Saturday, January 21, 2012

Geologising in the Face of Death ~ In Defense of Robert F. Scott

Geologise or geologize is the verb form of geology.  (Oxford Dictionary of English, Second Edition, Revised, 2009.)  I assume the meaning is “to do geology.”  In the very few times I’ve encountered this verb, it has been used to describe not only the act of examining geological features in the field, but also, and principally, the hunting for fossils.
Fossil hunters face myriad dangers in the field.  A cliff side gives way, the tide comes in sooner and higher than expected, lightning hits, a venomous creature strikes, a heart begins to fail miles from medical care, . . . .  The dangers are manifest and fossil hunters recognize them, even if they often fail to take any precautions.  We can be rather cavalier about the risks.  In an earlier post, I quoted geologist and paleontologist William Buckland’s response when someone urged him to be careful scaling a wall in a quarry, “Never mind, . . . the stones know me.”

There is another, more moving, intersection of fossil hunting and danger that means a great deal to me.  I am drawn to stories of human beings who, although in dire circumstances where their own deaths are a real possibility, find respite from those dangers by hunting for fossils.  Fossil hunting can be restorative, an experience that offers relief, if only briefly, from other worries and fears.  There is, I believe, a fossil hunting “high” unassociated with actually finding something.  It can be recognized only after the fact when, suddenly, the hunter “comes to,” realizing that hours have passed, hours that are hard to reconstruct but ones which psychologically took the person away.  I guess this may be true of any all-consuming activity.

To my small clutch of such stories, all of which heretofore have been about men at war, I add the poignant one of British naval Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s final Antarctic expedition, 1910 – 1912.

One hundred years ago this very day (January 21, 1912), Scott and the four men of his Polar team were engaged in a desperate effort to return from the South Pole.  For the last, long (150 mile) leg to the Pole and now for the 800 mile trek back to safety, Scott, Captain Lawrence E.G. Oates, Lieutenant Henry R. Bowers, Petty Officer Edgar Evans, and zoologist Edward Adrian Wilson engaged in what they called “man hauling.”  That is, they pulled the sledges themselves, with the haulers often on skis.

These men had been part of a larger party that had set out for the Pole from the Cape Evans Hut, base camp, on November 1, 1911.  Ponies and dogs did much of the hauling at first; motorized sledges started with them but were soon abandoned, a dismal failure.  In time, the ponies were shot and fed to the dogs and the men.  On January 4, 1912, the final support team headed back and Scott and his four chosen men began the long “haul” to the Pole.  The usual description of this part of the expedition is totally inaccurate, it was anything but a “dash” to the Pole.

On January 17th, in a joyless mood, the Scott party reached the Pole and then turned for home, now burdened with the knowledge that Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his men had beaten them there by some five weeks.  In the picture below, the Scott party poses at the South Pole.  From left are Oates, Bowers (seated and holding the string that tripped the camera shutter), Scott, Wilson (seated), and Evans.

Wednesday morning, January 17. – Camp 69.  T. [temperature - in degrees Fahrenheit] -22º at start.  Night -21º.  The Pole.  Yes, but under very different circumstances from those expected.  We have had a horrible day – add to our disappointment a head wind 4 to 5, with a temperature -22º, and companions labouring on with cold feet and hands.
We started at 7.30, none of us having slept much after the shock of our discovery. . . . We have been descending again, I think, but there looks to be a rise ahead; otherwise there is very little that is different from the awful monotony of past days.  Great God! this is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of  priority. . . . Now for the run home and a desperate struggle.  I wonder if we can do it.
                       ~ Scott’s Last Expedition in Two Volumes, Volume 1, Journals, 1913.
As cited by Peter King, editor of Scott’s Last Journey (1999), Roland Huntford in Scott and Amundsen (1979) observes that Scott’s journal entry was massaged before publication and the last lines in the portion quoted above actually read:  “Now for the run home and a desperate struggle to get the news through first.  I wonder if we can do it.”  Whether or not this indicates that Scott failed to recognize how dire his situation really was (as Huntford claims), I can understand how the man would have been focused at that moment on salvaging some measure of glory for the endeavor.

