Yes, Virginia, there are indeed dinosaurs still, though your little friends at school say no.

But it's not quite so simple. You can't just say "there are dinosaurs still" or "there are not any dinosaurs now."

I have said there are still dinosaurs, to give you the quick answer, and the significant one. But you are old enough to explore the dinosaur business a little, so let us begin.

There are no dinosaurs now of the sort you see in oil company ads. They are all gone, those great (though some were quite small like a rabbit or wallaby) reptilian beasts that ate their way through billions of tons of stuff that is now oil.

As you know, there are men now in Africa who say they have seen these primeval creatures still living in Africa. There is no reason whatever to believe them.

It is not that they lie. Try to learn, child, not to call people liars, even if they are not telling the factual truth. They are not lying. They are merely not telling the truth, or at least they are not presenting any evidence.

Their story is suspect for the following reasons:

* They believed dinosaurs still existed. Then they set out to find them. Whenever men believe something exists, they have no trouble whatever finding it does exist. They have an ax to grind. It would be far more convincing if Secretary Weinberger, say, accidentally bumped into some dinosaurs while roaming about, since he, at least, has not invested his heart and dollars in proving they exist.

* Humans have been exploring the world more or less carefully for about 3,000 years, probably much longer, and it is odd that dinosaurs have not been met with in those centuries.

* It is also hardly credible that the people who claim to have seen dinosaurs (knowing the derision their idea was certain to meet among sensible folk) blithely announce they have seen the beasts, without any objective proof of their assertions.

* Since it would please everybody if dinosaurs did exist, perhaps in strictly limited numbers, there is a strong tendency to accept any rumor of their existence. One of the firmest principles of human behavior is that if you want something to be, it is bound to be. You will learn, if you have teachers worth a damn, that if you want a certain result, your facts and figures are far more likely to be flat wrong than if you cared nothing about the result. Whenever you want a fact to be true, you will be wise to require quite exceptional proof, since your own desire is working strongly to convince you it is true, whether it is or not.

Very well, then, there are no dinosaurs. How can we then tell little girls there are dinosaurs everywhere?

Dinosaur is a word of more than one meaning. In addition to the great beasts of the Carboniferous Period (worshipped by oil moguls) the word dinosaur also means any creature that the world has passed by; any creature deemed obsolete or irrelevant. The word also means any creature lacking wits, lacking foresight, lacking prudence.

I am not proud to say so, but of course I am a dinosaur myself. I care little for the Capital Centre, I find substantial defects in Pavarotti's voice, especially when he starts bleating; I have no intention of ever seeing outer-space movies (among American films I liked "Picnic" and "Wuthering Heights" and not many others) and I don't give a damn about getting rich or ever going to another White House party as long as I live, etc., etc.

In short, I am not much in tune with things, and may be regarded as obsolete, irrelevant, a dinosaur.

In the sense of general imprudence and lack of tact, you may say President Reagan is rather a simon-pure dinosaur, since few prudent and tactful men in public life would be caught dead with $385,000 boots, and so forth. In another sense--in the sense of a general absence of wits--you may lump the Moral Majority as dinosaurs.

There are good dinosaurs--Uncle Henry is one, you recall--and bad dinosaurs. You cannot deal with us merely by lumping us all together as dinosaurs, even though we may all share the common defect (or virtue) of being out of step with the times.

So much for preliminaries. And now we get back to a tremendously important point. If the primeval dinosaurs no longer exist, what happened to them?

Nobody knows. They were once here, now they're not. Survival of the fittest means simply that whatever still survives has been able to survive. Nothing more. Creatures far better adapted, far more intelligent, may have died out. All we can say is that whatever is still here is still here. This does not seem to me a particularly startling insight, though it is enough, I know, to amaze some. If creatures now breathing want to think they are somehow more fit than dinosaurs, well, why not. If it makes you feel better.

The original dinosaurs may have been quite intelligent, quite well adapted. As the dominant fauna now, we humans ought not sneer at dominant fauna that went before us. We are, after all, kin to dinosaurs as we are to all other animals.

Christmas Day is not a bad moment to reflect that the greatest intelligence, wit, compassion, strength, zub, zub, zub, does not necessarily survive better than nearly total brainlessness. Cockroaches are extremely ancient and survive in great splendor throughout this capital. Whereas some of the most gorgeous specimens of other genera have not fared well upon the earth.

But back to your first question.

No dinosaurs? Ah, Virginia, nothing is more certain than that dinosaurs are all around you. Though some are much nicer than others.

The question is not whether there are dinosaurs. The question is what should one be a dinosaur about. What should one be out of fashion about. And which dinosaurs should be loved and trusted, and to what extent.

These are the only questions of interest in the world, and the answer to them all is readily found in about 85 years, provided one is diligent and pays attention. Merry Christmas, little old kid.