The Science Behind the Dinosaur Scene in Malick’s Tree of Life

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April 12 2012 2:27 PM

What Terrence Malick Meant with The Tree of Life’s Dinosaurs, Revealed

Two dinosaurs encounter each other in The Tree of Life.

Still from the poster for The Tree of Life.

No sequence from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—our readers’ favorite movie of 2011 by a wide margin—has been scrutinized as intensely as the encounter it depicts between two dinosaurs. It’s spurred countless interpretations, even though the sequence is little more than a minute long: A healthy dinosaur happens upon an injured dinosaur, and the healthy dinosaur pins down the injured dinosaur’s head with its foot; then, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the dinosaur decides to leave it alone and walk away.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

Over at his Scanners blog, the critic Jim Emerson has written thousands of words about the sequence, bringing together other commenters’ takes from around the web. Now, through some on-the-spot reporting, he has word of what Malick intended the sequence to mean, by way of the visual effects supervisor in charge of that very sequence. While Malick has kept mum, Michael Fink discussed the sequence “thoroughly, on many occasions, with Malick himself.” Emerson describes what he learned from Fink:

The premise of the four-shot scene was to depict the birth of consciousness (what some have called the “birth of compassion”)—the first moment in which a living creature made a conscious decision to choose what Michael described as “right from wrong, good from evil.” Or, perhaps, a form of altruism over predatory instinct.

Emerson also produces the passage from a 2007 draft of Malick’s screenplay:

Reptiles emerge from the amphibians, and dinosaurs in turn from the reptiles. Among the dinosaurs we discover the first signs of maternal love, as the creatures learn to care for each other.
Is not love, too, a work of the creation? What should we have been without it? How had things been then?
Silent as a shadow, consciousness has slipped into the world.

Fink also told Emerson that his team gave Malick “about 50 versions of the scene.” From these the director, in typical Malick fashion, selected just the sequence he wanted.

We were happy to learn Malick’s intent, but knowing his aim with the scene raised another question: Is Malick’s idea of dinosaurs and compassion scientifically sound? We reached out to science writer Brian Switek, author of Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature, for an answer:

I’m not sure if the time period is specified, but that dinosaur looks like a deinonychosaur to me—something along the lines of Troodon . . . This would put the scene somewhere around 75 million years ago.

Troodon and kin were relatively smart by dinosaurian standards - they had relative brain sizes comparable to some modern birds—but such a dinosaur wouldn’t have been able to choose “right from wrong, good from evil” any more than a raven could … The Cretaceous world wasn’t one of right and wrong, good and evil. There was only nature, and nature was indifferent to such concepts of morality.

Whether a dinosaur might have felt “maternal love” and cared for another is a trickier matter, Switek says.

Among dinosaurs, the classic case is Maiasaura. This is the roughly 74 million year old hadrosaur from Cretaceous Montana found at a huge nesting ground. The nests, and the baby dinosaurs within them, hint that these dinosaurs provided at least some degree of parental care during the early lives of their offspring. But such care was short lived—it seems that juvenile dinosaurs left their nests after a short period of time and stuck together in age-segregated herds for protection. And “parental care” does not necessarily mean empathy, which is the way Malick seems to be using the term. Neanderthal burial sites and pathological individuals who would not have survived without assistance hint that care and consideration of others was present in our sister species by 60,000 years ago, at the latest. That’s about the closest we can get, I think, to some notion of empathetic care in the fossil record. (There has been some suggestion that the saber-toothed cat Smilodon also cared for and provisioned injured individuals, but the evidence is controversial, and I would not be one to suppose the motives of such a saber-fanged predator.)

Of course, as Switek also notes, “there’s no fossil record of thought, or of empathy,” and so “we will never know what the internal lives of dinosaurs were like.” Pressed to speculate, Switek writes, “In the scene Malick set up, I don’t think one dinosaur would have lovingly stroked the other. If that dinosaur thought anything, it would have been along the lines of “Oh good, a hot meal.”

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