Soon, though, all in Scott’s party clearly knew that they were in serious trouble.  The demands of the trek to and from the Pole were breaking down the men.  The days and nights were much colder than expected and blizzard followed blizzard.  Frostbite ravaged hands, feet, faces.  Food was in short supply as was the fuel needed to heat the food and, more importantly, to melt snow for water.  Reaching the supply caches left on the inward journey became essential to survival.  The deterioration was not just physical but, for some of the men, increasingly psychological.

Scott took a long time to admit in his journal just how bad things were.

Wednesday, January 24. – Lunch  Temp. -8º .  Things beginning to look a little serious.  A strong wind at the start has developed into a full blizzard at lunch, and we have had to get into our sleeping-bags. . . . We are only 7 miles from our depôt, but I made sure we should be there to-night.  This is the second full gale since we left the Pole.  I don’t like the look of it.  Is the weather breaking up?  If so, God help us, with the tremendous summit journey and scant food.  Wilson and Bowers are my standby.  I don’t like the easy way in which Oates and Evans get frostbitten.
. . .
Tuesday, January 30. – R. 13.  9860.  Lunch Temp. -25º, Supper Temp. – 24.5º.  Thank the Lord, another fine march – 19 miles.  We have passed the last cairn before the depôt, the track is clear ahead, the weather fair, the wind helpful, the gradient down – with any luck we should pick up our depôt in the middle of the morning march.  This is the bright side; the reverse of the medal is serious.  Wilson has strained a tendon in his leg; it has given pain all day and is swollen tonight.  Of course, he is full of pluck over it, but I don’t like the idea of such an accident here.  To add to the trouble Evans has dislodged two finger-nails to-night; his hands are really bad, and to my surprise he shows signs of losing heart over it. . . . 
Then, five days later, Scott and Evans were injured falling into crevasses.  For Evans this truly marked the beginning of the end, possibly from having suffered some brain injury in his falls.  Scott’s journal entry for February 4th notes that Evans “is becoming rather dull and incapable.”  Evans’ condition continued to deteriorate.

So it is that readers of the journals are surprised to learn that, on Thursday, February 8th, after a “beastly morning” in the face of a strong, cold wind, Scott steered the party toward the moraine near Mt. Buckley which offered some shelter from the wind.  Here, he recognized, was an opportunity to do some geologising.
Thursday, February 8. – . . . The moraine was obviously so interesting that when we had advanced some miles and got out of the wind, I decided to camp and spend the rest of the day geologising.  It has been extremely interesting.  We found ourselves under perpendicular cliffs of Beacon sandstone, weathering rapidly and carrying veritable coal seams.  From the last Wilson, with his sharp eyes, has picked several plant impressions, the last a piece of coal with beautifully traced leaves in layers, also some excellently preserved impressions of thick stems, showing cellular structure.  In one place we saw the cast of small waves on the sand.  To-night Bill has got a specimen of limestone with archeo-cyathus [a Cambrian sponge] – the trouble is one cannot imagine where the stone comes from; it is evidently rare, as few specimens occur in the moraine.  There is a good deal of pure white quartz.  Altogether we have had a most interesting afternoon, and the relief of being out the wind and in warmer temperature is inexpressible.  I hope and trust we shall all buck up again now that the conditions are more favourable.
Geologising!  A day cut short to scramble over the moraine and collect fossils!

Beyond surprise, writers have expressed a variety of opinions about the wisdom of this “diversion.”  Huntford, according to King, cites this as “grotesque mismanagement” particularly given that the 30 pounds of fossils were added to sledges to be man-hauled by the ragged party.  (Other sources claim they added a even heavier amount to their load.)

