A few years ago I interviewed paleontologist Jack
Horner for the DSIs, and this time I will be speaking with a younger
man whose fields of interest often overlaps those of Horner’s. For those in
the scientific know, http://scienceblogs.com/
is perhaps the most visited science website online, and has dozens of blogs
written by scientists and writers such as yourself. While I long ago gave up on
blogs in terms of politics, entertainment, and the like, science does seem to do
quite well online, be it over global warming, battles against Creationism, or
general blogs on astronomy and paleontology. Amongst those blogs that I have
returned to over the years is one titled Laelaps.
It is named after a predatory dinosaur, and one famed in a painting by Charles
R. Knight. But I’ll return to that later. Its author is Brian Switek, who also
has his own website: http://brianswitek.com/
. He has a book Written In Stone, which will be published in
November, 2010. Welcome, and thanks for consenting to my grilling, which will
likely be a bit different than other interviews you’ve done over the years.
But, since I try not to presume too much, let’s assume most readers have never
heard of Brian Switek, and only have a passing interest in the world before Man.
Could you please briefly introduce yourself? I.e.- who you are, what you do,
what your aims in your career are, and your general philosophy on life, science,
and the cosmos?
BS: As I realized during the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, I really need to figure out how to best introduce myself. I wish I could just say I’m a science writer or paleontologist or otherwise pick just one identity, but I can’t very easily categorize what I do. I might as well try to keep things basic. I am a 27 year old writer and amateur paleontologist from New Jersey. For the past few years I have kept up two paleontology blogs – Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking – and within the past year I have branched out into freelance science writing (Smithsonian, the Times of London, WIRED Science, etc.). I also just published my first two academic papers this year, and I am also starting to dig into more formal paleontology as a research associate at the New Jersey State Museum. To put it more succinctly, I’m something a hybrid – trying to popularize science while simultaneously engaging with the academic community.
Let us start from the beginning, with some biographical plumbing of your past,
then move on to paleontology, your career, your views on science and religion,
and then some queries some might not expect. When and where were you born?
BS: I was born on February 26, 1983 at Rahway Hospital, smack-dab in the middle of suburban New Jersey. My family lived in the neighboring town of Clark, and I was the first of five children.
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
Were you drawn to the outdoors, or were you more of a geek with a book at all
BS: Definitely a geek with his nose always in a book. I was so enthralled by reading that I often took out the full limit of books from the public library and once had my parents called in by the elementary school librarian for consistently selecting books too high above what she thought my reading level should be. If there was a book about sharks, dinosaurs, lake monsters, or alligators in the library, I read it, and probably read it twice. I enjoyed visiting zoos and occasional trips to natural history trails, too, but I never went camping with my parents. Spending time outdoors beyond the structured confines of the suburbs just was not something they had any interest in, so most of what I learned about nature came through National Geographic specials and books.
Naturally my bookishness became increasingly problematic as I got older. Like most children in town, I played soccer and teeball for a few years, but I never developed a real interest in sports. Once I hit high school, especially, I could hardly think of anything more boring than football, but our school highly prided itself on our mediocre team, so I was effectively speaking another language from my peers. I had a few relatively close friends, but I spent most of my adolescent years feeling awkward and isolated, and I still look at them as some of the worst years of my life. Things have significantly improved since then, but I still have great difficulty making friends outside the scientific or academic community.
How do you make a living? Have you ever gone out on digs? Do you teach? Are you
a full time writer? Are you a lecturer?
BS: During the week I spend most of my time working for a joint EPA/Rutgers University agricultural program. I help maintain a searchable database farmers can use to find organic or biopesticide products in place of more harmful conventional pesticides. It’s not what I want to do for a living – not by a long shot – but it helps keep the lights on and is preferable to going back to work at Target or a smoothie shop.
I do most of my writing on nights and weekends, with my attention being split between maintaining my two blogs, freelance article proposals, and work on my books. It has become a second full-time job. While I have had some success in landing freelance articles in the past year, I am still not taking in enough on a regular basis to take the plunge and become a dedicated freelancer. (Nor am I a regular lecturer; I have only been able to give talks when groups have specifically requested that I visit them.) It’s a tricky balancing act, and all I can do for now is the keep working to tip the balance in favor of writing so that I can leave my day job behind.
I do get out into the field when I can, though. Earlier this summer I visited the Inversand marl pit in southwestern New Jersey, a 65 million year old site which preserves the bones of crocodiles, mosasaurs, turtles, and the occasional dinosaur, and a few weeks after that I visited an excavation by the Utah Museum of Natural History crew in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. I was primarily reporting rather than participating in the second case, but the scenery made it worth the trip. I also went out with the New Jersey State Museum expedition to the end-Cretaceous sites along the Montana/Wyoming border this past July. I didn’t find much outside of a few tooth fragments from large theropod dinosaurs, but I did participate in the excavation of a partial hadrosaur skeleton locked in ironstone which had been found a few years before. I’m hoping to continue to work with this specimen back in the lab at the state museum.
I asked of the lecturing because I see, on your website, that you do give talks.
How well attended are these talks? How well informed is the audience? I ask
because I know, back in the 19th Century, in Europe, scientific
lectures were the rock concerts of their day, when folks like a Louis Pasteur or
Michael Faraday could become wealthy off their lecture tours.
BS: The lectures I have given so far have been delivered to college classes and local religious groups. Attendance varies based upon the starting size of the group – a talk I was asked to give to an evangelical church small group had only about five attendees by the time I finished (a few suddenly remembered they had other things to do not long after I started speaking) while a local humanistic Judaism group consisted of more than thirty people. In most cases, most members of the audiences I speak to have some clue about evolution and paleontology – they have heard of Charles Darwin and know that a woolly mammoth isn’t a dinosaur – but I always try to include material which will explicitly challenge what they thought they knew. That is what drew me into science – not what I thought I knew, but the moments when I said to myself “Wow! I never knew that.” In general, though, I’m not well-known or regarded enough to attract any major crowds, so I certainly would not be able to make a living off of lecture tours as Faraday did.
I grew up reading science books (far more so than fiction), mostly those
published in mid-20th Century (such as the How, Why And Wonder
book series), so have seen the resurgence of science writing since the late
1970s as a de facto Golden Age. Do you agree? And what do you think has spurred
this? And, if true, why are so many, especially Americans, so ignorant of things
like evolution, cosmology, etc.?
BS: I am not sure I would say that we have been in a “Golden Age” of science writing, especially since some of the reasons why science writing has experienced a resurgence seem antithetical to the stability, peace, and harmony associated with the classical concept of the “Golden Age.” (Not to mention that we may be so close to it that we may not yet have the full context necessary to understand it – that will be the job of historians in the near future.)
Let’s take dinosaurs as an example. For decades artists such as Knight, Burian, and Zallinger depicted them as drab, tail-dragging denizens of the swamp. (With small theropods being an exception – they always seemed agile enough to run, jump, and catch small prey, as in Knight’s depiction of Ornitholestes catching an Archaeopteryx.) Then there was the “Dinosaur Renaissance” of the 1970’s in which Bob Bakker popularized his image of active, dynamic, “hot-blooded” dinosaurs. This created a controversy within the paleontological community, but it also drew a good deal of public attention – through popular articles, books, and new reports the public was given a window into the controversy. The intense debate over extinction-by-asteroid as proposed by Luis and Walter Alvarez, as well as the less-controversial but still-astounding discovery of dinosaur nests by Jack Horner, fueled this image change for dinosaurs, and at least some of these scientists directly engaged the public with what they were finding. The debates were being played out in public as much as in academic settings, giving scientists with good writing skills all the more reason to reach out to the public. Controversy and change – rather than peace and stability – did much to get the public interested in science.
Writers such as Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould followed this pattern in the realm of evolutionary theory. They did not hold back the technical aspects of their ideas, but they communicated them in popular, accessible forums – Gould even explicitly communicated new, technical data in some of his essays in order to get his colleagues to see the value of scientific essays. On top of this, add the efforts of science writers such as John McPhee, David Quammen, and Carl Zimmer and the time since the 1970’s definitely appears to represent a boom period for science writing.
But I have my concerns about the current state of science writing. In recent years we have lost Sagan, Mayr, Gould, and others, with (I am sorry to say) Dawkins and E.O. Wilson soon to follow. There are other skilled scientist writers out there, such as Neil Shubin, Sean B. Carroll, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, but it remains to be seen whether they will gain the prominence of their predecessors. Furthermore, numerous science publications have folded over the past few decades, and science coverage has been cut from many publications. It is perhaps harder than ever to be a science writer, especially for writers like myself who do not focus on health, medicine, neuroscience, or disciplines directly relating to the human body and behavior. The opportunities which allowed science writers to thrive have been cut back, and while the internet has created a few new opportunities, no one is quite sure how things are going to shake out. There are reasons for hope – the Times of London, for example, launched a dedicated science magazine supplement called Eureka while other newspapers have lopped off their science sections – but right now the science communication ecosystem is changing. No one knows whether we will see a mass extinction or an adaptive radiation.
How all this will affect the public is another question. Over the past few years numerous books and articles have been written about how scientists need to improve their PR skills and stop being “such scientists”, but I think there is most to it than that. The beliefs and opinions of the public – including what often goes under the term “common sense” – shape how messages are going to be received. For a convinced fundamentalist Christian, it doesn’t matter how eloquently or accessibly I write about evolution – I am still going to be wrong because they deeply believe that their interpretation of the Bible is correct. There is much more to scientific communication than just fine-tuning the message. Furthermore, science education in America continues to suffer – especially as teachers continue to “teach for the test” so that students perform well on standardized tests which often omit science – and popular periodicals continue to take the wrongheaded stance that articles on some important scientific issues (from evolution to anthropogenic climate change) require a “balanced” approach in which cranks are given space out of a misplaced sense of fairness. To put it simply, there is no single reason why polls of scientific understanding (or lack thereof) have shown little improvement over time, and improving the quality of science writing alone will not make the difference.
When I interviewed Jack
Horner, he wrote of his dyslexia and the problems he had with
learning in school. In a sense, he sort of fit into that old mold they use about
Albert Einstein- the genius who failed in the rote didactic system. Also, many
studies have been done that show that valedictorians and salutatorians generally
do not do particularly well in life after school, particularly in terms of
creative endeavors- like the arts and sciences. What sort of a student were you?
Do you think you fit this archetype of an ‘outside the box’ thinker? How
have you applied this paradigm into your scientific work?
BS: I was an awful student. From public school through college, I hated almost every minute of my educational experience. Mathematics, especially, was a persistent thorn in my side. I performed well in almost all my other classes with minimal effort, but I was in near-constant danger of failing math. Because of this disjunction I was consistently pushed to take math classes above my skill level where I continued to struggle and fail. Yet, even in classes where I excelled, I had almost no interest or motivation. I always performed well in my English classes, yet I almost never read any of the assigned reading – be it Ordinary People or Hamlet, I stayed quiet and took notes when the class would discuss the books, and I used the knowledge gained from that to pass my tests. (Given this minimum of effort, I have to say I was shocked when I got a 5 on my AP English exam at the end of senior year.)
My rather poor study habits – or at least poor habits when it came to anything I was not directly interested in – made my college experience exceptionally stressful. I placed out of my English requirements, but I was put into the lowest math, meaning that I had to climb out of a pit of failure before even being able to take the basic 101 science courses I needed to be a marine biologist. (At the time I wanted to work with sharks.) Even after I was able to pull myself out by taking math courses at a community college, I found it difficult to make progress. I talked to my marine science professors about getting hands-on experience working with sharks, and the response was always “No one is working with sharks. There’s no future there. Pick something else.” (I wanted to retort “Well if no one is studying them, then there’s obviously a niche open for me.)
Discouraged from becoming a marine scientist by a slew of professors, I threw my energy into paleontology. For the first time since I could remember I actually received some encouragement and support from professors, but it was far too late for me to change paths. I struggled for a year to get Rutgers to allow me to change majors, but they said I had too many credits and that my GPA was too low to switch schools into the Physical Anthropology department (where most of the school’s vertebrate paleontologists worked). It made no sense to me. Here I was, struggling to complete a degree I didn’t want (and was breaking the bank), and I was barred from following my passion because I had already been in school too long. I felt utterly demoralized, especially since I was learning more about science on my own than in most of my classes. That is the way I have always been – if I want to learn something, I look it up.
The unfortunate thing about academic struggles is that it creates a ripple effect which continues to influence events even after you cut yourself off from the direct source of the pain. Taking such a tortuous educational path – not to mention not having a degree – has closed the graduate school door to me, and it made it exceptionally difficult to publish my first book. No one wanted to publish a science book by someone who spent nearly a decade in college without a degree to show for it. My academic career remains an embarrassment and a persistent source of self-doubt for me to this day, making it difficult for me to internalize the accomplishments I have made.
Obviously it would be foolish for me to place myself in the same
intellectual league as Einstein or Horner, but, like them, I struggled through
my formal education before realizing that I could do more on my own than within
the confines of academia, in which I just became a source of money for a
university in a financial crisis. There is much I regret about my education –
and, naturally, I bear a significant amount of responsibility for my failure –
but I am hoping to carve out a more comfortable niche for myself as I move
DS: Do you have
any siblings? Did your siblings follow you into the sciences or writing?
BS: I am the oldest of five children, but I have not been in touch with them for a long time. I have no idea whether any of them follow my science writing.
DS: What of your
parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuit of
science? Often you hear of parents chiding such nonconformist dreams as being
unrealistic? Did they want you to ‘be reasonable,’ and get a job where you
could ‘make money’?
BS: I owe much of my early interest in natural history to support from my parents. Even though they did not have much interest in science or nature themselves – my father was a police officer and my mother was a hairdresser, and later a saleswoman – they bought me books, took me to museums, and told me to pursue my passions during my youth. This changed somewhat as I got older – they joined the chorus of those who said “You can’t be a scientist if you can’t do math” – and they regularly suggested that I give up science in favor of English so that I could play to my strengths. Unfortunately, in recent years I have not had much contact at all with my parents, but their early support did a lot to set me on the path I have followed during most of my life.
DS: What were
some early works or scientists that influenced you? Name some of your favorite
science books, even to this day, as well as those you think among the best ever
published, in the earth sciences or other sciences.
BS: I wish I could remember them all! Most of the books in the school library which sparked my love of paleontology and natural history were already a little out of date by the time I read them, and are almost certainly all out of a print today. I have tried to track a few of them down, but have met with limited success – Edwin Colbert’s Dinosaurs: An Illustrated History is the only one I have been able to find after seeing it years later. In general, though, most of the books I loved were well-illustrated books full of straightforward information about animals. I didn’t care about the writing; I just wanted to learn about the animals.
More recently, the essays of Stephen Jay Gould were what inspired me to learn more about evolution, paleontology, and the history of science, particularly his essay collection The Lying Stones of Marrakech. I was so taken by the first essay – on little sculptures of lizards and other animals being passed off as real, exceptionally-preserved fossils which had duped the 18th century naturalist Johann Bartholomew Adam Beringer – that I immediately ordered a recent translation of Beringer’s work to learn more about the controversy directly. I not only loved Gould’s essays, but his work also encouraged me to go directly to historical source material and start digging around, and for that reason I think Gould’s work has had more influence on me as a writer than anyone else.
