Unreal Nature

April 23, 2016

Squashed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:31 am

… You can’t just look at a dark blob on a slab of Burgess shale and then by mindless copying render it as a complex, working arthropod …

Continuing through Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould (1989):

Walcott found almost all his good specimens in a lens of shale, only seven or eight feet thick, that he called the “phyllopod bed.”

… At this level, fossils are found along less than two hundred feet of outcrop on the modern quarry face. Since Walcott’s time, additional soft-bodied fossils have been collected at other stratigraphic levels and localities in the area. But nothing even approaching the diversity of the phyllopod bed occurs anywhere else, and Walcott’s original layer has yielded the great majority of Burgess species.

[line break added] Little taller than a man, and not so long as a city block! When I say that one quarry in British Columbia houses more anatomical disparity than all the world’s seas today, I am speaking of a small quarry. How could such richness accumulate in such a tiny space?

… The pinpoint distribution of the Burgess fossils supports the idea that they owe their preservation to a local mudslide. Other features of the fossils lead to the same conclusion: very few specimens show signs of decay, implying rapid burial; no tracks, trails, or other marks of organic activity have been found in the Burgess beds, thus indicating that the animals died and were overwhelmed by mud as they reached their final resting place.

… A common misconception holds that soft-bodies fossils are usually preserved as flat films of carbon on the surface of rocks. The Burgess organisms are, of course, strongly compressed — we cannot expect the preservation of much three-dimensional structure as the weight of water and sediment piiles above an entombed body devoid of hard parts. But the Burgess fossils are not always completely flattened — and this discovery provided Whittingham with the basis for a method that could reveal their structure.

… What do scientists “do” with something like the Burgess Shale, once they have been fortunate enough to make such an outstanding discovery? They must first perform some basic chores to establish context — geological setting (age, environment, geography), mode of preservation, inventory of content. Beyond these preliminaries, since diversity is nature’s principal theme, anatomical description and taxonomic placement become the primary tasks of paleontology.

[line break added] Evolution produces a branching array organized as a tree of life, and our classifications reflect this genealogical order. Taxonomy is therefore the expression of evolutionary arrangement. The traditional medium for such an effort is a monograph — a descriptive paper, with photographs, drawings, and a formal taxonomic designation.

… The worst of human narrowness pours forth in the negative assessment of monographic work as merely descriptive. Scientific genius is equated with an oddly limited subset of intellectual activities, primarily analytical ability and quantitative skill, as though anyone could describe a fossil but only the greatest thinkers could conceive of the inverse-square law. I wonder if we will ever get past the worst legacy of IQ theory in its unilinear and hereditarian interpretation — the idea that intelligence can be captured by a single number, and that people can be arrayed in a simple sequence from idiot to Einstein.

Genius has as many components as the mind itself. The reconstruction of a Burgess organism is about as far from “simple” or “mere” description as Caruso from Joe Blow in the shower … . You can’t just look at a dark blob on a slab of Burgess shale and then by mindless copying render it as a complex, working arthropod, as one might transcribe a list of figures from a cash-register tape into an account book. I can’t imagine an activity further from simple description than the reanimation of a Burgess organism. You start with a squashed and horribly distorted mess and finish with a composite figure of a plausible living organism.

To be continued.

My most recent previous post from Gould’s book is here.

-Julie

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