In her account of Scott’s final expedition, historian Diana Preston seems to acknowledge some of the positive aspects of geologising at this juncture.  She writes,
No doubt the break from manhauling and the relief of being in a sheltered spot out of the harsh summit winds had their effect on hungry and weary men.  More important to their morale, however, was the fact that they were doing what they had come for – scientific research.  They could regain some pride after the ignominy of their arrival at the Pole, reminding themselves of the differences between their carefully planned programme of scientific work and Amundsen’s opportunistic Viking raid.  (A First Rate Tragedy:  Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole, 1999, p. 191)
She appears to end up hedging on the issue:
Whether Scott’s geologizing was a magnificent example of dedication or a foolish diversion depends upon your point of view.  (p. 191)
In this, she pits science versus survival.  The fossil of an extinct fern, Glossopteris indica, found during the geologising excursion, helped show that Antarctica once had a semi-tropical climate and was part of the super continent Gondwana.  The Natural History Museum, London, which has just opened an exhibition on Scott’s last expedition, includes in its web-based material an interesting video on the scientific importance of the Glossopteris fossil.  Still, despite their scientific value, the addition of the fossils to what the men already had to pull surely had negative some consequences.

It is helpful to be reminded that Scott’s mission was a scientific one.  His complete crew included a “scientific staff” with three geologists, a biologist, a physicist, a couple of zoologists, and a meteorologist.  (True, only one of the scientific staff was part of the team that made it to the Pole.)  The Natural History Museum, London, has some 40,000 scientific specimens collected by the full Scott expedition.  More than 400 of these specimens had previously been unknown.  Writer Eric Niiler in What Scott Learned (The Washington Post, January 3, 2012) describes some of the scientific importance of the Scott expedition.  The title of the online version of this article captures its essence, He Lost the Race to South Pole But Made Discoveries for Science.  Indeed, throughout the expedition Scott and his men did science.  They studied the Antarctic fauna (and the parasites that lived within the animals!), gathered detailed meteorological data, tracked the movement of glaciers.  Scott promoted science.  Several nights a week at the Cape Evans base camp during the dark months of 1911,  men delivered lectures on their areas of expertise.  In his journal entry for May 8 – 9, at the base camp, after describing some of the mechanical and scientific issues the men were grappling with, Scott observed,
Science – the rock foundation of all effort!!
To the question at hand.  Did the delay to geologise and the added weight ultimately make the difference in the outcome?  I don’t know.  There were many decisions that Scott made that have been second guessed, this is just one of them.  Regardless of the purported mistakes, had the weather been only marginally better, the expedition may well have avoided its tragic outcome.  As for the search for fossils, I assume that Scott saw the virtue in turning his team to something other than the struggle homeward.  With no evidence other than my gut, I would offer up as a possibility that he believed it might offer the men something perhaps more vital than a break from the cold and wind, or, for that matter, something more important than a reminder of the scientific aims of the expedition.  Hunting through the debris of the moraine for fossils might well have granted the struggling party an afternoon’s psychological respite from their cruel circumstances.  Scott could have seen the real value in that, particularly given his worries about the men’s mental stamina at this stage.  To me, the geologising was an inspired and worthy gamble.

Nevertheless, the tragedy played out.  Only days later Evans suffered a total mental and physical collapse, dying in the tent on February 18th.  Soon after, Oates’ physical condition deteriorated markedly, his frost bitten feet slowing the team’s retreat from the Pole.  Food ran short, and the caches of supplies that Scott relied on contained much less fuel than needed (the fuel containers had allowed much of it to evaporate).

By the middle of March, Oates was done in and as the team waited out a blizzard, he turned to his companions and said, “I am just going outside and may be some time.”  Scott then noted in his journal, “He went out into the blizzard and we have not seen him since.”

By Monday, March 19th, Scott, Evans, and Bowers had made it to within 11 miles of a critical cache of food and fuel only to be hit by a massive blizzard which forced them into their tent.  On March 29th, the storm still raged and the men, despite their intention for days to make the effort to reach the depot 11 miles away or die trying, could not leave the tent.  There they died.

