Four-legged snakes and the myth of pure science

This Fall term I am teaching my dinosaurs course, but with a twist – it is a freshman-only seminar, and while we will cover dinosaur paleontology, the course is also designed to expose students to how science as a tool and culture intersect. For our first-year students, we assign a common reading, and this year’s reading is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele. This excellent little book shows how pervasive stereotypes are and how they affect our identities. There are certainly many stereotypes surrounding scientists: when I have asked students to draw a scientist in previous courses, I almost always get a balding, white male with a lab coat and a test tube.

As I was looking for a recent example in vertebrate paleontology of the intersection of science and culture, news broke about the discovery of a remarkable fossil that may be an early snake with four legs! Many websites have now covered the discovery in detail, but controversy has surrounded the fossil because of remarks by the lead author, Dr. David Martill, concerning the fossil’s provenance. Provenance refers to the locality of the fossil and its preservational environment, key data that provide context and a timeline. And the provenance of Tetrapodophis amplectus (the species name of the fossil snake) is questionable because the fossil came from a private collection that was later donated to Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum, in Solnhofen, Germany. According to Martill, who responded to questions on the blog of Herton Escobar, “There is no label on the specimen that says when or how it was collected. It was only recognized as certainly being from Brazil because I am an expert on the Crato Formation and I recognized the rock it is preserved in, and its preservation style is exactly like that of the Crato Formation. It is undoubtedly from Brazil.”

This is problematic, because missing the provenance information makes the fossil far less informative. Although it may provide insights into snake evolution, without tighter controls on where and when in time the fossil was deposited, we have lost a lot of environmental context and its temporal relationship to other snake fossils. This is one of the reasons why, public or private, fossils collected without appropriate provenance information lose much of their scientific value.

What is more problematic than the scientific issue of provenance is the legality of the fossil in question. Brazil has laws which prohibit Brazilian fossils from leaving the country, and this suggests Tetrapodophis amplectus ended up in the private collection (from which Bürgermeister-Müller-Museum obtained it) illegally. The reasoning behind such laws stem from concern by Brazilians that their natural heritage is being expatriated, which adversely affects Brazilian paleontologists studying and reporting on their own fossils.

Martill is no stranger to Brazilian laws on fossil collection, and he has made it clear that he doesn’t respect Brazilian laws because they interfere with his ability to publish on new discoveries. According to Martill in a 2014 Nature news article, “Scientists who just want to go about doing science are frustrated.”

Beyond the pale, though, is Martill’s response to a reasonable question from Herton Escobar. Given that Martill recognized the fossil snake was of Brazilian origin, and given that it was likely collected under less-than-desirable circumstances, couldn’t Martill have reached out to a Brazilian paleontologist to collaborate on the study? Martill’s reponse: “But what difference would it make? I mean, do you want me also to have a black person on the team for ethnicity reasons, and a cripple and a woman, and maybe a homosexual too just for a bit of all round balance? … If you invite people because they are Brazilian then people will think that every Brazilian author on a scientific paper is there because he is Brazilian and not because he is a clever scientist.”

For a sociological perspective on this last, abhorrent statement, see Jess Bonnan-White’s post on this issue.

It is time we move past such blatantly colonial and derogatory attitudes about fossil provenance in vertebrate paleontology, and that we call out those who believe it is okay to continue to express such attitudes. Martill’s language exudes overtones of colonial Europe and America, that mostly white, male scientists are in the best position not only to understand nature but to take what they please from others they deem less human. And whereas Martill’s voice may be among the loudest, it certainly is not the only voice extolling these “virtues.” I have myself been told that it is best for those of us in first-world countries to get and prepare fossils from other places so that the science is done right.

And that is perhaps the most galling thing of all: that in the end, we pretend that this is all just about making the science right. That we perpetuate this myth of “pure science.” That, in the end, this is just about a remarkable fossil and nothing more. That because we are scientists we have the luxury of not giving a damn about anything other than the science. That we don’t have to consider other peoples, their customs, their laws, their cultures, or their right to their own natural history. When you say, “Personally I don’t care a damn how the fossil came from Brazil or when it came from Brazil. These are irrelevant to the scientific significance of the fossil,” what you are really saying is that science matters more than people. Science is a tool, but its application is far from neutral. Science is done a huge disservice when its usefulness as a tool for understanding nature supersedes that of understanding and respecting our fellow human beings, let alone our fellow paleontologists.

You don’t get to ignore laws and promote the expatriation of fossils from other people just because you are doing science. If we truly care about global natural history, and we truly care about the story the fossils tell, then we must come to terms with the fact that whereas fossils know no political boundaries, humans do. Thus, it is in our best interest as scientists to be more global in our appreciation of other countries and other peoples. If you are interested in Brazilian fossils, you should also be interested in Brazilian people, their politics, and their laws. If we truly believe science is an egalitarian enterprise where someone’s merit as a scientist comes from their ability, not their nationality, then we can no longer tolerate the excuse that science trumps all.

