Saturday, November 28, 2009

Take Heart, Rachael

Life’s not fair. And, in particular, a fossil hunt’s not fair. That’s a lesson a fossil hunter learns quickly. But, that’s not the central message of this posting. I think there’s yet another lesson that a fossil hunter learns that may offer some measure of consolation. More about that in a moment.

Local newspapers and TV stations recently ran a story about a find at the newly opened Dinosaur Park in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Yes, there are dinosaur fossils to be found in the urbanized Baltimore-Washington corridor. The 7 ½ acre county park provides an opportunity twice a month for amateur collectors to try their luck at turning up a Cretaceous fossil, perhaps from a dinosaur. Saturday, a week ago, a small piece of fossilized bone, tentatively identified as a dinosaur vertebra, came to light, found by a young girl. The fossil triggered a great deal of excitement and was turned over to the Smithsonian for identification and further analysis.

Here’s where the life lessons come in. Am I taking liberties with the known facts in the account that follows? Of course. But then the truth I’m looking for is behind the events and details reported in the press. And the best way I know how to do that is to project on to it my feelings and experiences as someone who has hunted for fossils, has children, and, in particular, has siblings.

The story goes like this, punctuated with my annotation, including a bit of reconstructed backstory. A family of four from a neighboring state comes over to take part in the last hunt of the month. The outing, according to the press, sounds like a piece of healthy and constructive parenting, but, I suspect there was a lot of pressure (begging and whining . . . maybe) brought to bear to make this trip a reality by Rachael, the younger daughter in the family, a child overwhelmingly infected with the dinosaur fossil bug, whose grandest dream, according to her mom, is to go on a fossil hunt in South Dakota. Her older sister, 9-year-old Gabrielle, comes along, perhaps reluctantly (I know as a child I would have protested going on a trip if it were something very special for one of my siblings). In my reconstruction, the final conversation in the car as the family caught sight of the park goes something like this:

Younger sister Rachael: “This is so cool. I can’t wait. This whole place was a swamp maybe 100 million years ago, with dinosaurs and everything.”

Older sister Gabrielle: “Whatever.”

A half later, Gabrielle finds the dinosaur vertebrae that causes all hell to break loose. Well, that’s what it must have seemed like to Rachael.

The family is interviewed by the press. The local experts at the park are ecstatic, gushing over the marvelous find by this “little girl,” thrilled at the press coverage for the park. Gabrielle has her picture taken which runs in the Baltimore Sun along with an article. The Washington Post covers her find as well, as do other news outlets. Clearly, she thoroughly enjoys her brush with fame. To add salt to Rachael’s wound, in her picture in the Sun, Gabrielle’s holding a stuffed toy, no, not a dinosaur – a stuffed walrus. As for Rachael? One reporter notes that Rachael “kind of wished she’d found the fossil herself.” A bit of understatement if I know fossil hunting and sibling rivalry. (Girl Hits Pay Dirt on a Fossil Hunt with Her Family, by Megan Greenwell, Washington Post, November 25, 2009 ; New Dinosaur Park Yields Fossil for 9-Year-Old Girl, by Frank D. Roylance, Baltimore Sun, November 24, 2009)

Take heart, Rachael. I know you’d already learned that life’s not fair – having a sibling ensured that. You’ve now learned that fossil hunting’s not fair, either. Your enthusiasm, dedication, knowledge were no guarantee of good things happening (not in this instance, but, trust me, they will pay off in the future). The whole process is too dependent on contingency, historical accidents. Your sister’s finding of that fossil is the end result of an incredible chain of events that stretches further back in time than even the moment 100 million years ago that the dinosaur sank into the mud, dead. Change one of those events and maybe the fossil’s 7 inches to the right and Gabrielle misses it or, go back even farther and tweak an initial condition and there aren’t even dinosaurs, at least as we know them, to become fossilized. Now, that would be a shame.

The debate over contingency in the paleontological world might provide some insight for you, Rachael. I'm sure you understand that we're applying it at a much more micro level than the paleontologists have.

Contingency became paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s watchword for life’s evolutionary history. As he wrote in Wonderful Life: the Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989),
The modern order was not guaranteed by basic laws (natural selection, mechanical superiority in anatomical design), or even by lower-level generalities of ecology or evolutionary theory. The modern order is largely a product of contingency. (p. 288)

Based on his interpretation of the Burgess Shale and the many anatomical designs he saw arise there only to be decimated, he came away with
amazement . . . at the fact that humans ever evolved at all. . . . Replay the tape a million times from a Burgess beginning, and I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again. It is, indeed, a wonderful life. (p. 289)

Too much of the process was, in his view, historically contingent to ever replay in the same way.

Others, such as Simon Conway Morris, have rejected the extreme nature of this view, arguing that there are, in fact, a constrained number of successful evolutionary options. As a result, Conway Morris wrote, “the evolutionary routes are many, but the destinations are limited.” (Life’s Solution: Inevitable Humans in a Lonely Universe, 2003, p. 145). In the same volume, Conway Morris repeats this theme, but adds an important coda:
Thus we see that the same ends may be arrived at along various, and sometime[s] wildly different, routes. Correspondingly, very seldom is the convergence so exact as to make the organism or structure indistinguishable. (p. 301, emphasis added)

So, young Rachael, here’s the other lesson I hope you will learn from this and, I think, you’re on your way to that knowledge because you’ve promised to return to the park at the next opportunity. Be fully confident that when you and Gabrielle return to Dinosaur Park, history will not repeat itself. It will be different the next time around. Even in Simon Conway Morris’ view, the exact same outcome will not come to pass. Take solace in that, even as you lick your wounds from the experience of last Saturday.

Of course, do understand, it could well be worse.

My advice, Rachael, when you do go on that dream fossil hunt in South Dakota, follow your instincts and leave your older sister at home.

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