Many theories have been set forth proposing to explain the virtually universal belief in dragons among ancient peoples. Some have seen dragons as a product of the human imagination, resulting from fear of the unknown. It has been pointed out that as late as 1600 A.D., maps were decorated about the borders of unknown regions with drawings of dragon-like monsters. Yet it is hard to imagine how such widely separated people groups all imagined virtually the same thing, if that imagined entity had no basis in reality or in their experience.
In my undergraduate study of literature, one frequent interpretation of archetypes in literature was that people had a universal need to believe in these things, that the human subconscious understood at some deep level the same set of symbols, perhaps gained through their common (supposed) evolutionary ancestry. The most frequent modern interpretation given to myths and archetypes is that they are subconsciously symbolic. One wonders, however, why it is only humankind that has left this constant, ancient record of dealings with dragons, and how such a memory could have lived through millions of years of evolution and changes into entirely different kinds of animals.
For these reasons, even many secular authors have come almost, but not quite, to the conclusion that early people encountered dinosaurs, and passed down the memory of these encounters in tales of dragons. Peter Costello, who researched Lake Monster legends and alleged sightings in considerable depth, wrote, "...as we go through the early accounts of Irish lake monsters we shall find that there is often only a superficial covering of fancy...real animals are clearly behind some of the stories."
The World Book Encyclopedia (1973) notes "the dragons of legend are strangely like actual creatures that have lived in the past. They are much like the giant reptiles which inhabited the earth long before man is supposed to have appeared on earth."
The writer's use of the phrase "is supposed to have appeared" shows that he recognized the problem. Man was not supposed to have appeared until much later, but it surely seems that man did in fact see dinosaurs, drawing pictures and writing about what he saw. How could he have written about something that lay buried deep within the earth, having died out millions of years earlier?
Peter Costello presents the same problem. "The plesiosaur theory," he writes, "which appeared early on, still has many supporters....but again the difficulties, whether it could have survived for sixty million years undetected...are very great."
Daniel Cohen, author of The Greatest Monsters in the World, also says that there is a "sensational possibility" that the dragon legend originated with the dinosaurs, observing that:
no creatures that ever lived looked more like dragons than dinosaurs...there is a problem with this theory. The problem is time. As far as we know, all the dinosaurs died out over 70 million years ago. That long ago, there were no people on earth. So who could remember the dinosaurs?
Cohen says that "some early discoverers of dinosaur bones called them 'dragon bones'." But apparently because the time and evolutionary development problems are so great in the minds of those who have accepted this model of origins, Cohen boldly asserts that "scientists today no longer identify dinosaurs with dragons."
The obvious conclusion is that except for their devotion to evolutionary theory, identification of dinosaurs with dragons would be the logical interpretation of the evidence.
Only two years after the publication of Greatest Monsters, however, Carl Sagan, a renowned astronomer and popularizer of the atheistic evolutionary interpretation of science, published The Dragons of Eden, which in spite of the time and evolutionary development problems asks, "Could there have been man-like creatures who actually encountered Tyrannosaurus Rex?" Sagan asserts, "One way or another, there were dragons in Eden." Outspokenly an evolutionist, Sagan's book is subtitled, "Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence." He does not, of course, view Eden in the classical Christian or Biblical sense of the word. By "Eden," he means an emerging humanity's dawning awareness of their existence. And he doesn't say human beings encountered Rex, but "man-like creatures." But this is still quite a step in the thinking of those tied to their evolutionary time scale.