Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Stephen Czerkas in Discover, 1989

If you've been following this blog for a while, it probably won't come as a shock to learn that I collect old magazines that feature dinosaurs. Many antique shops have stacks of vintage magazines, and those covering dinosaurs in some way make up a decent portion of my "to scan" stack.

One of these recent acquisitions was an issue of Discover from March of 1989, featuring a profile of Stephen Czerkas by long-time dinosaur writer Don Lessem, roughly coinciding with the publication of Czerkas's book, My Life with Dinosaurs. Czerkas was an up-and-coming dinosaur researcher and sculptor who had done creature design on the 1978 B-movie Planet of Dinosaurs. Lessem's article focused on Czerkas as a paleontology outsider, one of those researchers who has knowledge, but not the degrees to show for it.

Plenty of paleontologists arrive at their profession by unconventional routes within or without of academia, and have made valuable contributions to the science. As in any field of study, those scientists have an uphill battle and face greater scrutiny - and occasionally bias - when presenting their ideas to their peers.

Stephen Czerkas with Deinonychus models

Preceding the article is the above photo of Czerkas in his workshop. It's striking just how similar these Deinonychus models are to what, just a few years later, would be called Velociraptor in Jurassic Park (a subject Brian Switek touches on today at Dinosaur Tracking). The movie wasn't even in production yet, and I can't find any connection between Czerkas' work and that of Stan Winston Studios, who created the movie's villains. But as Czerkas is not listed as a consultant on the movie, this may be a simple case of convergent evolution.

Reading this article in 2011, it's impossible not to view it through glasses stained by the "Archaeoraptor" fiasco of a decade ago. Czerkas's place in the history of paleontology will forever be connected with the controversy; google his name and you'll turn up droves of creationist blogs and websites that attempt to discredit evolutionary theory with "Archaeoraptor," the faked "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds.

Czerkas and his wife, Sylvia, bought "Archaeoraptor" for their Dinosaur Museum in Blanding, UT, promoting it to National Geographic, who had an exclusive story planned about its impact on our understanding of bird evolution. The problem was, the fossil was a mashup, eventually revealed to have been composed of Yanornis, Microraptor, and another critter. What makes the Czerkases' championing of the fossil infuriating rather than sad was that they didn't listen to Phil Currie and Tim Rowe's concerns about its legitimacy. Apparently blinded by the coming glory, they pushed on. The story was published. The fossil was analyzed further. It was discredited, and Czerkas ended up apologizing for his "idiot, bone-stupid mistake."

"Archaeoraptor" was an avoidable controversy, and one of its most annoying consequences was that it offered another arrow for the creationist quiver. It's a flimsy arrow, as all of their arrows are. The problem is the size of the quiver and the amount of time it takes to demonstrate the weakness of their many arguments. That "Archaeoraptor" is used at all baffles me. It's a clear indication that many creationists simply don't care about the rules of logic. "Archaeoraptor" was embarrassing for the paleontological community. For a minute. Once other scientists took a good look at it, it became a victory which shows why science is such a powerful tool for understanding our world: it has built-in mechanisms to remove bias and to correct mistakes. Want to poke fun at "arrogant evolutionists" for a mistake? Fine. I understand schadenfreude. It's fun. But it seems counterproductive to slam a group of people for their human fallibility when your own faction happens to be populated by fallible humans, too. That's the kind of thing that comes back to bite you on the proverbial rear end.

"Archaeoraptor" also serves as a lesson in the dangers of the black market fossil trade. In a 2002 article about "Archaeoraptor," paleontologist Kevin Padian explained to National Geographic how the tragic tale started, and it's such a perfect summation of the thorny issue, it deserves to be quoted at length here.
"The lesson in this should be the importance of conserving fossils and protecting them," said Padian. "Chinese villagers who found the specimen don't make a lot of money, and they don't know what these animals look like. There was no hoax. These are poor people trying to make a little extra money by selling fossils on the black market."

It's illegal to export fossils out of China, but a thriving black market exists, driven by poverty, powered by bribery, and feeding a seemingly inexhaustible desire for fossils among hobbyists.

Huge quantities of fossils are illegally excavated and smuggled out each year. And no wonder; the Archaeoraptor fossil sold in the United States for $80,000.

This is an internationally important region," said Padian. "The workers there are very poor; if they were better rewarded for working with scientists there would be no need to enhance the fossils, or for a black market at all. The international community needs to take steps to protect these fossils."
Looking back on Lessem's article twenty-odd years later, Czerkas's career has unfortunately done little to raise the general respectability of non-credentialed paleontologists. Oddly enough, even though "Archaeoraptor" never became the crown jewel in his museum and was a source of great embarrassment, it is featured prominently in Cerkas's anti-BAD* essay at the museum's site [PDF]. It lays out his view, which holds that dromaeosaurs aren't dinosaurs at all, and the fact that the opposite is the consensus is a figment dreamt up by cladists.

I suppose I should close on a happier note, though. Czerkas may not have been involved with Jurassic Park, but he has stamped his name on celluloid history. The early 80's Harryhausen-esque B-movie Planet of Dinosaurs included his model work. Here's a sample of it.

* "Birds Are Dinosaurs"

1 comment:

  1. That clip from Planet of Dinosaurs was HILARIOUS and really bad- it's on par with The Room. (;


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