Listing my favorite science books is a somewhat more difficult task because there are books that I enjoy for the writing of the author and others which I keep returning to because of what I have been able to learn. Considering what I have read this year alone, I have greatly enjoyed engrossing, well-written books by Mary Roach (Packing for Mars), Rebecca Skloot (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks), Melissa Milgrom (Still Life), Jennifer Ouellette (Dangerous Curves), and Deborah Blum (The Poisoner’s Handbook), while I have learned a great deal from more technical books such as Paul Brinkman’s The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush and the massive, multi-author technical volume New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs.
Putting together a full list of what I think are the best science books ever published is a daunting task that I am going to decline here, but I can mention some of my favorite books which I have returned to over and over again as I have carried out my work. Stephen Jay Gould’s essay collections – particularly early ones such as Bully for Brontosaurus and Eight Little Piggies – are almost constantly going through my reading list, as are some of Carl Sagan’s works such as The Demon-Haunted World and The Varieties of Scientific Experience. Robert Sapolsky’s A Primate’s Memoir and his essay collections also represent a level of writing I hope to one day achieve, as do David Quammen’s musings on natural history as presented in The Flight of the Iguana, The Boilerplate Rhino, and his other books. I really do have a penchant for essay collections, perhaps because I love seeing authors take some quirk of nature or history and turning that into an exposition of some larger point (with each essay itself falling into a string of thoughts on a particular subject).
Henrietta Lacks- I actually wrote a sonnet, once, about the HeLa cells!
Fascinating. Earlier I mentioned the power of dinosaur images on my young self:
the How, Why And Wonder book series. However, one cannot speak of
dinosaurs and images without mentioning the gigantic influence of the painter Charles
R. Knight, whom you mentioned earlier. Although most of his images
are now anachronistic, they still possess a power. I still can visualize some of
his more famous ones, like the iconic confrontation between a T.
Rex and a Triceratops, or the leaping
Laelaps. The latter painting stuck with me for years, and it seems
that Knight anticipated the more vigorous paradigm of homeothermic dinosaurs. I
wrote this poem in response:
“When you lose, do not lose
the lesson.”- Dalai Lama
by Charles R. Knight
AS AN AGE-REDDENED LIGHT
Dryptosaur (neé Laelaps) leaps
the green painting (acquainting
with its sibling?). In a new kind of way
scene portrayed everything now known
their brows are too prominent, and their toes
few, and no ridge ran down the back of their spine,
their hue is nonexistent as their gonads, too.
it has a hold no photograph knows.
the plight of so many other beasts
that day: the way Iguanodon squatted
its namesake today, or the Megalosaur’s
muted and on all fours, like some lizard bear.
the dismembered innocence of a bestial mind
itself to vitality on that long ago day,
these two are vital, with a fullness rare
until their possibility was stripped
demeaned by the day. No light droned through.
transparency it vibrated through decades, void
care, as if some chocolate for a dying dog-
worse: disrepair in search of an ending
objection. There are two forms
light: the glow that illumines, the glare
obscures, the shadow of one- the aggressor
mere projection of a truth
through error. The sun is still another thing.
What are your views on Knight and his work? What sort of influence, if
any, did he have on your ideas, especially early on?
BS: Knight may have done more than any scientist to popularize the two competing images of dinosaurs; swamp-bound giants and active predators. His image of a “Brontosaurus” wallowing in a swamp is nearly as famous as his paintings of Cope’s “leaping Laelaps” or a Triceratops facing down a Tyrannosaurus. Both themes existed in Knight’s work; dinosaurs were unquestionably cast as reptiles, yet he often painted them in active poses which anticipated what would be made popular in the late 20th century. This is actually a recurring theme among many artists of the time – dinosaurs looked like they should be active animals, and no matter how sluggish they may have been during much of any given day there had to be times when they charged at prey, ran to escape predators, or otherwise shook the earth as they stomped around the landscape. Like any artist, Knight’s work was often shaped by the scientists who commissioned it, but I think he did much (along with others such as Erwin Christman) to elevate paleo-restorations to an artform and inspired many of today’s finest paleo-artists (such as William Stout, Michael Skrepnick, Douglas Henderson, and others).
For me, though, Knight’s magnificent paintings often occupied an odd
place in my early education about dinosaurs. They were wonderful and often
reprinted in articles and books – like you, I was enthralled by his “leaping
Laelaps” painting – but they often were used to represent the old way of
looking at dinosaurs. By the time I started to get into the subject, in the
mid-1980’s, the “Dinosaur Renaissance” was in full swing and the
eye-popping art of illustrators such as William Stout had a much more immediate
influence on my understanding of dinosaurs. Paintings from Stout’s famous The
Dinosaurs, in particular, acted as windows into the prehistoric world I
wanted to learn more about. These dinosaurs swam, mated, scavenged, slept
together, and interacted in ways I had never seen before, and I still flip
through the book now and then just to recall my initial feelings upon seeing
DS: Are you
married, with any children? If so, what are their professions? Many envision the
idea of lonely scientists retreating from the real world, the solitary man,
detached from society, and often using work to escape an awkward social life. Is
any of this cogent to your life, or your growing up? Are you more comfortable
with long dead behemoths than modern society?
BS: My wife and I have been married for four years, but we have no plans to increase our evolutionary fitness just yet.
I was fortunate enough to marry a scientist. Tracey is more interested in ecology and botany than fossils, but our interests have made us geeky enough to appreciate the other’s interests and support each other. I could not do what I do without Tracey. From my days struggling at Rutgers to the long nights working on my book manuscript, she has been a never-ceasing source of encouragement.
Friendships are more difficult, especially since I have become detached from university life. I work a job I don’t particularly like in a sleepy, suburban bedroom community, and so I often feel isolated. I have a few friends I have made through blogging and my days at Rutgers in the vicinity, but on a day-to-day basis I go from the office to writing at home. Without Tracey, I might very well be the isolated, awkward scientist toiling away if to do nothing else but keep myself occupied, but I am glad that is not the case. I do what I do because it is what I love, and I count myself as fortunate that I found someone who wants to be a part of what I want to do with my life.
Has science been a retreat, of sorts, from the daily bullshit of the ‘real
world?’ In other words, to what degree does your love for things Antediluvian
stem from a desire to escape from modernity, and what extent is it a love for
exploration? Or, are both equally powerful?
BS: Unlike the mad scientists of so many bad sci-fi yarns, I don’t long for the prehistoric past so badly that I want to bring it back. There is much that could be improved regarding the way we interact with each other and the natural world, that almost goes without saying, but I don’t believe that my interest in the past is a desire to escape modernity. If anything, I think the fossil record helps provide the context for how things came to be as they are. I am consistently drawn to it because of all the questions I have about it – I can’t help but want to know more about what the world was like during the distant past. The spirit of exploration – digging into the rock and asking “What is this and how did it get here?” – is a far more powerful motivating factor for me than any kind of distaste with modern civilization.
Where did you go to school- elementary and high school? What was the education
system like in that time and place?
BS: I was educated at Valley Road School, Carl H. Kumpf Middle School, and Arthur L. Johnson High School, all located within Clark, New Jersey. I think I received a pretty stereotypical education – math, English, a bit of history (though mostly recapitulating American history over and over), and science. I did have the opportunity to participate in my high school’s “gifted and talented” program late in my education – a class which was the sole bright spot during my time there – but, for the most part, I hated high school. As I mentioned above, I was socially awkward and largely embraced that fact – on days of school pep-rallies, when every class level was supposed to wear a particular school color, I usually intentionally picked something extremely bright or out-of-step with what had been designated. That, as well as my distaste for the bullies in the football team, didn’t win me any friends, but I survived. That is what much of high school was for me – a matter of just getting through it, one day after another, until it was over.
In recent decades, a vast for profit business has arisen for dinosaur bones.
What do you feel about that industry- a help or a hindrance to ‘pure’
BS: The desire of private collectors to own spectacular fossils – and the black market which feeds their desire – has become a mounting problem for paleontologists. Scientists in the field sometimes have their finds stolen right out from underneath them; a field crew may find a new skeleton and protect it so that it will still be there when the return during the next field season only to return and find that thieves have taken the bones out right after the scientists left. These specimens don’t go to museums or universities, but are sold to dealers who place them in private collections, often without any scientific data explaining where they came from or the details of the site in which they were found. This was the problem with the skeleton of the small tyrannosaur Raptorex announced last year. Even though its own is to be applauded for donating it to scientists for study, scientists could only hypothesize as to where it was found and the conditions it was buried in from small bits of rock still attached to the skeleton. It was a dinosaur taken out of its context, and this makes finding future skeletons very difficult.
More than that, the sale of the famous Tyrannosaurus
rex skeleton “Sue” showed that exceptional specimens can fetch millions
of dollars. Because of this, scientists sometimes have rather tense relations
with landowners who allow scientists to prospect for fossils on their private
land, but want to be given any significant specimens so that those fossils can
be sold. Out west, where handshake agreements are common, this can cause serious
problems if a significant specimen is discovered. The sale of the fossil primate
Darwinius underscores this problem –
it was sold by a private dealer to the University of Oslo for three quarters of
a million dollars, reinforcing the belief among black market dealers and private
collectors that a single, exceptional fossil can make them rich. There are
probably specimens in private hands right now – out of reach of scientists –
which could significantly add to our understanding of past life, but instead
they are treated only as a curiosity by the rich.
What do terms like warm blooded, cold blooded, endothermy, ectothermy, etc.
mean? And, have not the last few decades broadened the idea of bodily thermal
regulation beyond the black and white of cold and hot? Do you agree with Robert
Bakker that many dinosaurs were warm blooded?
BS: Some of those terms are good, others are popular shorthand that do more to confuse than to enlighten at this point. “Warm-blooded”, for example, should be dumped because, even though it is typically used for animals which maintain a high, constant body temperature, animals whose body temperatures shift with the environment can also have “hot blood” in the right conditions. Furthermore, the term creates a warm-blooded/cold-blooded dichotomy that isn’t useful for understanding the array of thermoregulatory strategies animals exhibit. Great white sharks, for example, maintain body temperatures several degrees above the surrounding seawater, meaning that they are influenced by the temperature of their environment but are not “cold blooded” in the popular sense. That “warm-blooded” and “cold-blooded” are not useful was well-established during the debates over dinosaur physiology, particularly in the AAAS symposium on the subject later published as A Cold Look at Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs.
These days it is better to use more specific, technical-sounding terms. Most mammals are endotherms – animals that internally regulates its body temperature – and homeotherms – animals that maintain a constant body temperature. A terrapin would be an ecotherm – an animal which regulates its internal temperature by external means (such as sunning on a rock or moving to shade) – and a poikilotherm – an animal whose body temperature varies according to the surrounding environment. These are just a few basic terms which do not cover every animal – some birds, for example, can switch thermoregulatory strategies between day and night – but they have more specific meanings which better exemplify the variety of thermoregulatory strategies animals possess. The trouble is that these terms may never become popular, and it is exceedingly difficult to come up with popular versions which are also accurate.
As for “hot-blooded dinosaurs”, I think many paleontologists now agree with the image of active dinosaurs which did not have to rely on external means to heat themselves. The question is whether they would fit into any of the modern thermoregulatory strategies we see among living animals or whether they were doing something different. Small dinosaurs – particularly theropods – may very well have been endothermic and homeothermic, but large dinosaurs would have encountered some problems with maintaining a high body temperature, particularly dumping excess heat if they had to. In other words, dinosaurs almost certainly had high metabolic rates and body temperatures, but the question is “How did they do it?” Paleontologists have moved beyond the theoretical and have been investigating the paleobiology of these animals through studies of isotopes locked in their teeth and bones as well as bone histology and growth rates, bringing us closer to an understanding of how their bodies worked.
Where do you stand on the debate over whether or not birds first gained flight
from a trees down gliding or running and leaping ground up start
BS: That’s another dichotomy I don’t think is very useful. Scientists have been arguing one position or another for over a century now and we still can’t say for sure. This is because we are still teasing out which dinosaurs were most closely related to the first birds. The deinonychosaurs – Velociraptor, Troodon, and their kin – have traditionally thought to be closest, but newer discoveries might place strange, small dinosaurs such as Epidexipteryx much closer. Many of the hypotheses surrounding how deinonychosaurs may have started flying might not be as relevant if this strange group of new dinosaurs proves to be closer to birds, but all this underscores the point that we can’t reasonably expect to reconstruct how flight began until we have filled out the dinosaur phylogeny a bit more. We can come up with all kinds of tests and scenarios, but those will have to be held up to the fossil and evolutionary record to see if they correspond. Furthermore, as has been remarked by Kevin Padian, the real question is not whether flight evolved from the trees-down or ground-up, but how the first flight-stroke evolved. Perhaps it was an exaptation – something related to running, catching prey, or gliding – before being co-opted for flight, but until we know more about the ancestral lineage which gave rise to the first birds, coming up with scenarios of how dinosaurs took to the air can only be hypotheses which require further testing.
In that same vein, since feathers seem to have been established as fact in some
dinosaurs, what of dinosaurs with fur? Did therapsids have fur, and if they, an
earlier form of life, had fur, could not dinosaurs in high mountain ranges or
the arctic regions (even if warmer than today there would still have been
sub-freezing weather in some places around the globe for most of the year) have
developed fur? It is even better insulation than feathers, right?
BS: No one has found a dinosaur with soft-tissue structures identical to mammalian hair, but many feathered dinosaurs were covered with a downy coat of fuzz similar to what you would see on a baby chick. Furthermore, at least two ornithischian dinosaurs – the diverse group of herbivores containing groups such as the ceratopsians, hadrosaurs, and ankylosaurs – were partially covered in long, bristle-like structures similar to the fuzz of some theropod dinosaurs. Since saurischian and ornithischian dinosaurs split early on, near the base of the dinosaur family tree, this may mean 1) some kind of body covering was a shared trait among dinosaurs, or 2) body coverings evolved at least twice among dinosaurs. The rarity of exceptional preservation is going to make it difficult to investigate these hypotheses, but it certainly makes us rethink the image of all dinosaurs as scaly-skinned.
What effect, if any, did dinosaurian pop culture, have on your career?
I only started digging into the technical literature on dinosaurs a few years
ago. Prior to that, much of what I learned about them came from documentaries,
books, and pop culture representations. I never thought Godzilla was an accurate
depiction of dinosaurs – like many fossil nerds, I took pride in being able to
point out mistakes – but I still loved movies such as The
Last Dinosaur, Baby: Secret of the
Lost Legend, One Million Years B.C.,
and the dinosaur scenes in the original King
Kong. In films, especially, it was my chance to see dinosaurs come to life.
Now, post Jurassic Park, most of those
films look very silly, but when they were new they were my best chance to see
the animals I was so enthralled by. If anything, dinosaur pop culture fed into
my interest in paleontology. Maybe I was a nerd for being as interested as I
was, but dinosaurs were popular enough in general that it was not too strange.