Scott’s final entry, made on the 29th, ends with
. . . We shall stick it out to the end, but we are getting weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far.
It seems a pity, but I do not think I write more.
R. Scott
For God’s sake look after our people.


1) A few small editorial changes have been made to this essay following its posting.

2) Scott’s journal as published in Scott’s Last Expedition is a fascinating, often moving account of heroic action, through and through a tragedy.  A great read.  Though, as noted above, we are reading a somewhat edited version of his journal.

There are many full, etext versions of Scott’s published journal of the last expedition available on the web.  They are of varying quality, sometimes marred by images of the hands of the folks doing the scanning or by blurred pages obviously moved during the scanning.  Of those available on Google Books, the one at this link is okay.  I read the PDF version on a Kindle (4th generation) with the screen rotated.  I clipped the pictures in the posting from the PDF version available at this link.  A nice, searchable PDF is available from the Internet Archive at this link.

3) In the addendum to Scott’s last entry, the "our people" he refers to are the families of the men who perished on the expedition.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conrad's Description of Platyostoma ~ I Like It, But What Do I Know?

Paleontology to me is more than just about the fossils, it’s also about the people who did, and do, the science.  It’s their stories that I uncover in an action that parallels the discovery of a fossil in the field.  Just the act of expanding my collection, whether I found the new fossil myself or not, precipitates a taxonomic exploration of its scientific name that inevitably becomes about people.

Here are several pictures of a recent acquisition, a small Silurian gastropod from the Waldron Shale, near St. Paul, Indiana, a member of the genus Platyostoma.  And so the door opened.

(That's a small brachiopod attached to the snail.)

For a paper read 170 years ago this next Wednesday, January 18th, before the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Timothy Abbott Conrad (1803 – 1877) penned a succinct description of a genus of Silurian gastropod he named Platyostoma.  (Conrad is not new to this blog – more on that below.)  Though the paper, titled (somewhat tersely for its day) Observations on the Silurian and Devonian Systems of the United States, with Descriptions of New Organic Remains, was not particularly earthshaking, its description of Platyostoma is, I think, rather fine.  (Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Volume 8,  Part II, 1842.)

Conrad was, it would appear, a somewhat tortured soul, suffering physical and mental ailments for much of his life.  Nevertheless, he fashioned a prominent career in paleontology and his work has lived after him.  His pedigree may have helped his paleontology both in terms of nature and nurture.  (I cannot hazard a guess of its import for the other aspects of his life.)  His father, Solomon White Conrad, a printer, had a deep interest in natural history and was appointed Professor of Botany at the University of Pennsylvania.  Conrad père also served at one juncture as the librarian of the Academy of Natural Sciences and articles of his appeared in the Academy’s Journal.  (The Mineralogical Record, Biographic Archive.)

Though Conrad fils seems never to have attended college, he soon followed in his father’s footsteps in the sciences, first publishing in the Journal in 1830.  For a brief overview of Conrad’s life, see Ellen James Moore’s article titled Conrad's Cenozoic Fossil Marine Mollusk Type Specimens at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Vol. 114, 1962).  Some aspects of Conrad’s life story were covered in a previous posting on this blog which focused on one of the quirky, though justifiable, aspects of the process of constructing and applying new scientific names to specimens.

The emphasis in that prior posting was on Conrad’s apparent carelessness in fashioning the name Pterorytis for a Miocene gastropod.  That proclivity in his naming of specimens figures a bit in the story recounted in this current posting, but it’s not the heart of the matter here.  Rather, I really set out just to salute the few lines of text he wrote to describe the shells of the gastropod genus Platyostoma.  The more I have considered this description and applied it to the sole specimen of this genus in my collection, the more I value it.

