Thursday, 9 December 2010

Interview with Brian Switek

Here follows an interview with Brian Switek, author of Written in Stone, the blogs Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking, and several popular and academic articles.

Can you describe your sense of pride upon having a book and several articles published? Can you compare it to anything?

That's actually a tricky one to answer. There was no single, satisfying moment when I laid down the book manuscript, heaved a sigh, and said "It is finished" with a smile on my face. Quite the opposite. When I send off the last of the edits for the book my first thought was "Shit, what am I going to do now?"

Freelancing is tough. During the work week I spend most of any given day at an office job unrelated to my interests and I squeeze in whatever writing I can when I get home. As soon as I finish one essay or story I immediately start thinking of what I am going to do next and where I am going to pitch it. I have been successful with writing and I am proud of having written a book, but, since there has not been any change to my day-to-day life, I can't say that I feel any different. I'm still in "sink or swim" mode. There are simply too many things to write!

Nevertheless, the response to
Written in Stone has been wonderful. Its publication made me anxious initially - I had no idea how it would be received - but I have not seen a bad review yet. I am thrilled that so many readers, with so many different backgrounds, have enjoyed the book.

With respect to the recent debate that took place on the Dinosaur Mailing List, how much importance do you think using the correct words is in forming scientific names, for example, using correct spellings of foreign words? Are you of the opinion that ignorance of such subjects sets a poor example to future generations, despite it being negligible to the actual science involved? Is there a difference between "dead" languages such as Latin, and those which are more alien to the western ear, such as Chinese?

If you are going to name a new species, you had best do it right. Regardless of whether that name has Latin roots or is being derived from another language, I think scientists have a responsibility to check and double check that the name is spelled correctly and otherwise linguistically accurate. Does a bad or misspelled name significantly hurt paleontology? I don't think so - the bones don't change even the name used to categorize them does - but making sure that words are being used correctly is just part of good science. For my own part, though, misspelled names don't bother me at all. If the recognized name for a species is misspelled, there is nothing I can do about it.

Without wanting to create some sort of patriotic rivalry, in your opinion, which country's scientists have done more for the sake of furthering the human understanding of the prehistoric world, Britain or America?

I am not going to be happy with either choice - scientists and naturalists from both countries have contributed greatly to our understanding of the history of life - but, if I must choose, I think I have to say the United States. Specifically, your question makes me think of the rapid development of American paleontology during the late 19th century when E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh (plus their various students, assistants, and field crews) dug into the west and found creatures unlike any seen anywhere before. The creatures they were discovering were not only unique, but were also scrutinized in regard to what they could tell us about evolution - the toothed birds (Ichthyornis, Hesperornis) and multi-toed horses Marsh found, in particular, thrilled British evolutionists like Charles Darwin and Thomas Henry Huxley. And, perhaps more importantly, the opening of the American west showed that the strata of Europe could not be taken as a near-complete proxy for the fossil record elsewhere. There was much left to discover elsewhere.

After the "Bone Wars" era, paleontology became more formally ensconced in American universities and museums. True, many expeditions were sent to find the biggest and best dinosaur skeletons, but many paleontologists (Elmer Riggs, W.B. Scott, William Diller Matthew, etc.) were very interested in what fossil mammals could tell us about evolutionary change. Granted, paleontology did go through a lull during the mid-20th century, but by the 1970's the field was reinvigorated by researchers like Tom Schopf, Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, Steven Stanley, David Raup, Jack Sepkoski, and others who turned the science into an interdisciplinary pursuit of extreme importance to evolutionary questions. This "Paleobiological Revolution" continues today, although given the exchange of scientists and ideas between countries I don't think of things in a delineated pattern of strictly American and British paleontology traditions.

As I said, I am not very happy having to pick sides, but I think the spectacular geology of North America helped paleontology take off once it became established in the United States. It is a bit of historical contingency which allowed the science to flourish here.

We know that DNA and other molecules have become important in recent decades in revolutionising our view of true phylogenies in living taxa, but how much of a role can such data seriously play in interpreting fossil groups? In your opinion, as technology improves, will molecular data become a significant part of palaeontological practice, or will we [hopefully!] revert to a more classic, anatomically-based study? [You can tell what I think; this is why I called my blog 'The Disillusioned Taxonomist' after all!]

Obviously molecular phylogenies are extremely limited in their ability to tell us about fossil groups. If a lineage is entirely extinct - and there are many, many such lineages - they molecular phylogenies cannot take them into account. Take the now-resolved debate over the origin of whales, for example. During the 1980's and 1990's paleontologists preferred mesonychids (hoofed, predatory mammals) as whale ancestors on the basis of their teeth but geneticists and molecular biologists kept finding that whales grouped close to hippos and often within the artiodactyl family tree. Both groups were using different data sets, and molecular biologists could not include mesonychids because they became extinct long ago. What the molecular phylogenies did was - using data from modern mammals - make a prediction about what might be expected. Eventually the fossil data confirmed that whales are highly-specialized artiodactyls, but the debate over the placement of the mesonychids highlights the difficulty involved in determining evolutionary relationships when (most) extinct taxa are out of the reach of molecular biologists.

But, as the debate over whale origins showed, I think an interdisciplinary approach can be useful to paleontologists. After all, any phylogeny is a hypothesis that is bound to shift as we learn more. (I can't even count all the phylogenies of theropod dinosaurs there have been...) Phylogenies are definitively provisional, and I think that molecular phylogenies can sometimes be useful in making predictions about relationships that can then be tested with data from the fossil record. If the origin of a particular group is unknown, for example, but a molecular phylogeny shows that two lineages are close together and shared a common ancestor, then paleontologists can examine the fossil evidence to see whether or not this relationship holds up. I don't really think about this debate in terms of which method is superior or inferior. Molecular phylogenies and anatomically-based phylogenies can be used as tools that test and complement each other, so I think a combined approach may continue to be fruitful (even if it initially creates more discord than agreement).

Thanks to Brian Switek for answering my questions, now go and read his book!

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