When I interviewed the philosopher Daniel
Dennett I was taken aback by the amount of vitriol he still held for
Stephen Jay Gould, as they were opponents in some evolutionary quarrels.
Gould’s name has also been mentioned in other interviews I’ve done, and in
many articles, online and off, as someone who was dismissed, derided, chided,
and dissed. First, what is your opinion of the man, at least in those areas of
overlap with yours? Second, have you your own scientific bête noir, and if so,
who, why, and what is the substance of your disagreement?
BS: As you might have guessed from my previous answers in this interview, I hold Gould in high esteem. I never know him personally – he died a year before I got serious about my scientific studies – but his work was a major influence on me as I started to verse myself in evolutionary theory. (Oftentimes I would have a sudden realization about some pattern or process in evolutionary history only to discover that Gould had already covered the subject in one of his essays.) Beyond his positive contributions to evolutionary theory, I appreciated Gould’s efforts to break his colleagues out of traditional patterns of thought regarding the way evolution worked and how the “Tree of Life” became shaped by events such as mass extinctions.
As for my own pet peeves within the scientific arena, I am tired of the way in which paleontology is often pushed aside by workers in genetics, microbiology, and other laboratory sciences. In the past thirty years paleontology has transformed into a synthetic, theory-producing discipline which has incorporated ideas and techniques from microbiology, genetics, evo-devo, and other biological disciplines, yet it is often treated as just the collection of bones for museum stores. Many recent popular books on evolution – such as the latest from Jerry Coyne, Ken Miller, and Richard Dawkins – treat paleontology in passing as a discipline which can supply us with transitional forms which confirm evolution, but do little else. This unfortunate trend was part of my motivation for writing my book – I wanted to show readers how paleontology, perhaps more than any other evolutionary discipline, is bringing in ideas and techniques from other disciplines to understand the history of life on earth.
Dennett wrote, of Gould’s work, ‘Gould had been selling America a
watered-down and distorted version of basic evolutionary theory for decades, and
when I pointed this out, he reacted--not unreasonably!-- with a venomous attack
on what he called my “Darwinian fundamentalism,” but, you know, the
evolutionary biology community knew I was right, and said so. (I am not alone in
incurring Gould’s wrath: I’m proud to stand with Richard Dawkins, the late,
great John Maynard Smith and Steve Pinker, as sane and forthright a team of
“fundamentalists” as one could ask for.) Gould could never accept that
natural selection is fundamentally a sorting algorithm, and kept hunting for
some softening of that fact—limiting the role of natural selection itself, or
elevating ‘constraints’ that would subdue it. He never found any worth
keeping, but he tried hard. Punctuated equilibrium, the Cambrian explosion, and
exaptation all turn out to be interesting wrinkles in orthodox (“ultra”)
neo-Darwinian theory, not challenges to it.’ And, of punctuated
equilibrium, when I tried to define his view succinctly as, ‘punctuated
equilibrium, in your view, is like looking through a microscope, stating that
the little things look bigger, and then claiming that the fact that things are
different than what they seem to the naked eye is some grand revelation’,
he stated, ‘That’s more or less it. In the passage you quote
from his last book, he says “Punctuated equilibrium does not challenge
accepted genetic ideas about the rates at which species emerge (for the
geological ‘moment’ of a single rock layer may represent many thousand years
of accumulation).” In other words, it doesn’t challenge neo-Darwinian
gradualism at all. What he goes on to say is just bluster.’ What are
your views of Dennett’s take on the subject?
BS: I think much of Dennett’s criticism boils down to a fundamental disagreement over whether evolution can be reduced to the operation of natural selection alone or whether a more pluralistic approach is necessary, and, while my opinion is obviously biased, Dennett’s comments primarily seem to be a chiding of Gould for not accepting a particularly narrow view of evolution almost entirely affected by natural selection. I don’t see Gould’s work as searching for any possible chink in the armor of natural selection – as Dennett casts it – but rather questioning of some very real phenomena apparent in the fossil record which Dennett, Dawkins, and Maynard-Smith, as neontologists, probably missed. Over and over again, though, Dennett et al. look at the work of Gould and other paleobiologists and pass it off saying “This isn’t new, and it isn’t important”, and that may be attributable to different perspectives (e.g. modern diversity vs. the pattern of evolution through Deep Time).
Dennett’s opening line also underscores a recurring theme in criticisms of Gould and his colleagues. Dennett and Maynard Smith felt that Gould was misrepresenting evolution in popular forums, and regularly chided Gould for what they believed to be proclamations that Gould’s ideas were revolutionary. After reading the works of both camps – particularly Dawkins – I was struck by how similar some of their ideas were, and at times both sides appeared to be talking past each other and kept moving forward based upon some grudge based upon how evolution was being presented to the public. Often it seems that Gould’s critics are responding more to Gould’s habit of sometimes being intentionally provocative – such as his paper on the “death” of the 20th century evolutionary synthesis which was genetics + natural selection – than to the substance of what Gould was saying. In the passage you cite above, for example, Dennett is responding to being called a “Darwinian fundamentalist” but makes no substantial criticism of Gould. I guess that was the saddest part of the exchanges between them all which occurred in the 90’s – it turned into a bunch of name calling in which both parties were reacting more to labels they created for themselves than the substance of what was being said.
Before Gould, probably the best known science essayist (at least in the earth
sciences) was paleontologist Loren
Eiseley. Have you read him? His supernal prose is as poetic and
cogent today as it ever was, even if some terms are outdated, for he has an
ability to tie things back into the personal which makes for such compelling
reading. Gould used digressions that he tied together. What is your favorite
and/or best strategy for hooking a reader into whatever topic you are
discussing, or when writing your books?
BS: I have not yet read Eiseley; based upon your recommendation, it sounds like I should add some of his works to my reading list.
Like other science writers, I like to start my works with some tidbit of nature of history which can be blown up into something bigger. In the introduction to Written in Stone, for example, I use the controversy surrounding the Darwinius fossil to launch into a discussion of why we are so obsessed with the idea of “missing links.” That is the kind of approach which hooked me when I started learning more about science. If you start with too general a view, you can easily lose readers before you even get to your point, so I like to carefully choose some small story which is indicative of some larger trend.
Definitely, Brian, read Eiseley. Even aside from science, I would rank Eiseley
one of the top 5 published prose writers, in English, in the 20th
Century. His ‘hidden’ essay form was certainly an influence on Gould, and
his autobiography is outstanding, as a life story and a work of prose art.
Have you ever read any of the works of nature/adventure writers like Joe
Simpson or Jon Krakauer? Since they are not schooled in the sciences, do you
think that they have a negative effect on the public understanding of science?
BS: I haven’t read their works, so I couldn’t speculate on the influence their works have had. In terms of science writers requiring some training in the sciences, I don’t think it is necessarily a prerequisite. Look at David Quammen – he was a fiction writer who was given a column in Outside and ran with it. He made some mistakes along the way, but he knew how to research and dig into scientific questions, and knowing how to approach scientific questions is more important than a certain number of years learning in a classroom. Scientific training helps – and is preferable – but I certainly would not automatically discount the work of non-scientists on the basis of educational background alone.
On to Michael Crichton, what is your opinion of his books, scientifically and as
just a thing to read for pleasure? Is there even a remote possibility of a Jurassic
Park-type scenario in our lifetimes? What new things have been learned
with computer models, CAT scans, and the like? Has there ever been viable DNA
found from dinosaurs? What of the discovery
by Mary Schweitzer of soft tissues inside a T. Rex bone?
BS: It is funny you should ask that. I rarely read fiction, and I just picked up Crichton’s sequel to Jurassic Park, The Lost World, for a bit of light reading. I am sorry to say that I did not enjoy it as much now as I did when I first picked it up when it was new. I quickly grew tired of Ian Malcolm’s didactic manner, especially since Malcolm is basically Crichton placing himself into the book. Malcolm goes on and on about how science these days isn’t pure and is so deeply flawed and full of baseless speculation, yet he goes on to do just that for pages at a time. Malcolm expounds on the usefulness of Site B as an untouched experiment to rerun the extinction of the dinosaurs, for example, yet he ignores the fact that the dinosaurs are altered, engineered products placed into unnatural assemblages on a cramped island (though he ultimately accepts that his vision of an extinction experiment was flawed for other reasons). Through Jurassic Park (which is basically a rehash of Crichton’s film West World with dinosaurs), The Lost World, and his other books, Crichton reveals a love/hate relationship with science. He traded in the language of science and technology, yet he often showed a deep distrust and contempt for science which shared some features with the woolly, postmodernist attacks on science of the “Science Wars” of the time.
I don’t think we will ever see a Jurassic Park of the kind Crichton envisioned. He even recognized this himself when he set up the story for The Lost World as a production facility for dinosaurs which was absent in the first book; there is a lot involved in turning recovered DNA into healthy, living organisms. Even if scientists find enough preserved soft tissue to recover dinosaur DNA, we will almost certainly never have the full dinosaur genome and have no way to take all that genetic information and turn it into a baby dinosaur; it’s no surprise that Crichton glossed over these parts in his books. Yes, Mary Schweitzer has been able to recover degraded soft tissue remnants, including some of the protein collagen, from a Tyrannosaurus rex limb, and similar experiments have had positive results, but a few snippets of Tyrannosaurus protein won’t bring it back to life.
In the wake of Jurassic Park, Bob Bakker proposed an alternative scenario which was recently expounded upon at length by Jack Horner in the book How to Build a Dinosaur. Since birds are living theropods, and since they may retain genetic and developmental mechanisms from their evolutionary history, it might be possible to turn a chicken into something dinosaur-like. It would not be bringing an extinct species back to life, but it would be a striking lesson in evolution, genetics, and development. I don’t know if Jack will ever appear on daytime tv with a chickenasaurus as he hopes, but I think it is certainly an interesting proposal and will be curious to see what he and his team learn during the process.
As mentioned, I think science writing is in a Golden Age since the mid-1970s or
so. From E.O. Wilson, to the essays of Stephen Jay Gould, to Carl Sagan to Jared
Diamond to Martin Rees and Timothy Ferris to Jack Horner and Neil deGrasse
Tyson, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and a few dozen others, the world of
science is bristling not only with ideas, but people who can clarify and excite
the public. Science books often make best seller lists, yet, if that is so, and
more Americans than ever are college educated, then why are Americans so
ignorant on things like abortion, stem cells, evolution, race, sexuality, and on
and on? Things like paleontology or astronomy, as example, are never even
mentioned, unless some discovery is made or some celestial event is impending.
If the quality of the writers’ prose is insufficient to turn on the bulk of
the nation to science and the wonders of the cosmos, does one merely have to
resign oneself to a certain amount of intransigent scientific ignorance being
immutable? If not, what can be done to change this?
BS: There certainly are a number of great science writers working today, but who is reading their work? It seems to me that much of the good science writing out there is being read by people who are already interested in science. Don’t get me wrong – there are those rare readers who pick up a science book or an issue of National Geographic and become enthralled with a view on the world they have never experienced before – but I don’t think that w can assume that the mere existence of good science writing will cause the public at large to become better-educated about science. It comes down to a well-known dichotomy in journalism called push and pull. Much of the writing by the authors you mentioned (and even many bloggers and lesser-known writers such as myself) falls into the “pull” category – it is stuff that readers seek out because they are already interested in the topic. “Push” science writing is rare – it is writing which seeks to find readers where they are by transcending the simple “Gee whiz, this is cool” factor and making some aspect of science relevant to a wider audience. An example would be David Dobb’s piece on “Orchid children” in the Atlantic, or printing a piece on the biomechanics of running in a running magazine or, say, something on the evolutionary history of felines in a magazine for cat owners. Writing stories for the standards – New Scientist, Discover, Smithsonian, National Geographic, WIRED, Scientific American, and the like – is all fine and good, but we really could use more science writers making an effort to come up with “push” stories.
That said, there is much more to the issue of the public’s lack of understanding about science than the message alone. As I think I mentioned above, people’s cultural background, beliefs, and opinions shape how receptive they will be to certain aspects of science. Someone who is a born-and-raised fundamentalist Christian is likely to reject whatever you say about evolution no matter how eloquently you say it. A died-in-the-wool conservative may reject anthropogenic climate change out of hand because the social group they associate with rejects it, just as a very liberal person might accept global climate change as a fact without really understanding why we know it is happening. The public cannot be easily divided nearly into categories such as “liberal” and “conservative”, but I think, for many people, the values of the groups they identify with influence the reception of scientific ideas. Speaking only for myself, I believed evolution was true long before I really went to any trouble to understand it, and simply believing its true without understanding it doesn’t make me any better than a fundamentalist who rejects it for the same reasons.
To give an example of what I mean by intransigence, despite the seemingly
endless love the American public bestows on dinosaurs, the truth is that they
are almost as ignorant on that subject as well. Many a time some very otherwise
intelligent people, while discoursing on a subject, will draw a historical
picture along these lines, going backward chronologically: Vietnam, World War
Two, Lincoln and the Civil War, the Pilgrims and Columbus, Jesus Christ, the
Pyramids, cavemen and dinosaurs, with the last pair thought of together,
existing simultaneously. Why do you think this is? And, trust me, I’m not
BS: Outside of a specific example, it’s hard to speculate – the hypothetical person you mention could be a creationist, or could just be engaging in a bit of sloppy rhetoric before getting to their point. Nor would I necessarily call such a person intransigent without knowing them, as if they are some petulant child who stubbornly refuses to listen up to scientists just to be a pain in the ass.
Why fundamentalist rot – such as the idea that humans and non-avian
dinosaurs lived side by side – persists, though, is another question. I, too,
know some very smart people, people who took science-heavy courses in college
and work in the medical profession now – who fervently believe that evolution
is a myth and that the global Flood was a real historical event. Their place in
modern, fundamentalist Christianity is an important part of their identity and
that overrides anything anyone else says. When you believe that God himself has
told you that the world was created in six literal days, you’re obviously not
going to hold the word of anyone in higher esteem. But, of course, there are
people among this group who have never really thought very hard about evolution
or science before. The church environment which they take part in – from
Sunday service to small groups – is hostile to evolutionary science, and
it’s easier to just go with the flow. When they run into all the accumulated
evidence for evolution, though, they are often shocked that no one had told them
about it before, and I think there are at least some people who persist in
believing that all life was created directly by God simply because they don’t
know any better. To them, evolution is just a belief, and until the underlying
threads of fact and theory are explained to them it is far easier to simply
believe that the world is as their church leadership tells them it is.
One of the most famous scientific sayings is geologist James Hutton’s claim,
regarding what has been called Deep Time- which you touched on earlier, that ‘we
see no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.’ While we are now
pretty certain that the Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and life
appeared less than a billion years later, all of these sorts of numbers-
millions, billions, etc., seem to blur in most people’s minds. In the above
example, people jump from decades to centuries to millennia to eons without a
pause at how grand the leaps they are making really are. Do you believe that
most layfolk really understand how long even a million years is? I
mean, the earliest vestiges of human society are only 1% of even that length,
and this includes the first 60-80% of even that time being just scattered names
and references. It’s not until three or four thousand years ago that we start
to get real human history. And, if as I believe, most people fundamentally do
not understand Deep Time, can they, or is this just so antithetical to everyday
human experience that it will always be somewhat fairy tale-like?
