Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Scaphognathus crassirostris: A Pterosaur in the Historical Record?

Cryptozoology, the study of animals whose existence is not yet proven, has a checkered history when it comes to scientific rigor. While some researchers go about the task with due skepticism, the field also attracts a less reputable element. Some are hoaxers, plain and simple. Some are hopeful believers whose wishes and biases color their perceptions. Some bear a grudge against scientific institutions. Because of all of this, the standing of cryptozoology among scientific disciplines continues to be a heated topic.

The prominence of the Mesozoic bestiary in the popular imagination has naturally spawned legends of extant dinosaurs and pterosaurs. On the dinosaur side of the archosaur family, the Mokele-Mbembe is alleged to be a sauropod who lives in the Congo River basin. Playing for Team Pterosaur is the Ropen of Papua New Guinea. These stories are then seized upon by creationists in efforts to show that the history of life on Earth as reckoned by science is wrong.

One of my favorite venues for responsible discussion about cryptozoology is the Skeptic Magazine podcast MonsterTalk, hosted by Blake Smith with co-hosts Ben Radford, and Dr. Karen StollznowDr Darren Naish joined them for a 2010 episode to share his perspective on the subject of today's post, extant pterosaurs. Speaking about how he and his fellow paleontologists often find themselves on the "front line" of the creationist attack on science, Naish describes a typical encounter with a creationist. Considering paleontology to be an easy target, they'll begin by discussing reconstructions of dinosaurs, springboarding to pick apart perceived weaknesses in the scientific conception of the geological history of the Earth, evolution, and cosmology. This bears out in the creationist museums, which sidestep the overwhelming evolutionary evidence presented by, say, genetics, instead emphasizing the importance of faith and simplistic dioramas of dinosaurs and humans living together. These are designed to play off our inherent difficulty in grappling with deep time: "Millions of years? Get out of here!"

By offering a story in which long-extinct creatures exist during recorded history, cryptozoology is seen to be a sword that finds the chinks in paleontology's armor. In another episode of MonsterTalk from 2009, Dr. David Martill puts it well: "Even if a pterosaur did [survive the K-Pg extinction], it wouldn't alter a jot our perceptions about evolution, or the age of the earth, or any of our scientific philosophies that paleontology has helped develop." There's never been a clear justification for how a "living fossil" undermines the theory of evolution, but still, some creationists seem to be obsessed with this false dilemma.

To wit: The Rhamphorhynchoid Pterosaur Scaphognathus crassirostris: A "Living Fossil" Until the 17th Century, written by John Goertzen with the intention of discrediting evolutionary theory. A recent post in the Vintage Dinosaur Art series dealt with the evolving representations of Scaphognathus, which I described as being somewhat less than notable, as pterosaurs go. I ran across this paper while putting together the post, and I couldn't resist digging into it and seeing the evidence presented. Before that, though, it's probably a good idea to lay out the materials from which Goertzen's argument is built.

The inspiration for Goertzen's paper is a discipline proposed by Adrienne Mayor in an article titled Paleocryptozoology: A Call for Collaboration, published in the journal Cryptozoology in 1989. Mayor is a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, described on her university homepage as "an independent folklorist/historian of science who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions." In books such as The First Fossil Hunters, she explores how the bizarre forms of fossils have been studied by ancient civilizations, often being woven into the fabric of the cultures' mythologies (I touched on her ideas in an early post here). There isn't a whiff of creationism in the paleocryptozoology article, so she's hardly to blame for the inevitable hijacking of her term for anti-evolution writings. Aiming to broaden rigorous methods of cryptozoological inquiry and build a bridge between cryptozoologists and classicists, Mayor proposes that some animals we dub "cryptids" might appear in the historical record. Therefore, it may benefit both groups to compile the "scattered and sometimes obscure evidence into one accessible resource." Mayor explains the point of this resource as such:
Working with specialists in other disciplines, paleocryptozoologists could integrate the artistic record with the ancient texts and the modern excavation techniques to determine (1) whether individual or combined features from prehistoric fossils were used as models, or (2) whether "living fossils" might have been observed in historical times.
For a creationist looking to crow about the false dilemma of the living fossil, this paper opens a whole new field to focus on.

The Goertzen paper that inspired this post, as well as other writings of his, appear on a site called "Revolution Against Evolution," so it's a good example of cryptozoology as a weapon in the creationist arsenal. Creationists would do well to realize that a lie (more charitably, a mistake) doesn't become true with repetition. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection does not depend on the fossil record, and the more fully fleshed out modern evolutionary theory certainly doesn't. Either evolution deniers understand the science poorly, or they deliberately misrepresent it. Neither option is commendable.

Despite all of the noise surrounding this issue, I have to admit: if given my choice of pseudosciences to grant credibility, I'd be tempted to pick this one (though the potential global benefits of free energy would tug at my altruistic streak). It's in this spirit that I weigh stories of cryptids: hopeful that they might be factual, but bound by the tried-and-true, hard-won methods of science and discouraged by a long history of shabby evidence. Tomorrow, in the second half of this post, we'll get into the nitty gritty of this article and see if Goertzen presents compelling evidence to support the hypothesis that Scaphognathus crassirostris survived long enough for observations of it to have been recorded during human history.

Is this Zdeněk Burian painting plausible after all?
Painting by Zdeněk Burian. Shared by Better than Bad at Flickr.

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