Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The State of Palaeontology meme

This one is the brainchild of Dave Hone, who could be characterized as a machine that takes in observations, co-opts friends and colleagues, and gives off interactive internet projects as waste (witness Ask a Biologist, Archosaur Musings, this). It started with his State of Palaeontology survey, the results of which are now posted at Archosaur Musings.

Here's the deal: each participant sends their answers to someone else, who posts those answers with commentary. So you don't post your own answers, you post someone else's. I won the lottery so I get to post Dave's answers, and comment on them. My own answers have been sent on to a Certain PalaeoBlogger Who Shall Remain Nameless Until She Responds. Here we go!

1. What do you think is the great unsolved mystery of palaeontology?

DH: It is harder than I thought being on the other end of what appears on the face of it to be such a simple question. For me though it would be (amongst many other areas of interest) the issue of evolutionary rates. The living world is just a snapshot in time, as is any given fossil (or formation) but what is happenning in the gaps. It looks like pterosaurs evolved very quickly for example, but just how fast can you go from an arboreal lizard to soemthing as derived and specialised as a pterosaur. Can wings appear in 100 generation in the right conditions or does it take at least 100000? It is not a problem for evolution - we can see some incredibly rapid changes in the morphology of living organisms, but once the first tetrapods got out of the water, how fast did they end up with reptilian scales? The fossil record might eventually give us a pretty good answer in terms of time, but never in terms of generations, or changes and I would dearly love to see that issue taken much further.

MW: Agreed on all points. It is occasionally useful to remember that palaeontology is just a tool. It's big and complex and it's easy to get lost in its internal mechanisms and forget that the point of palaeontology is not to have meetings, write papers, yack with fellow palaeontologists, etc. All of those things are meaningless unless they help the machine serve its greater purpose, which is to understand the history of life on Earth.

I have an axe to grind here about the balkanization of institutions, including fields of study. A few years ago Polly Winsor came to talk at Berkeley, and she said that one of the reasons she helped get 'history of science' up and running as a field in its own right was to get scientists and historians to talk to each other, but that what had been intended as a bridge actually became a wall. In the old days you had scientists over here, and historians over there, and occasionally they talked. Now there is this entity, History of Science, parked in between them, and the result is that scientists talk to historians of science rather than to historians, and vice versa, but the biggest tragedy is that too many historians of science didn't talk to either scientists or historians: they talked mainly amongst themselves.

It is helpful to remember, often, that palaeontology is not a monolith or an end unto itself. We are in the Time Machine department of Earth history and evolutionary biology. And we don't have the only kind of time machine, either--geneticists, phylogeneticists, and genome researchers have their own sorts of time machines. Instead of huddling behind our walls, throwing stones, and grumbling about who is getting the grant money and prestige, we ought to be wandering over to those other departments and having a round of beer.

2. What do you think is the most exciting topic / area of research in palaeontology right now?

DH: Everything really. I don't mean that in a faecitious way, but the fact that as we go further with palaeontology, new fossils are found, new methods are developed, old ones refined, new ideas are formed, new collaborations start and slowly we build an increasingly complete picture of the anciet world and how it fits together. Bird origins are fascintating, but part of that is becuse we can compare them to living birds, we can look at the origns of flight (ground up, tree down, WAIR), physiology (breathing systems, pneumaticy, heart capacity, muscle structures), the origins of feathers, the phylogenetics of dinosaurs and birds, ecological niches and feeding types, nesting and reproduction and more. The origins are inherently interesting, but the way we are able to pull together all these disparate ideas and methods to form a holostic picture produces the greatest interest for me.

MW: It does seem like the amazing stuff is coming thick and fast these days, in the form of new fossils, new techniques, and new ideas. I feel like vertebrate palaeontology right now is amazingly far beyond where we were when I got started back in the mid 90s. In fact, I'd venture that the field has changed more in the past 10 years than it did in the preceding 20. Which is exciting, but also frustrating, because it seems like all this new stuff that is broadening our understanding of evolution and the history of life is really getting eviscerated and bowdlerized when it is passed on to the public.

3. What do you consider to be the biggest problem with palaeontology?

DH: Not enough money (pay), no job security, poor funding for research, poor taxonomy, not enough revision, loss of fossils through private collecting, poor research, poor education. All of these are serious issues, but as ever they are all interlinked - with better education, we might do better research, encourage funding and that would produce better pay and more jobs and get people to see the importance of what we do and protect the fossil legacy of the world. Which is most important, or the biggest? Probably in terms of research the poor taxonomy / revision. What is the point of trying to do an ecological or phylogenetic analysis, if all of the 'species' you are using are made of chimeras, or are synonyms etc. You can't check all the primary literature yourself, yet much of it is massively outdated or just badly done. Building on such an unstable foundation is not a good idea.

