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Re: In (premature) defense of the USNM

Hi Brian

> Evenin' MIke!
> Looks like you stayed offlist.

MS* I only noticed your direct letter to me.    I checked now and saw you
cc'd it to the list, but for some reason, I got 2 copies of your letter in
my personal mail sent a minute apart and didn't see any version of it on the
list itself.  My apologies.  I will post this one and leave you to forward a
copy of the first "volley", if you think it helpful.

> My post was looking at the nature of speculation.
> Consider the following two assertions:
> Any animal observed to have feathery integument should be drawn with
> feathery integument; any animal not observed to have feathery integument
> should be drawn without feathery integument.
> and
> I have a logical argument which has not been refuted that a certain number
> of animals I select had feathery integument.
> Which is more scientific?  I'm arguing that neither should be dismissed
> of hand as unscientific.  In fact, if forced, I'd say that entire reliance
> on observation was more scientific, but I'd hope never to be forced.

MS* This is true. There is nothing wrong with maintaining a conservative
viewpoint, however considering the circumstances outlined in my response
(last message),
I feel justified in letting the weight of the hypothesis ( backed by a
growing number of diverse, feathered specimens ) allow me to move towards
"the feathered majority".  The curse of this science, is the proclivity to
which "fact" intersects with "grounded speculation".  I expect there will
still be a balance of feathered / unfeathered versions for some time to
come.  As time and new evidence accumulates, we should be in a better
position to assess the look of the fauna. The problem with your original
argument is the rigidity. . . are we going to restore dinosaurs without
feathers because they really didn't have any, OR because the matrix in which
the majority of them are preserved, lack the qualities necessary for the
preservation of that particular "information".  If, in the end, the fossil
evidence is incomplete,
inaccurate or distorted, it does us no favors to base further extrapolation
on reconstructions, etc. . . on the information. . . it just tends to
multiply the initial errors.

> Next, consider the following two assertions:
> There are soft tissue characteristics of certain contemporary animals
> may reasonably be assumed to be present in long extinct animals.
> There are behavioral characteristics of certain contemporary animals which
> may reasonably be assumed to be present in long extinct animals.
> Which is more scientific?  Here I'd lean to the first, if forced, but I'd
> still look at arguments for the second with an open mind.
> Both are definitely uncertain, and I wouldn't denigrate the second out of
> hand.

MS* Again, both suppositions are flawed to a degree.  Inferring anything is
tricky business, when it's compromised by millions of years in which the
"stock" evolves to meet the demands of it's environment.  While there are
limited cases of preserved soft tissue that can help substantiate the
similarity to modern analogs, there is also some evidence through
paleoichnology, of "frozen" behaviour.  Neither is terribly reliable in
establishing the "bigger picture", but it's all we've got and still better
than nothing.  So if I'm then going to "paint" this animal back to life, I
elect to step out beyond the containment of the facts, in order to feed the
imagination of the observer with a visual cocktail of what I "suppose" might
have happened somewhere along the course of it's lifetime.  I can then hide
behind the impenetrable shield of "artistic license" to "validate" my
version of the scenario and as long as it's backed by a reasonable amount of
research and due diligence, that is as far as I can take it.  Welcome to the
imperfect world.  This sort of process, however you might like to assess it,
is still a completely different kettle of fish than what is happening with
Jim Gurney and his world of free form fiction based loosely on
paleontological resource.

> Speculation is speculation, observation is observation.  I've noticed a
> surprising (to me) reluctance onlist to separate the two.
> Even observations have their limits because of ambiguity in the fossils
> we're looking at, but I'd consider a definite observation more confidently
> than any speculation.
> See what I mean?

MS* That in a nutshell IS the simple irrefutable truth.  The problem is, if
we restrict ourselves only to the fossil element, we are prohibited from
attempting any sort of life reconstruction because the majority of what we
"know" about outer appearance is beyond our ability to prove one way or
another.  I think its a HUMAN thing spurred on by our curious nature.  If we
were able to only analyze the material before us from the perspective of
thinking machines, the need for "embellishment" of any kind would be
stripped away and we would easily move on to the next daily "function",
whatever that might be.  I prefer the option of creativity nested within
conservative interpretation, at least until the "next best thing" comes


Mike S.

> Regards,
>  Brian