Great article in the Science section of the NYT on dragons today. (I found it through Andrew Sullivan). As a former reader of Dragon magazine, D&D guy (I liked the Dungeons and Dragons books more than I liked playing the game, btw) and creator of the not-so-acclaimed public television documentary Gargoyles: Guardians of the Gate (“What gate?” you ask. “Exactly,” I answer with a smirk) I like to think I have some dragon cred (not to be confused with dragon scat which I’ve kept preserved in my refridgerator ever since I found somee in Central Park when I was six).
The article covers a lot of territory explaining where the nearly universal dragon myth comes from. An anthropologist says its a quasi-Jungian thing where our simian brains conflate the predators we feared most — pythons, birds, and big cats — into a single giant critter. Plus there’s a lot of stuff about how we simply deduced from the remains of dinosaurs and large whales that dragons must have either been or around or still be around. The only thing I don’t like about the article is the whiff of progressivist modernist arrogance. The author seems to think it was unreasonable for people to assume that dragons were ever real. I think that’s bizarre.
If you saw the skull of a tricerotops or T-rex or the skeleton of a flying dinosaur and you had no way to carbon date it, why wouldn’t you assume it was a dragon? If you’d seen snakes and small lizards and the occassional tail splashes of Blue whales, would it really be so absurd to assume that such creatures were possible? Elephantine creatures were well-chronicled in tribal lores around the world and sailors reported seeing some very weird stuff abroad. Moreover, ancient texts, did not necessarily seem ancient in the Middle Ages. It’s only recently that most humans believe that our Ages of Genius lie in the future rather than in the past. A thousand years ago, the greatest scientists imagineable had been dead for a thousand years. In other words, if you were applying the scientific method and the best scholarship as best you knew it, the logical position to take was the dragons were real. Similarly, for millennia, the logical position, given the evidence at the time, was that the earth was flat. Sometimes we moderns look back on the past with this assumption that everyone should have known what causes disease or fire, they should have known that dragon were fairy tales. The arrogance of this is astounding when you think about it — and dangerous because it assumes that the wisdom of the past has nothing to offer us today. “If they didn’t know dragons were fake,” modernists reason, “why should we care about their philosophy?” My answer, as longtime readers of the G-File should remember, lies in one of my favorite definitions of conservatism; the idea that human nature has no history.
Besides, this cuts both ways. I remember reading somewhere that people in the West believed panda bears (they’re not really bears) were fictional creatures like unicorns until the 19th century.