Ford versus Naish

Live Debate

Last night, Natee and I – along with a whole host of other lovely people (and John Conway) – attended Were Dinosaurs Too Big?, hosted at London’s Conway Hall. It was essentially a debate between two competing views of dinosaur palaeontology. In the red corner, we had Darren Naish – palaeontologist, author, blogger, surely needs no introduction around these parts – representing the scientific consensus view. In the blue corner, we had – oh yes – Brian J Ford, proponent of the infamous ‘Aquatic Dinosaurs’ hypothesis, as espoused in an article in Laboratory News back in 2012 and now a book published by HarperCollins(!) entitled Too Big to Walk. It was set to be an entertaining evening, and #FordvNaish certainly didn’t disappoint.

Darren Naish and Brian Ford
Darren (L) and Brian (R), during the Q&A. My photos are all terrible, sorry.

I’ve mentioned Ford and his, er, controversial views once or twice on here before; most recently, when Sara Otterstätter lampooned them by way of a humorous illustration featuring sauropods in a sauna. At first glance, his ideas seem to be a simple rehash of the old idea that sauropods required bodies of water to buoy themselves up. But it’s not just sauropods that Ford believes were aquatic; in his view, even the likes of Tyrannosaurus spent their lives permanently submerged in water.

To ask how he reaches this conclusion is to go down a rather deep rabbit hole. Ford’s speech was peppered with old artworks and clips from Walking With Dinosaurs (as in, the 1999 series) that were meant to prove, er, something, along with lots of insults aimed directly at the palaeontologists and enthusiasts in the audience, of which there were many.

Darren, meanwhile, only had biomechanics and functional morphology, ichnology, geology, palaeobiology, histology, palaeobotany, history and the laws of physics on his side. Boring. Still, he did a very decent job of succinctly summing up where the science actually stands, and managed to avoid inserting too many gratuitous insults. Each of Ford’s worn-out talking points was taken down with absolute precision.

Darren's concluding slide.
Darren’s concluding slide.

Darren’s speech certainly attracted the most praise online and was, naturally, better received by the audience, while Ford’s attracted lots of scoffing and the phrase ‘Gish gallop’. Ford was cherry-picking with wild abandon, and then turning around and accusing his detractors of the very same. He claimed that no dinosaur ever went anywhere near a desert, crocodiles can’t leap, dinosaurs wouldn’t have been able to change direction when walking on land as a clip from Planet Dinosaur demonstrated (???), a tuatara is a lizard, Spinosaurus was a crocodilian, an asteroid wasn’t involved in the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, all dinosaurs throughout the Mesozoic lived in a giant bath with a constant temperature of 37 degrees, which is far more believable than them having elevated metabolisms, etc. etc. etc. Oh, and all palaeontologists are simpletons who sit around all day, making shit up for laughs. It was a bit exhausting.

Ford in action
Ford in action. It shouldn’t just be Bronto in the swamp, apparently.

And yet…there was also something weirdly compelling about Ford’s cavalcade of, er, unorthodox opinion. Perhaps it was the bow tie (worn, apparently, in lieu of a straight tie that would dangle into his petrie dishes), or the Pathé News voice, or the stern admonition of anyone who dared to pronounce Triceratops with a soft C in the middle.

But I was inspired, and if this is indeed to be Ford’s first and last book on the subject (as he claimed), I feel someone else should take up that heroic mantle. If something so apparently obviously terrestrial as a narrow-footed, columnar-limbed, air-filled sauropod dinosaur was actually fully aquatic, what other animals have we got wrong? Based on the Ford style of argumentation, may I present:

Too Lanky to Walk: a New Science of Giraffes.

Giraffes are among the most popular and charismatic large mammals on the planet. A vast range of literature has been dedicated to them. Giraffe toys are considered hugely collectible, especially by children. They adorn posters, clothing, plastic lunchboxes and star in advertisements and television documentaries the world over. Everyone is familiar with the image of the graceful, lithe giraffe striding majestically over the savannah, a picture that has been all-too-eagerly perpetuated by the scientific establishment.

Giraffe at London Zoo
There’s something very wrong with our giraffes.

But this image is wrong. It’s an absurd nonsense, a fairy tale put about by scientists who are far too invested in the status quo, and closed-minded in a way that surely brings academia itself into disrepute. For if we look again at these animals with an open mind, and truly examine all the evidence we have available, we are forced to reach a truly shocking, heretical conclusion:

Giraffes are aquatic.

It’s all there in the skeleton. Once we free ourselves from the chains of dogmatic, establishment thinking, the animal’s aquatic affinities can be seen in its very bones. So-called ‘scientists’ would have us think that the long legs of a giraffe are adaptations for sustained, fast travel, or to boost its height so that it can reach higher into the trees. But just look at how fragile they are! These long, thin legs would leave the animal extremely vulnerable to tripping over were it ever to even power-walk, much less gallop as depicted in supposed TV ‘documentaries’. The sheer distance between its body and the ground, and the forces therefore involved, would result in grievous – probably fatal – injuries.

Place a giraffe in the water, and suddenly its long legs make much more sense. They allow the animal to wade through its aquatic environment with minimal resistance, while its body is safely supported by the water. The danger of tripping is eliminated completely.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wasn’t there a study published in 2010, by Henderson and Naish, that established giraffes as very poor swimmers? Well, that study was complete make believe. I’ve read it myself, and where they’ve placed the centre of gravity simply doesn’t make any sense. It’s just another absurdity peddled by the dogmatic, backward establishment. In my own study, I’ve found that my giraffe toys sit very happily in the water.

Submerged giraffe by Natee
Natee has kindly illustrated my theory, which is mine.

The giraffe’s famous long neck, too, is superbly adapted for an aquatic lifestyle. Its length allows the animal to enter deep water and still keep its snout above the surface, allowing it to breathe – like a snorkel. A life in the water also solves the famous issue of how giraffes drink without a catastrophic rush of blood to the head, or breaking their fragile legs – by removing their need to bend down. Traditionally, scientists have proposed all sorts of complicated valves and circulatory adaptations to solve this problem, but is it not far more parsimonious to conclude that they simply avoid lowering their heads altogether?

Giraffes
Behold the new paradigm!

It’s time to throw away our old views about giraffes. For so long, mammalogists have doggedly maintained a view that can simply no longer be sustained in the light of this bold new evidence. They are backwards-looking, rigid, and cannot be trusted. As ever, it takes an outsider to make a true breakthrough. Someone who is watching from the grandstands, rather than deeply involved in the game.

My book will be available at the end of the month from HarperCollins. Tell your friends. The important thing is, I’m starting a debate, and that’s what science is all about.

Vision of the future
Credit: Gareth Monger

4 thoughts on “Ford versus Naish”

  1. I was educated on health by a giraffe named Harold as a small child. In light of this evidence should I start saying Yes to Drugs?

  2. So, what next? Terrestrial brachiopods? Fossorial bats? Lunar marine mastodons? I sense unlimited opportunity here.

  3. Nate’s giraffe drawing clearly misses the point: No sail (with shoulder blades sticking out at its sides), no tailfin (clearly, the skeleton’s tail shows it to be similar to an ichthyosaur’s), not even proper forehead nostrils (clearly those supposed “horns” were anchoring structures for a fleshy snorkel). Almost as bad as feathers on dinosaurs! Who does that?

    Btw, the first time I saw a giraffe as a kid I was actually disappointed by its small size. I had seen plenty of life-size sauropod models before (Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus, Seismosaurus) and this meek mammal did not compete.

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