Nobody Ever Had a Pet Dinosaur

11 Dec

If you read my April 30th post “Archaeologists (Still) Don’t Dig Dinosaurs,” you already know that the conflation of archaeology and paleontology – and the popular misconception that people and dinosaurs coexisted – bothers me.  It would bother me less if not for the constant reminders of this misconception in children’s programming.

I was watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse with my one-year-old son this morning.  It’s a cute, wonderful, and generally educational show for preschoolers.  Both of my kids have loved it (try getting the “hot dog” song out of your head after hundreds of viewings.  It’s impossible).

In today’s episode, “Pluto’s Dinosaur Romp,” Professor Ludwig von Drake built a time machine in order to travel back to “dinosaur times.”  When exactly were dinosaur times?  “A long time ago,” explained the cartoon duck professor.  Vague, but not inaccurate.  Unfortunately, later in the show, “Caveman Pete” arrived from dinosaur times to retrieve his dinosaur pet.  I hate it when prehistoric humans – or even anthropomorphic cats, like Pete – are portrayed alongside dinosaurs!

Picking apart cartoons for factual accuracy is all too easy.  Maybe it’s not a big deal.  After all, in an animated fantasy world populated by talking animals, what’s one more inaccuracy?  Are Caveman Pete and dino pet any more worrisome than, say, “A Message from Mars,” an episode where Mickey and friends encounter little green-tinted versions of themselves on the red planet?  If Mickey Mouse Clubhouse ends up being a primary source of scientific information for the next generation, then we’re in bigger trouble than I thought!

The storyline of “Pluto’s Dinosaur Romp” is one example of a minor pet peeve.  In contrast, the recent Gallup poll, showing that 46% of Americans believe that humans were created sometime within the last 10,000 years, is a major concern.  We Homo sapiens are much older than 10,000 years, but not so old that we extend back to “dinosaur times” over 65 million years ago.

I sometimes worry that all the little things (TV shows, toys, movies, etc.) depicting humans and dinosaurs together contribute in small ways to our embarrassing national misunderstanding of prehistoric time.  They help take a knowable, and increasingly well-understood, past and turn it into a compressed, hazy “long time ago.”  The history of life on Earth is pretty easy to comprehend if we just attach some numbers to guide us as signposts back into the past.  A simple clarifying statement from Professor von Drake, like “dinosaurs lived millions of years ago, before people,” would help.

What do you think?  Are Caveman Pete and his dinosaur pet a minor annoyance, indicative of a public education crisis, or something in between?  Please share your thoughts below.

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8 Responses to “Nobody Ever Had a Pet Dinosaur”

  1. spawnofanthro 12/13/2012 at 9:43 am #

    I haven’t watched that particular episode but I feel the same way. I used to like The Flintstones until I studied Anthropology. I used to imagine I was part of their community and was very excited when I had the chance to see the set for Flintstones the Movie in Universal Studios Japan. Personally, I’m not against the fantasy aspect in cartoons. I mean it helps with the imagination of the children. I sure as hell enjoyed imagining being in The Flintstones. But I think it should be supplemented with education. Believing that dinos exist with humans at age six is different to believing it at age 30. At six, it’s all about imagination and creative thinking but at thirty, believing dinos can be pets is just plain stupid.

    • jayfancher 12/13/2012 at 1:57 pm #

      I agree that there’s an important difference between the understandings of 6-year-olds and 30-year-olds. Six-year-olds are ignorant. Not in the pejorative sense – they just haven’t been alive very long and are focused on learning other stuff (and having fun!). I see two types of 30-year-old ignorance: sincere ignorance and willful ignorance. Sincere ignorance refers to those who don’t have the time, opportunity, or inclination to learn about specific things (heck, we’re all ignorant about lots of things). Willful ignorance refers to those who visit Kentucky’s Creation Museum to see mounted riders on dinosaurs. I think willful ignorance, where people make a concerted effort to not know things and, in fact, wrap their identities around fervent denial is more dangerous. Regardless, I don’t blame Mickey Mouse Clubhouse for America’s high rates of willful ignorance 🙂

      • spawnofanthro 12/15/2012 at 3:23 am #

        You’re right. Willful ignorance is very dangerous. I see it everyday in my country (I live in the Philippines, btw). And the people who have it are the most annoying bunch. I’m sorry, but I’m really sad that they continue reproducing, or at least continue propagating their ideas. I think society has a lot to do with this. Of course we can say that democracy allows people to think or believe whatever they want. But it’s wrong when it’s being institutionalized and forced-fed to people. Mickey Mouse is okay (although media can be a very powerful too but at least there’s more opportunity for agency to shine through — and if we’re perceptive enough we won’t believe everything in media), but the church for example has a very strong hold (or probably ‘control’ would be a more appropriate word) in the perception of people. So for me, it’s okay for Mickey Mouse to show that people can coexist with dinos. But for the church or the creationists to spread the information that dinos and humans coexisted, through indoctrination and even the education system — now that is a different story, that is just wrong.

  2. joy 12/28/2012 at 11:12 am #

    Something about cats training their humans, extrapolation maybe.

  3. jayfancher 09/13/2013 at 9:23 am #

    Sometimes cartoons get it right 🙂

  4. Jordan Young 10/04/2013 at 11:46 pm #

    I’m mildly late to commenting on this particular article, but better late, than never! I myself don’t have children, but there are many children in my life, and I’ve watched my fair share of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, among others. I respect the creators/writers of these particular shows because they capture the children’s attention, and that is an increasingly difficult task to do nowadays. At the same time, they’re trying to educate the future generations into a 30-minute or less program on concepts that are sometimes too confusing for a younger child to understand, or to grasp. The way I see it, is they have a magnificent opportunity to educate thousands upon thousands of children watching their program, no matter how brief, and that they should take advantage of that and include more educationally-inclined facts. Education for children does not have to be dulled down, but simply explained in an understandable manner that is still true to facts, and not in any way vague. Children are thrilled about learning, it is the way that those items of information are delivered that they may not take too kindly to. Making education fun = Knowledgeable future generations.

    • jayfancher 10/11/2013 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Jordan! I agree, kids shows can be accurate without being too complex. Bubble Guppies did it with one lyric: “A long, long time ago. Before cavemen were around…” Something as simple as that can set the stage for future knowledge.

  5. Kitten 01/07/2016 at 9:01 am #

    I realize this post is years old, but “Caveman Pete from dinosaur times” is still plaguing the television and polluting young minds. 😉 It’s annoying, but I figure it’s a good opening to start talking to my 16 month old daughter about (real) science.

    Also, a few years ago my nephew received a set of Legos that contained both dinosaurs and a cave man. I still refer to them as “creationist” Legos.

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