic decency at least requires we mourn. And her tragedy was repeated for millions if not billions of creatures across the globe that day: collapsing from heat, devoured by flame, obliterated by shockwaves from the asteroid itself. Over the coming months and years, uncountable animals would starve: the parasites, scavengers, and other creatures who depended on the dinosaurs; the herbivores unable to find sufficient greenery in the ash-darkened, fire-burnt landscape; the predators who would have eaten the above.

Yes, animals die painful deaths in the normal course of events. Any given dinosaur could have been eaten by a predator the next day or starved to death for unrelated reasons. But many of them would have survived at least a while longer, some thriving and some scraping by but at least maintaining a measure of control over their own fates. After all, we humans also die eventually, sometimes painfully, yet we would still prefer not to be struck by an asteroid.

And so, the asteroid encourages us to look at mass extinction not merely as an ecological changing of the guard—trading in T. rex for horses—but as an incident of mass dying. By this coin, even the “winners” are anything but. Mammals as a group survived, but many individual mammals did not, and the survivors faced new struggles.

Looking only at the impacts on individual creatures, I can accept that the day it became 500 degrees outside was Earth’s worst. From the human viewpoint, it made our evolution possible. From so many other viewpoints, it was pure nightmare.

I think individual welfare is enough, too, to indict our current mass extinction, which also plays out as a million individual tragedies: an elephant bleeding out from the poacher’s bullet, an orangutan starving as her forest home is razed, a tuna suffocating in a net.

Even the specific harms inflicted by the asteroid are being replicated by today’s human impact. When I think of the dinosaurs struggling in the post-asteroid heat, I’m reminded think of the billion animals burned alive in Australia’s 2018 bushfires; mountain creatures forced ever upward by warmer temperatures, who will soon have nowhere to go; fish overheating in warming lakes and rivers. I hear the clatter of a lobster boiled in a pot for dinner. And the real modern dinosaurs overheated to death: millions of chickens killed to prevent the spread of bird flu in a process known as “ventilation shutdown plus,” closing the airways and pumping in heat, inflicting mass heatstroke and suffocation. Death by this process, according to one study, takes about two hours.14“Amid Bird Flu outbreak, Meat Producers Seek ‘Ventilation Shutdown’ for Mass Chicken Killing” Marina Bolotnikova, April 14, 2022  https://theintercept.com/2022/04/14/killing-chickens-bird-flu-vsd/

This small-scale suffering is easier to wrap my head around, easier to empathize with and attend to, than more abstract concerns about biodiversity and “the integrity of natural processes.” Indeed, some contemporary ethicists reject that biodiversity matters for its own sake, holding that extinctions are only undesirable insofar as they impact individuals.

For many conservation thinkers, however, the value of species (rather than individuals) is almost an article of faith.15Protecting endangered species polls well in the US, and I imagine much of the public would also say extinctions are bad. Part of this value seems to derive from the vast processes that created it. Recall Riley Black’s lament: “Tens of millions of years of evolution, undone in mere moments.” The philosopher Holmes Rolston III mourns that today’s extinctions “shut down a story of many millennia and leave no future possibilities.”

If a species is a story, then maybe a mass extinction is like burning the Library of Alexandria. Leigh Phillips makes that very analogy, but emphasizes that a library only matters to humans—the book itself doesn’t care if we burn it. So, I find myself uncertain: It feels to me that the death of the last Triceratops was more tragic than the death of the second-to-last. But why?

Chapter 3: Achievement

Few have written so thoughtfully on dinosaur extinction as Thom van Dooren, although the dinosaurs he focuses upon are not the Cretaceous-era behemoths but contemporary birds. In his book Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (Columbia University Press, 2016), he zooms in on several bird species either already gone or on the road to extinction, exploring what their stories might tell us.

For van Dooren, the individual and the collective are entangled. The part cannot exist without the whole, nor wholes without parts. While most individual animals probably aren’t directly considering the long-term survival of the species, “it is their striving for continuity that achieves it nonetheless.”

