Laelaps

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On the 31st of May, 1984, the late evolutionary theorist John Maynard Smith appraised the field of paleontology in the journal Nature. The report was a critical summary of a series of lectures Stephen Jay Gould had given at Cambridge, and Gould considered it “the kindest and most supportive critical commentary I have ever received.” Smith wrote;

The attitude of population geneticists to any palaeontologist rash enough to offer a contribution to evolutionary theory has been to tell him to go away and find another fossil, and not to bother the grownups.

In the last ten years, however, this situation has changed by the work of a group of palaeontologists, of whom Gould has been a leading figure. …

The Tanner lectures were an entertaining and stimulating occasion. The palaeontologists have too long been missing from the high table. Welcome back.

This welcome to the evolutionary “high table” has had a strong effect on paleontologists. Smith’s statement was both complimentary and condescending, and much hand-wringing still goes on over whether the contributions of paleontologists are truly appreciated by geneticists, molecular biologists, and members of disciplines more traditionally thought to be the inheritors of the great Modern Evolutionary Synthesis of the mid-20th century.

I would argue, however, that the focus on reaching Smith’s “high table” is not very productive. It assumes that paleontology had to (or still must) rise to some level of discourse determined entirely by other disciplines. What is more important is the broader context in which Smith made his statement. The discipline of paleontology underwent a series of major changes throughout the 20th century, and the new volume The Paleobiological Revolution, edited by David Sepkoski and Michael Ruse, is essential to understanding why modern paleontology is much more than just the collection and cataloging of dusty old bones.

The difficulty in reviewing any scientific volume created by a platoon of different researchers is that each entry deserves a review in its own right. I cannot adequately do justice to them all. Some entries are excellent, others lackluster, but generally speaking The Paleobiological Revolution is an extremely valuable book for anyone interested in the genesis and present standing of modern paleontology.

The first major section of the book is titled “Major Innovations in Paleobiology.” This section sets the stage for the rest of the book, providing the requisite background for the reader to appreciate “The Emergence of Paleobiology” (outlined in David Sepkoski’s excellent review) as well as the state of subdisciplines within paleobiology (i.e. contributions by dinosaur specialist Jack Horner and paleoanthropologist Tim White). Among the most outstanding essays in this section is Richard Aldridge and Derek Briggs’ piece on “The Discovery of Conodont Anatomy and Its Importance for Understanding the Early History of Vertebrates.” This mostly comes from a personal touch that normally does not often make it into peer-reviewed literature, and to read the anecdotes of contributors to modern paleobiology is refreshing.

The second part of the book is called “The Historical and Conceptual Significance of Recent Paleontology.” It is represented by a somewhat more heterogenous mix of papers, containing both historical narratives (i.e. Susan Turner and David Oldroyd’s essay on “Reg Sprigg and the Discovery of the Ediacara Fauna”) and detailed discussions about methods in paleobiology (i.e. Derek Turner’s discussion of “Cope’s Rule” and the running speed of Tyrannosaurus as testable hypotheses). Of particular interest is Manfred Laubichler and Karl Niklas’ overview of “The Morphological Tradition in German Paleontology.” As documented elsewhere in the same volume (Patricia Princehouse’s paper on “What Does It Mean to Be a Darwinian?”) the work of German paleontologists like Otto Schindewolf and Otto Jaekel were important to both the formulation of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis and later work by paleontologists like Stephen J. Gould. Indeed, the “German Synthesis” is important to understand both in terms of its influence on Anglo-American formulations of paleobiology and as a different sort of evolutionary synthesis.

The last section of the book is entitled “Reflections on Recent Paleobiology.” Where the previous two sections were largely historical and ask the question “How did we get here?”, the final section seeks to find the place of paleobiology in modern academia and evolutionary theory. The consensus is that the emergence and evolution of paleobiology during the last 40 years marks the transition of paleontology to a more “nomothetic” or “law-producing” discipline. Paleontologists are actively contributing to biological and evolutionary questions and not just simply utilizing or incorporating what is being discovered in genetics or molecular biology. This has not always been appreciated by members of other disciplines. Even during the paleobiological revolution some evolutionary theorists did not think anything new or remarkable going on. As related in Princehouse’s essay, this was the feeling of John Maynard Smith during a 1980 conference on Macroevolution held in Chicago. Princehouse quotes Gould’s account of a particularly telling moment;

Maynard Smith got up and made his little announcement, as people always do, ‘oh you guys have presented nothing new here. We’ve said that all the time.’ And I’ll never forget George Oster standing up and saying ‘You know, John, we always hear things like this. Well, John, you know. You may have had the bicycle. But you didn’t ride it.’

