How does paleontology affect your worldview?

10 06 2009

Good tidings and well-wishes!

Given the enormous success accumulated by a recent post which begged the question “Why do so many science majors dislike literture courses?”, I’ve decided to ask a similar question which, like its predecessor, compares ‘hard’ science (specifically my subject of choice, paleontology) with the humanities. Rest assured, I fully intend to post a ‘Wednesday Wonder’ sometime tomorrow (I’m considering either Eremotherium or Scutosaurus, does anyone have a preference?) and shall therefore return to more ‘traditional’ paleo topics shortly. However, the discussion I intend to chronicle in this entry is essentially based on your reaction to the question posed in its title: how has paleontology affected your personal philosophy?

Carl Sagan (a man many scientists, including yours truly, from a myriad of fields idolize) frequently asserted that astronomy is a deeply humbling study because of the perspective it casts on our minute impact in the vastness of the universe. Paleontology is equally well-poised to debase our species for our massive sense of self-importance. In his book (which I’m currently reading and greatly enjoying) “Why Evolution Is True” (the accompanying blog to which is available on my sidebar), Jerry Coyne writes:

“If evolution offers a lesson, it seems to be that we’re not only related to other creatures but, like them, are also the product of blind and impersonal evolutionary forces. If humans are just one of many outcomes of natural selection, maybe we aren’t so special after all. You can understand why this doesn’t sit well with many people who think that we came into being differently from other species, as the special goal of divine intention.”

Thus, the study of evolution and the history of life on our planet inspires many of its enthusiasts to rapidly abandon the notion of anthropocentrism. After all, evolution did not grant our ancestors special privileges…they were simply another species living under the conditions of natural selection. Many people who accept evolution nonetheless continue to believe that Homo sapiens is its biological pinacle. As the title character of Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” points out, the process did not cease with the birth of our species as these people believe. In fact, an innumerable amount of cases show that evolution is still occurring.

The philosophical implications of this knowledge are obvious: that, scientifically speaking, we aren’t some ‘preferred customer’ of nature and that there will always be room for improvement. This second point is driven further home when one considers the concept of extinction. Aside from the notion’s glaring theological aspects, many early scientists rejected the idea that an entire species could possibly be wiped out because, so far as they had observed, none had done so previously and none showed any indication of falling victim to the phenomenon. However, anyone presently alive who denies the existence of extinction would be thrown out of nearly any institution imaginable (even the most radical) simply because even without the fossil record, we’re acutely aware of its presence.  None the less, the fossil record does reveal that extinction is inevitable, for every species either dies out or evolves onward.

With all of this in mind, once again I’ll ask “How does paleontology affect your worldview/personal philosophy?” I think that a discussion on the subject would prove very interesting, so please post your thoughts below.

May the fossil record continue to enchant us all.




12 responses

10 06 2009
Zach Miller

Ah, a very interesting question. Paleontology has taught me that every species came from somewhere, and species will continue to evolve and die as time goes on. I have such respect for all life on earth (aside from mosquitoes) because of that. Life always manages to find a way, even after the most horrible extinction events. We’ll go extinct someday, and the world is immeasurably changed by our presence. Our concrete jungles will host new tenants, and the earth will retake those vast expanses.

Paleontology is very humbling, and I’m happy for that.

My vote is for Ermenotherium. Scelidosaurus is cool, but it’s a stinkin’ thyreophoran. 😉

10 06 2009

I was leaning towards Eremotherium anyway, given that barely any information about it is available online and I’ve been wanting to do a proper mammal for some time now.

Getting back to the main subject at hand, I quite agree: it is enormously humbling to consider that our various political ideologies and architectural hallmarks, however elegant or sturdy, will eventually succumb to the wear of time. It reminds me of the phrase which Abraham Lincoln claimed could be used in any context: “And this too shall come to pass.” Furthermore, the fact that we cannot be classified as “the center of the universe” in the astronomical or biological sense as revealed by paleontology (among other sciences)serves as a rude awakening to our species. It warns us that this planet and its resources were never meant for our indiscriminate usurption and therefore shouldn’t be utilized under such assumptions.

I can think of no better tool with which to put us in our place.

11 06 2009
Michael Buchwitz

I suppose the headline can be read in two completely different ways:

1) How does the knowledge about ancient life as revealed by paleontology affect your world view (as a non-paleontologist)?