This striving includes not just their struggle to keep themselves alive, but the investment of “time and/or precious resources” into future generations. At the very least, this means effort put into reproduction. But for many species, it extends into long-term care for offspring and in some cases care for extended families and communities. To help us understand this, van Dooren looks at two species of albatross, birds with lifelong mates who go to extraordinary lengths bringing food to their young, risking death and danger each year to persevere. Today these birds are threatened by plastic and other waste products, including DDT.

“In the language of ethics,” van Dooren explains, the albatross’ striving for the persistence of their lineage “expresses a clear ‘interest’ on the part of the individual for not only its own continuity, but that of subsequent generations.” Contra Frase, the whale cares if we save the whales. To cut off a species, then, is to destroy not only an evolutionary story but the collective achievement of generations of struggling, striving creatures. The albatross species is only possible because generations of albatross couples “laid, incubated, hatched, guarded and fed” their offspring, the consummation of millions of years of “skill, commitment, cooperation, and hard work.” Many argue that human cultures and civilizations are worth protecting partly because of the generations of work they required to build; some Marxists would say that the value of our machines and objects lie in the human labor that went into them. Perhaps analogously, then, each successive generation of albatross carries the legacy of their ancestors’ reproductive labor, which may be reason in itself to preserve them.

But if species require individuals, individuals also require species. “A living being and its offspring cannot survive and thrive on their own,” van Dooren explains. “Intergenerational continuity requires at a minimum the larger reproductive community as a species. And so genuine respect for the striving of individuals must necessarily be coupled with a respect for the broader species.”

The same can be said for the broader ecosystem, the biosphere as a whole and the process that creates it. Species “carry one another ” through time, van Dooren writes, “nourishing and being co-shaped as members of a particular entangled community of life.” The Tyrannosaurus relies on large herbivores for food; scavenger species rely on T. rex to make kills and puncture the tough outer skin of the dead; and everyone relies on the scavengers to process corpses back into the cycle. It is a web of interdependence, in other words, where everyone depends upon everyone else; and if we value individuals, we must value the bigger picture.

In a way, this inverts the dominant conservationist approach. For Michael Soulé and others, species and ecosystems come first and individual animals matter only secondarily, if at all. But for van Dooren, species matter at least in part because individuals matter, as a means of sustaining individuals and their projects.

If nothing else, this insight has practical use: There is no simple formula to determine how best to maximize individual flourishing, so programs that aim to protect species and ecosystems might work as a proxy.

But van Dooren also asks us to rethink what a species even is. We should consider each species as “no longer an abstract Latin binomial on a long list of threatened species, but a complex and precious way of life.” Each species, he insists, represents “ways of being with others, of mourning, of relating to a place, of rearing young, of making one’s home in the world.” The world, it seems to me, is richer with all these different ways of moving through it, and poorer for each we lose.

In a more recent book16A World in a Shell: Snail Stories for a Time of Extinction, 2022, MIT Press. he quotes philosopher Vinciane Despret: “every sensation of every being of the world is a mode through which the world lives and feels itself … [and when] a being is no more, the world narrows all of a sudden, and a part of reality collapses.” It is individuals who instantiate these ways of being, but each species represents its own unique subset of minds, senses, and behaviors that vanish forever with extinction.17Ed Yong’s An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us (2022) is a mind-bending exploration of just how strange and abundant the world’s ways of “liv[ing] and feel[ing] itself” are. The tragedy of species loss, then, might be analogous to the tragedy of the death of a human language or culture—a way of the universe knowing and making sense of itself that will never be seen again.18In fact, the historian David Sepkoski argues that arguments for biodiversity historically stem from arguments in favor of a multicultural society. Catastrophe Thinking

Maybe this resonates with you; maybe it doesn’t. One might object: species are always evolving and changing; no “way of being” is permanent nor should we want them to be. Why mourn if one disappears, especially if it is replaced by another (as, to some extent, dinosaurs were eventually replaced by new species)?

