Of Brontosauruses, Memes, and Old Lies that Never Die
What is a brontosaurus?
It’s a large herbivorous dinosaur, correct? A sauropod, with a long neck and a huge tail. Right?
It’s a dinosaur that never existed! Most people know the story, but for those who aren’t aware, here’s a basic timeline:
- A dinosaur was discovered called Apatosaurus.
- A second skeleton was found, that was larger, and was called Brontosaurus
- Later it was determined these were both the same species, and Apatosaurus took priority since it was named first
- People were already used to saying Brontosaurus, and some still do.
The above is pretty much common knowledge. What seems to be lesser-known is when exactly this mistake was caught and corrected in the scientific community. My assumption had always been that it was within my lifetime. I never went through the “obsessive dinosaur phase” that many young children go through, but I loved The Land Before Time after seeing it in theaters, and had a few children’s books about dinosaurs. These books referred to Brontosaurus, and while the dinosaurs in LBT weren’t referred to by scientific names, we all knew what Littlefoot was, right?
Webcomic author Brian Russell has been working on a book called “What I Remember About Dinosaurs”, which is a humorous look at how the things we learned about dinosaurs as children aren’t accurate anymore. He even found and photographed a children’s book with a Brontosaurus reference:
So the change must be recent, right?
The Apatosaurus was discovered in 1877. The “Brontosaurus” was discovered in 1879. And the first scientist wrote that they were the same species in 1903… Nineteen-oh-fucking-three?!
That’s 109 years ago! That means that not only have children’s books and our parents lied to us, but their children’s books and their parents lied to them!
How else can you explain that we didn’t know something that the scientific community has known since before human flight was even commercially available?!
And then it hit me… Brontosaurus is a meme.
Not a meme like we find on Reddit (or, more recently, Facebook.) And not really a meme as first defined by Richard Dawkins. But something between. An urban legend, but less detailed. An old wives’ tale, but with a less sexist description. The existence of the Brontosaurus is like the tale of Washington and the cherry tree, or the belief that orange juice prevents an oncoming cold, carrots are good for your eyes, or Sweet & Low causes cancer. Something we believe so prevalently, that we simply don’t question it, even though the truth has been known for much longer than we’re prepared to admit.
There are many, many examples of false beliefs about history, science, or other practices. And like Internet memes, they continue to spread via technology. But the lies that spread post-internet are often more damaging.
Urban legends used to be fairly harmless. They were stories of a killer with a hook, or a father accidentally being seduced by his daughter… shocking tales, but no real outcome relied on their being believed. Not so with the modern legends. Tell me if you’ve heard this one:
[Unnamed Politician] wants to appeal to the religious crowd, so he claims his favorite Bible verse is John 16:3. He meant to say John 3:16, but got it backwards, and the verse he cited is something about “They will not know me and it will show”. So see? Don’t vote for this person. [crazy paraphrase]
This is a common example, because it comes around every election season. I first heard it in 2000, and it was attributed to Al Gore. I heard it again in 2004, attributed both to Bush and to Kerry, and then I heard it again in 2008 referring to Obama. Further investigation found a conservative columnist claiming it had actually been said by George H.W. Bush in the late ’80s. But did this ever happen? Probably not. Was it said by Obama/Romney/Whoever you happen to hear it attributed to in the coming election? Definitely not.
But here’s where the second danger comes in. Have you ever seen a newspaper with an incorrect headline on the front page?
Have you ever seen the paper print the retraction in a headline on a front page?
Of course not, it’s always on page twelve, tucked away in the corner. The lie stays powerful.
Now, for a real world analogy (because newspapers, amirite?!) — Have you ever seen someone post something false on Facebook? Do they delete it when the falsehood is pointed out? Or, more likely, do they post a comment that says “Oh, I guess it’s not true.” Why not delete the post?
Or another common response is “It may not be true, but it’s funny.”
And this is valid… to an extent. Humor, inspiration, shock… these can all come from fiction, and I daresay fiction does a better job of them than reality does. But more often than not, the humor, inspiration, or shock value of the story is directly dependent on the story’s authenticity.
The idea that a Ron Paul supporter met the president while “Vote Ron Paul” was scribbled on his hand is kind of funny, but only if it’s true. The true story… that an Obama supporter’s picture was photoshopped and passed around the internet portraying him as A) a subversive, and B) a supporter of a candidate that he doesn’t support, isn’t funny. In fact, it’s pretty much just stupid.
I can Photoshop shit too, you know. Look at this, I put it on Reddit yesterday:
It’s even more true of inspirational (vom) stories.
Remember Herman Rosenblat? I first read his story in Reader’s Digest in middle school, and had no reason to doubt its authenticity. And it was a very sweet story. Here’s the short version (stolen from Wikipedia):
…beginning in the Winter of 1944, a nine year old Jewish girl posing as a Christian from a local farm, met him at the electrified perimeter fence of the Schlieben concentration camp and tossed him an apple over the fence. She continued passing him food for seven months until he was transferred to another camp. According to Rosenblat, they met in 1957 on a blind date at Coney Island, New York, and, while relating their personal histories, discovered their shared past. Shortly afterwards, they married.
This story was to be published in a book called Angel at the Fence … until it was discovered that it was made-up bullshit.
Rosenblat was a Holocaust survivor, but the claims of the little girl throwing him apples were not only fabricated — they weren’t even possible, based on what is known of the layout of the concentration camp.
Even Rosenblat’s kids knew the story was false.
But though the book was canceled, the film was still going forward last I heard (and last the Wikipedia page was updated.) Why?! This story’s inspiration requires it to be true. It isn’t!
So here’s the real question: Do you care if the things you propagate and believe are true? Does it even matter?
If you do care, do you retract falsehoods with the same enthusiasm with which you announce them?
If you don’t care… well, here’s a couple of brontosauruses fucking: