Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Interview with Brian Switek

Since beginning his blogging career around the middle of this rapidly dwindling decade, Brian Switek has risen to become arguably the most visible and important blogger writing about paleontology. From dinosaurs to Cenozoic mammals to the evolution of our own species - assuming there's not a precocious budgie out there perusing this blog - Brian has a wide ranging curiosity about the history of life on Earth and how paleontology has contributed to our knowledge.

To that end, he recently published his first book, Written in Stone, which looks at some of life's most important evolutionary transitions as told by paleontology. If you've read his work at Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking, you'll already know that Brian is an exhaustive researcher and picks out little-known historical facts with the relish of a bone sharp sniffing out a fossil. This is exactly the spirit in which Written in Stone is written, and suspect it will tip off the "old media" that an important new voice in science communication has arrived. Much pro-evolution writing lately has downplayed the importance of the fossil record, and Brian ably makes a case that there is still much to be gained by studying the fossil evidence of ancient life. Incidentally, I'll be posting my own review of Written in Stone, hopefully next week.

Brian recently offered some of his time to do an interview, and I began by asking about another science communicator who was important to his development as a writer as well as mine, the late Stephen Jay Gould.

You've mentioned Stephen Jay Gould as an influence. Which of his pieces of writing are most important to you?

I adore Gould's essays. When I feel dried out and I need some inspiration, I usually pick up one of his anthologies (as well as collections by David Quammen and Robert Sapolsky) to recharge myself. Even when Gould wrote books - such as Wonderful Life and Full House - he did so in a winding, circuitous manner which seemed like a series of essays strung together along a central argument, but it was the anthologies I loved best.

As for the most personally influential bits of Gould's writing, however, I can name two essays from two of his later books. The first is the eponymous essay from The Lying Stones of Marrakech, and the second is "A Lesson From the Old Masters" in Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. I read Lying Stones at a critical time when I was just getting back into science. I did not know very much about paleontology, evolution, or history, but by recounting a centuries-old fossil prank Gould convinced me that it is of extreme importance to understand the history of science. Our present ideas about the history of life are moored to a long history of scientific discovery and debate. Science, after all, is a human enterprise - how can we possibly appreciate our current perspective without understanding how ideas about prehistory have changed over time?

As for the second essay, I was fascinated by the way in which Gould wove together concepts from art, history, paleontology, and evolutionary theory to revise our image of the famous "Irish elk" Megaloceros giganteus. (To trim a long story short, cave paintings showed that both males and females of this giant deer had prominent humps on their backs - a finding which stemmed solely from a few crude drawings left behind by a prehistoric artisan who simply recorded what they had observed in nature.) Gould had taken a simple discovery, something which would probably only get a 200-word news brief today, and turned it into an exploration of how we reconstruct the fossil record and the joys of isolated observations which force us to change our perspective. (In fact, I just re-read this essay just before answering these questions, and it was just as good as I remembered it being when I first read it on a Rutgers bus over four years ago.)

You discuss a lot of scientists and thinkers who don't get a lot of exposure. Was there one in particular who was a revelation to you as you researched Written in Stone?

Oddly enough, I was most impressed by the work of Thomas Henry Huxley. He is the kind of naturalist who - despite being so readily recognized - is hidden in plain sight. I had always heard of him as "Darwin's Bulldog" and the man who first proposed that dinosaurs had evolved into birds, but when I read his original work I was surprised by how much more there was to his research. Some of his ideas - such as the argument that most major evolutionary changes occurred during non-geologic time that would never be tapped by paleontologists - have obviously turned out to be wrong, but in other ways he was a very modern thinker and writer. During a time when evolutionists were hungry for fossils exhibiting transitional features Huxley stressed caution - it is important to discern between evolutionary "uncles" and "fathers." In terms of avian origins, especially, Huxley used various lines of evidence to re-envision dinosaurs and propose them as the sort of creatures from which birds evolved. He did not say that little Compsognathus was ancestral to Archaeopteryx (the earliest recognized bird), but instead cast it as the sort of creature from which birds had been derived. Once I got beyond the popular caricatures, I was fascinated by the role Huxley played in the nascent field of evolutionary science.

(For those interested in the particulars of Huxley's ideas regarding the evolution of birds, I wrote an academic paper on the subject - my first - which has just been published in the Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians volume published, appropriately, by the Geological Society of London. For those who want to dig into the life of this influential naturalist, I recommend Adrian Desmond's biography Huxley.)

Owen is another scientist whose reputation you help to restore in Written in Stone. Do you feel a sense of duty to present forgotten nuances of these figures who as you point out, are often reduced to caricatures?

I can't really take much credit for restoring Owen. Historians like Adrian Desmond, Nicolaas Rupke, and paleontologist Kevin Padian have all done more than I have, but I wanted to make sure I spent some time talking about Owen and the odd place he occupied in Victorian science.

Viewed from our modern perspective - in which history is often given short shrift - it seems easy to divide the naturalists of the day into evolutionist and creationist camps based upon their opposition to Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory. Doing so, however, is rather poor history, especially since many naturalists who opposed the idea of evolution by natural selection were themselves evolutionists!

