Thursday 30 December 2010

So long 2010...

...and greetings to MMXI. I’m writing this post on the penultimate day of the year, whilst I take a brief hiatus from the etymological research which has eaten up a lot of my time to retrospect about the year that was (and still is, for another 26 and a bit hours here in London) 2010.

It’s been a year of ups and downs for me. It has included a trip to Paris, a symposium in Cambridge, and a crippling depression. I made some new friends, got in touch with a few old ones, and lost family members.

As it currently is, I haven’t got an awful lot to complain about, and I feel thankful for all the good that’s happened to me so far, despite 2010 being punctuated with several events that could have ended very badly. I really didn’t think I’d make it through this year, and, as those who have been affected by those events will know, is no hyperbole.

I had my first taste of a proper relationship, and although it took me several months to get over, I am feeling much better for having had the experience, despite the suffering that came with it. I came out as gay this year, which was probably the single most liberating thing I have ever done. I feared a backlash, with some people declaring they weren’t comfortable with this, but so far nobody has reacted negatively. The metaphorical closet was lonely and claustrophobic, and I had to get out of there. I don’t regret the decision one iota.

I was employed for three months at Bruce Castle Museum, a spell which was ended prematurely due to the seriousness of the depression I was going through at the time. In the months since, I have slowly been getting better to the point where I now feel able to work again, and have been putting so much effort into the research for the etymological dictionary which I’m aiming to get published in 2011. I also resolve to take better care of my health (an oft-made resolution, but one which I really have to take seriously), and to get out there and make more friends in the New Year. Oh, and I must restart on some fiction projects I had started this year when my head was in an odd place.

My deepest thanks go to my friends and family who have helped support me during this oddest of years, to my online following who have boosted this tiny, yet no less shallow, ego, and to the wonder that is antidepressant medication. Here’s to a merry 2011!

Saturday 25 December 2010

200th post announcement

So, it’s Christmas evening and I’m suitably overfed and groggy, but I thought I’d give all my readers the news I promised I’d deliver. For this post, my 200th on The Disillusioned Taxonomist, is the public announcement of both the official Facebook group of this blog, and also the first volume of the blog in book form!!

The first eight months of The Disillusioned Taxonomist are now available to purchase from Lulu with full colour artwork and photography for the reasonable price of £23.99. If you’ve been following my blog since the beginning or thereabouts (way back in May 2008), you will most likely have fond but distant memories of Meeting with a Spinosaurus, illustrations of all the penguins of the world, biographies of my three cats, and a bizarre Cypriot museum. Of course, you could read all of these for free by checking the archives, but there are a few additional entries that might just make it worthwhile to buy!

You may be wondering why I waited until after Christmas to make this announcement, well, I simply didn’t come up with the idea until very recently. I won’t deny I have partially been influenced to publish a blook (not sure if this is a neologism, but I want credit if it is and makes it into the OED, please) by seeing Darren Naish’s first volume of Tetrapod Zoology.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays to all The Disillusioned Taxonomist readers!

Special announcement for 200th post... you'll have to wait till after Crimbo, I'm afraid!!

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!

Book Review: Written in Stone

Written in Stone is the first book by the incredibly talented science blogger Brian Switek (above), most famous for his blog Laelaps formerly of Science Blogs, now of Wired Science, and the exclusively dinosaurian blog Dinosaur Tracking of the Smithsonian. It’s no surprise then, that his book is a masterpiece. I shall refrain from using any more clich├ęs in the following review, I hope.

The book is broken up into nine main chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, each with alliterative or otherwise memorable titles. Each also begins with a classic quote, many of which are Biblical. You might think this strange from a book about evolution, a process which is wholeheartedly denied by the Bible and its followers, but these quotes work both as a prelude to the chapter you are soon to read, and an example of the frameset of the pre-twentieth century scholar who would have taken the word of God as written in the Bible as undeniable truth (I avoided saying ‘gospel’ there, phew!)

The book’s introductory chapter, titled Missing Links, begins with the very familiar story of ‘Ida’ the famous specimen of Darwinius masillae which had a book and two television documentaries made in its honour. The story is familiar to me because I too watched the story unfold from hyped headlines into a media explosion back in May last year, and did my part for ‘Ida-fest’ by reviewing the BBC documentary about the discovery. Switek aired his views about the discovery on his blog, and was picked up by the media, even here in the UK. The story may not be so familiar to those who haven’t kept track of the media as closely, and it is these readers that will benefit most from the opening chapter.

The next chapter, The Living Rock, tracks the beginnings of palaeontology, from the comparison of living shark teeth with the glossopetrae, or petrified snake tongues, which were found centuries ago, through to the work of Baron Georges Cuvier, who pictured an antediluvian world before the Great Flood of the Bible based on archaeological and palaeontological evidence. The roles of Lyell, Buckland, and Lamarck, huge names in nineteenth century natural history, are summarised, before the primary subject of the next chapter is alluded to. Moving Mountains is the alliterative title given to the chapter about Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Many books have been written about Darwin, but this chapter condenses the main points pertinent to the history of geology as well as the best of them.

The next seven chapters each follow the historical and evolutionary stories of a different group of organisms. To take the first tetrapods, the subject of the chapter entitled From Fins to Fingers, as an example, the story of the first fossils to belong to such transitional organisms is told in parallel with that of the actual evolutionary chronology of the group as we currently know it. The discovery of the lungfish by both Natterer and Owen, and the consequent discovery of such early amphibians as Archegosaurus are interwoven with the relationship between Acanthostega, Ichthyostega, and Tiktaalik, amongst others.

This is taken even further in the following chapter, Footprints and Feathers on the Sands of Time, which tells the story of bird evolution from theropod dinosaur ancestors. The first fossil evidence to be found, albeit not consistently interpreted as such, was footprints, followed by the famous Archaeopteryx specimen. Because these are anachronistic with respect to the chronological order in which birds first came about, the two stories interfold beautifully so the reader can fully understand the basic facts about bird evolution.

Highlights of the subsequent chapters include the inner ear anatomy of therapsids and mammals in The Meek Inherit the Earth, the discovery of ancestral whales in As Monstrous as a Whale, the variety of extinct elephants, mastodons, mammoths, and their kin in Behemoth, and the convergent evolution of a single toe in both horses and litopterns in On a Last Leg. The chapter in which I learnt the most has to be that of the evolution of hominins – that is humans and our close extinct relatives – Through the Looking Glass, in which the well-known “ape-men” such as Lucy the Australopithecus and the Hobbit man of Flores are put in context with other members of the tribe which has culminated with Homo sapiens. I learnt, for example, that we are inseparable from apes because our chromosomes differ only in lacking a pair which has in fact become fused with another pair. The importance of the bipedal stance and unimportance of truncated faces is made clear once and for all.

Switek ends the book on a philosophical note with Time and Chance, the final chapter, which brings ideas from the previous chapters together and recapitulates them to some extent. He also contemplates what would have happened if, because evolution is entirely down to chance, the occurrences that caused therapsids to develop into mammals, and for dinosaurs to develop into birds, didn’t happen. Using the example of bacterial cultures to put evolutionary theory into practice, the reader is left in awe of the mechanics of evolution, and is dumbstruck by how on Earth we managed to not yet become victims of time and chance.

The book is illustrated throughout with portraits of the scientists who feature in it, engravings and illustrations of specimens old and new, and simplified cladograms which demonstrate evolutionary relationships in many groups.

Verdict: 10/10

Available to buy on in U.S.A. only, but is due to be released in the UK next summer.

Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with the author, coming soon.