ARTICLE: ‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

An article in a 2016 issue of the journal Centaurus looks at an interesting moment in the history of evolutionary thought:

‘Darwin was Wrong.’ The International Media Coverage of the Oreopithecus’ Reinterpretation (1956–1959)

Clara Florensa

Abstract ‘Darwin was wrong’ was a headline that made news around the world in March 1956. Johannes Hürzeler, a Swiss palaeontologist, had just made public his theory that Oreopithecus bambolii, a fossil thus far classified as an extinct Old World monkey, was in fact a 12-million-year old hominid. That was 10 million years (!) older than the oldest hominids accepted at the time. Two years later he unearthed a complete skeleton of Oreopithecus in Italy. The echo of this discovery in the media was enormous yet the newspaper coverage in different western countries followed distinctive patterns. This paper will show these differences and point out possible explanations that go far beyond scientific disagreement. It will be argued that the press is a privileged source for comparing simultaneous reactions to the same scientific fact around the globe and for helping us discover national and supranational patterns of scientific discourse while linking them to their contexts. This paper also highlights the role of the news pieces as ‘supports of knowledge.’ Just like bones or scientific articles, news items circulate prompting in turn the circulation of other ‘supports of knowledge’ such as fossil remains or scientists.

The whole issue is devoted to articles on the construction of prehistoric knowledge.

BOOK: The Story of Life in 25 Fossils

Donald Prothero, paleontologist, prolific writer, and recipient of this year’s Gregory Service Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, has added to his list of numerous books another that relates the wonderful world of fossils to the public:

Donald R. Prothero, The Story of Life in 25 Fossils: Tales of Intrepid Fossil Hunters and the Wonders of Evolution (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 408 pp.

Publisher’s description Every fossil tells a story. Best-selling paleontology author Donald R. Prothero describes twenty-five famous, beautifully preserved fossils in a gripping scientific history of life on Earth. Recounting the adventures behind the discovery of these objects and fully interpreting their significance within the larger fossil record, Prothero creates a riveting history of life on our planet. The twenty-five fossils portrayed in this book catch animals in their evolutionary splendor as they transition from one kind of organism to another. We witness extinct plants and animals of microscopic and immense size and thrilling diversity. We learn about fantastic land and sea creatures that have no match in nature today. Along the way, we encounter such fascinating fossils as the earliest trilobite, Olenellus; the giant shark Carcharocles; the “fishibian” Tiktaalik; the “Frogamander” and the “Turtle on the Half-Shell”; enormous marine reptiles and the biggest dinosaurs known; the first bird, Archaeopteryx; the walking whale Ambulocetus; the gigantic hornless rhinoceros Paraceratherium, the largest land mammal that ever lived; and the Australopithecus nicknamed “Lucy,” the oldest human skeleton. We meet the scientists and adventurers who pioneered paleontology and learn about the larger intellectual and social contexts in which their discoveries were made. Finally, we find out where to see these splendid fossils in the world’s great museums. Ideal for all who love prehistoric landscapes and delight in the history of science, this book makes a treasured addition to any bookshelf, stoking curiosity in the evolution of life on Earth.

Chapter 1, “Planet of the Scum: The First Fossils,” can be read online here.

ARTICLE: Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

In the journal Historical Biology (online first):

Darwin and palaeontology: a re-evaluation of his interpretation of the fossil record

Warren D. Allmon

Abstract Charles Darwin’s empirical research in palaeontology, especially on fossil invertebrates, has been relatively neglected as a source of insight into his thinking, other than to note that he viewed the fossil record as very incomplete. During the Beagle voyage, Darwin gained extensive experience with a wide diversity of fossil taxa, and he thought deeply about the nature of the fossil record. That record was, for him, a major source of evidence for large-scale transmutation, but much less so for natural selection or single lineages. Darwin’s interpretation of the fossil record has been criticised for its focus on incompleteness, but the record as he knew it was extremely incomplete. He was compelled to address this in arguing for descent with modification, which was likely his primary goal. Darwin’s gradualism has been both misrepresented and exaggerated, and has distracted us from the importance of the fossil record in his thinking, which should be viewed in the context of the multiple, sometimes competing demands of the multifaceted argument he presented in the Origin of Species.

Watch “Your Inner Fish” from PBS online!

PBS just finished airing a three-part documentary based on paleontologist Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body, which he hosted. For anyone interested in evolution and how humans are related to the rest of the animal world, this is a must-see. It’s very well done, visually and with content. You can watch each of the episodes through the PBS website, Shubin tells me, for up to two weeks following the air date for each episode (thus, 4/24 for episode 1, May 1 for episode 2, and May 8 for episode 3. It’s April 25th today, and as of early this morning PST, episode 1 was still viewable. Just click on any of the three images below to view an episode!

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BOOK REVIEW: Plesiosaur Peril

About a year ago I posted about two children’s books that combine interesting stories, beautiful illustrations, and factual information about dinosaurs and other extinct animals: Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble. Moving on to another group of extinct reptile, Daniel Loxton rounds out this trilogy in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series: Plesiosaur Peril (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2014, 32 pp.).

