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Re: bauplan convergence (EXTREMELY SARCASTIC!)



Hi Garth:

No offence to you, either. I was responding to the general tenor of the thread and not to you in particular. It's just that we seem to have these threads where folks go on and on about what can't be done in paleontology. Of course, you and others on the list are absolutely correct that paleontology is not physics and it is not an experimental science. And it is important and a sign of healthy skepticism to challenge those who are authorities in science.

In fact, these threads bring up good points about how science is and is not done. Most of us only hear about how experimental science is done in school, and we never get a chance to learn how historical science is done by its practioners.

What I feel is not productive is declaring that this or that is beyond the reach of paleontology without trying. To quote Charles Darwin himself, "[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science." (from the introduction to the Descent of Man) We have all this amazing technology on the horizon (and here with us now) that will enable us to do things undreamt of by past scientists. Why throw up our hands now that we will never know certain things?

There is a great deal of talk on this list that stresses the negative points of paleontology: that we have an uncontrolled sample, that we cannot directly observe living dinosaurs, that our classification system(s) are hopelessly marred in the petty politics of the present day.

Well, here's something positive to think about. No matter how much disagreement there may be at the level of minutiae, doesn't anyone find it amazing that we can all agree that dinosaurs are a) a natural group, b) belong to a larger group called the archosauria which includes birds, pterosaurs, and crocodiles, c) that these animals are part of a broader group called the amniotes that have amniotic eggs, d) that the amniotes include mammals, and e) that these animals are all related to one another in being vertebrates, and broader still, in being chordates?

And it doesn't matter what you call these groups or how you classify them: so many people using different classification systems have come to similar conclusions. What a fantastic example of what paleontology can accomplish: independent sources converging to a unified conclusion about the relatedness of vertebrates, for instance. Don't you find it absolutely amazing that there is this hierarchy of life and that there is this agreement?

If everything was so speculative and so post-modernist, if everyone's pet concept was just as good as the next, if we were living under various pervasive paradigms, why do we have this incredible agreement? Should we not all perceive different hierarchies, different physical laws, different relatedness? Instead, the more we test and the more we study what can be studied, the closer we come to agreement.

This is what science does. This is what paleontology does. It is the cumulative storehouse of human knowledge about the physical universe and it stands or falls on the cumulative observation and experimentation of hundreds and thousands of people of every disposition.

To repeatedly insist that we must sadly accept speculation and just-so stories for paleontology is to waste what precious, little time we have on earth to further pursue the hard questions. The neat questions. Classification and phylogeny are just the start, not the end. It would be as if we invented the Dewey Decimal System to find books, pull them out and admire them, and place them back on their shelves without understanding what was inside the books. Let's use cladistics, or the Kinman system, or whatever else we've got to help us open the stories behind the bones, not just to catalog them and place them neatly in specially arranged shelves! Dinosaur paleontology is understanding the inner workings of once living, breathing animals that once shared this planet with our distant ancestors. My god, man, how can we just sit here and say, "It will never be figured out, let's go to the beach!"???

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have." -- Albert Einstein.

Matt Bonnan
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