BS: I don’t think anyone can truly grasp the span of billions of years. We can gather evidence for the age of the earth and continuing refining the timescale, but such a span of time is so vast – so much longer than the time of a single human life – that I think even people who understand the science behind the age of the earth need to think hard to even approach an understanding of how much time that really is.
I don’t think the age of life, the earth, or the universe has to be
fairy tale-like. How we have arrived at the dates applied to these things can be
relatively easily explained, but such huge numbers are nearly impossible to
mentally grasp. Take the origin of the first aquatic whales, for example. Whales
went from being terrestrial animals to aquatic animals in a little more than 10
million years. That is a drastic change in a relatively short amount of time,
geologically speaking, but how many generations of archaeocetes lived and died
during that intervening time? When talking about evolutionary transitions or the
life of the past we have to squeeze things down into understandable terms, and
while this is useful, it is mind-boggling to step back now and again and think
about the amounts of time we are talking about.
And, do you believe concepts of Deep Time are similar, in their inability to
properly be comprehended, as are concepts of stellar distances, where people
bandy about terms like light years, as if they were merely a few miles? What do
you think is behind this human tendency to blur such big concepts?
I think so. They are measures of time or distance so vast that no human can ever
experience them, and so we need to bring things down to our scale, and at some
point they just get taken for granted. We can come up with an academic
understanding of a million years or a light year, but no one can truly
understand them because they are beyond our ability to experience. Nevertheless,
we need to use these units of measure to understand other aspects of nature, and
if blurring occurs it’s because they get used so often that they become
shorthand for what are truly some amazing concepts.
What specifically do you think it is that draws young American males,
especially, to love dinosaurs? I think it’s the awe of big things, because
little boys are also drawn to outer space, airplanes, skyscrapers, etc. Do you
agree? If so, what about digging up bones in the desert moved you more than
BS: To tell you the truth, I don’t really know. The standard answers are that dinosaurs were big, dead, and extinct (therefore being relatively safe) or that learning about them gives children a degree of power over their parents (“I can pronounce Micropachycephalosaurus, can you?”), but these strike me as just-so stories which have gained popularity by merely sounding right. There may be some aspects of truth to them – my first interests were in trucks and elephants before I became enthralled with dinosaurs, so big and loud certainly qualified as things of interest – but I have not yet seen anyone come up with any satisfying answer to that question.
I also hasten to point out that many little girls are interested in dinosaurs, too, so we should be wary of designating dinosaurs as objects of male interest alone. Even in terms of science in general, I think you girls are interested in many scientific subjects, but – in our culture – dolls and ponies are deemed more appropriate subjects of interest than bones, bugs, or other objects in the natural world. If there is a disparity in interest, it may very well be one we have created rather than something which actually exists. Bring this to a more professional level, I saw many women paleontologists at this year’s SVP meeting, yet we almost never see them in documentaries or as leading experts on fossils. Why is this, and why do we let it continue? I don’t think we can just chalk it up to some difference between the sexes and assume the disparity is something natural. If anything, I would like to see a larger effort among the paleo community to highlight the work and achievements of women paleontologists.
Speaking for myself, I can’t specifically remember what interested me about dinosaurs, but I imagine it had something to do with the romance of paleontology. Paleontologists – Bob Bakker especially – looked like explorers who led adventurous searches for the remains of long-lost monsters. There is good reason the search for dinosaurs is so often called “fossil hunting” – it is an exciting undertaking to remote regions, with the goal being to bring back and study rather than kill. (And, unlike stars, bones were something that could be collected and touched. I was more interested in things I could dig up and hold than simply observe from afar.) It is a special combination of grueling work in the field with science, with the rewards telling us about creatures which no longer survive. Beyond the charismatic appeal of dinosaurs alone, I fell for the romantic image of paleontology.
Since I’ve mentioned Gould, one of the areas of note Gould explored was the
Burgess Shale, in his 1989 book Wonderful Life. Rather infamously,
he got his head handed to him by Simon Conway Morris in his 1998 book The
Crucible Of Creation, and
by some others, for his misinterpretation (willful or not) of the fossil record
there. Thoughts on that?
BS: Whether or not Gould got “his head handed to him” depends on which aspect of Wonderful Life you are talking about. In terms of the affinities of some of the odd Cambrian creatures – whether they were true oddballs or truly could be “shoehorned” into existing groups – and Gould’s view of the pattern of the “Cambrian explosion”, he has shown to be wrong about some of the particulars. That’s how science works, and I wouldn’t say there’s much infamous about that.
If you are referring to the dispute between Gould and Conway Morris on contingency, though, I disagree that Gould came out of the exchange badly. As Gould documented in Wonderful Life, his view of a world full of Cambrian oddballs which could have opened different evolutionary pathways if they had survived was influenced by Conway Morris’ own early work. Somewhere along the line, though, Conway Morris did a 180 degree turn and started arguing for evolutionary inevitabilities, and I think he has disingenuously tried to mask the influence his own theistic beliefs on this point. For Conway Morris to consistently to hold to his Christianity, he needs evolution to have some kind of upward driving force or built-in generator of the same forms over and over (making us a pre-determined endpoint), and I think Gould was right to excoriate him for engaging in this kind of sloppy thinking without revealing his own biases. Gould was wrong about some of the particulars of the Cambrian, but I think his larger point – remember, Gould often used specific examples to get at larger questions – about contingency and evolutionary outcomes still holds, or at least is worthy of careful consideration.
What are your thoughts on punctuated equilibrium- the scientific idea that
things remain seemingly static for long periods of time?
BS: Despite the controversy generated about in during the 1970’s, I think it has become well-ensconced in the paleontological mainstream (if not the evolutionary mainstream). It does not represent the sole pattern of the fossil record, but numerous groups of organisms – from trilobites to mammoths to hominins – have been documented to change rapidly bookended by periods of stasis. Even in a larger context, I think stasis is still an important concept to consider as we are often so focused on how organisms are changing that we don’t pay attention to why they are not changing. Of course, punk eek still has some critics, but I think it remains an important part of paleontology and evolutionary theory.
And what of life on earth? How do you think it arose- the warm pond, or some
chemical reactions in the crust? I have read that there is increasing evidence
that extremophiles, found far below the planet’s surface, might have indeed
been the first earthlings. Do you agree?
BS: There are many interesting hypothesis about the origin of life, but there is much we still don’t know. It is a major question – one which will help provide the context for the grand evolutionary pattern of life on earth – but given the questions which remains I don’t feel compelled to pick one hypothesis over another and say “This is how it happened.” I have to admit that I have a preference for the “warm pond” imagery, but this may not be so much scientific as a preference for a certain kind of narrative, and that’s something I constantly try to remind myself of. And, as far as extremeophiles, I think they can tell us quite a bit about the limits within which life can exist. I don’t know if I would say that they are representative of the “first earthlings” – like us, extant extremophiles are extant parts of lineages which have been evolving for over 3.5 billion years – but they can certainly help us better understand how early life could have survived during a time when earth was very different from how it is now.
The last few decades has seen a movement toward a more integrated and holistic
view of the cosmos and the sciences. The acceptance of the K-T Impactor, and its
likely role in either aiding or totally causing the demise of dinosaurs, is a
good example of where another science- that of astronomy, had a direct impact on
your more terrestrial science. Is there more unity in the sciences than would
have been reflected a couple of decades ago?
BS: I don’t think there is a general push towards unity – specialization is still the name of the game for most scientists – but I think there is a relatively abundance of scientists who are taking interdisciplinary approaches to big questions. We need people doing detailed work on obscure problems and the scientists with “big picture” ideas who can tie it all together, and I think that has been a long-running tradition in paleontology.
In terms of paleontology specifically, there are paleontologists who
primarily focus on the traditional aspects – geology plus comparative anatomy
– while others are bringing in techniques and ideas from genetics, evo-devo,
microbiology, and other biological disciplines often thought of as separate from
paleo. As I have commented before, I think paleontology is now one of the most
interdisciplinary evolutionary sciences – it is not uncommon to see
paleontologists talking about regulatory genes, charting growth rates, and other
aspects of biology.
DS: What do you
feel is the next ‘big’ thing in paleontology?
BS: I’m a little biased by my interest in vertebrates, but I think the study of preserved soft tissues is going to be a very vibrant area of research. Paleontologists are just starting to try and extract preserved collagen, degraded blood products, and other organic remains from fossils, as well as using new techniques to take a closer-look at exceptional specimens (as with the two studies published this year on the feather colors of a few dinosaurs). I was discussing this with paleontologist Ken Lacovara, and to paraphrase his statement, these new techniques and areas of research have the potential to answer some of the major questions paleontologists have been asking about paleobiology. The next generation of paleontologists may have to be just as familiar with microbiology and genetics as they are with geology and gross anatomy, and I think that’s a great thing.
DS: What has
been the impact of these changes in how science is disseminated to the public?
And, most especially, of young people? Do you feel that youngsters, these days,
often get a bum rap, with all the negative nonsense spewed about the eternal education
BS: Again, I am biased, but I think blogging has been one of the most important factors in the changing scientific communication landscape. Scientists can now talk directly to the public, and many bloggers act as watchdogs when traditional media spews out hyped-up nonsense. The controversy over Darwinius – promoted as “The Link” to our earliest primate ancestors – is a great example. Science writer and blogger Carl Zimmer was skeptical of the reports from the start and his exceptional coverage of the controversy actually influenced the academic process by pushing scientists to resolve a technical issue about the naming of the fossil and the issue of competing interests on the paper. Blogs often get slammed for not operating by the same process as traditional journalism, but in this case – and others – blogs have been more important than traditional media. As Zimmer himself has said, though, blogs are software, not some collection of writers all working with the same ideas and standards. You can use a blog to rant about your grad school experience or you can use it to write solid, magazine-quality articles about science – how each person uses their blog is up to them.
I am not sure how all this influences people in elementary school, high school, and college. In primary school education, at least, science is often marginalized since it rarely features on the standardized tests which have unfortunately become the standards for measuring intelligence and success of students. Furthermore, by time children reach high school my impression is that many lose their interest in science. It just isn’t cool anymore, and high school seems to be a critical time in terms of who is going to keep up their interest in science and who is going to drop it. After this point it is the old push-pull problem – those interested in science will seek it out, and those who are not won’t make much of an effort. Given my own education experience, this isn’t very surprising – sometimes I wonder if bad science teachers are pushing students away from science rather than feeding the interests of the students. In terms of evolution specifically, though, I feel that students are not been well-served at all by modern curricula. Evolution is often treated very briefly and only in terms of living organisms. Paleontology – the subject which provides the deeper context for evolution – can only hope for a mention in passing, but I think emphasis on macroevolutionary change as seen in the fossil record could potentially help students leave school with a better understanding of evolution.
Do you have any plans to some day move on and perhaps issue some grand life’s
work on dinosaurs; a magnum opus the equivalent of Gould’s The
Structure Of Evolutionary Theory?
Absolutely not. I would never write something like The
Structure of Evolutionary Theory, and it’s for the very simple reason that
no one would read it. Even for a Gould fan like myself, his last book was a slog
to get through, and I think his famous distaste of working with editors hurt him
in this case. Many people have the book on their shelves, but it is so massive
that few have actually read it, and what good would a contribution from me be if
no one actually read what I had to say? At this point, at least, I take greater
pleasure in telling stories – both about nature and the history of science –
and I think a more concise approach is better suited to my present goals.
To what extent do you think we currently understand dinosaur genera and how they
speciate? How well do we understand the mechanisms of dinosaur evolution, how
they differ, perhaps, from other groups of animals?
BS: That’s a very timely question. Just a few weeks ago Jack Horner and John Scanella published a paper proposing that the dinosaur we have traditionally called Torosaurus was really the adult form of Triceratops. This caused a public uproar – keep your hands off my Triceratops! – and over the past few years paleontologists have continued to debate whether some dinosaurs were just life stages of other ones. The “pygmy” predator Nanotyrannus, for example, is thought by some to be a distinct genus while others (rightly, I think) have proposed that it is the adolescent growth stage of Tyrannosaurus rex. That is the trouble with dealing with extinct organisms. Exceptionally small specimens, initially elevated to the level of genus, might turn out to be babies or juveniles. With our increasing understanding of dinosaur bone histology and growth, though, paleontologists should be better able to discern the age of individuals and resolve some of these debates.
As for larger patterns of dinosaur evolution, there are a number of persistent questions. One is why dinosaurs were so successful when synapsids (mammals and their closest relatives) and other kinds of archosaurs (the large group encompassing dinosaurs, pterosaurs, crocodiles, and the like) faltered near the end of the Triassic. Did direct competition make the difference, or some quirk of natural history which favored the dinosaurs? Our understanding of early dinosaurs is still incomplete, and it will take a lot of work to resolve the questions about why they set off an evolutionary radiation which would keep going for over 150 million years. (Especially since, as I write this, paleontologists have just found that the group ancestral to the first dinosaurs may have originated right after the Permian mass extinction 251 million years ago, significantly extending the range of these animals.) Additionally, just how sauropod dinosaurs got to be so big is another question. Even the biggest land mammals ever – Paraceratherium – did not even come close to the biggest sauropod dinosaurs, but the sauropods were improbable creatures. How did their physiology work? How did they get enough food with such small heads? How could their nervous system work in such a large body? These questions are still being actively debated, as these dinosaurs have no modern equivalents to work with.
To what extent do you think external events that shaped dinosaurian evolution-
things such as mountain-building, continental drift, etc.?
BS: There can be no doubt that continental drift, global climate, and other factors influenced the evolution of the dinosaurs. Think of the Permian extinction. This extinction cleared the slate – so to speak – and greatly reduced the diversity of synapsids, which had been the dominant vertebrates on land. In the wake of this event archosaurs, including the ancestors of dinosaurs, proliferated, and so dinosaurs – at least in part – owed their existence to a mass extinction which had occurred long before. Additionally, the movement of continents opened and closed pathways to different groups of dinosaurs, with certain forms replacing others over time. In the western hemisphere for example, allosaurs and large sauropods were the dominant dinosaurs during the Jurassic of North America, but were replaced by horned dinosaurs, hadrosaurus, tyrannosaurs, and dromaeosaurs in the Cretaceous. In South America, though, the allosaurs and sauropods persisted, evolving into different forms even after their North American counterparts disappeared. Even though children’s books often talk about dinosaurs in terms of time only – Triassic dinosaurs, Jurassic dinosaurs, Cretaceous dinosaurs – it’s important to recognize that different kinds of dinosaurs existed in different places, as well, and paleontologists regularly debate the biogeography of these animals.
What things have been learned in the last decade or so, that were previously
unknown, or totally wrong?
