lunedì 26 novembre 2012

Repost 2010: An Interview with Brian Switek about Written in Stones: Evolution, the Fossil Record and Our Place in Nature

Various editions of Brian Switek's highly praised Written in Stones. From left to right: Bellevue Literary Press (2010); Icon Books Ltd (2012); Icon Books Ltd (2011). All copyrights are the property of their respective owners. Disclaimer: Because the images are book covers, a form of product packaging, each entire image is needed to identify the product, properly convey the meaning and branding intended, and avoid tarnishing or misrepresenting the image. As book covers, the images are not replaceable by free content; any other image that shows the packaging of the book would also be copyrighted, and any version that is not true to the original would be inadequate for identification or commentary.
«Brian calls himself a science writer and that's a good choice.This is science writing at its very best» .
Larry Moran, author of SandwalkProfessor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto,about a newspaper contribution written by Brian Switek about the fossil known as “Ida” (The dangerous link between science and hype, «The Times», May 26, 2009)
Brian Switek's new book (My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs)will be published in April 2013 by Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. That's quite a long time, so I thought it would have been interesting to recover the old interview with Switek, blogger extraordinaire, published on the 29th October, 2010 on my former blog (Geomythologica), with updates where needed.
The interview's topic was his critically-acclaimed first book Written in Stones: Evolution, the Fossil Record and Our Place in Nature (Bellevue Literary Press, New York 2010. 320 p. ISBN-10: 1934137294 ISBN-13: 978-1934137291; U.K. ed.  Written in Stones: The Hidden Secrets of Fossils and the Story of Life on Earth, Icon Books, London 2011. 320 p. ISBN-10: 184831342X ISBN-13: 978-1848313422).

Have fun reading this... and enjoy the book!

1) Your book was conceived, planned and written on the background of the so called 'web 2.0 revolution': its roots are well recognizable in your awarded blog Laelaps. You have always had faith in the usefulness of scientific blogs as a sort of middle ground between the masses of net-readers and researchers, as well as a just-in-time medium between scholars. This highly responsible but sometimes hard task has been increasingly facilitated and helped by improved tools and instruments such as Google Books, JStor, Persée, or very specialized projects of digitised sources (e.g., The Darwin Project), to name only a few, and a growing number of previously published-on-paper-only academic journals as well as new and free accessible peer reviewed journals (e.g., PLoS). How the use of these digital resources have aided you in the preparation of your book or - in case - complicated it (enigmatic cross-references, problems with saved files and on-line bibliographies, etc.)? What do you think of the Shiny Digital Future envisioned by the fellow bloggers of SVPOW in which scientific blog posts would "count" as articles (those becoming official - or sort of - quotable contributions)?

Brian Switek (B.S.) – Written in Stone would not have been possible without the internet. Early on in the writing process I used my blog Laelaps (originally on Wordpress [and now on Wired]) to practice writing and to organize my ideas. The raw material for the posts I created typically came from PDFs of papers I was able to access online, and resources such as Google Books and were indispensible in accessing old, hard-to-find volumes. I could access almost all the information I needed directly from my home – there was only one case in which I had to ask a scientist for a reprint because I could not find the same resource digitally. And, once I started writing about all this information, I ended up creating a searchable listing of content which I could go back to later on if I needed to. In the human evolution chapter, for example, I had not originally intended to include Richard Owen’s quote about how humans could not have survived alongside Europe’s Pleistocene fauna, but when I changed my mind I just went right back to the post, copied the text, and was able to incorporate it into the book without any hassle. Likewise, the Darwin Correspondence Project and the Complete Works of Charles Darwin online made it easy to find important information about the famous 19th century naturalist. Without them I would have had to spend countless hours in libraries skimming through books of correspondence for the information I needed.
All the illustrations were obtained digitally, as well. By using PDFs and image-editing software I was able to easily clip and modify images for use in the book, and the fact that the PLoS family of journals provides high-quality, Creative Commons images allowed me to include a number of new illustrations to keep the book as up-to-date as possible.
The only problem with all this was that it could sometimes be difficult to keep things organized. It’s easy to search for an old book, find the quote you need, and plunk it down in the manuscript, but if you don’t keep track of where that information came from it can be a real pain in the ass tracking it down again when it comes time to draw up the list of references. That is a problem with my own organizational skills, though, and overall I have greatly benefitted from digital resources during the course of writing my book.
As for the “Shiny Digital Future”, I am doubtful that blogs are going to become widely cited in the more formal literature. Just as S.J. Gould had trouble getting his peers to take original data or hypotheses published in his essays seriously, I think bloggers are going to run into the same problem of trying to get academic culture to consider blogs as more than just places of discussion. Nevertheless, there are some situations in which I think blogs can and should be cited. When I wrote a paper reviewing the controversy over the fossil primate Darwinius [Ancestor or Adapiform? Darwinius and the Search for Our Early Primate Ancestors. Evolution: Education and Outreach, Volume 3, Issue 3, 2010, pp 468-476], for example, I cited various news reports and blogs to get the context of the public debate into the formal literature.

