Sunday, December 08, 2002

Filling The Gaps

This is a review by a non-paleontologist and non-biologist, just by someone interested in science since he was a child in the 60's. All my life I have followed the marvels of Space science, the moon shots and Aviation in general, since subscribing to the Eyring e-mail list, I have found I lack basic knowledge in the fields required to discuss Evolution. Now I have finally done something about it, although some of you may have given recommendations as to what to read, my local library limits me, so I am starting with Stephen Jay Gould, whose recent passing was noted on this very list.

Dinosaur in a Haystack, Reflections in Natural History, (Stephen Jay Gould: 1996 Random House and various issues of Nature magazine)

This is a review of a collection of Essays published in Nature Magazine before 1996 I should imagine. I would have liked the editors to include the original publication dates in Nature with each essay. The essays themselves revolve, sometimes loosely, on the topic of evolution; he always relates it back to that somewhere in the essay.

For someone like myself, a complete novice in the fields discussed by Gould, his style of writing is informative without the jargon that sometimes cloud the specialties us humans undertake from the mere mortals in the lower classes. Gould explains: "I will, of course, clarify language, mainly to remove the jargon that does impede public access... I will not make concepts either more simple or more unambiguous than nature's own complexity dictates."

I am happy he has done just that, in his 7th in this series of essay collections, the first one published in 1977 (Ever Since Darwin). All the essays revolve around that topic I am trying to understand, �Evolution.� I decided to start with Gould, because of his readily available material at my local library and his prominence in his field. The continuing argument between theology and science on "the origin of man" and hence the oxymoronic term "creation science" was coined by the proponents, or at least, the more prominent proponents of the biblical literal view of the world. Being a Christian, I felt I should find out the truth!

Now, back to Gould, two essays gained my interest for clearly pointing out two points of discussion between Old School and New School on the one hand and between Evolution and Creationists (a better word, don't you think?).

The first is �Dinosaur in a Haystack,� the second, �Hooking Leviathan by its Past�.

Dinosaur in a Haystack

Observation follows theory or is it theory follows observation? Gould explains how at the time of Erasmus Darwin (Grandfather of Charles Darwin), the Geological Society banned theoretical discussion. It was felt that observation was essential, when sufficient data was collected, and then theories could be entertained. When Charles Darwin came to the discussion some 30 years later, he then indicated the necessity for theory before observation. After all, how we look at the world is based on a theory, what we go out in search of is based on theory, etc. The two are dependant on each other and cannot be separated without making each meaningless.

Thus we come to Gould�s paleontology field and the theory of The Late Permian Debacle, and how an asteroid hitting the Earth caused it. The great extinction at this time was a matter of how extant it was amongst the fossil species and, of course, what contradicted it. The evidence pointed to a gradual extinction of the animals over geologic times. The new theory required additional evidence. Gould tells us about the ammonites ( a name which sounded like a Biblical tribe) and how they had appeared, given the current evidence and how a more thorough look, in the field, at the fossil record (needle in the haystack) might bring up ammonites closer to the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary (225 million years ago).

The problem is described as this, the rarer animals in the virtual slice of time take at a geological cut, cliff face, or whatever, may be distributed randomly and infrequently through it. Thus, it is conceivable that they did expire at the KT event, indicated by a layer of mud, literally dividing two epochs of time, rather than at the latest recorded disposition in the strata. If the above is true, then a more detailed look, excavation, needs to be made. The end result was the finding of the ammonites near the boundary, and thus dispelling the gradualism of the neo-Darwinists amongst the palaeontological world.

We know the fossil record is incomplete and sparse, so some logical; indeed, rational analysis is needed to flesh out theories. This means, sometimes, hard work, which makes the armchair theorists obsolete in a heartbeat.

Hooking Leviathan by its Past.

Or, another case of filling in the gaps!!!

He starts the essay with a serious error by Darwin himself, who speculated that the North American Black Bear, swimming with its mouth wide open catching insects, could easily, over a serious long time, evolve to something approaching a whale. The origin of the whale thus is introduced.

This is case where the creationists insisted that evolution was inadequate to explaining life; in this case it was the origins of the leviathan of the deep, the mammalian whales that confused these poor people.

�Still, our creationist incubi, who would never let facts spoil a favorite argument, refuse to yield, and continue to assert the absence of all transitional forms by ignoring those that have been found, and continuing to taunt us with admittedly frequent examples of absence.� Are you a �creationist incubi�?

Gould takes us through the discovery of the very intermediate fossils that prove the evolution of whales, where it had been inferred, now it is established beyond a doubt. With Gould�s now famous explanatory skills we are taken for a journey of exploration in Pakistan (Science knows no national boundaries) where 1983 produced Pakicetus, a discovery by paleontologists Phil Gingerich (University of Michigan) and N. A. Wells, D. E. Russel, and S. M. Ibrahim Shah, found it buried in ancient river sediments, where one would expect to find it. The find was only the skull, but further field work produced the remaining body 10 years later. An excellent essay, and one that will remain embedded in my cranium for sometime.

I am currently furthering my reading in this field of paleontology with a taxonomic dalliance into Eugenics, lead by the 3 essays under the heading �Disparate Faces of Eugenics� in this same book to Gould�s 1981 book �The Mismeasure of Man�. I highly recommend Dinosaur in a Haystack, and if that is any guide to the style of Gould�s work, his other writing should be quite enlightening.

Clifford M Dubery

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