BS: One of the most spectacular things is the discovery that we can tell what colors at least some dinosaurs were. For as long as I can remember, it has been a standard trope of dinosaur books and documentaries to say that we can’t know what colors dinosaurs were, but not – my looking at the melanosomes in preserved feathers – we can begin to get a picture of what colors some dinosaurs were, perhaps even being able to detect variation between populations or sexes of the same species. This knowledge requires the preservation of melanosomes in a medium such as feathers, so the colors of some dinosaurs will forever be a mystery, but I still think it is an astounding discovery.
I also find our changing perspective on the origin of tyrannosaurs to be
fascinating. For a long time Tyrannosaurus
was cast as the Cretaceous successor to Allosaurus,
but just where Tyrannosaurus came from
was unknown. It did not seem very much like the large predators which came
before it, and thanks to the discovery of numerous small, gracile tyrannosaurs
paleontologists have found that Tyrannosaurus
was a highly-modified coelurosaur, or a group of mostly smaller dinosaurs which
also contains the “raptors” and feathered dinosaurs. Whereas allosaurs,
spinosaurs, and abelisaurs were dominant predators elsewhere in the world, the
tyrannosaurs became dominant in North America and parts of Asia, though exactly
what triggered their evolution is still unknown.
Does studying dinosaurian microbiology reveal things about diet, aging, life
cycles, reproduction, and genetic affiliation between individuals and species?
If so, what? Please elucidate on some of the more interesting facts and trivia
from assorted species?
I’m happy to say that we’ve learned so much about dinosaur paleobiology that
I couldn’t possibly sum everything up here. Thanks to the geochemical analysis
of chemical isotopes in their teeth, for instance, we now know what some of the
crocodile-snouted spinosaurs were probably semi-aquatic. Likewise, thanks to the
identification of medullary bone inside the limbs of some dinosaurs – a kind
of bone found in female birds during ovulation – paleontologists can now sex
dinosaurs. Histology is also invaluable to determining dinosaur growth stages.
The resolution of the debate over whether Torosaurus
is an adult Triceratops partially
hinges upon what their bone microstructure tells us about their ages. There are
dozens of other examples I could select; thanks to new techniques, studying the
lives of dinosaurs has become a more rigorous pursuit than it has even been
Mongolia, and parts of China, seem to be the hotbed of new dinosaur discovery.
Is this because of the cool, dry climate on the Gobi plateau? How might global
warming affect these ancient bones? Could, say, a century from now, many of
these treasures be lost to deterioration brought on by a warmer or wetter Gobi
BS: Parts of Mongolia and China are unquestionably fossil rich, and the explosion of discoveries from this area has to do with 1) the ancient conditions in which the dinosaur bones were preserved, and 2) the fact that, until recently, paleontological expeditions to China were relatively limited. The recently development of professional Chinese paleontologists has certainly helped bring more of the unique fossils there to attention, especially since so many previous discoveries were made by Americans and Polish-Russian expeditions. A large part of why China has become a new hotspot, though, has to do with the fact that many dinosaurs became preserved in volcanic ash which exquisitely preserved them, along with their feathers. That kind of preservation is pretty rare, and the fossils are absolutely beautiful. Without them we would probably still be debating whether coelurosaurs had feathers.
As for risks to the fossils, I am not worried about climate so much as
the black market fossil trade. Many of the dinosaurs from China – often new
species or good specimens of known ones – wind up in the hands of private
collectors and are kept away from scientists entirely. Local people dig up
fossils, get a few bucks for their efforts (which can go a long way in poor
regions), and then the fossil dealers jack up the prices and sell the fossils to
private owners. It is not unheard of for scientists to return to a site they had
been excavating the previous year and find their fossils hastily dug out of the
ground by thieves, and, given the remote areas in which many fossils are
preserved, this is probably going to continue to be a problem for some time to
In this last few years, China has sort of become labeled as a haven for
producing dangerous toys and food products for world consumption. Yet, this
tarnished reputation has its precedents in a number of famous dinosaurian hoaxes
going back several decades. What were some of the most famous Chinese hoaxes?
Why do you think China has been such a hotbed for fakery? Is it a profit-driven
I don’t think that forged fossils and shoddy consumer products belong in the
same category, but there has been at least one case of a fossil from China being
hyped before turning out to be a fake. In 1999 National
Geographic printed an article about a potential new genus of feathered
dinosaur called “Archaeoraptor” in the pages of the magazine. It was hailed
as a transitional fossil which would better inform our understanding of the
evolution of birds, but it turned out to be a specimen cobbled together from the
bird Yanornis, the dinosaur Microraptor,
and another, unknown animal. National
Geographic announced this within a year – in late 2000 – but it
highlighted the black market fossil trade in China. It definitely is about money
– fossils can be relatively cheap to dig up, and well-preserved specimens can
bring in a lot of cash.
And what of some of the more famed hoaxes in the past, outside of China? It
seems that fakery involving dinosaurs and avian ancestors is prevalent. Am I
The Archaeoraptor is the only one which immediately comes to mind,
though people who frequent fossil and mineral shows have undoubtedly seen many
more. The feathered dinosaurs described in scientific journals are all authentic
– and are often represented by numerous specimens – and, though it is highly
likely that other fakes have been solve to unwise private buyers, I can’t
think of any other high-profile mistakes which have been made like the Archaeoraptor
Is there a significant difference between the fossils dug up in Mongolia and
those in China- scientifically or in terms of the efforts, politically or
physically, to get them? To what extent do the two nations’ governments help
or hinder the expeditions, research, and potential exhibition of the discovered
Many of the fossils coming out of Mongolia are larger dinosaurs from the Gobi
Desert. Velociraptor, Protoceratops,
Tarbosaurus, and other famous
dinosaurs are among the most commonly found species. The dinosaurs from China
which get the most press are the smaller, exquisitely-preserved specimens from
around Liaoning. There is plenty of significant material coming out of both
Mongolia and China, but in general the feathered dinosaurs get better press
since many of these are new. As for the politics of fossil hunting in the
region, I am not familiar enough with the efforts in both places to speculate.
I have read that there is an extensive black market for dinosaur bones, which
extends worldwide- sort of akin to the market that exists for stolen artwork. Is
this true? What nation or group are the prime drivers of this market? I have
also read that it is particularly prevalent in the Orient. Again, is this so?
And if so, what has led to this? Also, have their been historic discoveries lost
to such fakery, exploitation, and black marketeering? What is the most egregious
example of something that was potentially paradigm altering, but which was lost
to these forces?
BS: As I have mentioned before, fossil theft is common. It is a major problem in Mongolia and China in poverty-stricken areas where exceptional fossils can bring in a significant amount of money to struggling local people (even if the black market salesmen make more money off them).
As I mentioned above, Raptorex
is an example of an important dinosaur which was almost lost into private hands.
Identified as a small-bodied tyrannosaur with adaptations more common in later,
larger tyrannosaurs, it illustrates how many quintessential tyrannosaur features
evolved at small body size. Had its owner decided to keep it for himself, we
probably would still be thinking that big heads, small arms, and other
tyrannosaur features evolved as a consequence of increasing body size.
Especially under the last Bush Administration, scientists have complained loudly
of the politicization of science. Has this affected your field, especially
considering all the Intelligent Design nonsense of the last decade? What is your
take on these Luddite attempts to dumb down discourse? And, have they had any
day to day effects on your research, or on those of others in your field? Would
it not be better to simply ignore them and let them stew in their own ignorant
BS: Finding support and funding is very difficult for paleontologists, especially in times of financial crisis. This is a common theme – paleontologists such as O.C. Marsh faced it in the 19th century when legislators took offense at the government paying for monographs on fossils found out west – and within the past few years several state and university geological museums have either been closed or threatened with closure as a result of budget problems. Frustratingly, paleontology is often seen as unnecessary and expendable.
As for the creationism/intelligent design dilemma, I think scientists would be extremely foolish to simply ignore their opponents. It is a pain in the ass to respond – especially since creationist arguments rarely change – but I don’t think the scientific community is served well by remaining silent while the creationist crowd controls the discourse. More importantly, though, I think scientists need to do more to share the results of their work without having to engage in the creationist controversy. Don’t let the creationists frame the debate – take science directly to the public.
Intelligent Design is really a very dumbed down attempt to insert Creationism
into science. What are your views on the mixture of religion and science. Do not
both fields suffer?
BS: Religion has to take science into account when it comes to factual claims about nature, but I don’t think science needs to pay religion any attention at all. In fact, I am often frustrated when theistic scientists try to given evolution a religious spin – e.g. saying that convergence shows that humans would have inevitably evolved – and don’t see why science should have to be respectful of religious sensibility. We’re trying to figure out how nature works, and if that conflicts with someone’s dogma, so be it. I am not saying that scientists must be openly antagonistic to religion, but that no special accommodation for religion should be made within science.
I’ve mentioned Stephen Jay Gould before, so let me ask you on another of his
famous ideas: that religion and science form Non-Overlapping Magisteria.
Richard Dawkins states that the claim of a Deity has to be subject to science.
I’m on the fence. As a materialist, Dawkins is right. But, if there is such a
thing as an immaterial God, or any immaterial ‘thing’- if such can logically
exist, then Gould is right; but the onus is on Gould, as it is on all religiots.
NOMA is a nice idea, but I just don’t think it works. Religions do make
factual claims about the world which can bleed into the realm of science, and
these debates along the margins are what cause so much controversy. If a
religion did not make any claims about the age of the earth or the origin of
living things, for example, then there would be no reason for conflict with
science, but the most popular world religions today do make specific claims
about those things and so come into conflict with our scientific understanding.
In recent years, there have been a number of best selling books written
advocating agnostic and atheistic positions in society. Some have been written
by well known scientists like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and the
aforementioned philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am an agnostic, and have a rather
dim view of all organized religion, based upon history and the fact that it
generally separates the individual from contact with reality. Yet, the
vituperations of a Dawkins, Dennett, or some others, seems to turn off often
receptive people because of the delivery. Have you encountered these hardcore
types? If so, do they give you as much grief as the hardcore religiots who think
what you do is Biblical heresy? And
what do you think of the vitriol someone like Dawkins spews at religiots? Is he
not just aping their intolerance and ignorance- the whole ‘choose your enemies
Many people know one person whose main claim to fame is “telling it like it
is.” They don’t have a filter or consider others before they speak – they
simply speak honestly without much care for how the message might be received.
That’s what the books by Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc. make me think of. In
their own view, they’re just being honest, and if you’re offended then
you’re just too sensitive or don’t get it.
Naturally, when dealing with religion, it is difficult to offer up almost
any criticism and not have people get upset. I hardly mention religion at all
– outside of a historical context – in my book but I am sure that some
religious folks are going to be pissed about it. That’s just the nature of
things. Nevertheless, many of the recent atheist literature is intentionally
provocative, so I find it a bit disingenuous when people who subscribe to that
particular trend say they can’t be jerks because they’re just being honest.
How you choose to deliver your message is important, and I think many of the
books like The God Delusion primarily
appeal to people who already agree with the position of the author. Given the
amount of groans, sneers, and other bad reactions to the name “Dawkins” when
I have brought it up in conversation, it would seem that his approach isn’t
making him many friends (although, of course, my anecdote is not data).
When I interviewed philosopher Mark
Rowlands we mentioned conundra that seem irresolvable, a thing his
colleague, philosopher Colin McGinn, calls the New Mysterianism. Certainly, such
problems exist in science (and in your specialty). What are some of them? And,
if they exist, does this mean that you have to resort to a ‘God
of the gaps’ answer?
questions do not always require immediate answers. It is ok to say “I don’t
know” or to review the evidence and state “This is what the evidence
suggests, but we need to know more.” At almost any point in the history of
science there have been questions which have seemed irresolvable that awaited
future discoveries and new techniques. The origin of whales is one such case.
Where whales came from was a mystery for almost a century, and it required a
combination of new fossils and microbiological techniques to resolve. Dinosaur
colors are another example. We can’t detect the colors of all dinosaurs, but
thanks to the work of Jakob Vinther and others we now have a way to investigate
a question which has traditionally been held as impossible to answer. I don’t
see a need to employ a “God of the gaps” answer; if we don’t know, then it
would be better to be honest than try to shoehorn the issue into some
Let me digress. In astronomy, there was a bit of a dust-up, a few years ago,
when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who runs the Hayden Planetarium,
unilaterally demoted Pluto from the ranks of planethood. The International
Astronomical Union then followed suit, and there was a controversy over the role
of politics trumping science. What have been similar instances where politics
trumped science in your field? And, in calling Pluto a dwarf planet they seem to
show a total ignorance of semiotics. A dwarf planet, after all, can only be a
planet; just as a dwarf human or plant is still a human or plant, right?
BS: I feel like I have mentioned it too much in this interview, but the ongoing debate over Triceratops and Torosaurus is a good example of this kind of controversy. The discussion is ongoing, but it hinges upon the way in which we define dinosaur species and determine their growth. It’s not just about a name change, but how we investigate and classify nature. There are political aspects, but ultimately it comes down to the way in which we sift the scientific evidence.
To return again to Stephen Jay Gould; one of his most famous essays and books is
Bully For Brontosaurus, where Gould attacks the priority system in
naming over that of aptness. Of course, I speak of the replacement of the great,
iconic, and apt term Brontosaurus
(thunder lizard) with the wan and inapt Apatosaurus
(deceptive lizard). This was due to scientific priority given for
naming rights, correct? Gould, perhaps the top evolutionary pedant for the
general public, derided the loss of Brontosaurus as being an example of science
missing an opportunity to remain relevant to the public, in favor of placating
obscure rules regarding a century old mistake by the man, O.C. Marsh who
discovered both the correctly identified Apatosaurus and incorrectly identified
Brontosaurus. For those unfamiliar with the controversy and history, can you
give some historical background as to why the Brontosaurus we all grew up with
has been displaced? Which position and name do you favor, and why?
Apatosaurus is the correct name. We’ve known that for almost a
century now, but museum politics and the nature of discovery allowed “Brontosaurus”
to gain a more substantial foothold. Much of it had to do with finding the head
of “Brontosaurus.” Marsh had given it a head similar to Camarasaurus,
and given the thick bones of the “Brontosaurus”
body it seemed reasonable that it had such a skull rather than the more gracile
one of Diplodocus. This means that
when paleontologist Earl Douglass found the skull of Apatosaurus at Dinosaur National Monument it was cast as Diplodocus
skull since it was not directly attached to the body, and even after this was
recognized museum curators stuck with the old, Camarasaurus-type
skull. It was not until the 1970’s that this was all formally straightened
out, and by then “Brontosaurus”
had enough momentum as a dinosaurian icon that it was hard to kill. I do quite
like the name “Brontosaurus”, but
I don’t see any way to save it without entirely ignoring the rules of
Speaking of O.C. Marsh, he was one of the two giants of 19th Century
American paleontology, along with his great rival, E.D. Cope. For those who
don’t know of them, who were these two men, and what effect did their great
rivalry- often dubbed The Great Bone Wars, have upon the
establishment of the modern field you work in?