It is true, van Dooren concedes, that there are no “black-and-white prescriptions about how ecologies ‘should be.’ ” But to live ethically, he maintains, we must “make a stand for some possible worlds and not others.”

This needn’t—and shouldn’t—be an arbitrary stand. Achieving some possible worlds, radically different from our own, would require tremendous violence and disruption to already-existing beings. Instead, van Dooren’s bias is for the world as it is, for the “Cenozoic achievement,”19 Recall the Cenozoic is the geological era that began immediately after the asteroid. the collective project 66 million years that every living thing since the asteroid has played a part in creating.

Chapter 4: Possibilities

Perhaps the dinosaurs, then, and all of their cohabitants were part of what we might call the Jurassic-Cretaceous achievement, the product of 135 million years of mass-extinction-free living.

So what, beyond individual lives, was lost when the asteroid hit? A collective project, the striving of millions of years of attentive Tyrannosaur parental care. Ways of the universe knowing itself: the particular pleasure that Triceratops took drinking from a cool stream, the fierce pride of a titanosaur protecting his family, even the relief of a small multi-tuberculates—a family of mammals that did not last long after the asteroid—home safe with a full belly. The whole Cretaceous community: forests and deserts and waterways bursting with relationships and ways of being whose ilk would never be seen again.

It also lost what they might have become. What if the asteroid had missed?

When I first considered this question, I imagined that some dinosaur might eventually have evolved humanlike intelligence.20Scientists debate whether evolution, left to its own devices, would eventually have produced a complex, humanlike brain no matter what. For Stephen Jay Gould, humanity is a fluke made possible by the asteroid; for others, such as Simon Conway Morris, something like us was coming no matter what. In my head, they also became upright and roughly human shaped, something like the Lizard from Spider-Man—a reptile in a lab coat on two legs. This, I immediately realized, represented a failure of imagination, casting humanlike minds as inevitable, as the pinnacle of intelligence, and assuming a large-brained creature must also look like us.

When I ran this idea by Riley Black on my podcast,21Our conversation is here: https://shows.acast.com/storytelling-animals/episodes/riley-black-the-last-days-of-the-dinosaurs-an-asteroid. she told me that my imaginary Lizard connected to a long-running discussion in the scientific community. Some decades ago, paleontologist Dale Russell proposed that without the asteroid we might have eventually seen the “dinosauroid,” which he posited looked not so far from the Lizard, something like a scaly B-movie alien—the images are kind of hilarious.22“Humanoid Dinosaurs Revisited Again: Russell and Séguin’s Dinosauroid at (Nearly) 40 Years Old,” Darren Naish, Tetrapod Zoooloogy Podcast, 2021. https://tetzoo.com/blog/2021/8/30/dinosauroid-at-nearly-40-years-old As we have learned more about dinosaurs—in particular that some had large brains, that many had feathers, and that birds are dinosaurs—artists rendered new depictions of the dinosauroid looking more like a cross between a velociraptor and a colorful ostrich. Black herself observed that we already know what an intelligent, tool-using dinosaur looks like: a crow.

The point is: Dinosauroid or no, the world would have kept on spinning, no one knowing or caring to mourn the humans who never were. Would such a world have been worth it—even if it foreclosed the possibility of human life?

It is hard to avoid “yes” as an answer—what could justify all that pain? I can appreciate this intellectually, even as something inside me rebels: like most living things, I instinctively cling to my own existence, not to mention the existence of everything I know and love and am in relation with. The end of the dinosaurs’ world was the beginning of mine; without their death, we would not be alive.

But I don’t think this changes my answer in the end. After all, I would not exist without the brutal colonization of the Americas either, but I believe the world would have been better without it as does every person of conscience. Still, now that this post-asteroid world—the Cenozoic achievement—has come into being, I cannot help but be thankful we had the chance.23 I’m less thankful that colonizing nations “had the chance,” perhaps because I can still imagine someone like me existing without colonization, just in a less violent world. What does it mean to owe everything I love to the worst day in Earth’s history?

