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Re: Bolides and Paleo. History
Mickey Rowe (04/03/96; 12:39p) forwarded a message from Norm MacLeod
treating on bolide impacts, plus some interesting peripheral questions:
> This recurring reference to extinctions as the hot paleo. topic of
> the day is interesting all by itself... [snip] ...In reading the
> pre-1972 paleo. literature I don't get the impression that paleo.
> in the '50's and '60's was dominated by single issues in quite the
> same way. However, I must admit that my entire paleo. career has
> been spent in the shadow of these two controversies and so I may
> simply lack an appreciation for the detailed history and
> significance of older paleo. controversies. Did our science change
> into somewhat of a "single issue" discipline in the '70's? If so,
> why and has this been a good thing? If not, what were the burning
> questions of previous times and did they burn as brightly in the
> technical and popular literature?
> Norm MacLeod
I think Norm is referring to the maturing of our science. In the 50's
and 60's, as well as before, people were still building the database of
paleontology--we were still just discovering what's out there in the
fossil record. Prior to the surge of interest in science following
Sputnik, paleontology was an esoteric pursuit (and it probably still is,
by most people's opinions). The first volumes of the Treatise on
Invertebrate Paleontology came out in 1953, under the guidance of R. C.
Moore. George Gaylord Simpson wrote _The Major Features of Evolution_ in
1953. In the late 50's, studies of Midcontinent cyclothems, including
their faunas, were big (spurred by R. C. Moore, J. Marvin Weller, and H.
R. Wanless "the elder"), and Marshall Kay was explaining geosynclines and
their faunas. Continental drift and plate tectonics were being mentioned
tongue-in-cheek (poke, poke!) around 1960. Alan B. Shaw wrote _Time in
Stratigraphy_ in 1964, Willi Hennig published _Phylognetic Systematics_
in 1966, and Ernst Mayr published _Principles of Systematic Zoology_ in
1969. These were all milestones in the development of modern
paleontology, and they happened only in the 50's and 60's. There was
much discussion of each of them when they were current.
I attended many meetings of the Geological Society of America in the 70's
where sessions on sedimentology, or stratigraphy, or paleontology would
draw a few dozen participants, and the sessions on plate tectonics would
fill the biggest auditoriums available, with people sitting in the aisles
and standing all around the room. Today, sessions on the K-T boundary
are still popular, but are perhaps declining a bit now. The dinosaur
sessions draw good crowds (hundreds at national meetings), but 20 years
ago there would have been no such sessions at all. So, all areas in
geology have seen single issues rise to prominence, then fall.
Now the database for paleontology is larger and better known than ever
before (that's profound!). More people are now looking at larger
questions, with a legitimate hope of eventually generating concrete
answers. And some of the questions concern much more than just
paleontology. Bolide collisions and their effects on the biosphere, for
example; Greenhouse vs. Icehouse climates, and their effects on the
biosphere; effects of orogenies on long-term atmospheric trends, hence on
the biosphere. These (and others) are critical questions that we know to
ask today, and have a reasonable expectation of answering. If we can, we
may do quite a service to mankind, and it's worth the effort. So, I
don't think our science is going downhill because we are so sharply
focussing on these kinds of issues. Instead, paleontology can change its
image from that of an esoteric pursuit by ivory-tower intellectuals to a
science at the heart of our concerns over the future of the world.
Paleontology may be the most threatened discipline within geology now
(yes, paleontology IS part of geology; always has been!). Clearly, that
isn't warranted. Bring up some of these points the next time anyone
questions the value of paleontology to society or to a geology program.
Folks, you heard it here!
Damn!--Why did I write all this? I got work to do.
Norman R. King tel: (812) 464-1794
Department of Geosciences fax: (812) 464-1960
University of Southern Indiana
8600 University Blvd.
Evansville, IN 47712 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org