The Bone Wars are often remembered for the rivalry between Marsh and Cope, but
the competition did much to establish North American paleontology. Both
naturalists opened up new areas, found new species, trained the next generation
of experts, and otherwise turned American paleontology into a professional
pursuit. Yes, they left behind a frustratingly tangled legacy of names behind
them, but their work allowed paleontology to emerge as a rigorous scientific
pursuit ensconced within museums and universities.
Cope is generally considered the better pure scientist, while Marsh seems to
have been the more influential. Yet, both men died just before the dawn of the
20th Century, basically financially broke. Now, despite great fame in
their time, both are utterly forgotten, outside of paleontology, today. Do
either of these two men’s legacies have any strong bearing on your field
today? After all, was not Marsh amongst the first to posit avian descent from
dinosaurs? And did not Cope elucidate a law that claims that successive species
within a genera tend to increase in size?
Cope and Marsh still loom large in paleontology, although primarily in terms of
history (who found what where and whether that species is synonymous with
something else). Cope did seem to speculate on evolutionary patterns and
mechanisms more than Marsh did, and while “Cope’s Rule” of increasing body
size over time is actively discussed it has also had substantial criticisms
leveled against it. In terms of dinosaur taxonomy, I think Marsh came out on
top, but we still discuss more of Cope’s theoretical ideas.
Apropos of Cope and Marsh, let me toss out that old question: if you could sit
down and break bread for an evening with folks from the past- scientists or not,
which folk would you most like to engage with, and why?
BS: It is hard to choose, but I have always been fascinated by the Sternberg family. They were self-trained amateur fossil hunters who found numerous important specimens and worked with many big-name paleontologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and I am sure they would provide some interesting insights into what fieldwork was like during the early American dinosaur rushes.
To what extent have we uncovered the dinosaurian past? Given that we only have a
fraction of a fraction of the remains of all the dinosaurs ever alive, can we
pretend to know that we have even 1% of the answers?
In an absolute sense, it’s impossible to say. Aspects of individuals often
have to be taken as representative of entire groups, and perhaps there are
species which never became fossilized. What is clear is that our understanding
of dinosaurs has vastly increased over the past thirty years. In addition to
numerous new taxa, new techniques have given us an unprecedented look at their
paleobiology. There is more work to do than can possibly be accomplished even
among the current pool of paleontologists, but day by day we are gaining a more
comprehensive view of dinosaurs than ever before.
What are some of the other tidbits that have been revealed, in recent years,
regarding other life cycle phases, etc., of dinosaurs? As example, do we have
viable estimates of how long a typical T. Rex, Stegosaur, Brachiosaur, etc.
lived? How about their maturation rates? Can we tell if certain species paired
off as exclusive mates? Were some polygynous?
We know virtually nothing about dinosaur mating systems, but we are starting to
get a better idea of what the overall picture of their reproductive life was
like. Thanks to the identification of female dinosaurs based upon bone
histology, we know that at least some dinosaurs started reproducing before they
were fully mature. They had a more mammal-like pattern of growth and
reproduction in which they started reproducing during a young-adult growth
spurt. Determining their exact age is a little more difficult as that is an
estimation which is based upon models of physiology, but in general it seems
that dinosaurs grew fast and reproduced young.
Let me turn to one of the older controversies I recall from my youth as a
dinosaur lover: do we now know if the Stegosaur’s plates were used in
thermoregulation or as defensive weapons? Or both? The tail spikes, of course,
seem to plainly be defensive, or offensive, weapons, right? And, did Stegosaurs
really have pea-sized brains?
BS: The exact function of the plates of Stegosaurus is still unknown. They were almost certainly display structures, and some experimental studies have shown that they could have had some thermoregulatory benefits in dumping body heat, but since no living animal has such an arrangement of plates it is difficult to tell what function they had in Stegosaurus. (Although many paleontologists agree that they were probably not used for defense as blood vessels ran through them – why would you want a predator to attack a well-vascularized structure?) We can determine what the plates might have been good for, but, without of a living Stegosaurus, it is hard to distinguish between possible uses and definite uses.
And Stegosaurus did not literally have a pea-sized brain. Its brain was very small for its body size – it was not the sort of dinosaur which would do well on a quiz show – but was about the same size as the brain of an average-sized dog.
How about the color and texture of dinosaur skin? Even though they are called ‘terrible lizards,’ in truth, are not they as dissimilar
from lizards as birds or therapsids- or even mammals, are? We now know some had
feathers, correct? Did any have fur?
Thanks to well-preserved specimens, we have known of the pebbly skin texture of
dinosaurs for quite some time, but color is another matter. Without melanosomes
or chemical traces tied to color, we may never know. In general, though,
evidence is mounting that many dinosaurs may have had feathers or bristle-like
body coverings, and it may be that some kind of wispy body covering was
ancestral for dinosaurs.
How about many of the frills and crests that some dinosaurs had? Were these used
mostly for defense- as likely for Ceratopsians, or perhaps as sexual displays?
Could some of the crests, especially on the duck-billed dinosaurs, have been
used for assorted differing vocalizations?
BS: Damage seen on the skulls of dinosaurs such as Triceratops and Centrosaurus have shown that they did spar with each other by locking horns, but the evolution of their horns and frills is still being actively debated. Was it sexual selection, or something else? As argued by Kevin Padian and Jack Horner it may be that display was the most important function of these features, and the array of horns and frills evolved into so many disparate forms to help species recognize one another.
As for hadrosaurs, experiments have suggested that they could have used their crests to make unique vocalizations. I don’t see any reason to suppose why they shouldn’t have used their crests this way. The question is why the crests evolved in the first place. Again, was it sexual selection, species recognition, or something else?
What new information has come to light re: dinosaurs, in regards to their
parenting or familial situations? Were any dinosaurs truly social animals, in
the way simians or some insects are?
Well I would say that the social lives of insects and primates are very
different from one another, but in general there has been some new evidence for
gregariousness among dinosaurs. A unique trackway of several “raptor”
dinosaurs shows that these three individuals were probably walking side-by-side,
and an Albertosaurus bonebed in Canada hints that a whole family of these
tyrannosaurs died in one place. What I find fascinating, however, is that
scientists have found bonebeds of multiple juvenile dinosaurs. It seems that,
shortly after leaving the next, young dinosaurs had to fend for themselves and
formed small social groups for protection. The parental care of dinosaurs may
have primarily been confined to the nest.
Here is another query I recall being raised, about twenty years ago, but have
never heard the answer to- did dinosaurs have lips? I forget the book’s title
and author, but I recall reading and seeing illustrations that suggested that
the aforementioned Brachiosaurus’s (as well as its sauropodian cousin,
Diplodocus’s) placement of nasal passages on the top of its skull may have
been a sign that they had elephantine trunks, for elephants have similarly
constructed skulls, and that evidence of dinosaurian lips could have been a big
boon to the idea of trunked dinosaurs. Has anything come of that posit, research
into lips or trunks, and if not, was it just a passing fancy? If so, what other
pet theories have blown in and out of dinosaur research in the last decade or
BS: Sauropod trunks were a passing fancy. There is no evidence that they had trunks, and several recent studies which explicitly looked at this hypothesis found no evidence from muscle scars or nerve foramina that a trunk was present in dinosaurs such as Diplodocus. Dinosaur lips are another matter. Reconstructing the soft tissues around the mouth is very difficult, and while most restorations don’t have lips the debate does pop up every now and again.
How do you assess the current state of dinosaur awareness, worldwide and in
America? By that I mean not just a recognition that they existed, but a
knowledge of when they existed, where, etc. As I mentioned earlier, I find some
people, in this day and age, still believe cavemen co-existed with dinosaurs.
Have you? And, do most dino lovers realize that popular creatures like
Dimetrodon, Pteranodon, and Mosasaurus were not technically dinosaurs?
It’s hard to tell. I don’t know if anyone has ever done a poll for something
like that, and it may be that people know more or less about dinosaurs at
different times in their lives (e.g. kids may know more than adults). I think
there is still some confusion about vaguely dinosaur-like creatures such as Dimetrodon and Pteranodon,
but dinosaurs are so culturally prevalent that I would hazard that many people
are aware that non-avian dinosaurs lived many millions of years ago.
Let’s get to some superlatives, since that’s one of the main attractions of
dinosaurs. Which of the dinosaur species were the largest? As a child that title
was held by Brachiosaurus, as both the tallest and heaviest, and by Diplodocus,
as the longest. But, in the decades since, other sauropds, such as Titanosaurus,
Ultrasaurus, Argentinosaurus, Supersaurus, Sauroposeidon, and Bruhathkayosaurus,
have seemed to displace them. Which is the champ? Were some sauropods able to
whip their tails at supersonic speeds?
BS: The biggest dinosaur of all may have been a Diplodocus-like form called Amphicoelias – stretching anywhere from 130 to nearly 200 feet long – but the only fossil remains known for this dinosaur disappeared long ago. No one has ever found another specimen, so it is difficult to know whether it was truly the largest or whether the bones from a more modestly-sized dinosaur. In general, though, there were many sauropods which were 100 feet long or a little more, and would seem to be near the structural upper limit of how big these dinosaurs could have gotten. As far as specimens which are better known go, Argentinosaurus (~100 feet) and Futalognkosaurus (~110 feet) were among the largest. I know everyone loves to know which dinosaur was the definite winner, but I find it fascinating that there were so many super-sized dinosaurs from so many different places and time periods!
As for the tail-whip hypothesis, it appears that some Diplodocus-like forms were able to do so, but the manner in which they actually whipped their tails is still being investigated. What parts of the tail were held firm and which were kept flexible would have determined how they would have swung their tails, and this hypothesis is still being investigated.
BS: I do think that
the asteroid which struck in the area of the Yucatan was the primary extinction
trigger, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about the global story of
dinosaurs at the very end of the Cretaceous. One of the subjects scientists have
continually grappled with is dinosaur diversity at the very end of the
Cretaceous. In North America, at least, some dinosaur lineages appear to suffer
a drop in diversity – where there were several species living alongside one
another, there’s just one or two. Is this real, or is this an effect of the
way we classify dinosaurs? And if the drop is real, does this mean that
dinosaurs were being set up for extinction by other factors first? Or was it
part of a natural changeover in the dinosaur fauna and the asteroid struck at
just the wrong time? Additionally, scientists are still investigating the
cascade of ecological effects the asteroid impact would have had – the more
proximal causes which would have caused the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs
and many other organisms. The extinction of so many kind of organisms at once on
a global scale speaks to a single trigger event – and I think the asteroid
impact is the best hypothesis we presently have – but the contingencies which
caused the death of so many lineages are still being worked out.
DS: How about a
little speculation, here? What do you think of claims that certain theropods
were developing larger brains and opposable digits, which may have led to a
humanoid creature? Pop culture, such as Star Trek, have made such
speculations, and even some UFO enthusiasts have posited that the Gray aliens
they claim abduct humans, may actually be dinosaurian descendents. While silly,
from a speculative viewpoint, what do you think would have happened to dinosaurs
without the K-T Impactor? Would they have bitten the dust, anyway?
BS: The “Dinosauroid” is bullshit. Dinosaurs did survive the end-Cretaceous extinction. They’re called birds, and some lineages – such as corvids – have independently evolved high levels of intelligence in bodies very different from our own. The idea that intelligent dinosaurs would have to evolve into humanoid creatures is a teleological idea based upon the faulty assumption that our body is the ideal vessel for high levels of intelligence and overall shows a lack of imagination.
Let’s assume that the asteroid never struck and that the Mesozoic way
of life continued unimpeded. What would have happened? That’s difficult to
say, but I imagine that dinosaurs would have continued to evolve and diversify.
It would have been interesting to see how birds and pterosaurs would have
continued to interact, even if the only pterosaurs left were typically large
flying creatures not in direct competition with birds. I also would have been
interested to see what would have happened in terms of competition between
tyrannosaurs and other large predatory dinosaurs such as carcharodontosaurids.
Would they have evolved into specialists on particular prey, or would certain
species drive competitors out of certain environments? Given the fate of the
majority of species on this planet, extinction is inevitable, but I don’t see
any reason to think that dinosaurs as a group were hurtling towards extinction.
If anything, I wonder what would have happened if there was another faunal
changeover – what new kinds of weird dinosaurs would have evolved?
DS: Are you
familiar with the illustrated books of Scottish geologist Dougal
Dixon? He has taken speculative evolution in many interesting
directions. Most apropos to this discussion, have you ever seen his The
New Dinosaurs: An_Alternative Evolution? If so, any thoughts
on the credibility of some of his speculations? And, as a former illustrator,
what do you think of his creatures, and the representations of them in his art?
BS: Dixon’s books are a lot of fun to read, but the speculations vary in quality. Many of them seemed to follow a teleological bent, taking dinosaurs or other prehistoric animals and bending them into a mammalian shape, such as the giraffe-like pterosaur the “Lank.” He’s a good illustrator and obviously any work of speculative biology is going to provide fertile ground for disagreement, but in general I think it’s a mistake to think there are a certain number of forms or niches which evolution would have created all over again had this or that mass extinction been cancelled.
DS: As a
dinosaur fan, are you an avid reader of fiction that includes them? What are
your favorite tales or authors? Have you ever read the famous Ray Bradbury
dinosaur tale, A
Sound Of Thunder? Since I mentioned the speculative alternate
history of a non-K-T Impacted Earth, that famed sci fi story literally deals
with causality and the Butterfly Effect, as a time traveler
accidentally kills a butterfly and changes his and human history. Other than the
K-T event, what do you think would be the most interesting change you would make
to terrestrial history if you had God-like powers?
BS: I do read some dinosaur fiction – mostly short stories in collected volumes – but honestly a good deal of it is just awful. Time traveling dinosaur hunters? Bradbury did it well by including a twist, but much of the rest of it is pretty cheesy (especially the inevitable arguments caused by the token woman hunter who tags along against the wishes of the obligatory rough-and-tumble expedition leader). As with art, dinosaurs in fiction are often seen as kitsch, and given the dinosaur fiction I have seen I can’t really blame others for that interpretation. (Lest I paint the entire sub-subgenre with too broad a brush, I have greatly enjoyed Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Time’s Arrow” and G.G. Simpson’s novella The Dechronization of Sam Magruder.) I have thought of trying my hand at a bit of paleo-fiction from time to time, but so far have not produced much.
If I could change any bit of prehistory just to see what happened, I would probably cancel the end-Permian extinction. This was the worst mass extinction in the history of life on earth, and I imagine that organisms would have been adapted in very different ways had they been allowed to survive. Then again, maybe I should pick something else, since dinosaurs might not have evolved if the Permian extinction was cancelled and I certainly wouldn’t want to give them up!
DS: Have you ever watched the BBC show Walking With Dinosaurs? What did they get right and what did they get wrong?
watched the program when it originally aired, but I haven’t since. Bits and
pieces have shown up on various programs, although honestly I don’t really
remember enough about it to do a rundown of what they got right and wrong beyond
a few nitpicks (such as the size of the marine reptile Liopleurodon
was far too large, and some of the dinosaurs should have been feathered, but
unfortunately I don’t have the time to back and watch the series to see how it
has held up.