I spoke with Black about this, and for her there is no right answer. Instead, we can only balance our grief for the dead with a sense of good fortune, a reminder that “every day [is] a gift.” I suggested we might also be kinder to the birds, those dinosaurs who survived.

Like Darwin’s theory of natural selection or Jane Goodall’s observation of tool-using chimpanzees, the knowledge of the asteroid forces us to reassess our place in nature. As late as April 1985, the New York Times dismissed the impact hypothesis: Scientists “should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the cause of earthly events in the stars.”24“Miscasting the Dinosaur’s Horoscope,” April 2, 1985. https://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/02/opinion/miscasting-the-dinosaur-s-horoscope.html. In a letter, two scientists fired back: “May we suggest it might be best if editors left to scientists the task of adjudicating scientific questions?” https://www.nytimes.com/1985/04/14/opinion/l-was-it-nemesis-that-killed-the-dinosaur-166374.htmlOnly in recent decades have we accepted that we owe our existence to something so random as an asteroid strike.

Just what our new place in nature is remains up for debate. But in popular culture, we see that considering the dinosaur may be making us more humble.

Chapter 5: Dominion

Science fiction has been critiquing human hubris more or less forever, not least of which in the original 1990s Jurassic Park films. But as our culture grows more anxious under the climate crisis, the environmentalist critique has become ever more pervasive, showing up in one form or another in most of the century’s top-grossing films (think the anti-extraction, pro-wildlife politics of Avatar, Thanos’ concern for overpopulation in Avengers: Infinity War, or even Frozen II ’s anti-megadam nature spirits). But the Jurassic series can still say something other movies cannot.

Their relationship was too much for a friend of mine who, after the first movie, complained that the raptors were unrealistically smart.25This goes back to the original series. In Jurassic Park III, one scientist declares that raptors were smarter than primates—leaving it ambiguous whether this is meant to include humans. But then again, I can think of another midsized pack hunter who became quite capable of cooperating with humans—in fact, you may have a dog lying next to you as you read this. Velociraptors were close cousins of the original birds, and humans have been hunting with falcons for millennia.

While raptors may be smart, the movies are often not. In the first, 2015’s Jurassic World, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a cringe-inducing stereotype of the uptight businesswoman. In the movie’s outdated gender logic, she should perhaps work less hard and try having kids. But the movie’s species logic is more progressive: Claire is critiqued for her disinterest in the lives and experiences of the dinosaurs at the titular theme park where she works. Other characters (always men) repeatedly remind her that the park’s assets are not just numbers in a spreadsheet but thinking, feeling creatures.

The theme park’s name and some of its aquatic attractions seem to intentionally evoke Sea World, which had recently come under fire for its treatment of orcas (the 2013 documentary Blackfish had just won an Oscar). This primes us to consider that the dinosaur theme park might be not just dangerous but cruel.

Particularly dangerous is Indominus rex, a genetically modified aberration made to be bigger-stronger-faster and sell more tickets than his Tyrannosaurus cousins. Indominus, we are told, was raised in isolation with no human or dinosaur contact, and thus was likely traumatized. She then becomes a mass murderer, killing other dinosaurs for sport without even eating them. One of the movie’s more emotional shots is a field full of slashed-up sauropods, all dead, and we get a poignant close-up as one breathes her last. The movie corroborates the first lesson of the asteroid, that the mass dying of dinosaurs is a tragedy. 

The second film in the trilogy—2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, enjoyable if middling—gives us a helpful extinction thought experiment. A volcano is set to go off on the island where the dinosaurs now live, threatening their (re)extinction—the asteroid saga in miniature. The two options: stand back and let nature run its course, or intervene to save them.