Here, then, is Conrad’s description of the genus en toto from his 1842 article:
Shell subglobose; spire short; aperture very large, suborbicular, dilated; labrum joining the body whirl at right angles to the axis of the shell.  (p. 275)
“Succinct,” yes, but not necessarily “immediately accessible.”  So, here it is again with a few explanatory notes for some of the terms:
Shell subglobose [not completely spherical]; spire short [the spire consists of all of the whorls above the body whorl which is the last and largest]; aperture very large [the aperture is the opening at end of the body whorl], suborbicular [not completely circular], dilated; labrum joining the body whirl at right angles to the axis of the shell [the labrum is the outer lip around aperture, the axis is the center line around which the shell coils].
My annotations were informed by Invertebrate Fossils by Raymond C. Moore, et al., (1952, p. 284 – 285) and the web-based An Illustrated and Cross-Referenced Glossary of Malacological and Conchological Terms, prepared by Paul S. Mikkelsen.

Among the illustrations with Conrad’s 1842 article is one depicting three species of Platyostoma.  They are figures 5 – 7 in the illustration below (ignore figure 8).

I am impressed (perhaps too easily) when I match my specimen or the three species illustrated by Conrad to his 1842 description of the genus.  To wit:  the shell’s not a perfect sphere; its spire is small (very much dwarfed by the body whorl); the aperture is a gaping, not quite circular hole (clear in Conrad’s illustration, and I presume it is also for my specimen, though its aperture is somewhat hidden in matrix).  A bit harder to see is the angle of intersection between the shell axis and the plane of the labrum.  In the picture below, I’ve taken a stab at showing that intersection in one of the earlier images of my specimen.  The angle may not be 90 degrees but it’s relatively close.

Perhaps I should have let it rest there:  Conrad captured the essence of the genus and I can use his description to reassure myself that what I’ve added to my collection is from the Platyostoma genus.

But I cannot resist picking at seams.  Ellen James Moore’s article, mentioned earlier, suggested quite strongly that one of the very attributes I applaud in this description – its terseness – may be ranked among Conrad’s taxonomic faults.  She wrote, “[H]is descriptions are sometimes very brief and occasionally illustrated by unclear drawings.”  (p. 26)  Later, she cited “his often all too brief descriptions of species.”  (p. 27)

The risk I can see in a short description is that it may not be adequate to distinguish among several morphologically similar genera or species.  That squares with my reading of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (Articles 11 - 13, and Glossary) which requires that a publication in which a new genus or species is named include a description.  It defines a "description" as “A statement in words of taxonomic characters of a specimen or a taxon.”  A character is “Any attribute of organisms used for recognizing, differentiating, or classifying taxa.”  It would seem that the operative requirement is that the description adequately distinguish the newly named taxon from all others.  Though the Code differentiates between names published before 1931 and those published after 1930, there doesn’t seem to me (perhaps in my ignorance) a categorical difference in what constitutes the required description in either instance.  Brevity itself doesn’t seem to matter, it’s what is accomplished in that brief description that does.

Is this a problem with Conrad’s description of the Platyostoma?  I really don’t believe so since it appears to me to identify critical features of the shell.  So, the description seems fine, but what do I know?  Proof in the pudding?  Though not really a gauge of the adequacy of the description, Conrad might point to the fact that the name he gave it has survived 170 years, and in 2004, it appeared in the masterwork Classification and Nomenclator of Gastropod Families, edited by Philippe Bouchet & Jean-Pierre Rocroi, Malacologia, Volume 41, Numbers 1 and 2, p. 134.

Ah, yes, the name.  Unfortunately, it’s T.A. Conrad we are engaged with here, so things are never as simple as one might hope.  Consider the name he gave the genus, Platyostoma.  It was derived from two Greek roots:  platy meaning “broad, flat” and stoma meaning “mouth.”  (Donald J. Borror, Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms, 1960.)  It's a great name, very appropriate, but, in the scientific literature, the name of this gastropod genus is often spelled Platystoma – without the first “o.”  I believe we have Samuel Almond Miller (1837 – 1897) to thank for that.  Miller, a lawyer and newspaper editor, was, in addition, a much published amateur paleontologist and editor of the Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, and the Cincinnati Quarterly Journal of Science.  Many of his articles appeared in his own journals.  (A brief bio appears in William Charles Miller’s Trace Fossils:  Concepts, Problems, Prospects, 2007, p. 26-27.)

