Normally, being wrong sucks. It’s all -10 points and you don’t get into Harvard. Sadness. But, not in science. One of the best things about scientific method is that it makes being wrong fun. That does not mean that scientists always like to hear they are wrong. We are after all sinful, prideful beasts like the rest of you – just smarter – just kidding.
A while ago, I discussed some relatively recent, amazing contributions of paleontology in order to illustrate that, while DNA may trump fossils for reconstructing evolutionary histories and the relationships between organisms, paleontology provides information on physiology and geographical location that can only be inferred by other disciplines. One of the discoveries discussed was of a 125 million year old, man-sized Tyrannosaurus rex ancestor, Raptorex, reported in Science on 17 September 2009. Continue reading “corREXion?”
Paleontology doesn’t always get the respect it deserves (or desires), in the molecular, genomic, evolutionary, quantitative genetic circles we run in around here. Blame the DNA. Sequence comparisons have proven incomparable in establishing phylogenetic relationships between organisms.
Paleontology can also irritate us by creating false controversy, which irritates the heck out of us. The fossil record is a sparse and biased record of life. Supposed “missing links” are often an artifact of this fact. Supposed discrepancies between sequence divergence times and divergence in form from the fossil record often reflect the fact that sequence divergence necessarily precedes any differences in form significant enough to be noticeable in the fossil record.
Scientists like classification schemes and, especially, the jargon that comes along with them. Of course, this in part due to the fact that such schemes allow us to flex our intellectual vanity through the ritual abuse of dead languages. More legitimately, classification schemes and terms that are agreed upon within a particular field increase both the ease and precision of communication.
At the moment, I am writing at my patio table, peering with some concern (due to the threat to my ripening raspberries) at a bird hopping around the back garden. This bird is all black, with a relatively straight black beak; it is larger than a sparrow, but smaller than an eagle; and, as mentioned above, moves on the ground by hopping. Alternatively, I could communicate all that information, probably with even greater accuracy, by making use of our shared vocabulary for bird classification and tell you that I am looking at a carrion crow. Two words not only substitute for a tedious, run-on sentence of description, but also reduce confusion about the bird’s characteristics.