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The Straight Dope



I've wondered about this for years, ever since I heard it in the third grade from Steve Revoi. He said brontosauri had a brain in their butt. Is this true? What did it control? Was it part of the central nervous system or an entity unto itself? Did it have angst or did it feel integrated into the whole being of the brontosaurus? How about its sex life? As you can tell, I am very curious about this topic. --Ruth Morris, Alhambra, California

Your feelings are understandable, Ruth; there's no question that the phenomenon of creatures with their brains up their butts has acquired a certain desperate relevance today. But let's start with dinosaurs. Actually, it wasn't the brontosaurus that supposedly had two brains, it was the stegosaurus, the one with the spikes running up and down its back. Archaeologists found there was a big enlargement in the stegosaurus's spinal cord at the point where it passed through the pelvis. Since the stegosaurus had a pretty piss-poor excuse for a brain in its head--the thing was about the size of a walnut, only 1/20th the size of the mysterious butt organ--speculation arose that the giant reptile needed some auxiliary gray matter to mind its rump while the forward brain handled business up front. Naturally, this idea provoked a certain amount of merriment amongst the more disreputable elements of the popular press. In 1912, columnist Bert Taylor of the Chicago Tribune penned the following ode on the subject:

Behold the mighty dinosaur / Famous in prehistoric lore, / Not only for his power and strength / But for his intellectual length. / You will observe by these remains / The creature had two sets of brains--/ One in his head (the usual place), / The other in his spinal base. / Thus he could reason "A priori" / As well as "A posteriori." / No problem bothered him a bit / He made both head and tail of it. / So wise was he, so wise and solemn, / Each thought filled just a spinal column. / If one brain found the pressure strong / It passed a few ideas along. / If something slipped his forward mind / 'Twas rescued by the one behind. / And if in error he was caught / He had a saving afterthought. / As he thought twice before he spoke / He had no judgment to revoke. / Thus he could think without congestion / Upon both sides of every question. / Oh, gaze upon this model beast; / Defunct ten million years at least.

Alas, it was too good to be true. Later scholars decided that the putative afterbrain was just a neural junction where a lot of nerves happened to enter the spinal cord. Such junctions are found in many lizards, as well as in the ostrich. Dinosaurs may have been stupid, but they weren't schizo.

I've noticed that the lobbies of many older buildings are adorned with what appear to be numerous swastikas. Were these an Indian symbol or something before Adolf made them famous? --Scott Peters, N. Oak Park

You are absolutely precisely right, Scott, an experience you might be well advised to savor. The swastika was employed by various American Indian tribes, notably the Navahos, for whom it was a sort of good luck sign. I recall once seeing a picture of the young Jackie Kennedy (then Bouvier) wearing a costume decorated with swastikas for some kind of Indian pageant. Or maybe she was going to become a professional wrestler; my memory is somewhat vague. At any rate, the swastika was widespread throughout the ancient world, particularly in India, where it remains in common use by Hindus, Jainas, and Buddhists. Originally it probably symbolized the sun circling through the sky, although many other explanations have also been offered. In any case up until the 20th century its significance was generally benign. Then German right-wingers got their hands on it, attracted by its widespread use among so-called Aryan peoples, and also by its strangely compelling appearance. Hitler may have been introduced to it through the work of the fanatical Aryan supremacist Jorg Lanz von Liebenfels, who was using the swastika as the symbol of his cult as early as 1907. Many anti-Semitic and militarist groups had adopted it as well by the time Hitler commandeered it for the Nazis around 1920. Even he was a bit surprised by the impact it had on people. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective political symbols ever devised.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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