In his 1877 book, The American Palaeozoic Fossils:  A Catalogue of the Genera and Species . . . . (and the title goes on and on, nothing terse about it), Miller included an introductory piece written by a Professor Claypole of Antioch College, titled Construction of Systematic Names in Palæontology.  In it, the good professor observed,
The connecting vowel o is admissible by Greek usage in all declensions, . . . , except where the first part of the word is an adjective ending in – ys, it is shorter and at the same time consonant with classic usage to employ no connecting vowel at all; thus, . . . Platystoma , . . . [is] better than . . . Platyostoma, . . . .” (p. xii) 
Following the lead of his expert, in this volume Miller summarily changed Conrad’s original spelling and the battle began, with skirmishes continuing up to today.

I cannot pretend to know why Conrad joined the two roots with an “o” but I don’t think it should have consequences for the naming of the genus.  The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature identifies situations in which misspellings must be corrected (Article 32.5).  Clear evidence in the original publication of an inadvertent error (such as a “lapsus calami” or a slip of the pen) requires correction, but “[i]ncorrect transliteration or latinization, or use of an inappropriate connecting vowel, are not to be considered inadvertent errors.”  (32.5.1)  And even Miller’s own expert characterized Platystoma only as better than Platyostoma, not the former correct and the latter incorrect.

Nevertheless, though Bouchet and Rocroi tried to dispose of the issue by characterizing the dropping of the “o” as an “unjustified emendation” (p. 134), if history is any guide, that wont do it.  Seems a shame given how much I like Conrad’s description of the gastropod genus Platyostoma.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Index Fossils of North America

One of the highs in my 2011 was the surprise gift of a copy of Index Fossils of North America by Hervey Woodburn Shimer and Robert Rakes Shrock.  It came wrapped with the exhilaration always associated with the addition of a long-sought volume to my book collection.  This magisterial compilation of descriptions and images of mostly index fossils, first published in 1944 and reprinted many times, though no longer in print, offers a fossil collector of my ilk an almost unparalleled resource for identifying invertebrate specimens and getting oriented for further research.  Is the content showing some age?  Sure, but that’s true for me, too.

Upon first opening this book, I followed up on a comment left to a recent posting on this blog about surface patterns on the Eodictyonella brachiopod.  The commenter directed me to similar patterns on the Permian brachiopod Waagenoconcha montpelierensis Girty as shown in several images in Index Fossil of North America.  There they were . . . spot on.

My second exploration was prompted by randomly thumbing through the book (the work invites that kind of relaxed interaction) and stumbling upon images of Micrabacia corals.  I have a couple of specimens of this kind of solitary coral in my collection and the book’s description of the genus, though terse, was precise.  (In this case, a solitary coral is a very small button-like object.)  More impressive to me was that Shimer and Shrock’s photographs, and associated annotations, of the various Micrabacia coral species made it clear that I had these tiny coral upside down in the pictures I’ve taken and in how I placed them in a display case.  The picture below corrects that and honors my tidbit of new knowledge.  (I’ve left the label in the picture uncertain as to species because Shimer and Shrock seemed to be steering me to Micrabacia cribraria, while the guide I have to material from the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal where this specimen was found pointed to M. hilgardi.  Ah, more research.)

