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Re: Origins (was: Re: Sharovipteryx)



In a message dated 5/25/00 2:28:39 PM EST, Chapman.Ralph@NMNH.SI.EDU writes:

<< There are  many works that show how developing a rigorous series of 
hypotheses and testing predictions made by them allow us to do real science 
in historical areas such as paleontology. It's been a wonderful area of 
discussion for years. Dan Fisher, for example, has done some amazing work in 
this field and you certainly can do the same with dinosaurs. Dan has 3 papers 
on fossil horseshoe crabs that are wonderful. One makes you walk away knowing 
exactly how and how fast Mesolimulus could swim. And if you want to argue, 
you can go right to his work and analyze it step by step. Not a just so 
story. >>

Not particularly interested in horseshoe crabs, but since they're still 
around this helps to constrain the hypotheses about fossil horseshoe crabs a 
bit, to say the least. Do not wish to cast aspersions on papers I haven't 
read, but until we can >see< a Mesolimulus swim under various conditions and 
measure its speed, it is STILL a Just So Story. Perhaps a particularly well 
constructed one or a compelling one, but a Just So Story nonetheless.

<< Going back in time, although would be nice, is not necessary and if George 
truly feels that historical sciences are all just-so-stories then I don't 
understand  why he has the exceptional interest in them that he so obviously 
does. >>

We can decouple interest from empirical science; I enjoy collecting dinosaur 
facts, speculating, and constructing Just So Stories as much as professional 
paleontologists do. But I am not laboring under the illusion that what I do 
is >empirical science<; I freely admit that anything I have to say about 
dinosaur origins, evolution, and behavior is rank speculation constrained 
somewhat by whatever details of anatomy and behavior I can glean from looking 
at specimens and reading about specimens that I can't get to. I've read quite 
a bit about dinosaur evolution and behavior, but nothing I've read strikes me 
as particularly scientific in the empirical sense: just a collection of 
maybes, something we already had before going to all the trouble.

For example, Jim Farlow and colleagues wrote a dazzling paper on the 
thermoregulatory function of stegosaur plates in which they showed that the 
arrangement and shapes of the plates of Stegosaurus are optimized for 
thermoregulation, but in the end all they did was firm up the idea that 
stegosaur plates >might< have had a thermoregulatory function as one of the 
things that they did for stegosaurs. We still don't know whether stegosaur 
plates >actually< had a thermoregulatory function, only that they might 
have--and we surely knew >that< before their work. Perhaps we now have a 
somewhat clearer picture about stegosaur thermoregulation--a more detailed 
Just So Story--following their work, but until we can measure the body 
temperature of a living stegosaur over a period of time and watch what it 
does, we can't really say much of a definitive nature on the subject. 
Mathematical models are Just So Stories whenever we cannot test them against 
the actual things that are being modeled.

Dinosaur paleontology includes quite a competition among Just So Stories of 
all kinds, some better told than others, and it is also a search, so far 
pretty much unsuccessful, for ways to constrain these stories and perhaps to 
discard one or two now and then. But let us not lose sight of the fact that 
these really are Just So Stories after all.