News Flash!

12 October 2007

Or…another one for the “No Shit Sherlock” file:

Fossil Data Plugs Gaps In Current Knowledge, Study shows

Researchers have shown for the first time that fossils can be used as effectively as living species in understanding the complex branching in the evolutionary tree of life.

I’ll spare Science Daily the usual ire, the story itself is fine although as usual could use a bit more context. Likewise nothing but mad props, as it were, to Andrea Cobbett and co. for an interesting, nuanced paper which appears in a recent edition of Systematic Biology: Fossils Impact as Hard as Living Taxa in Parsimony Analyses of Morphology. I dearly hope their work is taken to heart by neotaxonomists.

I will however shovel multiple cubic acres (following Selach’s conversion [1973] where 1 cubic acre = 75.3 shit tons) of ire upon those “others [who] have been reluctant to use extinct species because the data they offer is often less complete.” …as opposed to the totally fucking comprehended living taxa?

Okay, so maybe we’re tilting at paper tigers, or straw men, or whatever, please don’t break my stride.

As molecular phylogeny was coming into its own surely some smirkholes were predicting that paleontology was entering its autumn at least as a source of evolutionary understanding. No doubt, the alarming number of 0/1 matrices, strict consensuses (man, I really wanted to type “consensi”), and leathery boot straps awaiting me at next week’s SVP are to some extent a direct response to this attitude.

Anyway, I hope those paper tigers are spinning in their effing, i mean fucking, ergonomic office chairs.

Old Chuck D. himself was, as much as we’d like to forget it, a sometime paleontologist. While in South America, en voyage with the Beagle, Darwin made a number of important paleontological discoveries. Per his enumeration:

First, parts of three heads and other bones of the Megatherium, the huge dimensions of which are expressed by its name. Secondly, the Megalonyx, a great allied animal. Thirdly, the Scelidotherium, also an allied animal, of which I obtained a nearly perfect skeleton. It must have been as large as a rhinoceros: in the structure of its head it comes, according to Mr. Owen, nearest to the Cape Anteater, but in some other respects it approaches to the armadilloes. Fourthly, the Mylodon Darwinii, a closely related genus of little inferior size. Fifthly, another gigantic edental quadruped. Sixthly, a large animal, with an osseous coat in compartments, very like that of an armadillo. Seventhly, an extinct kind of horse, to which I shall have again to refer. Eighthly, a tooth of a Pachydermatous animal, probably the same with the Macrauchenia, a huge beast with a long neck like a camel, which I shall also refer to again. Lastly, the Toxodon, perhaps one of the strangest animals ever discovered: in size it equalled an elephant or megatherium, but the structure of its teeth, as Mr. Owen states, proves indisputably that it was intimately related to the Gnawers, the order which, at the present day, includes most of the smallest quadrupeds: in many details it is allied to the Pachydermata: judging from the position of its eyes, ears, and nostrils, it was probably aquatic, like the Dugong and Manatee, to which it is also allied. How wonderfully are the different Orders, at the present time so well separated, blended together in different points of the structure of the Toxodon! (1839)

Thanks to Owen that paragraph is laced with the kind of errors that the molecularists have wasted a lot of palm sweat over.  And yet…here we see Darwin starting to gain some FUCKING important insights into biogeography, extinction, mosaic evolution and convergence.


2 Responses to “News Flash!”

  1. Zach Miller Says:

    I was unaware that there was a serious movement to disassociate fossil evidence from crown-group clades. Sounds…retarded. It’s like saying the Archaeopteryx is no way is helpful in filling in that big gap between crocodiles and tucans.

  2. Neil Says:

    Like I said…I’m probably tilting at windpumps. Or whatever.

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