2) How does your involvement in paleontology as a field of science/compendium of scientific methods affect your world view?

regarding 1):

After paleontology I am more aware of the history involved when looking at natural things. Do you also sometimes have this kind of epiphany that you look at a tree or a bird and it transforms back to earlier stages of evolution or dissolves into different organs, tissues, cells…

However, I don’t see that knowing about life history had much of an impact on my anthropocentrism: I’m still feeding on fellow mammals from time to time and I see my pro-life attitude restricted to members of my own species. I daresay I support environmentalism because its good for the survival of our species (which is likely to be restricted in time and space like others) and because a versatile world is entertaining but not because I really care about the extinction of some bug from Borneo. The problem would be more interesting if there were other thoughtful creatures (e.g. neanderthals or aliens) joining the dialogue but as this is not the case humanity/humankind is still this lone forttress and the coordinate centre of (my ) reasoning.

regarding 2): Seeing the actual methods/ processes throung which knowledge is generated in paleontology you become more sceptical regarding unmodest claims. You see the potential for fallacies/ shortcomings and you regard knowledge no longer as a given thing but as something with a history of hard work/ a social background itself.

You remember perhaps your school lessons in physics and how natural laws and formulas are taught disconnected from the way how they were found by physicists (as if they were fallen from heaven). The same may be true about how you percieve paleontology as a child or outsider. This changes completely once you come to have a deeper look into paleontology as a science.

12 06 2009

Many thanks for your provocative and intriguing response, Michael.

While I completely agree with your second point regarding paleontology as a science, I find myself unable to entirely embrace your first. During the first paragraph you’d written describing this argument, you posed the question “Do [I] also sometimes have this kind of epiphany that you look at a tree or a bird and it transforms back to earlier stages of evolution or dissolves into different organs, tissues, cells…?” to which I must reply the affirmative.

However, I don’t understand your position on anthropocentrism and must assert that, to an extent, I take issue with it.

First of all, you argue that your personal stance on the matter is affected by the fact that you occasionally eat other mammals, an activity which is in no sense limited to humans. If other animals within our class behave in this fashion, why should we alone feel superior for doing likewise? Predation does not automatically imply superiority.

At this point, I feel that I must clear up a common misconception many people harbor regarding anthropocentrism. Most advocates of the concept claim that humans are ‘more important’ than other organisms. However, some people interprit this as saying that we’re ‘more evolutionarily advanced’. While this is certainly true (in some aspects), the two conclusions are not synonymous. Just because we’re better-evolved in some regards doesn’t mean that we’re more important than our bretheren as most anthropocentrists would have us believe.

Therefore, I’m unable to comprehend why you feel that your pro-life stance should be limited to our species. To quote George Carlin, “How come when it’s us, it’s an abortion and when it’s a chicken, it’s an omlet?” If life truly begins at conception as you assert, why should we terminate any unborn organism?

Similarly, while I appreciate your advocacy, your stance on environmentalism is rather puzzling. How can a scientist such as yourself be so ambiguous about any potential extinction? If an organism is driven to this point, irreplaceable data will be lost. Such an occurence would be a travesty, not an irrelevant curiosity. Just because there are no creatures presently alive which meet the anthropomorphic sentience you describe doesn’t mean that those with which we do share the planet are any less important. As I understand it, your philosophy on this matter essentially boils down to the following: “If it’s not as smart as us, it doesn’t really matter. But we should help the planet anyway simply because we need it.” How can you dismiss even the most minute aspect of this planetary ecosystem as merely ‘entertaining’? With all due respect, this sentiment sounds rather unscientific.

Furthermore, why does the knowledge that our species, like all others, will inevitably perish fail to have an impact on your viewpoint?

12 06 2009
Michael Buchwitz

Whether you say “entertaining” or “interesting” or “exciting” – I am saying it like that suggesting that many people including me do care about living in a versatile world and would prefer not to drive species to extinction. However whether and to what extant we care about a versatile world is no point of consent: You will find different view points/ conflicting interests leading to negotiating whereas it is undisputed and thus generalizable that we want to take the necessary measures that our own species survives.

(Ten million more people driving their own cars may be worth another single extinct species according to some people. However everyone agrees that this one species should not be us.)

I suppose ethics or how we consider the value of diversity trancends the field of science, so judgement about such points can rather not be unscientific (but hard to understand if you expect most scientists to be motivated in similar ways…).

A position I share is that before humans (or another kind of conscious being) our world was without anyone caring. Consider a world with dogs and cats but without humans: there is no ethics, no morale, no sense or meaning, no right or wrong, no idea of superiority or inferiority. I see the idea that our world has a meaning as an emergent quality (of our world) which comes into existence only with us as the only known creatures who really care. If at one point our species perishes and no other self-conscious beings ever follow the world will become meaningless/ indifferent regarding everything again. In this context the question is not which specimen is more important but without us humans ‘importance’ as a concept is arguably not existing.