Owen is probably the most prominent example. In his lecture On the Nature of Limbs (printed in 1849), Owen ends by invoking "natural laws or secondary causes" to explain "the orderly succession and progression of ... organic phaenomena" such as the homology of the vertebrate skeleton. In other words, Owen was thinking about evolution - and publicly speculating about it! - a decade before On the Origin of Species was printed. The social conservatives who made up Owen's main support group understood this and balked at it, but Owen's habit of clothing his language in religious terms often confused evolutionists within Darwin's camp. If you read Darwin's letters about Owen, it is clear that Darwin knew that Owen was an evolutionist and that Owen was seriously pissed about being mentioned as one of the naturalists who affirmed the "immutability" of species in On the Origin of Species, but - perhaps principally because of his condescending and self-referential critiques of natural selection - Owen has wrongly been cast as a creationist by those ignorant of history.

So, to put it a bit more simply, I did feel an obligation to do justice to naturalists like Owen who have often been sorely misunderstood. Even so, I found the actual stories to be much more engrossing than the standard, textbook-cardboard version I had so often been taught. It was actually a lot of fun to dig into these stories and introduce lay readers to an unfamiliar view of history.

What modern paleontologists do you hold in high esteem?

That is a ticklish question. Admittedly I feel a little sheepish about answering given that I have met and corresponded with so many exceptionally-talented paleontologists over the past few years that I worry about leaving someone out! Off the top of my head - and mind you this is just the tip of the iceberg - I have been very much impressed by the work of Larry Witmer, Jennifer Clack, Hans Thewissen, Elisabeth Vrba, Phil Currie, Jakob Vinther, and Andy Farke. I could go on and on about any of these people, but I do want to save special mention for David Parris. David is the head curator of natural history at the New Jersey State Museum and is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He knows more about natural history than I probably ever will, he always has a story to tell, and he has been exceptionally kind to this nascent naturalist. In fact, he has been kind enough to let me work on prepping a Thoracosaurus skeleton at the museum twice a week, and I am grateful that he has given me a chance to engage directly in paleontology at the museum.

This summer, Scott Sampson wrote a pair of posts at his Whirlpool of Life blog that resonated with me, about the way the idea of "natural history" has faded as scientific disciplines have become more specialized. Do you have any special affinity for the phrase, or the idea of the "naturalist" in the mold of someone like the scientists of the Victorian era?

I do. Like Scott, I think true naturalists - those scientists who have a deep understanding of various parts of the natural world - are very rare. David Parris, the head curator of the natural history department at the New Jersey State Museum, is one of the few naturalists I know. I have never met anyone with such a comprehensive knowledge of zoology, geology, vertebrate paleontology, and invertebrate paleontology - he knows something about just about everything! That kind of brilliance is very rare. I wish I had it. I know a bit about evolution, zoology, and vertebrate paleontology, but I am useless when it comes to geology, botany, and other disciplines which full under the banner of natural history.

To a certain extent, I think our increased understanding of the natural world has made it more difficult to be a naturalist. Pick any aspect of natural history you like - it is impossible to read all the literature and it can be extremely difficult to keep up with new discoveries. To some degree, specialization is needed because no one person can keep up with it all! Beyond that, though, many of the 19th century naturalists we admire were trained in a very different way than modern scientists. There were no PhD programs in paleontology or specially-designed arrays of classes for them to take. They went out into the field to study, went on excursions with their professors, and, in general, learned about natural history by engaging in the process of discovery. We don't have that now. Instead we have a long training period where a particular focus is selected and courses relevant to that single question (or set of questions) are carefully selected. Still, there are people who still follow in the self-taught tradition of the 19th century naturalists - learning about nature just because they are so in awe of it - so I think there will always be at least a few naturalists, no matter how rare they are.

Regarding those disciplines of natural history that you don't have a strong grasp of, which one do you most want to learn more about?

Geology. No question. Geology provides the context for so much of our understanding of prehistoric life, and I really need to make a more concerted effort to educate myself about the geological aspects of paleontology.

What old stale notions about prehistoric life do you most wish would just disappear? It seems like if you spend any amount of time writing about paleontology, there are certain myths you can't avoid dispelling over and over again.

The "March of Progress" - or the idea that evolution proceeds towards particular goals which are inherently superior to all previous stages - is one. (I recently wrote a take-down of this subject for the Scientific American guest blog.) We know evolution does not work that way, yet the imagery keeps cropping up over and over again! It will probably remain with us for some time, however. If Stephen Jay Gould couldn't dispel this myth (see the opening chapter of Wonderful Life), then I doubt that I can do much better!

If you don't mind me tweaking your question a little bit, though, I think myths about the history of science bother me more. We have a habit of creating a villain for every hero and interpreting the process of science itself as an onward-and-upward endeavor in which every new bit of data fits neatly into the puzzle of the natural world. Yet this isn't so. Science is very circuitous and is marked by contingent events just like evolution itself. Take feathered dinosaurs for example. For reasons relating to where the science of paleontology developed, culture, and politics, the feathered dinosaurs of China have only just recently become known to us. Imagine if, by some stroke of luck, British naturalists became aware of the feathered dinosaurs of Liaoning, China right around 1861, when the first recognized skeleton of Archaeopteryx was discovered in Germany. Such an event would probably have changed the nature of the debates over the origin of birds which followed. True, we can't know for sure what really would have happened, but my point is that lucky discoveries and contingent events influence our ideas about the natural world, yet this concept is not often grasped.

