Lessons from an Exquisite Fossil for Troubled Times

Just before Christmas, iScience reported the discovery of a “late Cretaceous oviraptorid theropod dinosaur embryo … preserved in-ovo” – that is, a fully articulated dinosaur skeleton fossilized in its egg. Fossilized dinosaur eggs are not uncommon, but full embryos are. As Aylin Woodward explained in the Wall Street Journal, “The bones of embryonic dinosaurs are so fragile that they are often destroyed before the fossilization process is complete.”

The egg and its contents are believed to be between 66 million and 72 million years old. It is a relic of the so-called deep time.

The find is important to paleontologists as it provides further evidence of the evolutionary relationship between dinosaurs and birds. “The head,” the study authors wrote, “lies ventral to the body, with the feet on either side, and the back arched along the blunt pole of the egg in a posture previously undetected in a non-avian dinosaur but reminiscent of a modern late-stage avian embryo. ”Such a position is known as“ plugging in ”and enables the young to peck through their shells so they can emerge.

For me, however, the fascination is more elementary: the fossilized oviraptorosaur expands our sense of life and death by suggesting that, on an essential level, nothing ever disappears.

Deep time refers to geological or heavenly time, the billions of years the planet has existed, the infinite chronology of the universe. In such a context, the length of a dinosaur’s pregnancy, or a human life – or human history – is at best negligible. The embryo and its fossil survival are a marker of all these eons, a signal that our concept of “real time” is an illusion.

When I say that nothing disappears, I mean that we can see it, study it, learn from it. This dinosaur embryo may have died tens of millions of years ago, but it still exists. This tells us something about continuity; it changes our view of the worries and conflicts of the moment and realigns our lives through a broader perspective.

In the spell of deep time we have no choice but to expect our insignificance. And paradoxically, this reckoning can be a consolation in an uncertain world.

The same week that the iScience paper was published, the Omicron variant of the coronavirus exploded in the United States. The number of cases in Los Angeles County rose from 3,000 to nearly 10,000 in just three days. Inflation and persistent supply chain problems weighed on the economy. Airlines have canceled thousands of flights.

Not to mention our policies, which continue to be toxic and divisive. Just days before the fossil record came out, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III effectively torpedoed President Biden’s “Build Back Better” legislation, although it is still possible that Congress can find a way to pass a scaled-down bill .

Amid the uncertainty and chaos of our daily lives, an embryo fossil reminds us that the vicissitudes of the moment are little more than passing shadows, as short-lived as gusts of wind.

“The whirlwind is over before morning ends; / The storm will pass before the day is over, ”claims Lao Tse in the Tao Te Ching. “Who made it, wind and storm? Heaven and Earth. / If the heavens themselves cannot storm for a long time, / What then is the result of people’s storms? “

In other words, given the storms we face, why not think longer?

For some people, this type of perspective comes from religion. I am not one of them. For me, faith or meaning grows out of our physical existence, our experience on earth. I believe in love, I believe in family, I believe in decency, I believe in hope. But none of this will save us from disorder or from death.

Deep time requires that I build these limitations into a broader vision, a broader lineage. A 72-million-year-old dinosaur embryo teaches us something new about how birds form and also shows us that we are part of something larger than ourselves.

I don’t want to be indifferent or denial about our current crises; I’ve spent much of the last week ordering N95 masks and coronavirus tests at home, and loading supplies. My wife and I are huddled together trying not to be obsessed with infection numbers, trying to stay present and get on with our lives. We are vigilant, keep a healthy distance from our neighbors and wash our hands as we have for almost two years: 20 seconds, soap and water every time we enter the house.

The oviraptorosaur embryo and its discovery offer – for me at least – a hard but comforting message in difficult times: We are fleeting, but the universe lasts. Regardless of the terrible fears and upheavals of this moment, we remain part of a permanent, albeit ever-changing, continuum.

Let a fossilized dinosaur remind you of all the ways existence goes on.

David L. Ulin is an Opinion Writer.

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