It is difficult to confirm the accuracy of this account, but true or not, it represents the tension between paleontologists and other evolutionary theorists between the 1970′s and 1990′s. Some theorists may have lamented the lack of communication between the disciplines of paleontology and genetics, but when communication did open up there was sometimes a tendency for the geneticists to say “We’ve known about that for years and decided it was not important.” Thankfully the scientists responsible for the paleobiological revolution kept pushing anyway, and modern paleontology is much better for it.

There is little doubt that paleontology is going to continue to change, but David Jablonski’s “Paleontology in the Twenty-First Century” serves as a good summary of the present state of paleobiology and how it might change in years to come. The book does go out on a bit of a whimper as Michael Ruse’s closing essay is a little muddled (Ruse considers the “paleobiological revolution” as a paradigm shift only to say that it is not productive to think of it in this way), but the last section does provide a fair assessment of the recent-past and near-future of paleobiology.

Readers will no doubt recognize a number of trends that run throughout these sections. Figures like G.G. Simpson, S.J. Gould, and Thomas Schopf pop up time and again, as do debates about the nature of punctuated equilibrium (both in terms of how “revolutionary” it was [Sepkoski's essay in part II] and where it stands as a theory today [White's article in part I, Anthony Hallam and Arthur Boucot's papers in part III]). Encompassing all of this, however, is the transition of paleontology from a discipline incorporated into the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis by Simpson to one that produced startling new ideas (i.e. punctuated equilibrium, species sorting, hierarchical levels of selection, &c.).

Most of the criticisms I have involve individual papers and not the volume itself. I would have liked to have seen some contributions about paleomammology and the incorporation of evo-devo into paleontology (at least partially addressed by Jablonski’s piece), but the editors cannot necessarily be faulted for the absence of such papers. Only so much can fit in a given volume! In terms of individual papers, however, I would have liked to see Jack Horner and David Fatovsky dig a little deeper into the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the late 20th century. Their reviews are good for those unfamiliar with dinosaur paleontology, but I still feel that a comprehensive review of this major shift is still wanting.

The papers by Tim White and Arthur Boucot also hit a bit of a sour note with me. Both are critical of punctuated equilibrium, and while that is certainly no sin both authors seem to be more critical of S.J. Gould than the actual idea. Both essays are still of value (Boucot’s, especially, serves as a reminder that geology, stratigraphy, and other “traditional” parts of paleontology are still very important), but their criticisms are weakened by appeals to authority and weak support from the literature. (Then again, perhaps my own biases have colored by interpretation of these essays, so I will leave you to read them for yourself.)

Such criticisms are relatively minor, however. I enjoyed The Paleobiological Revolution immensely. It is the kind of book I would have loved to contribute to myself, and it is an essential read for anyone interested in paleontology. While some of the essays can get a bit technical, the majority are written in accessible language from a personal perspective. This only heightens the value of the book. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I will watch with much interest as the “Paleobiological Revolution” continues.

Comments

  1. #1 RBH
    July 3, 2009

    The book does go out on a bit of a whimper as Michael Ruse’s closing essay is a little muddled …

    That seems to be a chronic state for Ruse these days.

  2. #2 lena
    June 24, 2011

    The book does go out on a bit of a whimper as Michael Ruse’s closing essay is a little muddled …

  3. #3 Karina
    June 24, 2011

    Well, i bought it. It really, basically, shows how paleontology has evolved (and other science fields with it also)

  4. #4 Dave
    November 10, 2011

    It sounds like a detailed account. I’m going to have to see for myself.

  5. #5 BFD
    November 20, 2011

    I like this books it so amazing