What recent technological development do you think has the most potential to give new insights into the ways dinosaurs lived? Or conversely, do you see any potential pitfalls with any of them?

I was extremely excited to see Jakob Vinther's discovery that well-preserved dinosaur feathers retain tiny, pigment-carrying spherules called melanosomes and therefore can give us an idea of how some dinosaurs were colored. Work in this area is obviously just beginning, but, in addition to giving us new insights into the color of feathered dinosaurs, these techniques might allow us to detect differences between the sexes of individual dinosaur species and detect the range of variations present in feathered dinosaurs (both important to understanding the evolution of these animals). Unfortunately not all colors will be preserved - some colors, such as yellows and oranges, are the result of biochemistry rather than melanosomes - but the ability to detect dinosaur colors will undoubtedly improve our understanding of how these animals lived and evolved. It is truly wonderful.

With Reign of the Dinosaurs, Terra Nova, and the recently announced Walking With Dinosaurs 3D project, it's gearing up to be a big couple of years for dinosaurs in the public consciousness. What do you hope to see, or hope these productions avoid?

It is funny how different people can have disparate perspectives - I just recently talked to some folks involved in television production and they said interest in dinosaurs seems to be waning! Clearly, with all these major projects starting up, that's not the case.

In terms of the programs you mentioned specifically, I am not sure how I feel about them. On the one hand it is wonderful to see dinosaurs restored through ever-better computer technology, but the presentation of the dinosaurs often bugs me. As visually impressive as the original Walking With Dinosaurs was, I didn't particularly like the storytelling style which obscured the science behind those restorations. (To provide a bit of personal context, I grew up watching programs like 1985's Dinosaur! - best known as the program hosted by Christopher Reeve - which mixed wonderful special effects by Phil Tippet with the story of dinosaur discoveries.) Using narratives involving the dinosaurs themselves to draw audiences in is good, but what good are they if we don't explain how we know dinosaurs would have looked like that or done those things?

This isn't just me. More than a few times, I have been watching dinosaur documentaries with non-paleontologists and had them ask me "Wait, how do they know that?" at certain points. Viewers know that our knowledge of dinosaurs is incomplete and constantly-changing, and I think we need more programs which explain the science of what goes into bringing a dinosaur back to life.

Lest I sound too cranky, though, I am sure I will watch all these programs and delight in seeing dinosaurs walking around. Reign of the Dinosaurs and Walking With Dinosaurs 3D will undoubtedly be beautiful programs which will likely be cited by a future generation of paleontologists as being important in stoking their love of prehistoric life, and that's a good thing.

What has been your favorite paleontology story of 2010?

That is a tough one. There have been so many discoveries and announcements... it is difficult to choose! I guess, if I had to pick just one, I would pick the description of Utahceratops and Kosmoceratops. I had actually seen the skull of at least one of these dinosaurs in the prep lab of the Utah Museum of Natural History in the summer of 2009, and I visited the place where they were found - Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument - just last May, so it was exciting to see these dinosaurs enter the literature. More than that, I was glad to see the authors of their description draw out some hypotheses about dinosaur evolution and biogeography. That is the sort of stuff I love - when bizarre new species can also tell us something about the way dinosaurs evolved while also spurring the generation of new hypotheses.

One thing I've gained from doing serious reading about natural history and following paleontology news is to be comfortable with uncertainty, with the idea of provisional understanding that will likely be revised. In what ways have your own studies impacted your general worldview?

I have had a similar reaction. Before I started reading the primary literature for myself, most of what I knew about science came from news reports. Scientific journals seemed to be near-final arbiters of scientific quality where only the best research was printed. Obviously, as [the recent] controversy over "arsenic life" shows, that is not the case - my initial perceptions were a bit too rosy, and publication is just an early step in scientific discussion and debate. You can't really appreciate that until you dig into the technical side of science (although blogs often help make these discussions more accessible to non-specialists). Science is not a matter of obtaining one fact after another until we have collected every bit of data. It is a vibrant process of understanding in which old ideas are constantly being scrutinized just as new ones are being proposed. That is what is so wonderful about it!

At a more personal level, I am enthralled by the perspective of nature that paleontology can provide. To be able to look at an isolated tooth, bone, track, or other fossil and say something meaningful about life which flourished and vanished millions of years ago - I am constantly amazed by that. Paleontologists are familiar with the idea of a "search image" - a sort of concept or archetype you develop that helps you distinguish between rock and the fossils you are after. In the same way, understanding life's history has allowed me to see patterns and connections that I was previously blind to. (For example, why whales swim the way they do - oscillating their tails up and down rather than side-to-side like fishes - is best understood from an evolutionary standpoint and hearkens back to a time when early whales walked on land.) I guess, when you get down to it, I love that paleontology is about stories - narratives not only of life itself, but how we have come to understand it.

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