Re: [asa] How paleontology works

From: Iain Strachan <>
Date: Mon Sep 11 2006 - 10:24:01 EDT

Actually, I think the example Rich gives, interesting though it is, falls
for the same sort of mistake that YEC's also make.

The problem is there is no easy way to rule out coincidence - they decided
to look there by perfectly rational deduction, and then they got an
observation that fitted the prediction. But unless there is a consistent
trend of results like this (e.g. consistently finding more transitional
forms were "predicted" compared to looking in random places), then there is
no proof that it wasn't coincidence. Unfortunately this kind of find then
gets amplified by the popular press, and gets taken as validation of the

I think Creationists do much the same thing ... it appears that much of the
hype they created over the T. Rex alleged "blood cells" was by taking a
headline from a popular news item, and proclaiming it as the truth. They
never bothered to check the detailed scientific references, which were much
more cautious. A write up of the T. Rex red blood cell fiasco on Talk
Origins shows how they systematically exaggerated the significance of the
find, based purely on popular press descriptions of it. It was sickening to
read how they had twisted Mary Schweitzer's research for their own ends,
especially, as I have now read, that Schweitzer is in fact a devout
Christian, who has a biblical text on her desk, and who is very upset about
the way her work has been messed around with.

To return to paleontology - the main point is that one example doesn't prove
a theory.


On 9/11/06, James Mahaffy <> wrote:
> See below.
> --
> James Mahaffy ( Phone: 712 722-6279
> 498 4th Ave NE
> Biology Department FAX : 712
> 722-1198
> Dordt College, Sioux Center IA 51250-1697
> >>> On 9/11/2006 at 8:18 AM, in message
> <>, "Rich
> Blinne"
> <> wrote:
> > On 9/10/06, Bill Hamilton <> wrote:
> >>
> [snip]
> > You mean you want an HR diagram? That's in all undergrad Astronomy
> > texts. Actually the paleontologists do that one better than what you
> > are asking. They predict using evolutionary theory where say a
> > transitional form say a fish that can walk might exist. Here's how
> > they knew where to look for Tiktaalik according to Nature News:
> >
> > "Daeschler and Shubin set off to find this missing link in the
> > evolutionary chain back in 1999. The pair targeted Ellesmere Island
> > after noticing that it was listed in an undergraduate textbook as
> > exposed Devonian rock that had not previously been explored for
> > vertebrate fossils.
> >
> > The desolate area was reachable only by plane, and the weather was
> so
> > bad that field work could only be done for about two months each
> > summer. The team first walked around the rocky outcrops looking for
> > fossils of plant life that indicated stream or delta sediments, in
> > order to target areas that had once hosted shallow waters. 'That is
> > where the action is on the fish-to-tetrapod transition,' says
> > Daeschler."
> >
> > Sure enough they found the fossil there. This is how you make
> > so-called historical sciences experimental. Similar techniques are
> > used in astrophysics where colliding galaxies were recently used to
> > determine whether dark matter exists.
> This gives the wrong impression that most paleontology works by people
> knowing there should be a transition fossil and then looking in the
> appropriate age rock and finding it. Mostly that is NOT how new
> interesting fossils or "transitional" fossils are found. If it were we
> would have found the transition fossils to the angiosperms (flowering
> plants) and most invertebrate fossils. We know where they appear in the
> fossil record but most appear without obvious transitions and is not for
> paleontologists looking for them. Before Keith picks on me,I am not
> denying transitional fossils. Iit is easier to find transitions in the
> vertebrate record than invertebrate record. And I do know something
> about fossil (graduate work in paleobotany) and teach paleontology at
> Dordt.
> Let me share the other side of how paleontology sometimes works. Back
> in the late 70's I was working on paper on a fossil plant,
> Microspermopteris. It had been described as lacking leaves. That was
> wrong. It just had long internodes and the leaves weren't seen by the
> original describer of the genus. In any case, my original article did
> not draw any phylogenetic inferences to the status of this plants to
> other pteridosperms. I did see differences in the genus from different
> parts of the US (our lab had the biggest collection of coalballs
> (petrified coal-swamp peat) from the US. However, I was told by the
> person mentoring my first paper that I had to hypothesize what the
> phylogenetic relationship. Eventually, I had to confess I
> philosophically did not believe that everything had to be
> phylogenetically related. And alas another lab meanwhile published on
> the anatomy of the genus.
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Received on Mon Sep 11 10:24:29 2006

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