2) What kind of criteria did you followed for the selection of the well chosen illustrations, both old and new? Your book is adorned with some previously unpublished (as far as I know) and remarkable pictures/figures by Internet well known paleoartists: pterosaur expert Mark Witton from the University of Portsmouth (whose upcoming new illustrated book on pterosaurs we are waiting for, due to appear from Princeton University Press [still unpublished - 2012]), Matt Celeskey from the on line pages of the Hairy Museum of Natural History, and comics artist Brett Booth.
What were their reactions to your requests?

B.S. – I wanted to pick illustrations which would support the descriptions in the text. I can go on and on about the big picture of horse evolution or the holes left by parasites in the jaws of Tyrannosaurus, but I felt that it was important to show readers exactly what I was talking about. There are some things which just need to be seen.
My main constraint was money. If I had the money – and talent – I would have designed and commissioned an array of new illustrations for the book, but I just did not have the resources. I had to go with already-created illustrations. Thanks to my love of old science books I knew where to find many old, copyright-expired illustrations for the historical sections, and the nonprofit status of my publisher allowed me to get the rights to reproduce many new illustrations from "Nature", "PNAS", and "Science" (with illustrations from "PLoS" also being free to reproduce). Every now and then I think about producing a glossy, fully-illustrated edition of Written in Stone someday with the kind of images I had originally planned, but I honestly have no idea whether that will ever be a real possibility.
Mark, Matt, and Brett were all very gracious with their illustrations. That was another benefit of blogging – we all knew each other thanks to our respective efforts to popularize science on the web – and they all were very kind in letting me reproduce their fantastic, up-to-date illustrations. I only wish I had the resources to commission some new work from them! Maybe next time.

3) A curiosity: considering that you have christened your famous blog Laelaps I was expected to find in your work the portrait of Edward Drinker Cope (the original describer of the dinosaur Laelaps, now known as Dryptosaurus)!
Is there a precise reason why in the end there's instead the portrait of his historic rival Othniel Charles Marsh alone?!

B.S. - The thought did cross my mind, but in the end I decided against including a portrait of Cope. It seemed a bit superfluous. I only mentioned Cope in passing, whereas Marsh pops up in the story several times, and so Marsh has a more significant role in the stories I was telling. I am going to dig into the “Bone Wars” and other aspects of Cope’s work in my next book, though, so I will make up for leaving him out of Written in Stone.

4) In Written in Stones a particular attention is drawn upon the punctuated equilibria theory by N. Eldredge and S.J. Gould.
Can you tell us about your first reaction when you originally studied it - at university or for personal elaboration?

B.S. - When I first learned about punctuated equilibria – which was in a college evolution course, if I remember correctly – I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand that Eldredge and Gould were using the fossil record to talk about speciation and create a theory. The impression I had was that it mostly focused on the fact that evolutionary change is not a gradual unfolding of form at a constant pace. That is one of the implications, sure, but it was not until I actually read the paper for myself that I understood what Eldredge and Gould were talking about in terms of speciation, stasis, and the pattern of evolutionary change. At that point the idea of punk eek went from something obvious to something which changed my perspective on the fossil record and evolutionary change, most importantly that evolutionary stasis is something worth investigating.

