Thursday, October 13, 2011

Who’s Nathan Myhrvold and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things about Paleontology?

Paleontology is ossified.
~ Nathan Myhrvold, Wired Magazine, October, 2011

I’ve been wresting for much too long with Nathan Myhrvold’s snarky quip about paleontology.  After an initial laugh, I reacted with hostility, particularly when he followed up that bit of word play by saying, “The methods [of paleontology] haven’t changed substantially in 100 years.”  I thought I understood the meaning of the comment and detected a nasty tone.  But, that’s hardly where I end up in this posting.  (So typical that, just after having written in my previous posting about the limits to my relationship with dinosaurs, I come back with one about those creatures.)

So, who is he and what’s he specifically complaining about?

It begins I suppose with renowned dinosaur paleontologist Jack Horner who wants to build a dinosaur from a chicken embryo, a chickenosaurus.  Horner, who was the first to find fossil baby dinosaurs in nests and fossil dinosaur embryos, believes the blueprint for a full-fledged dinosaur resides in the chicken genome given that he concludes, as do many scientists, that modern birds are not descended from dinosaurs but are, in fact, avian dinosaurs.  He’s written a book about this quest (How to Build a Dinosaur:  The New Science of Reverse Evolution, 1999).  Earlier this year he gave a funny and thought provoking talk about chickenosaurus at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference (this link is to the video of the talk).  Most recently, he is profiled in the October issue of Wired Magazine (Thomas Hayden, How to Hatch a Dinosaur).

Horner is aided and abetted in his effort to turn back the evolutionary clock by said Nathan Myhrvold.  I’ll admit it, I had no idea who Nathan Myhrvold was and whether his opinions about paleontology should carry any weight.

Is he a trained paleontologist?  No, though clearly he’s plenty smart.  Myhrvold finished high school at 14, earned a doctorate in theoretical and mathematical physics from Princeton, and did research with Stephen Hawking.  New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell described Myhrvold as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  (In The Air:  Who Says Big Ideas are Rare?, The New Yorker, May 12, 2008).

He has done some paleontology work, appearing as co-author on several articles in peer-reviewed science journals.  In one, he and his co-author build a case based on the anatomical structure of diplodocid dinosaurs’ “enormous and graceful tails that taper to thin tips” and the physics of bullwhips to argue that these dinosaurs could have whipped their tails back and forth fast enough that the movement of the tips would have exceeded the sound barrier, creating a loud cracking sound.  This led the authors to counter the notion that the diplodocids’ long tails were used as contact weapons; instead, they suggested that these tails might have functioned as “noisemakers” perhaps for warding off predators or exerting social control within sauropod groups, among other possible uses.  (Myhrvold and Philip J. Currie, Supersonic Sauropods?  Tail Dynamics in the Diplodocids, Paleobiology, Autumn 1997).

When you look at the tail of a diplodocid, this hypothesis of a supersonic tail does not appear so far fetched.  These photos show the Diplodocus longus specimen on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (and also breakup the textual onslaught of this posting).  It's hard to isolate a specific specimen in this display given how many dinosaurs are packed in here.  The white arrows in the first picture identify the Diplodocus and the black arrows in the second point to its long, snaky tail.

Not hard to see how Myhrvold’s academic training and research might have well served this particular research effort.

A more recent piece with Myhrvold as a coauthor appeared this February and reports the results of a decade-long effort mounting a systematic collection of dinosaur fossils from the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation in Montana, the so-called Hell Creek Project.  Jack Horner is the lead author of this piece.  (John R. Horner, Mark B. Goodwin, and Myhrvold, Dinosaur Census Reveals Abundant Tyrannosaurus and Rare Ontogenic Stages in the Upper Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation (Maastrichtian), Montana, USA, PLoS ONE, February 2011.)  Gladwell quotes Myhrvold on the project as saying, “Our expeditions have found more T. rex than anyone else in the world. . . .  From 1909 to 1999, the world found eighteen T. rex specimens.  From 1999 until now, we’ve found nine more. . . .  We have dominant T. rex market share.

This report on the Hell Creek Project suggests how Myhrvold’s entree into paleontology may have been facilitated just a little bit by the fact that he’s yet another example of nerdiness paying off handsomely in financial terms.  He served as chief technology officer at Microsoft where he established that company’s research division, and left Microsoft in the late 1990s a very rich man.  He then went on to co-found Intellectual Ventures, a patent investment firm now armed with a $5 billion war chest.  For its fans, IV is a Robin Hood righting the balance in the playing field that for too long has been tilted toward big corporations who run roughshod over little guys holding patents.  In the eyes of its critics, IV is patent trolling, scooping up patents and exacting large licensing fees from corporations with the threat of lawsuits; they call the firm Intellectual Vultures.  (Transcript:  Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures, The Wall Street Journal, September 16, 2008; Steve Lohr, Turning Patents into ‘Invention Capital’, The New York Times, February 18, 2010.)