Since the events of the previous movie, Claire has undergone a total change of heart and seems to be a full-time dinosaur-rights activist. When she hears of an effort to rescue at least some of the dinosaurs, she goes to Owen for help. At first, he isn’t interested. But when she tells him, “Blue is alive,” Owen is convinced.

Dino e Sauro, by Umanoid, 2018, Unsplash license.

On first pass this may seem silly. Owen is going to brave an island of dangerous dinosaurs, a place he nearly died in the previous movie, because he has fond memories of a specific velociraptor?

But whether or not you believe it as a viewer, it’s a question worth pondering. What would you do for your lost dog or cat? Or for any old friend? Neither of those are quite right—Blue was a captive but never domesticated, and fundamentally other in a way a human friend wouldn’t be.

Even today, though, people do crazy things for the wild animals they raise in captivity. As van Dooren describes, scientists seeking to reintroduce cranes into the wild dress up as a crane and fly across the country in single-seat planes to teach the birds migration routes.26From Flight Ways: “In order to have cranes follow planes, however, they have to be introduced to the aircraft from a very early age. In fact, even while still in the egg, birds that will be taught to migrate in this way are exposed to the sounds of the ultralight’s engine and propeller in the incubator. Approximately a week after hatching, chicks are shown the aircraft itself. This introduction takes a somewhat peculiar form: it involves a costumed person sitting in the aircraft, with the engine running, feeding cranes with a long puppet head extended from the cockpit. In this way, the potentially frightening sight and sound of the airplane are coupled with the reassuring presence of a “parent” and tasty mealworms. When the chicks are just a little older, the wings of the aircraft is removed to make it more maneuverable on the ground, and the chicks are encouraged by a costumed handler to follow it—first within a relatively small enclosure, and then on longer walks in a field. Similar training continues, on the ground and then in the air, reinforcing the bond between the chicks and the costumed pilot. Eventually, after months of preparation, the young birds are ready to fledge, and together they set off behind the plane on their first long journey south (Duff et al. 2001).” Whatever bond can exist between humans and wild animals is fraught, imbued with toxic power dynamics and probably distinct from any other type of relationship. But I want to keep open the possibility that Owen loves Blue and his actions are not absurd.

Anyway, our heroes are betrayed. Blue and several other dinosaurs are captured not for conservation but to be illegally auctioned off, what with their being a new frontier in the exotic pet trade. The volcano erupts, and as Claire and Owen leave the island we are left with a haunting image of dinosaurs lined up at the edge of the cliff, the lava closing in behind them, lowing mournfully as they sense their doom. The movie is unambiguous: yes, this is sad, this is a tragedy—not merely the abstract notion of a population going extinct, but these particular individuals burning alive.

The same moral dilemma is posed at the end of the movie, with even higher stakes: the dinosaurs are trapped in a building that is rapidly filling with poison gas. But to rescue them would be letting them loose on the mainland, a social and ecological shift from which there would be no going back.27Never mind that there are not actually that many of them, we must suspend our disbelief and pretend that they might multiply exponentially and expand across the globe. Even Claire, though distressed by the dinosaur’s panicked cries, cannot quite bring herself to press the button freeing them. It is a clone girl named Maisie who finally does it. Perhaps a human clone or a genetically engineered dinosaur should not have been created in the first place, the movie allows. But once they have been given life, Maisie insists, this life is no longer ours to take away.

The movie’s rapturous final minutes show dinosaurs breaking loose, ravaging the exotic pet dealers, and spreading out through our world, including a ludicrously awesome sequence of T. rex freeing a lion from a zoo and sharing a roar.

Which brings us to the final entry in the series, 2022’s Jurassic World: Dominion. Claire has escalated her activism, using cover of night to sneak into a Triceratops factory farm, documenting the abusive conditions and taking one of the baby dinosaurs with her. It is obviously meant to evoke industrial animal agriculture and the undercover work of real-life animal-rights activists: again, the movie is begging us to see the dinosaurs as animals with rights.