Jurassic World: Not About Science

As a dinosaur paleontologist, I was perhaps duty-bound to see Jurassic World … that and my 10-year-old daughter was keen to see it as well. I am teaching a freshman-only seminar on dinosaurs this fall, and that also made the choice to see the movie a no-brainer. I had only seen one or two brief previews of the movie and had avoided reading reviews of the plot so I could go into the movie with as few preconceptions as possible. Here are my thoughts.

Before I start, let me say that this is not a review of the story or much about the accuracy of the science. That has already been done in multiple ways by many of my colleagues in the dinosphere. There is not much new I could add there.  Therefore, there are no spoilers here unless you consider what is shown in the movie previews as spoilers.

I was not surprised and kind of disappointed by I what I saw. In a sentence: it was a monster movie and not a movie about dinosaurs or science. There were no paleontologist characters in the movie, and the dinosaurs were there to devour people and cause mayhem or serve as background. As anyone would know from the movie previews, this is again a retread of technology gone wrong and hubris. No one should be surprised by the basic plot and its outcome.

So here is my question: since this movie is clearly not about science and is, like the original Jurassic Park, yet another Frankenstein story, why should we as scientists care how accurate is? And I ask this question because we dinosaur paleontologists suffer from a public image problem. We are often considered to be kids who never grew up, but not “real” scientists. I am the first to admit that my fascination with dinosaurs started early, and that many of us have a friendly competition to see who was interested in dinosaurs the earliest. It does come with a certain badge of honor. But I think that outside of our small group, this doesn’t often help us be taken seriously.

I suppose, for example, one could point to someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, arguing that he engages the public with his take on science-fiction movies. But even here astronomy and physics have more science “street cred” than dinosaur paleontology. Tyson can let his nerd flag fly, so to speak, without much “damage” to the reputation of physics because his science is “the” science in the mind of the public. Nobody (sane) argues about gravity. Everyone, though, is happy to argue with dinosaur experts about what they think dinosaurs were like … perhaps in part because we all know the science is done by big kids who aren’t real scientists.

I agree and empathize with many of my colleagues that dinosaur movies often miss an opportunity to educate the public about science as a process as well as entertain. But I also think we tread a fine line here — one that may inadvertently only reinforce the stereotype of the nerdy (read “child-like” and “out-of-touch”) dinosaur paleontologist when we engage the “science” of a movie that is clearly not about science at all. This stereotype of the “big kid” dino-nerd is more damaging than just reputation. For example, the recent attempt to sell the privately-owned “Dueling Dinosaurs” was predicated on the identity of one of the dinosaurs as Nanotyrannus. Even when an expert on tyrannosaurids like Thomas Carr pointed out in great detail why Nanotyrannus is not real, it is perhaps easier to ignore his expertise in favor of profit partly because of the “big kid” stereotype.

My suggestion would be, rather than engaging the press in the predictable “this and that were wrong” conversation, why not simply say, “this is science fiction and a monster movie and it doesn’t represent paleontology.” Jurassic World is about as close to dinosaur paleontology as Star Wars is to astronomy. These movies can be inspiring to children and adults, but their main focus is a story, its plot, climax, and resolution, not scientific accuracy. And the sad part about Jurassic World is that the missed opportunity is less about the science (which is relatively non-existent) and more about the tired re-hashing of gender stereotypes and hubris/comeupance plot lines.

Dinosaur paleontology, for those of us who are experts, is a rigorous science with many insights to offer us in the present. And, yes, many of us have been enraptured with this science since childhood. There is nothing wrong with that. But understanding how stereotypes about our science and about us as scientists play in the larger world are equally important to recognize. We have an important message about the past and our future to impart to the public. Let’s not dilute our energies on the trivial details of an expensive and silly monster movie.

Bearded Dragon Runs for Science!

Bonnan Lab Lizard TreadmillA brief post to show our progress in the BFF Locomotion Lab. We’re learning our equipment and training our lizards to walk and run. The lizards are rewarded with a cricket as a treat. The lizard you see in the video is Graybeard, a juvenile bearded dragon (Pogona vitticeps). This video is comprised of two synched cameras and is a test video and not yet the “real” thing. But we’ll be capturing real data and more soon enough.

As always, stayed tuned and there will be more reptiles running in the near future!

New interview on Prehistoric Pub

Just a brief post to point those interested to my interview with Jersey native and paleontology enthusiast Gary Vecchiarelli:

Thanks for the interview, Gary!


The Bare Bones – An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton

I am happy to announce that I will be publishing my first book, The Bare Bones: An Unconventional Evolutionary History of the Skeleton with Indiana University Press. This has been a labor of love over the past 6 years, and it is great to see it finally coming to fruition.