The Index Fossils of North America has a worthy pedigree.  In 1937, a young Robert Shrock (1904 – 1993) joined the geology faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) which featured, among its luminaries, Hervey W. Shimer (1872 – 1965).  Shimer’s “fame throughout North America was based largely on the five books he wrote alone or with others – books that played an important role for more than half a century in the training of geology students.”  (Shrock, Geology at MIT 1865 – 1965, 1982, p. 43.)  Trained at Columbia University, Shimer began his teaching career at MIT in 1903, becoming full professor in 1922.  He would be on the faculty for four decades, retiring as professor emeritus in 1942.  The first of the five books upon which his reputation rested was the nearly 1,800 page-long, two-volume North American Index Fossils, coauthored with Columbia University professor Amadeus William Grabau (1870 – 1946) and published in 1909 and 1910.

Soon after his appointment to the MIT faculty, Shrock assumed major responsibility for rethinking and rewriting Grabau and Shimer’s North American Index Fossils.  He and Shimer took seven years to rework the opus, publishing it in 1944, two years after Shimer’s retirement.  So the Index Fossils of North America became the fifth and last of Shimer’s major books and was subtitled A New Work Based on the Complete Revision and Reillustration of Grabau and Shimer’s “North American Index Fossils.”  This single volume came in at over 800 pages with, according to a 1943 advertisement in Science, 8,000 illustrations and descriptions of 7,500 species.  Surely an exaggerated count of illustrations and descriptions, but you get the idea.  (By the way, though he gave it a good try, Shrock just missed surpassing Shimer in terms of longevity on the MIT faculty.  He was made professor emeritus in 1970, 33 years after his initial appointment, and then stayed on for 5 more years as a senior lecturer.  (Robert Shrock, 88, Fossil Expert, The New York Times, obituary written by Wolfgang Saxon, June 23, 1993.))

The central focus of the Index Fossils of North America, like that of its two-volume predecessor, is on the identification of index fossils which the authors defined as follows:  “A genus which has a narrow stratigraphic range and rather broad geographic distribution is now considered an index fossil.”  (p. 1)  In other words, these fossil genera or species are relatively short-lived (as genera or species) and closely associated with specific rock formations while, at the same time, being found in many places.  As a result of these attributes, index fossils, according to Shimer and Shrock, “can be used to identify and date formations and to correlate them from one area to another.”

The book may serve me well because I think the authors subtly shaped elements of it to assist the geologists into whose hands the book was destined to fall.  The non-paleontological users would need that assistance in order to identify fossils, otherwise they wouldn’t attain the goal of identifying, dating, and correlating formations.  For example,  Shimer and Shrock included some genera that appear over broad ranges of time (i.e., they have “long vertical ranges”) simply because they are common, not because they could serve as index fossils.  They argued, “The investigator should know what is useless and not send such material to specialists.”  Hmmm, shielding the paleontologically knowledgeable from some geologists (?) who might be less so?  Tension between the fields?

Perhaps I’m reading more into this than it merits or misreading it altogether, but in fact there were some particular strains in the relationship between paleontology and geology in this period.  As David Sepkoski, historian of science at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, outlined in his account of the development of paleobiology, the 1940s into the 1960s witnessed a debate over the fit of paleontology with geology.  (The Emergence of Paleobiology, in The Paleobiological Revolution:  Essays on the  History of Recent Paleontology, 2009.)  He noted that J. Brookes Knight in his 1946 presidential address to the Paleontological Society urged his colleagues to free themselves from subservience to geology and turn toward biology.  Of course, there was pushback from within and outside the paleontology ranks.

I would guess some hostility might have flowed in the opposite direction, from geologists toward paleontology, prompted by the way some of them were taught about . . . wait for it . . . index fossils.  As Alan Shaw wrote in Time in Stratigraphy (1964) (as quoted by Donald R. Prothero in Bringing Fossils to Life (1998), p. 182):
It would be difficult to estimate how many nascent geologists have been turned aside from paleontology by being forced during the course of some dismal semester to learn hundreds of index fossils and the formations of which they are the index.  Many geologists’ sole memory of the whole discipline of paleontology is the unerasable fact that “Spirifer grimesi is the index fossil of the Burlington Limestone” or some such tidbit.
Thank God, I’m not using this wonderful book that way.
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