MW: I agree that the mountain of primary literature and specimens to plow through to try to get a handle on anything is intimidating. But I also don't see any way around it. As far as I can tell, this is how it's always been, and this is how it always will be. The most we can do is to make sure that we publish the most careful and accurate work that we can, to provide a better foundation for future generations.

4. What area of palaeontology do you think is most neglected?

DH: Exactly as above - alpha taxonomy and revisions / descriptions. Ye, we need to manitain all areas of our science, but the fundamental unit is the description and name attached to a fossil species and too little of this is done on new taxa, and too many of the old ones are out of date / poorly done / not illustrated etc. Without knowing wehat we have and what it looks like it becomes very hard to say what it *means*. Too often it is seen as unglamorous or boring work, and yet it is by far the most important thing we do.
It is irrelevant how clever the architect is for your building, if the bricks are full of straw, the mortar is full of sand, and the foundations are not complete. It might look great, and it might do the job, but it needs shoring up and constant work and rebuilding, when you could save so much time if the basics were done right the first time.

MW: Descriptive morphology is simply not valued right now. Early today I was battling a reviewer who wanted me to gut the descriptive section of a manuscript. I have heard similar stories from colleagues. If even editors and reviewers don't see the value in careful descriptive work, then we are in a really bad spot. I keep waiting for people to collectively wake up and realize that description is the fuel of palaeontology. And it's not just palaeontology; when was the last time you read a lengthy, careful morphological description of an extant animal that wasn't tied to evo-devo?

I think we are really hurting right now because of the way that funding works, and the way that universities look at grants. Genomics is sexy and expensive. Evo-devo is sexy and expensive. Doing careful descriptions is not sexy, but it's also not that expensive. The trouble is, it's not supported even at the meager level it requires. Given the choice between a world-class descriptive morphologist and a mediocre moleculoid who can write a grant for a zillion-dollar ion reflux pronabulator, universities seem to be choosing option B. Not good for us world-class morphologists.

5. How do you think the general public view science / palaeontology in your country?

DH: "Just dinosaurs" is too simplistic, but its not far from it. The big problem is that you are either just digging up something and giving it a name, or doing something wildly speculative on behaviour or ecology built on ephemeral data. Either way, you are not doing 'real' science. They like it and it interests them, but not in the way that studies of living animals do. The biggest issue is the media misreporting things (mammoths are dinosaurs, pterosaurs are birds) and the stoking up of non-existent controversey (e.g. BAD vs BAND). The public don't and can't know better and yet they are being fed inaccurate, wrong, speculative or just heavily skewed information that is posing as accurate and impartial facts. Scienctists can really help to fix this, but they are generally unwilling and that does not help the situation.

MW: Palaeontology, narrowly, and evolutionary biology, broadly, need a Carl Sagan right now. Real bad. But since one is not likely to descend from the heavens or claw its way out of the ground, we each need to take personal responsibility to (1) do the best, most substantive work that we can, and (2) communicate what we do to our colleagues and the public. And to be a little humble about it, and go out of our way to make it comprehensible, and to convey some of the enthusiasm that keeps us working on this stuff. If you're a scientist and you don't like the state of science, you can start fixing it immediately, starting with yourself. Admittedly, this is not going to revolutionize the world overnight. But it's a start.


Okay, dear readers. The ball is in your court. Discuss!

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Anonymous Nick Gardner said...

Hi Matt,

Great responses, I thought it best to drive some more traffic your way, so I've posted this to Digg.

1:13 PM  
Blogger TheBrummell said...

...we ought to be wandering over to those other departments and having a round of beer...

Yes. This touches on the low pay / long hours issue, though. I currently lack both the time and funds to wander over to chat with the geologists or the historians or the chemists. This makes me sad.

5:25 AM  
OpenID davegodfrey said...

Palaeontology had a Carl Sagan. Unfortunately Gould died before someone could commission a series from him, so all we have are his essays, which, great as they are, can't reach the kind of audience Cosmos did. (Being a Brit I've never actually seen it, but my interest in astronomy was fed by programs by Patrick Moore and Heather Couper).

The Beeb has done several geology/palaeontology programs. Attenborough did Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives in the late 80s, and Aubrey Manning did Earth Story (covering the whole of geology rather than palaeontology) in about 1999ish. There were a couple of more recent series, but again these were on geological processes rather than evolution itself.

Public radio in the UK a little better, Melvin Bragg's radio show "In Our Time" has covered palaeontology before and gets academics to discuss it (Mike Benton was on the PT extinction one).

Unfortunately there's not been a single person you can point to as the "voice of public palaeontology" over several decades.

11:36 AM  

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