Once upon a time about 65 million years ago, give or take, there lived two dinosaurs. They actually lived with a whole lot of other dinosaurs: little ones that scampered about in the undergrowth looking for bugs and little lizards to eat; bigger ones who ate the little ones; and some much bigger ones that roamed across swamps and grasslands in herds, hoping to not be the one eaten by fast dinosaurs with big teeth. Most of the dinosaurs lived pretty well as the weather was generally fine and there was usually enough food to go around.
These two particular dinosaurs lived somewhere around where southern Siberia is today, or where it would be if continents stayed still, which they don’t, but let’s not worry about that. Let’s just say these dinosaurs lived on a wide, flat grassy plain, somewhere on the opposite side of the earth from where Mexico would have been about 65 million years ago.
One afternoon, our two dinosaurs were munching their way across the prairie, feeling a little uneasy that the grass had become less plentiful in recent years. It seemed that each year they had to walk a little further and work a little harder to get all the grass they wanted to eat, so they did, because these were well-schooled dinosaurs who knew the rewards went to those who exhibited characteristics that dinosaurs generally valued, like hard work, resilience, and grit. Taking a short break from eating, one dinosaur raised up his big head and said to the other, “We sure have had to work harder to get enough grass to eat in the last few years. Do you think there is less grass than there used to be?” The other dinosaur thought for a moment (setting aside that he really didn’t know what a “year” was) and said, “Or maybe there are more dinosaurs trying to eat our grass? Recently I saw a bunch of little critters I had never seen before. They weren’t very big, and they looked funny, but there were a LOT of them.” The first dinosaur said, “Hey, I’ve seen them, too! And there are some that don’t eat just grass! They eat fruit and nuts, and some even live in the ponds and eat pond scum and little fish. What’s with that? I’m glad we’re proper dinosaurs who eat grass. I mean, we’re the biggest thing on this whole prairie, and grass has been good to us for a long time!”
As they munched their way across the prairie on this sunny afternoon, occasionally raising their heads on long necks to see if there were any of those dangerous meat-eaters nearby, both dinosaurs felt a strong “thump” under their heavy legs. They looked at each other; they would have raised their eyebrows in that quizzical way that says “did you feel that” if they had eyebrows, which they did not. The first thump was followed by some smaller shakes, but pretty soon the two dinosaurs were back with their heads down, munching away, though from time to time they looked up and saw that other dinosaurs in their herd seemed to still be upset by the “thump” they had all felt.
That evening, there was a spectacular sunset across the plains; I mean a truly world class sunset stretching well beyond just the western sky, with every shade of orange, pink, red, purple, and all kinds of colors that dinosaurs had not even named yet. The two dinosaurs, along with most of the others in their herd gathered together in a sort of dinosaur conference, and gazed happily at that beautiful sky, feeling like it was a good omen after the ever-leaner years of grass and the unsettling “thump” and shakes of the afternoon. One of our dinosaurs said, “We’re sure lucky to be here on this prairie where there is still a fair bit of grass, and there are beautiful sunsets. Isn’t it great to be able to appreciate something as beautiful as a sunset?” The other dinosaurs agreed.
A few days later the dinosaurs woke to another pretty site, though this one was more enigmatic than the gorgeous sunset. Little white flakes drifted slowly down from the sky. It was not cold, and there were no clouds in the sky; but the air smelled a little funny and the white flakes were like the ash that sometimes blew in from a grass fire, except there was no fire on the prairie. One of the dinosaurs said, “I hope that whatever caused all that white stuff in the air doesn’t get any closer to us”. The other replied, “Yes, but I think some other dinosaurs way upwind might be in trouble”. The rest of the herd did not seem overly worried about the white stuff in the air, so they all went back to eating their grass.
For several days the white flakes fell on and off, and sometimes the sky seemed to get thick and dark, though no rain fell. After a week or so, the air was really pretty nasty and some of the grass had started to die. The two dinosaurs looked around and saw that some of the smaller, skinnier dinosaurs in the herd had fallen down and were not moving. “Let’s go south”, one dinosaur said. “Yep”, said the other. “Grass has always sustained us and we just need to find more.”
So, the two dinosaurs and the rest of the herd started walking south, as well, of course, as the fast dinosaurs with big teeth who, frankly, had a good time of it because the grass-eaters were getting slower and easier to catch. Over the next few months all of the dinosaurs made their way south, sometimes finding more grass and sometimes not. One day, one of the dinosaurs said to the other, “We have walked a long way south; it should be warmer here”. The other shivered back, “I know we don’t move very fast; what can you expect from dinosaurs as big as we are? But it seems like it should have gotten warmer and that we should have found more grass by now, even though we are kind of slow. I mean, we are headed in the right direction, aren’t we?”
Every day it seemed that there was less grass for the herd to eat, and the more sickly dinosaurs dropped out of the herd and were left behind. Our two dinosaurs put on their most determined faces (which is tough to do for a big, cuddly-looking grass eater) and worked harder than ever to find enough grass to eat. “Grass has always sustained us”, said one. “What if…” the other started to say, but then he saw a little swale with some green grass in it, and he put his head down and ate, not really wanting to think too hard on where that “what if” might lead.
And so it went. We won’t go through all of the trials of these dinosaurs as they and their herd struggled through the next months as summer never really came and the grass never really grew back. Because what had happened, of course, was that a meteor the size of the yet-to-be-formed island of Manhattan had crashed into the other side of the earth. Things were REALLY bad over there: biblical bad, with tsunamis and firestorms and the immediate extinction of everything that walked or flew, and most of what swam as well. In fact, one day, a flying dinosaur dropped down to the prairie and told our two dinosaurs who were, frankly, on their last legs, “I heard from another pterodactyl who had it from a friend of a friend that pretty much all of the dinosaurs way far away got wiped out by a big rock that fell from the sky. And I have to tell you; it’s not looking good for any of us. If you can’t REALLY quickly figure out how to burrow or grow fur or get a lot smaller or have babies without laying eggs, I don’t see how you survive.”
And so our two dinosaurs, realizing that it was too late for them to do any of those things, sat down and had a long, whimsical chat. (It is a poorly known fact that dinosaurs are prone to whimsy.) One said, “You know, I always kind of knew we dinosaurs would not live forever, but I thought we would see it coming. I thought we would have more time to figure out how to adapt. I mean we knew the grass was getting harder to find for a long time, but who would ever think that GRASS would ever just totally run out?!” The other dinosaur agreed. “And who ever thought that the whole world could get colder? Wow, I guess that big changes don’t actually occur over long periods of time. I guess really big changes can happen really quickly. Do you think we could have done anything to be more ready? I mean we are good, hard working, well-meaning dinosaurs. Bad things shouldn’t happen to good dinosaurs!”
And with that, the two dinosaurs went back to looking for some grass to eat, but you and I know that the story did not have a happy ending for these two dinosaurs.
There is nothing “wrong” with our schools, just as there was nothing wrong with the dinosaurs. But it is a simple fact that evolutionary events don’t take place evenly over long periods of time. Pressures build, the environment begins to change, and then something big happens, and some adapt quickly and others don’t. That is the nature of evolution. But you can sure improve your chances of rapid evolution if you remember those little critters who were scurrying about under the legs of the big, ponderous dinosaurs; those little critters who grew feathers and fur and ate a much greater variety of food, and who could burrow deeply when the climate got cold and come back up when the sun shone more brightly.