Why we draw the line, i.e. concerning the right to live, between fellow potential self-concious/thinking creatures and others has historical and pragmatic reasons: If it is not only us (humans) to which node of the tree do you want to assign the right to live (or not to be tortured): How can you defend that we say ‘yes’ to cats but ‘no’ to pigs. Or ‘yes’ to pigs but ‘no’ to salmons. Or ‘yes’ to salmons but ‘no’ to tapeworms. (How dare you torture your inner tapeworm! We agreed that it is unethical to do something like that to a fellow metazoan…)

Perhaps you get an idea about the realistic/ pragmatic stance I am arguing for: Let’s take care about this world because it is important to us. Mind your fellow self-concious creatures (and perhaps don’t be cruel to the others if you can help it). And this is quite a task.

12 06 2009

Although rare, i do think other species may “care” to some extent, eg. documented cases of dolphins who have assisted humans stranded in the water.

12 06 2009


Perhaps it was wrong of me to label your opinions on this matter as ‘unscientific’, especially now that you’ve clarified what you’d originally meant by saying that the natural world is “entertaining”. The point I was originally trying to make was that were you to espouse the opinion that the destruction of life on our planet and thus terminating enormous amounts of data which likely could never be recovered is acceptable seems to be the antithesis of scientific inquiry which generally calls for action rather than indifference on such matters.

Once again, I see nothing wrong with your ultimate conclusion as revealed in your rebuttal’s closing paragraph.

However, I’m unconvinced that humans are the only creatures on Earth capable of morality as you’ve insinuated. At this point, I’ll grant that we’re conversing about philosophy moreso than unadulterated science, however several types of animals have been seen burying their dead (including modern elephants) and, as Nancy cited in the previous response, dolphins will frequently assist shipwrecked humans to safety. Furthermore, a myriad of creatures have displayed such intellectual attributes as acute problem-solving (eg: ravens), self awareness (eg: elephants and magpies), and tool-making (eg: primates, and several species of songbird). Therefore, it would appear that we aren’t the only creatures capable of understanding intricate concepts. Why then should we consider ourselves the only beings capable of care and compassion? By extention, if it’s conceivable or even likely that other organisms boast this capability, what you define as ‘importance’ would probably persist long after our departure.

As for some of the other sensations you describe, many animals are sharply aware of superiority and inferiority as dictated by social heirarchies and given the fact that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are notoriously sticky philosophical concepts it’s nearly impossible to ascertain their presence in foreign organisms.

As for your pro-life stance, I’m afraid that you’ve misrepresented my point. I wasn’t arguing that we should abstain from the killing of any organism (which, as you point out, is frequently neccessary) entirely but rather I was questioning your decision to give human fetuses rights you wouldn’t grant an unborn fowl or a seed if, as most anti-abortionists claim, life truly begins at conception and that ‘everyone deserves a chance to be born’.

I’ll post further comments later on, but for now I have previous obligations (lab work) demanding my immediate attention.

12 06 2009

Okay, time for part two.

Another aspect of your pro-life ideology with which I disagree is the fact that you admittedly value a single unborn human fetus above an entire species of exotic creature in terms of the preservation of life.

You’ve also argued that by virtue of what you believe to be our incomparable propensity for intellect and compassion the prolonged existence of Homo sapiens should obtain the highest priority in our ecosystem. This could very easily come at the expense of any presently existing species which are capable of evolving into a race befitting of your criteria.

13 06 2009
Michael Buchwitz

Have not much of a time for an answer yet (leaving for some longer trip).

I suppose I mistook what a signal word “pro-life” is (i.e. its cultural context): I am not dogmatic / not yet decided about human fetuses and the question of potential human beings but feel rather uneasy about the sometimes unconcerned praxis of early abortion.

13 06 2009

I understand, please forgive me if it appears that I’ve wrongfully accused you of anything in this regard.

I wish you all the best on your trip!

-Mark Mancini

15 06 2009

If paleontology has affected my worldview in no other way, it is through a real appreciation of deep time, and how small we are within it. I rather like the philosophy of Ray Alf (self-taught paleontologist who inspired many – including Malcolm McKenna – to go into the field), who said, “What will *you* do with your moment in time?” A wonderful balance of human humility and purpose!

16 06 2009

It is indeed a most beautiful way of looking at our science and at life, Andy!

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