What is the book about? An accessible guide to the evolutionary history of the skeleton — from the Indiana University Press “blurb”:

What can we learn about the evolution of jaws from a pair of scissors? How does the flight of a tennis ball help explain how fish overcome drag? What do a spacesuit and a chicken egg have in common? Highlighting the fascinating twists and turns of evolution across more than 540 million years, paleobiologist Matthew Bonnan uses everyday objects to explain the emergence and adaptation of the vertebrate skeleton. . .What can camera lenses tell us about the eyes of marine reptiles? How does understanding what prevents a coffee mug from spilling help us understand the posture of dinosaurs?. . .The answers to these and other intriguing questions illustrate how scientists have pieced together the history of vertebrates from their bare bones. With its engaging and informative text, plus more than 200 illustrative diagrams created by the author, The Bare Bones is an unconventional and reader-friendly introduction to the skeleton as an evolving machine.
Here is an example figure:
Fig 17.4 Metronome of science

The metronome of speed. In a musical metronome, the speed of the ticking pendulum is controlled by a weight on its end. In this case, a slow tempo results from placing the metronome’s weight far away from the pivot, whereas placing the weight close to the pivot allows it to tick faster. Similarly, a hypothetical dinosaur with a long femur and short leg and foot segments would be relatively slow because the heavy muscles that move the thigh are spread far from the hip joint, much like a metronome weight displaced far from the pivot. In contrast, a hypothetical dinosaur with a short femur and long leg and foot segments would be relatively fast because now the heavy thigh muscles are bunched near the hip joint, much like a metronome weight placed close to the pivot.

Why did I write it? I was inspired to write this book when I began teaching my own vertebrate evolution and paleontology course for undergraduate students. What I found was that many of these students were fascinated by vertebrate evolution, but that few, if any, went on to careers in museums and academe. Instead, many of my students were future teachers, doctors, veterinarians, and perhaps even politicians. There are many excellent books available on vertebrate paleontology, many of which I consulted in writing this book, but their focus tends to be strongly taxonomic and linearly chronological: who is who, who is related to whom, and in what order do we find them. However, the books that had truly inspired me to become a paleontologist were those that tackled the issue of functional morphology and paleobiology: what does the skeleton tell us about how the animal moved, fed, and behaved? This is the type of questions that motivated me as a student to learn about vertebrate history.
During my undergraduate days, I stumbled upon a small book called The Evolution of Vertebrate Design by the late paleontologist Leonard Radinsky that would truly influence my approach to writing. Radinsky took a complex subject like vertebrate paleontology and, using cartoons and brief but informative language, distilled the essence of our evolutionary story into a format that was friendly and approachable. In fact, I initially used his book in my vertebrate paleontology and evolution courses because it served as a jumping-off point for exploring the rich tapestry of vertebrate life past and present.
Given that Radinsky passed away in 1985, his beautiful book was never updated. Despite its appeal to my students, with each passing year the stack of articles I was assigning to supplement the understandably dated material was becoming larger than the book itself! Simultaneously, as my research developed into understanding the evolution of dinosaur locomotion, I was beginning to question why I had never paid more attention to classical mechanics in my physics courses. When I took physics, I found the course to be absolutely dull and dry. However, if you can understand the way that the machines and tools that surround us in our daily lives work the way that they do, you can approach the skeleton the same way. And then I thought, what if I tried to write a book about the evolution of the vertebrate skeleton as if I were someone trying to teach my younger self about classical mechanics and physics? Using Radinsky’s book as an inspiration and launch point, I began writing the book now being published: what I hope is a friendly but somewhat unconventional introduction and exploration of the history of the skeleton, using machine metaphors, for those who want to learn but do not (yet) have the chops for anatomy.
Why should you buy this book? Among many reasons, the best is probably that I have included a figure of a cat overturning a Prius.

The NAMS Research Symposium at Stockton University – Friday, April 17

Just a brief announcement that the NAMS Research Symposium, which features research by NAMS students with faculty, is this Friday, April 17 in the C/D Atrium on the Main Campus of Stockton University. Students will be at their posters between 3-5PM.

You can see the research our students are doing by downloading the NAMS Research Symposium Abstract Booklet 2015.

You can tweet about the event with the hashtag #OspreySci

You can also join us on Facebook.

It is official: the BFF Lab has a CT scanner

It was an exciting day for the BFF Lab — we installed and operated our Animage FIDEX CT scanner for the first time!  We selected a preserved specimen of a mudpuppy salamander (Necturus) to anoint our system.  You can see the animation below of the anterior half of the salamander’s skeleton.

Why are there large gaps between the bones of the arms, you ask?  Salamanders like the mudpuppy have thick, cartilaginous joints.  Cartilage does not typically show up in X-rays, and hence the “gaps.”

The XROMM lab at Richard Stockton University is coming together piece by piece.

We are forever grateful to lab director Justine Ciraolo and our NAMS shop director William Harron for so much help in obtaining and coordinating our receipt of this equipment.  We also want to give a big shout out to Stephen Della Ratta of Animage for his help, enthusiasm, and expertise in setting up our CT scanner.  Our training on the FIDEX scanner was thorough and friendly, and all our questions were answered.  Thank you, Stephen.

Stay tuned for more exciting news in the near future …