Let us digress now, to one of the major reasons I asked to interview you. As I
type this, you have a forthcoming book, Written In Stone, from
Bellevue Literary Press, due. Thank you for the galley copy, and it was a good
and enjoyable read. Having read thousands of science books over the years, and
checking in at under 300 pages, I was surprised at how voluminous the book was,
in terms of areas covered. On the positive side, especially for a beginner,
questioning the fossil record, or weighing Creationism vs. Evolution, this wide
swath- covering the evolution of bacteria, fish, amphibians, reptiles,
therapsids, dinosaurs, mammals, elephants, whales, horses, humans, etc.- is a
good thing. But for the well read, like me, much of the book covered familiar
territory, save for the updates of the last decade or so, and perhaps I’d’ve
wanted some more scientific guesswork and hard opinions on if this or that
theory, currently in controversy, is right or wrong. I.e.- less of a history
book on paleontology and more of the individual Switek Stamp, be
it in the way Stephen Jay Gould used non-scientific metaphors to get to a point,
or the personal ‘hidden essay’ form of Loren Eiseley. To what degree did you
have to weigh taking it ‘all’ on (the way a primer does) vs. assuming a
certain level of scientific literacy in your audience? To what degree did the
publisher influence this decision, positively or negatively?
BS: Early on in the writing process, the style of presentation was something I wrangled over a lot. I knew I wanted to include a greater degree of detail about evolutionary transitions that had been glossed over in other books, but how could I do that without swamping readers with jargon? Ultimately I tried to approach the book as I would a conversation with a friend who did not have a background in paleontology, keeping in mind that I need to explain what I mean without getting repetitive. This was my own decision. While the book was being circulated among publishers there were a few houses which wanted something about new science – the history of science aspect of the book was a hard sell – but ultimately Bellevue Literary Press gave me full control over the way I decided to tell the story.
As for the lack of a “Switek Stamp” in the book, I think it is there, if you look. The emphasis is on telling stories – both of prehistoric organisms and the way we have come to understand them – but I also acknowledged debate or ideas which are still shifting. Some of these snippets are in the footnotes – such as my comment on the varying levels of natural selection – and others are more prominent, such as the idea that upright walking among hominins was an exaptation which might not have been unique to only our lineage among prehistoric apes. In general, though, I think I did not write as much of a personal book because no one would take me seriously if I did. Who am I to appraise the entire field of evolutionary theory and write a book passing judgment on controversies such as group selection? I have not earned the ability to do that, although, as I mentioned, I did point out areas of uncertainty in my book and explained why I came down on one side or another.
In the book’s Introduction you speak of a recent overhyped fossil find called Darwinius
massillae, in which an early primate was trumpeted as a human ‘missing
link,’ simply to generate hype. Then, when disproved, the claimants slunk away
in ignominy. Why does science need to resort to such pornographic Madison Avenue
type tactics to generate interest? Is it not better to merely do the research,
and let the ignorant public stew in their video games, websurfing, 500 tv
channels, and romance novels?
BS: Well the researchers behind the Darwinius description didn’t just slink away. They just published a letter in the Journal of Human Evolution defending their interpretation and one of the authors just gave a presentation at the 70th annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting communicating the same findings. I am still not convinced, but the scientists behind the initial study are sticking to their interpretation.
The Darwinius fracas was an exceptional case – I can’t immediately think of another fossil which was hyped to such a degree. That said, it would be extremely foolish to “merely do the research” and write off the public off as a collective of dunces. That is the kind of arrogance which will cut our legs out from under us. Scientists – especially scientists funded through grants paid for by the public through taxes – have a duty to communicate their findings. Granted, not every study is going to be of interest to the public, but I think it is essential for scientists to find new ways to engage with people who are maybe only marginally interested in science. How are we going to generate interest and support for science if we keep it all behind closed doors? I think the Darwinius team went overboard, but confining science to conferences, journals, and the halls of academia alone would be even more foolish than overhyping a discovery.
In the September, 2010 issue of Discover magazine, it is claimed
that human brain size had been decreasing for a few thousand years, until the
last century, when better diets helped the brain increase in size again. Late in
your book, you speak of the archetype of future humans looking like big brained
humanoids, and use the example of the Dinosauroid, as well. Assuming humanity
survives, what do you see as the evolutionary future for mankind? Is cloning and
genetic engineering inevitable? Are we headed toward the speciation of mankind
into niches, as envisioned by Dougal Dixon and other futurologists?
BS: Any hypothesis about the future of human evolution is almost certainly wrong. If anyone turns out to be right, I think it’s mostly going to be a matter of luck rather than true foresight. We just can’t know. There is not another species like us – interacting with global ecology but also somewhat insulated from it by a bubble of culture – and I don’t think anyone can honestly know what to expect other than the eventual extinction of our species (though whether we’ll speciate before then is another question).
You use the concept of contingency when speaking of the Dinosauroid’s unlikely
evolution, and, indeed, most people who claim, as did Stephen Jay Gould, that,
if history were to unfold again there would be no humans redeveloping. I agree,
but am less convinced that intelligence would not develop. As example, some
people claim if the sun had been a little less or more bright, if the moon was
not as proportionately large, if this or that occurred, life would not be what
it was. But, to me, that’s like stating if your parents had sex 5 minutes
later or earlier than when they did when you were conceived, you would not
exist. True, but someone with your DNA would, and likely be quite similar, in
many ways. Let’s say the K-T Impactor did not hit, I could foresee some
dinosaurian intelligence evolve. If the Permian Extinction had not occurred,
then maybe therapsids would have developed intelligence 150 million years ago.
Or, if the sun had been brighter, perhaps it would have taken only a billion,
not three billion, years for intelligence to evolve, and their descendants would
have long ago left earth for the stars. I just find it amazing how provincial
and biased most scientists are, from the atheistic Richard Dawkins, who uses
much of the blustery us vs. them tactics of the religiots he reviles, to those
who reduce everything to a false dichotomy. Comments?
By itself, “intelligence” is a squishy term. Do you mean an intelligence
comparable to ours, or comparably high levels of intelligence when viewed in the
context of evolutionary diversity? As I point out in the section on the
“Dinosauroid” that you mention we already know that not only did dinosaurs
survive the end-Cretaceous extinction, but some developed impressively high
levels of intelligence in a morphology distinct from our own – they are the
extant ravens and crows. Dolphins, chimpanzees, elephants, spotted hyenas, and
many other vertebrates have independently evolved comparatively high levels of
intelligence in a disparate array of body plans, as well, but I see this more as
a matter of contingency which undercuts the teleological view that, eventually,
an analog for ourselves would evolve. That’s the hidden subtext when this
subject gets discussed – are we talking about the evolution of relatively high
levels of intelligence among organisms, or are we talking about the
inevitability of the human form? Oftentimes it’s the latter, and I honestly
don’t see any compelling evidence for the idea of humanoid inevitability other
than wishful thinking often fueled by religious conviction.
DS: You mention Georges Cuvier and Charles Lyell, in discussing catastrophism vs. gradualism. But the reality is that gradualism exists, with intermediate moments of catastrophes, such as the formation of the Scablands in Washington state, due to a glacial lake’s melting, and this all taking place over a few hours during the Pleistocene Epoch. Why must humans always think black and white when grays are so more likely? And this includes the idea of gradualism vs. punctuated equilibrium in evolution. To me this is the ‘real’ debate in evolution, not evolution vs. creationism. Yet, like in geology, there really is no difference between evolutionary gradualism and punctuated equilibrium, since it’s a matter of perspective. A ‘punctuated equilibrial’ burst might take place over thousands of years- a burst in the long view, but very long in the lives of individual beings. Comments?
BS: I was taught the old gradualism/catastrophism model in high school and college, but it doesn’t make any sense and I haven’t met any professional geologists who take it seriously. We like conceptual boxes to organize things – this goes here, that goes there – but in this case the contrast came out of Lyell reviving Hutton’s ideas and dispensing with the models of Cuvier and Buckland as the invocation of supernatural causes in science (which was made all the easier because Jameson’s translation of Cuvier’s work miscast Cuvier’s arguments in a religious light). Lyell was making an argument to win a point, not to comprehensively review systems of the earth in as accurate manner as possible, and that dichotomy ended up becoming entrenched after Lyell appeared to come out as the victor. Thankfully, though, I think we’re mostly past that one.
The same goes for gradual, anagenetic patterns of evolution and punctuated, branching ones. It’s not as if we must cleave to one or the other and stay loyal to it. There is evidence for both; they are both useful frameworks in teasing out the larger evolutionary pattern. I think most of the debate centers around two points, one dealing with patterns and the other with interpretation – how prevalent is each pattern in evolution, and how “revolutionary” punk eek actually is. The first question is something we’re going to be grappling with for some time, but much of the opposition I have seen to the idea of punctuated equilibrium has been directed at the idea that it was a revolutionary concept. It’s not just an academic debate – the politics of science have played a part, as well.
You briefly mention Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and, in some minor arenas, it has
been shown that his ideas on acquired characteristics, indeed, do occur. Yet,
again, like with Alfred Russel Wallace, his contributions seem to have been
minimized, all on the altar of Darwin. While there is no doubting the import of
Darwin, should not the scientific reality of the future really state that
evolution was the brainchild, primarily, of the troika of Lamarck, Darwin, and
Wallace? Again, anything less seems dumbing down.
BS: I think Darwin gets so much attention because his book was the kick in the ass his colleagues needed to take evolution seriously. Richard Owen, too, was considering evolutionary ideas, as were numerous other naturalists, but Darwin was the first one to present a detailed, plausible mechanism backed up by a vast store of evidence. This doesn’t mean that everyone who accepted the reality of evolution also accepted that natural selection was the driver of change, but, outside of the precise details of his evolutionary perspective, the most important aspect of Darwin’s work was that it marked a point after which evolution could not just be brushed aside as this fanciful, heretical idea.
Unfortunately I did not have the time to go into all the detail I wanted about this in the book, but I tried to show that Darwin was not the first to think of evolution or even a mechanism like natural selection. He put things together in a unique way, but many of these ideas had been stewing in Europe for decades. So yes, I think we do need to do more to mention Lamarck, Wallace, Owen, and others, and we would do well to dispense with the idea that Darwin did it all by himself. We need a wider perspective – one which includes social context as well as the key players – but just as we like to corral ideas into particular categories, it is often most convenient to set upon just one person or small group of people as the originators of something grand to the exclusion of others.
Another recurring figure in your narrative is the aforementioned Richard Owen,
who coined the term dinosaur, and helped found the British Museum
in London. He disagreed with Darwinian natural selection, but not evolution.
What was his beef, and where does that stand today?
BS: Over the past few decades Owen’s image has been at least partially rehabilitated thanks to scholars like Kevin Padian, Adrian Desmond, and Nicolas Rupke, though not much can be done for Owen’s reputation as a cranky and possessive anatomist.
Owen’s stance on evolution was complex. Although called “the English Cuvier”, he was most interested in the patterns of form whereas Cuvier focused on the relationship of form and function. As such Owen thought in terms of internal forces which could have modified archaic forms into advanced ones – change from within rather than imposed by the interaction of an organism with its environment. Also, like many other naturalists familiar with the fossil record, Owen saw the punctuated pattern of organisms over time as an argument against natural selection. Organisms appeared, didn’t change, and then disappeared – there was no hint of slow, graded change between forms. Something else must have been going on.
On top of all that, natural selection did not require any reference to a Creator or guiding force, and given Owen’s habit of injecting religious poetry in his work and his ties to social conservatives the idea of an atheistic evolutionary perspective was no doubt threatening.
Yet, in reading your book, he seems to have favored the idea of dinosaurs as
warm blooded, thereby showing he was quite prescient, as now it seems that idea
is gaining mainstream support. What other ideas did he have that were ridiculed,
but now look forward thinking? What other scientists of the day had ideas
dismissed, only to be proven right with time?
BS: Owen may have been right for the wrong reasons. Compared to the original, lizard-like reconstructions, his dinosaurs were more mammal-like and could be cast as the highest degree of development among reptiles. He did not have access to the multiple lines of evidence we have access to today, and even though naturalists like Owen and E.D. Cope proposed that dinosaurs were endothermic, homeothermic animals I think it was primarily because that kind of physiology corresponded to the anatomy and inferred habits of the animals.
That’s the trouble with digging back into the past and finding what
appears to be the glimmering of something we know to be true today. Was that
scientist actually being prescient, or did they independently come to the same
idea for very different reasons? T.H. Huxley’s proposal that birds evolved
from dinosaur-like animals is another example. Over and over again it has been
said that Huxley was the first to recognize that birds probably evolved from
small theropod dinosaurs, but in reality his views were more complex and
differed in some significant ways from our present understanding. For Huxley
none of the known dinosaurs could have been ancestral to birds but instead
represented the form of what the true bird ancestors would have looked like.
These animals would have been at the beginning of a transition to flightless,
ostrich-like birds which then evolved into flying birds, with Archaeopteryx – often heralded as the “first bird” – as a
weird offshoot generally not relevant to the question of bird origins. Hence I
think we should take great care in dealing with what appears to be “forward
thinking” in the history of science. What seems to be foresight might be
something more peculiar and contingent on a set of circumstances unfamiliar to
DS: Late in the book, you mention a crazy idea called Pleistocene Rewilding. Where did this idea come from, and why would anyone think it ok, since most of the megafauna of the day are now gone?
BS: The idea of Pleistocene Rewilding had been kicked around for a few decades in the wake of the “Overkill Hypothesis” which suggested that humans had killed off mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and other charismatic creatures as they moved across the globe during the Pleistocene. Paul S. Martin, who sadly recently passed away, was the primary champion of this idea, but it didn’t gain much momentum until he and a group of other scientists published an outline in favor of it in Nature in 2005. The general thrust of the argument is that if we want to really restore the wilderness, we should try to recreate the landscape as it was about 13,000 years ago when mammoths, mastodons, lions, and other large mammals were more widespread (with an emphasis on North America). The way to do this would be bringing elephants, cheetahs, lions, horses, camels, and other modern analogs to extinct animals to closed in parks or reserves in an attempt to recreate the large mammal community of the Pleistocene.
There is something of a romantic image to the idea, especially since it would be a kind of penance for what prehistoric humans did. The trouble is that that causes of the global Pleistocene extinction are still unclear, and it is not certain that humans were the primary trigger for extinction. At a more practical level, though, it is impossible to bring back the Pleistocene. There’s no guarantee that modern animals would interact with the present environment like their prehistoric cousins would, and we don’t have any proxies from animals like giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats. Whatever we put together, it would be an artificial assemblage which would have only a limited capacity to tell us about what the Pleistocene was like.
Your book also, indirectly, cuts down a noxious racist myth- that of the
Rousseauvian Noble Savage, as you seem to agree with the idea that the megafauna
of the Stone Age were killed off with the advent of mankind into the Americas.