The PLoS ONE article identifies the several sources of funding for the Hell Creek Project, among which is Intellectual Ventures.  The description of  “competing interests” notes that Myhrvold “contributed financially to the Hell Creek Project and intellectually to the design of the study.”  Is it unusual for a funder of a scientific research project to be listed as an author on the report of the results from the research?  In some circumstances that would certainly raise a question about whether the funder steered the results to a desired outcome.  Though that’s highly unlikely to be the case with this project, I was struck by a contradictory statement in the description of funding that accompanies the article – “The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.”  Puzzling.

In a roundabout way I guess I’ve given Myhrvold’s bona fides.  His bone of contention with paleontology?  As he puts it,
Normally, paleontologists go out and walk around until they find fossils. . . .  But it turns out that there’s a place to look that’s just as good as the badlands of Montana, and that’s the genome of living creatures.  (How to Hatch a Dinosaur, Wired Magazine)
Ah, the pitting of paleontology against molecular biology.  I assumed at first that Myhrvold was alluding to the decades-long source of tension in the study and theorizing about evolution, the debate over the question of the completeness of the fossil record, and the squaring of the evolutionary history derived from that record with that embedded in genes.  As Derek Turner summarized it in Paleontology:  A Philosophical Introduction (2011, p. 199),
Each discipline has its own source of evidence – the fossil record vs. the genes and proteins of living creatures – and the issue is which of these sources of evidence can tell us more about the past.  The relative importance of paleontology as a contributor to evolutionary science is one of the things at stake in this debate, for paleontology’s disciplinary status and prestige have always been tied up with questions about the completeness of the fossil record.  Darwin dealt an early blow to paleontology when, in the Origin of Species, he lamented the incompleteness of the geological record.  Over a century later, [Stephen Jay] Gould and [Niles] Eldredge launched the paleobiological revolution by arguing that the fossil record is more complete than anyone had realized because the very gaps that Darwin complained about contain information.  Now, at the height of the paleobiological revolution, when paleontologists have become virtuosos at documenting patterns in the fossil record and assessing claims about evolutionary processes, molecular biology raises all the old worries:  What if the fossil record is so incomplete that it offers a radically misleading picture of evolutionary history?
For a similar take on this, see David Sepkoski’s essay titled Evolutionary Paleontology and the Fossil Record:  A Historical Introduction (From Evolution to Geobiology, The Paleontological Society, 2008).

But, actually (despite my quoting at length from Turner - it's just good stuff), I think Myhrvold’s complaint is less a critique of the collecting of fossils and the analyzing of the fossil record, and more to do simply with his enthusiasm about the exciting (terrifying to some) possibilities of reverse evolution from manipulating genes and creating . . . whatever.  Not hard to believe that about a man who could claim (facetiously or not), “We have dominant T. rex market share.”

I’m persuaded more fully to be generous in my interpretation of Myhrvold's witticism about paleontology by a piece he wrote in 1998 for Science advocating greater public funding for basic scientific research.  (Supporting Science, Science, October 1998.)  Applied research is all well and good, he stated, but one cannot “reduce knowledge to practice” without the basic knowledge acquired by basic research.  As a result, he asserted,
There is no useless research.  Many discoveries reach their full potential, given enough time.
I just love that first sentence.

But, you might ask, where would he place paleontology in the array of basic research efforts?  Right in the mix, it turns out.  He wrote,
My favorite example of unexpected utility is dinosaur paleontology.  What could be more useless than studying these extinct giants?  Recent work on the mysterious extinction of the dinosaurs has built a credible case that their demise was caused by the impact of an asteroid or comet.  Although this explanation remains controversial among experts in the field, the inquiry has sparked the realization that a future impact by a near-earth asteroid could kill millions of people, destroy civilization, or even drive our species to extinction.  Active research is now focused on this threat and on technological means to avoid it.  It is thus entirely possible that the “useless” study of dinosaurs might some day, decades or even centuries from now, lead to saving the human race.
Of course, this theory regarding the extinction of the dinosaurs is an example of an outsider – in this instance, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis W. Alvarez (from Myhrvold’s own academic discipline) – coming to paleontology and stirring things up.  (Perhaps I shouldn't let Myhrvold off the hook so fast.)

Finally, in his defense of paleontology research, Myhrvold pointedly added, “Meanwhile the entire cost of funding dinosaur paleontology, from its inception to the present, is less than the production cost of the film Jurassic Park.”

As much as I enjoyed the article about chickenosaurus in Wired, I wish I hadn’t reacted to Myhrvold’s ossification comment because I would have had much more time to do some other things . . . like react to another smart remark.

In a recent article about dinosaurs and other fossils in New Jersey (Elizabeth Kolbert, New Jerseysaurus, The New Yorker, October 10, 2011), paleontologist Neil Landman of the American Museum of Natural History offered up the one-liner that will get me out of doors this coming weekend.
I think it was the Duchess of Windsor who once said, You can’t be too rich or too thin or have too many Cretaceous fossils.

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