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Re: Dinosaur Debate on C-Span -Reply
Just a few comments on this part
>>> <Dinogeorge@aol.com> 12/27/98 02:46am >>>
In a message dated 12/26/98 10:57:30 PM EST, MKIRKALDY@aol.com writes:
<< Newt comes off as an informed amateur, with ideas but no scientific
background, not understanding having to be able to falsify a theory.
Horner could have nailed him on many points, but it was a friendly
debate and not a paleontology death match. >>
Actually, I found Newt to be quite well informed, considering he has little
background in paleo and no formal training in the field. He corrected Jack a
few times. Trouble with the whole scavenger-predator debate is that there's
only one way to falsify any of the hypotheses, and that is to go back in time
and make copious field observations of living tyrannosaurs. Until this becomes
possible, the debate must remain unscientific. Anatomical features and fossil
data can prove or disprove nothing.
First, I've had Mr. G. in my lab as part of a tour (of his) around the
building and Department and he certainly came off to me as an exceedingly
bright and enthusiastic person re: paleontology, even with some knowledge about
some recent papers in paleo in Science, etc. not related to dinos. I suspect if
he does some work somewhere in dinos over the next few years, as threatened,
that he will contribute solidly to any group he works with and probably will
never go back to a less interesting area such as politics.
Concerning the debate on scavenging, here I think George is grossly
underestimating the power available in careful functional analysis to develop
strong, falsifiable hypotheses about extinct animals. That's exactly what Tom
the Holtz has been working on re: scavenging Trex and I think there is much
morphological data that can be used for functional inferences related to this
issue that can add to this specific debate. By the time Tom et al are done, I
suspect we will be rather solidly convinced one way or the other. I am working
on such a thing with pachycephalosaur head-butting behavior right now.
Functional inference yields predictions about morphology that can be solidly
tested, I have mentioned this on the list before and can point to examples
such as Dan Fisher's work on fossil horseshoe crabs as amazingly effective.
There are a whole host of such things I am working on, the trick is to keep the
focus on a small enough chunk to work with and keep arm-waiving to a minimum.
The results should be as effective and "prove-able" as any other inferences in
the fossil record such as herbivory in dinos, which is also a high-level
inference based solely on morphology without immediate support from the
phylogenetic lineages surrounding the taxa inferred to be herbivores (with
great reasons I might add).
So, less doom-and-gloom ladies and gentleworms. There is much that can be done
with the fossil record. You just have to use very quantitative approaches to
develop phylogenies, evaluate taphonomies and evolutionary trends, and infer
function. The tools are here, we're just trying to be clever enough to develop
enough tests to add up to a whole that supports or denies specific nehavior in
paleo beasts (and plants as well). I suspect that, by the time I'm done, the
pachy problem with have between 10-15 different lines of evidence, each with
specific predictions about morphology and tested when data are available.
Ralph Chapman, NMNH