I.e.- the ancestors of Native Americans were just as bloodthirsty and avaricious
as Europeans, Asians, Easter Islanders, and other humans. Is that your view?
BS: I tried to give the Overkill Hypothesis a fair hearing the book, but it isn’t my preferred view. I don’t buy the myth of the first humans to reach the Americas as people who lived in perfect harmony with the land, but I also don’t agree with the blitzkrieg model of Pleistocene extinction in which humans quickly wiped out the megafauna as they pushed into the North American continent. The rhetoric runs hot on this topic, but I have seen a milder consensus emerging that there was probably not any one single cause – be it climate change, humans, disease, etc. – which can explain the Pleistocene extinctions. There is much that we still don’t know about the natural history of the extinct species or why the survivors were able to persist. Even though the mass extinction was closest to us in time, it is one of the most enigmatic, and I don’t think we should feel compelled to say that this or that single cause can accord for the whole thing when there is much that is still unknown. Personally, I think changes in ecology triggered by climate shifts played by a role and humans were more significant in the death of particular species rather than the whole swath of lost megafauna, but whether this view is right or wrong will rest on future research.
Little is mentioned in your book of mankind’s settlement of the New World.
Personally, I suspect there were many more settlings of the Americas than
thought of. The Bering Land Bridge, certainly, but I think good evidence points
to settlement of the continent from Siberia and Europe, following ice channels
in a glaciated north, as ancients paddled their way to land. Also, have not
genetic tests proven that Easter Islanders settled along Peru and Chile in
prehistoric times? Then there is the Kennewick Man, and other lesser known
finds, that seem to have little ethnic ties to modern Native Americans. In
short, the New World may have just been ‘New’ to the ignorant Europeans of
the 15th Century, and no one else. Comments?
BS: To be honest, I was not very interested in the settlement of the New World by humans. I do mention it in the context of the Pleistocene extinction, but the main focus of the book was documenting macroevolutionary transitions – in the case of humans, from more archaic forms like Ardipithecus ramidus to early Homo species. In general, though, it appears that there have been waves of early human settlement in the western hemisphere which may or may not have stuck. It was not as if humans showed up and made themselves at home – as older and older signs of human settlement are found in the Pleistocene, it looks as if humans may have had a tough time becoming established.
You write of sexual dimorphism, and how Ramapithecus fossils may well be females
of the Sivapithecus species. What other famous finds have not been separate
species but sexually dimorphic pairs of the same species?
I can’t immediately recall any other conclusive cases, but the subject has
often been debated for dinosaurs, particularly well-ornamented species such as
some hadrosaurs and the horned dinosaurs. The trouble is that sexual dimorphism
has not been conclusively demonstrated in dinosaurs and with more refined
biostratigraphy methods even crested hadrosaurs once thought to represent a
sexually dimorphic population turned out to be separate species, after all.
There may be ways to finally get at this problem by using morphometrics – a
method of systematically comparing form to see which individuals fall out
closest to one another based upon multiple anatomical landmarks – and bone
histology, but as yet sexual dimorphism hasn’t been conclusively demonstrated
in dinosaurs. It may very well have existed, but we haven’t been able to
detect it yet.
As you mentioned earlier, recently, several paleontologists, such as Jack
Horner, have claimed that Triceratops and Torosaurus were just juvenile and
adult versions of the same dinosaur. But, unlike the dumping of the more apt
Brontosaurus for Apatosaurus, this time, Triceratops- the older term, will
prevail. Yet, if Triceratops was a juvenile Torosaurus, then why are many
Triceratops finds larger than Torosaurus finds?
BS: The Triceratops/Torosaurus debate is still going on strong – it was a frequent topic of discussion at this year’s SVP meeting – but the overall size of the dinosaurs isn’t a major problem for the hypothesis. Looking at variation among our own species, for example, some young adults are bigger and taller than fully mature adults, and specimens designated Torosaurus are so rare that we don’t have as good an understanding of their size than Triceratops. Rather than overall size, much of the debate has focused on changes in the skull, such as how the number of bumps around the frill of Triceratops (called epiparietals) could have changed during growth to the number seen in Torosaurus-type specimens.
Another naming controversy involves the early whale Basilosaurus. Clearly, that
name is all wrong, and the term Zeuglodon is more apt. So why does scientific
priority reign when a later name is more apt, or just cooler, like Eohippus over
Hyracotherium? I mean, Laelaps kicks ass on Dryptosaurus. To the general public
this seems like ego taking precedent over good science. A Basilosaurus was
mammal, not a reptile nor dinosaur!
BS: I do prefer the name Laelaps over Dryptosaurus, and it seems that both Eohippus and Hyracotherium are both valid names for distinct animals, but it can be frustrating to see a cherished name disappear. That’s just the way the rules are. Priority is important, especially since it helps keep things organized – can you imagine finding out all the important information about a species if its name got frequently changed in favor of something more apt or subjectively more appealing? Plus, I like the fact that we have some inaccurate names such as Basilosaurus. It’s an excuse to ask “Why is that?” and dig into the history of science.
That’s a good point, about errors being keys to understanding; in fact, the
best defense for what I consider nominal priority’s being too dogmatic. You
write of exaptation. What is it, and in what context do you use it in regard to
possible human evolution?
BS: Exaptation is the co-option of traits or adaptations to a new function – roughly, using old parts in new ways. The arms and legs of the earliest tetrapods did not evolve for walking around on land, for example, but instead were adaptations to a shallow aquatic setting in which the animals could prop themselves up on the muddy bottom. These adaptations to life in the shallows also opened up the possibility of supporting the animals on land, and so were co-opted for a new function as the tetrapods began to come out on land.
In terms of human evolution, I think there is an increasing amount of evidence that the aboreal adaptations of the earliest hominins made bipedalism possible. For example, the anatomy of Ardipithecus suggests that it moved through trees by moving over the tops of branches rather than swinging below them. This involved a suite of adaptations related to moving by grasping tree branches, but when it came down to the ground its anatomy would have predisposed it to standing up and walking – albeit in a unique way – rather than knuckle-walking like a chimpanzee. If this is right, then humans did not “stand up” from knuckle-walking ancestors, but the adaptations to life in the trees made bipedal locomotion possible.
Also, what do you think of Elaine Morgain’s aquatic ape hypothesis?
To me, it has two flaws: 1) all the adaptations claimed for aquatic usage can be
explained by other means, and 2) the proposed time frame for these aquatic
adaptations to have taken hold is just too short. Comments?
Morgan’s hypothesis is driven more by ideology and the culture of an outsider
trying to shake up the scientific establishment than anything else. Morgan
formed her hypothesis as a criticism to the savanna hypothesis, but while she
was right to point out the flaws in the savanna hypothesis her own ideas went
too far in the other direction. Any traits which Morgan claims to have been
adaptations to life in the water can be better explained in arboreal or
terrestrial settings, and, if we are truly aquatic apes, I have to wonder why we
are such poor swimmers compared to so many other aquatic and semi-aquatic
DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees, but, let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary literary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And aMRo to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3 .’ In the sciences, this dynamic is also applicable. When I interviewed Steven Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the 180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense, this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences, the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Are their current paleontologists who might be considered visionaries in a hundred or more years? Who are they? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
BS: I always feel a bit ill at ease when people start trying to create distinct categories for intelligence. There are so many variables to consider, including how people specialize. I’ll use myself as an example. Before diving into paleontology, I wanted to be a musician. Admittedly I wasn’t that good, but I regularly wrote songs on guitar and lyrics. Now those some tasks – which were so fluid before – are extremely difficult. If I put enough effort into it I’m sure I could do it again, but in engaging in a more analytical type of thinking and creativity more often that more poetic and creative aspect of myself has atrophied to an extent. To put it another way, I don’t think we got locked into functionary or creative roles due to our brains – we can shift, but abilities don’t always easily carry over as our efforts and interests change.
As for the nature of visionaries in paleontology, that is very difficult to say. Science is so specialized today. Today we don’t see corps of interdisciplinary naturalists gathered together in close-knit societies. Instead the key is focusing on one particular area, and so many researchers are producing so much work it is impossible to master it all to come up with meaningful syntheses. And it’s also worth considering that paleontologists regularly featured in magazines, books, etc. will probably be considered in more detail by future historians than those who don’t have much of a paper trail. Given all that, I think Jack Horner will be seen as a very significant force in paleontology from the late 20th through the early 21st century. I don’t agree with him on everything, but, through his work on dinosaur nesting sites and his present effort to marry the traditional aspects of paleo with evo-devo and other disciplines, I think he will be remembered as having a very significant role in dinosaur studies (especially since he continues to play an active role in the science!).
As for myself, I’ll refrain on placing myself anywhere on the scale. I’ll let historians worry about that if I end up doing anything significant.
Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions, claimed
that scientific theories are disbelieved at first, then grudgingly accepted,
then become dogma, then are tossed out. Do you agree?
BS: Yes and no. I don’t think there’s a set lifecycle for scientific theories, and I disagree that the ultimate fate of all theories is to be tossed out in favor of something else. Consensus can hinder the acceptance of a new idea or theory, but the rate of which it gets accepted varies, and I don’t particularly like the term “dogma” here since it makes it sound like an article of faith rather than something being continually tested against evidence. What I am thinking of, specifically, is the acceptance of the idea that humans living alongside Pleistocene mammals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats. The idea had been proposed now and then during the early 19th century on scanty evidence, but in 1858 conclusive evidence for the antiquity of humans was finally found. The consensus changed virtually overnight and obviously hasn’t changed since. In this case we’re not just dealing with an abstract theory – there are facts involved, as well – but it helps illustrate that the process of scientific understanding is a bit more squishy than your summation of Kuhn’s trajectory implies.
If you agree, what are some of the theories, in your field, that might, by this
century’s end, seem laughably silly? What things that are considered fringe
might be dogma? What dogma will be anachronistic? And where do you think
paleontology will be in 2110?
BS: Things are changing so rapidly right now that it is difficult to say. I think many cases of straight-line anagenesis in the fossil record, particularly among dinosaurs, will turn out to be part of more widely branching patterns, but that will rely on better sampling of the fossil record.
By 2109 I hope that paleontology is finally seen as an essential and
interdisciplinary evolutionary science. There’s much more going on than just
digging up bones, and I think paleontologists working now are making a major
effort to turn paleobiology into one of the most important areas of study for
understanding how evolution works.
I think we’ll look back and laugh at all the naked dinosaurs. Based
upon discoveries already made, I expect that dinosaurs covered in feathers and
bristles will become commonplace in restorations of prehistoric life. I also
think that we’re going to find that Australia was a strange mixing bowl of
dinosaur diversity with migrants from many different places. The fossil material
there is very scrappy, but recent discoveries have hinted that dinosaurs such as
tyrannosaurs, spinosaurs, and maybe even horned dinosaurs made the long trek to
the southern continent. Of course more evidence will be needed, but so far it
appears that the age of dinosaurs in Australia was very strange, indeed.
DS: In a similar
vein, who would you rank amongst the top 10 earth-based scientists of all time,
and why? Cope, Marsh, Hutton, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz. Certainly, some, if
not all of these would be on your list. No? How about the most important moments
in your fields, from antiquity up to recent discoveries?
BS: I don’t really see the point of creating the list. Everyone knows about the big movers and shakers in the field and can turn to the work of historians of Adrian Desmond and Martin Rudwick to dig into that. I don’t mean to be rude, but the question is so broad that I can’t possibly do it justice here.
What predispositions do you have re: philosophy, in general, not just that
attached to theology nor science?
I don’t read nearly enough philosophy books to tell you. It’s all I can do
to keep up with the latest science.
On the subject of human thoughts, let me turn to a related topic, human
discourse. One of the reasons I started this interview series is because of the
utter dearth of really in depth interviews, in print or online. With the
exception of the Playboy interview, such venues are nonexistent.
Furthermore, many people actively denigrate in depth and intelligent discourse,
such as this, preferring to read vapid interviews with 10 or 12 questions
designed to be mere advertisements for a work, sans only the page numbers the
canned answers are taken from. Why do you think this is? What has happened to
real discussion? Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, David Susskind, Dick
Cavett, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him. Only Charlie Rose
is left on PBS, but his show airs near midnight.
Audiences love novelty, and the more novelty is available, the better. Be it
through television or Twitter, many of us (myself included) are like rats
repeatedly pressing the lever for new content, and, particularly on the
internet, reading anything longer than 1,000 words or so takes a concerted
effort. I would not write off short, 10-12 question interviews entirely –
their quality depends on who is asking the questions and who is answering them
– but I think the long-form interview has not done well because it grates
against what we expect television and the internet to be. It’s the
audio-visual equivalent of reading a book; we have to be somewhat invested in
hearing what is being said to dive into it. Given the length of this interview,
for example, I imagine the only people still with us are ones who actually give
a damn about what I have to say and have not been put off by something I said
How about discourse in the sciences? Is it alive and well, or do people hunker
down in camps and refuse to budge? Do tempers flair, and are there still ad
hominem attacks in scientific claims?
I don’t think it’s entirely one or the other. Much of it comes down the
questions involved and the personalities of the people engaging in the debate.
Scientists are humans, not robots; people get pissed off, hurl invective, act
immaturely, and otherwise respond to criticism as many other people do, but
there is also a good deal of productive discourse (often printed in
comment-and-reply exchanges in scientific journals). I don’t think there is
any one overriding trend in terms of how scientists carry out debate – it
largely depends on who is doing the arguing and what’s at stake.
DS: Let me wind down this interview by asking what big things that are still unknown to current science do you want answered before your life ends? Do you think that these unanswered questions can be answered in your lifetime? If not, why not? And, are you doing anything to elicit these answers?
BS: It’s not a big question, but one thing I would like to dig into is the existence of sexual dimorphism in dinosaurs. We talk a good deal about sexual selection and display structures, but how can we test these ideas? Is there a way to distinguish a male from a female Triceratops? I think there may be, but it’s a big project. If I have the opportunity, it’s something I would like to dig into in the near future. There are also many interesting specimens coming out of the southern US which will help put the evolution of Cretaceous North American dinosaurs in context. The stuff from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, especially, is wonderfully weird and I hope to participate in the recovery of some of that material in the future.
Rather than big, overarching questions, lately I have been considering
these more focused areas of inquiry which will eventually shift our perspective
and help us look at the history of life in new ways. (Which is not to say that
there’s aren’t still theoretical debates to be had, but rather that I think
the way those debates unfold will be shaped by these more focused findings.)
what is in store, in the next year or two, for you, in terms of upcoming books,
expeditions, and your work at the museum?
BS: Given all that
has happened in the past year, determining where I’ll be in a year or two is
hard to say. I’ll be moving to Utah next May where I’ll be working on my
next book, and with any luck I’ll have enough flexibility to freelance full
time. I would like to find my way back into an academic setting, but just how I
am going to do that, I am not sure. There are so many things which require my
attention that it is difficult to think more than a step ahead.
Thanks for this discourse, and let me end this interview with a thank you, and,
since I’ve been guiding us along, let you have the final word, on whatever
BS: And thank you for interviewing me.
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