5) At the very end of Written in Stones the reader faces the historical contingent aspect of paleontology as a science.
You also tell the reader something about the recent experiment that led to the formal recognition of contingency in the evolution process as a gradual accumulation of unrepeatable mutations (Blount, Z.D., Borland, C.Z., Lensky, R.E. (2008). Historical contingency and the evolution of a key innovation in an experimental population of Escherichia coli, in «Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA», 105 , pp. 7899-7906; p. 7899)*. History of evolution on Earth is not a repeatable experiment nor a inevitable pathway eventually culminating in Homo sapiens, as Stephen J. Gould pointed out: in other words, rewinding the tape of Time, the resulting song would sound very different.
How much is important in your opinion the awareness of historical contingency inside the paleontological milieu or inside the conceptual lab of analitic tools used in paleontology?
* NOTE [Updated Nov., 2012]: The same article was quoted in M. Piattelli Palmarini, M. and J. Fodor. (2010). What Darwin Got Wrong. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, a recently published text whose point of view on evolution stirred a hot debate focused on the inaccurate misconceptions shared by the authors about evolutionary mechanisms; cfr. Myers, Paul (2010). Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini Get Everything Wrong. "Pharyngula", February 23Pigliucci, Massimo (2010). A misguided attack on evolution. "Nature", 464, 353-354 (18 March). I confess that at the time I wrote this interview (2010) I didn't really understand what MPP and JF meant with their attack.  I was indeed led to confusion by recklessly and ingenuously trusting the "Authority Bias: the tendency to value the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about" [Shermer, Michael (2012). The Believing Brain: From Spiritual Faiths to Political Convinctions. How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, Robinson, London, p. 323]. As a matter of fact MPP and JF, while being well known for their contribution to cognitive science and evolutionary psychology [EP], are not specialists in evolutionary biology nor paleontology. A bit later, after many good readings about evolutionary biology, I came to the conclusion that, as B.S. eloquently showed down here, the attack was guided by the dissatisfaction about some tenets of the classic fodorian EP. The authors put the blame on Modern Evolutionary Synthesis tout court rather than EP - here lies their logical fallacy. A general review of the EP's disciplinary assets is to be found in Barrett, H. Clark; Kurzban, Robert (2006). Modularity in cognition: Framing the debate. Psychological Review, Vol 113(3), Jul, 628-647.

B.S. - The role of contingency in evolution is usually discussed in terms of big-picture trends or patterns, but I think it is frequently employed in paleontology to understand why certain lineages evolved in particular ways.
Take the recent announcement of two horned dinosaurs from southern Utah, for example – Kosmoceratops and Utahceratops. News outlets focused on the bizarre looks of these dinosaurs, but the big story actually was that these animals were part of a unique southern radiation of horned dinosaurs during the Late Cretaceous which were distinct from their contemporaries in what is now Canada. There was some kind of barrier which caused the populations of these dinosaurs to diverge and evolve in different ways; without it, the same species likely would have ranged up and down the entirety of the prehistoric continent of Laramidia and we probably would not see this disparity between the dinosaurs. Most often we talk about contingency in terms of major events – such as mass extinctions which vastly prune back diversity and constrain possible evolutionary avenues – but I think paleontologists regularly consider contingent factors which influenced the evolutionary patterns which only become apparent in the fossil record.
As for the book What Darwin Got Wrong, it debuted after my book was already written. I did read Fodor’s London Review of Books op-ed and a few other things he had already published. In general, it seems as if Fodor found the field of evolutionary psychology so distasteful that he set about trying to pull out the entire Darwinian tree of thought at its roots, and while I can agree with him that there is a lot of sloppy science in evolutionary psychology I think Fodor ends up utterly confused about what natural selection is, how it works, and its importance to evolutionary change.

6) Two questions about the book itself: What chapter do you like the most in Written in Stones and which one was the most difficult to write? If you could turn back time, which error or assumption -if any - would you like to correct in Written in Stones?

B.S. - I greatly enjoyed writing the chapter on the evolution of whales. That was the first one I wrote, and I had a lot of fun digging through the history of ideas about whale origins. The section on Albert Koch’s “sea monsters”, especially, is one of my favorite parts of the book.
The chapter on synapsids and early mammals was the most difficult to write, mostly because many of the lineages and organisms mentioned in it are not going to be familiar to regular readers. I really had to stretch to keep the flow of the story going, but using the chapter as an example of how mass extinction shapes evolutionary patterns helped me bring it into line with the rest of the book.
As for corrections or revisions, I would have liked to go back and put a little more detail in the first two chapters – the ones which deal with the development of paleontological thought. The chapters were not as comprehensive as I wanted, and while my focus is obviously on paleontology I wish I had more time to dig into the development of evolutionary ideas and the recognition of Deep Time by geologists.

7) Last, but not least, what kind of themes do you like to cover in your next book?

B.S. - My next project has not fully coalesced yet, but I can say it is going to be about the present “Dinosaur Enlightenment” in which paleontologists are using ideas and techniques from geochemistry, evo-devo, microbiology, histology, and other disciplines to provide a more comprehensive view of dinosaurs than we have ever had before [My Beloved Brontosaurus will be published in April 2013].

Thanks a lot Brian for your answers, many compliments for your incipit vita nova as a science writer and good luck for your next and upcoming projects!

B.S. - And thank you for the interview, Leonardo. I am glad that you enjoyed the book!