But soon, both the cloned Maisie (adopted by Owen and Claire) and Blue’s child are kidnapped by a nefarious genetic tech CEO.28Delightfully, the CEO is a bit of an oddball, although not quite the full-blown parody of Sorry to Bother You or Don’t Look Up. Again, there is a moment of understanding between Owen and the raptor, and he promises to rescue both of their children.

One of the smarter choices made in the movie is not to have some all-out war between dino and man a la Planet of the Apes. T. rexes would not launch a coordinated assault on human cities any more than a pack of wolves would. They are like any other animal trying to create a niche in a human-dominated world, only they are huge and new to it all and still trying to figure it out. That is scary enough.

In fact, watching on a big screen, I couldn’t help but feel some relief that the dinosaurs are no longer with us. Despite a relatively standard rescue plot, the movie is heart-pounding. The dinosaurs are beautiful, evoking wonder and awe—but terror, too, in how they reveal our smallness. The underlying thrust, emphasized even in the title, is provocative: what if we lost our ability to claim lordship over this earth? How would we fare if we had to share?

Chapter 6: Futures

This of course is the exact question posed by our present biodiversity crisis. The industrial capitalist machine takes up ever more land drawing up ever more resources, and wild populations plummet. Our conceit that all of this exists for us and us alone has led to mass destruction, and some biologists say we should share up to half of the earth with wild creatures to prevent the worst effects.29For a decent overview of this proposal, see: “Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?” Tony Hiss, September 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/can-world-really-set-aside-half-planet-wildlife-180952379/. Our age is the beginning, possibly, of another mass extinction.

This extinction poses dangers to humans, and few deny that some response is needed.30It is worth emphasizing while the climate crisis is urgent, it Is far from the only ecological issue we face. Wildlife is dying due to hunting, fishing, deforestation, poisoning, disease, and a thousand other cuts (although yes, global heating could make this much worse). Even if you don’t care about wildlife, you rely on it to pollinate your crops, prevent dangerous or “pest” species from overpopulating, maintain healthy flows of nutrients within and between ecosystems, and much else. But of course, I am arguing you should care about wildlife even beyond all this. But debates rage as to the nature of this response: Should we protect other species only as needed, when we can pursuing technologies to reduce our dependence on them? Or remember the asteroid, embracing the reality that what happens to other creatures matters and that humans are not all-important? 

What follows are mere speculations, I admit, a first pass at what a philosophy of the asteroid may imply for the present. I invite you to supply your own. But first and foremost, we must recognize that the badness of a mass extinction comes at least partly from the suffering and death of individual conscious critters, including but not limited to ourselves. This has repercussions for how we aim to stop it.

It means the destruction of wildlife matters even when a species is not particularly near extinction, at least not yet; as do nonlethal harms, such as stress-inducing noise pollution and excessive human land use. A mass extinction is an event that harms more than just the extinct; as we have discussed, surviving species are hardly left unscathed. This might also make us more sparing in applying measures that protect a species by harming individuals, from captive breeding programs to the killing of non-native species.


The achievement of Black’s book is to ground the abstract trauma of the asteroid in specificity, following particular animals through particular events. Van Dooren’s, in turn, suggests that individual lifeways are key to understanding the collective harm against species. An albatross devotes much of her life to caring for her young; a crow mourns his dead. A social animal like a wolf or chimpanzee will protect and care for their group. Obviously the animal kingdom is not all cuddly families: a male bear will kill a female’s cub if he is not the father. But all else being equal, we should give creatures the space and autonomy to fight for the long-term continuation of their families and communities.

Again, this requires attention to detail. Van Dooren writes of Little Penguins who return to a specific stretch of Australian coast to reproduce every year, even as that has brought them into conflict with human inhabitants. Any old stretch of coast will not do—specific places matter to specific creatures. 

