Tuesday mini-book reviews: “Moa” and “The Dinosaur Heresies”

17 04 2007

Being that classes were canceled yesterday due to local flooding (people were using boats to get around in Edison and Rt. 18 was underwater about a mile away from my apartment) I had the opportunity to read Moa by Richard Wolfe in its entirety, as well as dig into the first 100 pages of Robert T. Bakker’s landmark work, The Dinosaur Heresies. One was so good that it made me nearly euphoric, the other a huge disappointment; can you guess which?

Me & moa

Being that I actually finished Moa, I should probably discuss it first. Although I have never actually seen any remains of the animal (the closest I’ve come are life-sized reconstructions at the Bronx Zoo and Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences), I am fascinated by the Great Auk, Dodo, Rodrigues Solitaire, and other large extinct birds. How they evolved, lived, and ultimately went extinct are, I believe, important to know and learn from, but unfortunately Wolfe’s book did little to illuminate details about the Moa (which is actually an entire family of extinct birds, not just one species).

Much of Wolfe’s book is about what led to the discovery and early study of the moa, but most of the book revolves around the colonization of New Zealand and the search for more information about the moa. Sir Richard Owen is given copious amount of time in discussion in the book, with the author fawning over the late, great anatomist towards the end of the book (and referring to him as the “Hunterian Professor” and other lofty titles throughout). History is all well and good, but the titular subject of the book seems to be little more than a common theme to tie the book together. Nevertheless, I did learn a few interesting fact, i.e. that Richard Owen had the spine of his long-time rival Gideon Mantell (the man who discovered the first known remains of an Iguanadon) removed and put on display at the Hunterian Museum, as well as part of the spine as geologist William Buckland. I should not blame the author being that in the introduction he mentions he did not intend the work to be primarily about the birds themselves, but alas, I had ordered it before I knew this was the case. It will continue to sit in my collection and perhaps may even come in handy as a resource at some point, but if you’re looking for a book about the extinct, giant birds, it would be best to look elsewhere.

By contrast, I was excited to receive a copy of The Dinosaur Heresies yesterday, and it certainly has proven to be an enthralling read. While I should perhaps hold my ultimate judgment until the end, Bakker communicates clearly, concisely, and effectively, the lavish illustrations further drawing the reader in. Simply put, it is a pleasure to read, and while I didn’t think I would be in the mood to continue reading after slogging through the 217 pages of Moa, I simply couldn’t put the book down. As important and influential as Bakker’s work may have been, I have to sadly admit that there are still things wrong with our dinosaurs, and I know of at least one case where a paleontologist was chastised for telling a newspaper that the skeletons at his museum were not up-to-date. I found this passage from the opening chapter (“Brontosaurus in the Great Hall at Yale”) to ring especially true;

Generally speaking badges are harmful to science. If a scientist pins one labeled “Reptile” on some extinct species, anyone who sees it will automatically think, “Reptile, hmmm… that means cold-blooded, a lower vertebrate, sluggish when the weather is dark and cool.” There are never enough naturalists around, in any age; so most scientific orthodoxy goes unchallenged. There are just not enough skeptical minds to stare at the badge and ask the embarrassing question, “How do you know the label is right?”

Be kind to colleagues, ruthless with theories, is a good rule. A scientific theory isn’t merely idle speculation, it’s verbal picture of how things might work, how a system in nature might organize things-atoms and molecules, species and ecosystems. But old paleontological theories too often aren’t treated roughly enough. Old theories-like reptilian nature of dinosaurs-are accepted like old friends of the family. You don’t yell at Old Aunt Cecilia. So hundred-year-old dinosaur theories live on without being questioned, and too often they are assumed to be totally correct. Even when such theory is caught in error, it’s likely to be excused.

While I am far from being a scientist as of yet, I’ve found that by poking around a bit and saying “How do you really know that?” you can very quickly get some frustrated (and even angry) responses, but I believe such skepticism is vital to scientific understanding. I don’t believe in “teaching the controversy” when one side of the issue is obviously wrong, but we should question, poke, and prod when it comes to established science; if we don’t do this science becomes more about faith than actual understanding. Even if something is entirely reasonable to infer, I think (especially in paleontology) we should be careful before saying “This is simply the way it is” and a healthy does of skepticism would serve us all well.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from my mother notifying me that she had unearthed some old Time-Life natural history books I fondly remember from my childhood. I am not sure when the books I had were printed, but I can still clearly remember diagrams of embryos (Haeckel-style), nude early hominids hunting deer, monkeys clinging to wire-mesh mothers, and a Brachiosaurus submerged in a large body of water because it could not support its own weight. Such was the conventional wisdom at the time, the same inherited paradigm that had Tyrannosaurus rex dragging its tail in pursuit of prey, but we now know both ideas to be entirely wrong. I can only imagine what new discoveries will change old ideas in my lifetime, or how many of my books may be rendered irrelevant scientifically (but still worthwhile to trace the history of science).

Reading Bakker’s book also got me wondering about the current state of taxonomy/systematics when it comes to dinosaurs and birds. If it is conclusive that birds are derived from dinosaurs, shouldn’t we change the taxonomic labels for these groups? Birds are distinguished at the Class level (Aves) while Dinosaurs are distinguished at the level of the Superorder (Dinosauria). If birds really did evolve from theropod dinosaurs, shouldn’t some taxonomic realignment be warranted? Shouldn’t paleontologists, ornithologists, and others organize some big meeting with the ICZN so that our taxonomy reflects what has been observed? If we continue to keep taxonomy separate from systematics, how will we ever coherently be able to explain or trace the history of life on this planet? Tradition be damned; if scientists don’t work together to make some sense out of this than what are we doing other than stamp collecting?

In any event, I look forward to completing Bakker’s book and I hope that I myself make a good “heretic”, not because I wish to raise the ire of my future colleagues, but because I want to know about the natural world, not believe in one idea or another just because of tradition.



3 responses

4 08 2007

Excellent stuff Brian.

4 08 2007

Thanks J; I actually wrote this one a while ago before I really knew exactly what I was talking about, but I’m glad I don’t have to do a massive re-edit. Thanks for the comment and compliment!

13 12 2007

it is really great lealaps

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