It sounds like a question you’d ask a 6-year-old: What’s cooler than having one kind of tyrannosaur?
“Three kinds of tyrannosaur!”
No, this isn’t the latest Michael Crichton movie, but an honest-to-goodness paleontological debate. According to the New York Times, there’s now heated discussion going on over whether our records of the much-loved Tyrannosaurus Rex actually show three different species. Taking on the royal tradition, a new paper suggests calling them T. Rex (“king”), T. Regina (“queen”) and T. Imperator (“emperor).
It’s not that simple, of course. Classification never is. To the critics, the differences are just individual variation – sort of like if you tried to suggest that LeBron James and Peter Dinklage were different species.
So what’s the big deal? A name’s a name, right?
But names do matter.
We know it in conversation. There’s no faster way to embarrass yourself than to call a person by the wrong name.
We see it in the news, whether it’s laughter over the polar vessel that got popularly dubbed “Boaty McBoatFace” or disbelief about labeling a war a “special operation.”
It’s part of any field that someone cares about, from the serious to the silly. What do we call the high-school football team? Is Pluto really a planet? Is that superhero in the red costume called Shazam or Captain Marvel?
At any level, names are wrapped up in identity, memory and how we see the world. And when a piece of that changes – when something that you’ve “always known” might no longer be true – it can be a little unsettling.
And that reaches to a different level of the dinosaur story: the importance of examining what we think we know.
T-Rex might stay just as it is. It might become three species, or 20. For most of us, life will still go on as usual, aside from the occasional museum trip.
But the important thing is that it’s being looked at, studied, discussed. Something thought to be true for over a hundred years is getting a second look.
That’s the part we can learn from. And it’s something we don’t do well as a species.
In public, we like to praise the consistent, the unbending, the firm. Any sign of change or uncertainty quickly gets mocked as weak or wishy-washy. Psychological studies suggest that we typically use our reason to win arguments rather than seek the truth, clinging fast to what we believe and seeing challenges to our assumptions as an insult.
That sort of confirmation bias is hard to break out of. It’s easy to hear only what you want to hear and dismiss everything else. It’s a comfortable world to live in … and a dangerous one, like driving a highway with your eyes closed because you know what the road ahead looks like.
It’s only when we question what we think that we can really understand each other. When you’re “always right,” no one else matters. If you let in the possibility that you might be wrong, then it becomes important to see new perspectives and consider other views. To let each other in, working together instead of at odds.
That opens up the world, and the heart with it.
Take the chance. Ask the question. Learn what’s valuable and leave the fossilized beliefs behind with the T-Rex.
However many there happen to be.