This suggests we should not strive just to protect “representative” habitats, a square of forest here, a patch of desert there, but should seek to minimize disturbances in general, keeping alive these specific places. More broadly, keeping animals alive in a zoo, a protected sanctuary, or even as a survivor in a depopulated landscape is not the same as keeping the animal in some version of its previous environment, where it can fully realize its way of life.31Incidentally, van Dooren’s conception of species preservation might make us less excited about the de-extinction of the mammoth, at least if it is framed as something being done for themammoth. All the mammoths who worked on that collective project are long gone, and who can say how they would do in the heat. Steve Brusatte, a paleontology consultant on Jurassic World: Dominion, made a similar point when I asked if he would bring back the dinosaurs. They aren’t necessarily adapted to our climate and ecologies. Bringing them back might be unpleasant for them.

It is these places, after all, that make the flow of life possible. A salmon’s way of being requires being able to swim back up the river to her spawning grounds—not any spawning grounds, but hers. A bear’s requires that the salmon is able to do this, that there remain berries in the forest, that there is sufficient space to roam, and that a whole other host of relationships to land and life are available. This may require humans stepping back from large regions; but it can also involve restoring indigenous human involvement in ecosystems that humans helped shape. Some forms of indigenous land management were beneficial for their broader biological community, something harder to say about the colonial cultures that now dominate.

Another lesson of the asteroid: speed matters. The impact, remember, was “as immediate and horrific as a bullet wound,” as Black put it. Individuals, species, even ecosystems change and die off, but when the rate of change ramps up, extinctions abound and creatures are forced into situations for which they had no way to prepare. We should prioritize interventions that are gradual and reversible, and be wary of rushing into more sudden change, whether that be blocking out sunlight or introducing a gene drive to eradicate unwanted species.32This should not be interpreted as an argument against acting quickly more generally—wildlife can’t wait for us to twiddle our thumbs.

This does not necessarily mean we should never do those things. Every species, intentionally or otherwise, does it best to shape its world to its needs. But humans—and in particular, the wealthy and powerful humans of industrial, capitalist, and colonial nations—have been shaping the world rapidly and without much forethought.

“Warming spikes that took many tens of thousands of years at the end-Permian and end-Triassic—which, lest we forget, were mass extinctions!—are now taking place within a few human generations,” Steve Brusatte explains.33The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, Steve Brusatte, 2022. Forests are transitioning into farmland in years rather than millions of years. If we can at least slow this rate of change when we can’t reverse it, creatures will have more time and ability to adapt.

Yes, life will bounce back eventually no matter what we do. But it can begin bouncing back today if we work to make that happen.

And when we do make massive changes to the land, as we must for habitation and food production, we can still keep room for the flow. From farms to cities we can make space for wildlife, and give up on trying to designate land as only for us.

Because humility may be the dinosaurs’ biggest lesson. We are only here because an (un)lucky asteroid took out a cacophony of giants who roamed the world far longer than we have. As the Jurassic World series shows us, learning to share the world is hard; it’s scary to contemplate ways in which we might have to give land back, to place self-imposed limits on mining and energy use and meat consumption to create more space for the rest of the world. But it’s less scary, perhaps, than being chased by a hungry Tyrannosaurus. And just as the dinosaurs of Jurassic World inspire wonder, so too might a freer, less controlled living world.

Humility also reminds us that far more than humanity is at stake in potential mass extinction, the unraveling of a project 66 million years in the making—or four billion, when you consider all life and not just our current configuration of it. “We are now ourselves placed under the weight of a collective ethical claim made on us by all the generations by all the living things that have populated this planet over the past many millions of years as well as all those that might yet come,” van Dooren writes.

We already stand on a mountain of corpses; evolution is bloody enough without our help. Let the mass extinctions wait for another day. ~


  • Dayton Martindale

    Dayton Martindale is a freelance writer and editor covering climate, ecology, animals, and politics. He hosts the podcast Storytelling Animals, and this fall will begin a PhD program in environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. His work has been published in Vox, Sierra, In These Times, and elsewhere.

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