Plesiosaur Peril

Again combining beautiful digital illustrations with landscape photography (or should I say, seascape photography) by Loxton and Jim W.W. Smith, this book recounts the “day in the life” of a family of ocean-dwelling Cryptoclidus as they evade the hungry jaws of a much larger plesiosaur, Liopleurodon. Young readers will enjoy the action, while parents will appreciate the theme of family bonds. Educators will enjoy the current paleontological information (paleontologist Darren Naish was a consultant, and he posted on his blog a lot of information about plesiosaurs and the process of working on the book), while everyone will enjoy the beautiful rendering of plesiosaurs, ammonites, ichthyosaurs, and belemnites (squid-like creatures). This trilogy is perfect for science-minded kids, and would be great set of books to have on elementary school library shelves.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Spread from Plesiosaur Peril, from Kids Can Press. Art by Daniel Loxton with Jim W.W. Smith. All rights reserved.

 

BOOK: Pterosaurs

Ever since I first saw this pterosaur illustration, my perception of these Mesozoic flying reptiles was changed from how I viewed them since childhood. They were not just rulers of the sky, but suitably adapted to getting around on land.

Palaeoart - markwittonThe illustration above is from Mark Witton, pictured at left, a paleontologist and paleoartist. He has just published a beautifully constructed guide to pterosaurs: Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy.

For 150 million years, the skies didn’t belong to birds–they belonged to the pterosaurs. These flying reptiles, which include the pterodactyls, shared the world with the nonavian dinosaurs until their extinction 65 million years ago. Some pterosaurs, such as the giant azhdarchids, were the largest flying animals of all time, with wingspans exceeding thirty feet and standing heights comparable to modern giraffes. This richly illustrated book takes an unprecedented look at these astonishing creatures, presenting the latest findings on their anatomy, ecology, and extinction.

Pterosaurs features some 200 stunning illustrations, including original paintings by Mark Witton and photos of rarely seen fossils. After decades of mystery, paleontologists have finally begun to understand how pterosaurs are related to other reptiles, how they functioned as living animals, and, despite dwarfing all other flying animals, how they managed to become airborne. Here you can explore the fossil evidence of pterosaur behavior and ecology, learn about the skeletal and soft-tissue anatomy of pterosaurs, and consider the newest theories about their cryptic origins. This one-of-a-kind book covers the discovery history, paleobiogeography, anatomy, and behaviors of more than 130 species of pterosaur, and also discusses their demise at the end of the Mesozoic.

Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy will go nicely next to The Complete Dinosaur (Life of the Past). Brian Switek reviewed it in The Great Pterosaur Makeover, the publisher offers some free sneak beak – I mean peek – into the book here, and at his blog Witton shares a little about his book.

BOOK REVIEW: Ankylosaur Attack and Pterosaur Trouble

In a previous post today, I shared a new book that is described as instilling in the reader a “childlike sense of wonder” about dinosaurs. While My Beloved Brontosaurus is for older readers, there is a new series of children’s books about those ancient creatures. Written by Daniel Loxton (Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be) and illustrated by Loxton and W.W. Smith, the Tales of Prehistoric Life series is sure to delight young dinosaur fans and, a more hopeful goal, to create new ones. The first in the series, Ankylosaur Attack (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2011, 32 pp.), follows an Ankylosaurus (the iconic “armored” dinosaur of North America) one morning as he searches for food in his habitat, experiences a grumpy older individual of his own species, watches pterosaurs in the sky, and defends himself – with a little help – against a fierce Tyrannosaurus rex.

Ankylosaur Attack

The narrative is simple, yet through it comes out a lot of what it must have been like to live millions of years ago. On the final page, Loxton gives extra information about the dinosaur species highlighted in the story. Subtle but right there at the beginning just might be the most important sentence in the book: “It was a morning long, long ago – millions of years before humans walked the Earth.” The illustrations in the book are beautiful, looking almost like photographs. Of course, they are not, since Loxton tells us this story is happening long before humans appeared on Earth. They are digital illustrations superimposed on landscape photography.

Spread of Ankylosaur Attack

Photo-realistic images perhaps serve to reinforce to readers that these animals did in fact exist and live on our planet. They are not fictional and simply an artist’s imagination, although some guess work has to be made to flesh out dinosaurs.

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Dinosaurs were real, and the illustrations show kids what paleontologists thought they looked like and how they behaved. Loxton had expert advice from paleontologists Kenneth Carpenter and Donald Prothero, so the information is accurate and up-to-date.

Spread of Ankylosaur Attack

The second in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series was just published. Pterosaur Trouble (Tonawanda, NY: Kids Can Press, 2013, 32 pp.) likewise follows an individual animal.

Pterosaur Trouble

This time, it is not a dinosaur, but another critter from the Mesozoic Era, Quetzalcoatlus. This is another “day in the life” story, also featuring Triceratops and a pack of Saurornitholestes hell bent on having some pterosaur meat for breakfast.

Spread of Pterosaur Trouble

Spread of Pterosaur Trouble

Spread of Pterosaur Trouble

Loxton got paleontologist Darren Naish, an authority on pterosaur fossils, to provide advice for Pterosaur Trouble. And the book includes the same, if not better, digital illustrations as Ankylosaur Attack. I certainly hope Loxton and his publisher continue this series. I came to be interested in Darwin, evolution, and the history of science through a love of paleontology (sparked by Jurassic Park). Keeping my young son engaged in thinking about the history of life on earth not only occurs through visiting museums, providing him with scientifically-accurate dinosaur toys, and watching a variety of science programming online, but through reading books. And anyone familiar with children’s books about dinosaurs knows, some shine and others lack with regard to keeping up to date with dinosaur paleontology. The Tales of Prehistoric Life series shines brightly. All images, except the one below, are from Kids Can Press website.

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