Sunday, 2 November 2014

When two tribes go to war (with bones and melanosomes)

I just finished an assignment based on a recent paper about an explosion in stem-bird evolution. The main point of the paper was that the dinosaurs leading to birds showed unusually high diversity rates; that is, there were bazillions of different species (bazillions is the technical term) compared with other groups of dinosaurs over the same time period. Our assignment was to write a piece setting our chosen paper in context. When I started putting mine into context, it turned out there had been at least five papers on exactly the same subject, that all came out in the last 13 months. I have no idea what drove all these separate working groups and authors to go stem-bird crazy over such a specific topic this year, but the interesting question is: how did they react to one another's work?

Othniel Charles Marsh (left) and Edward Drinker Cope
(right), once colleagues, they became ferocious rival fossil
palaeontologists, attacking one another, stealing, bribing
and attempting to ruin one another between 1870s-1890s.
It isn't unusual for more than one person to be obsessing over the same area of research. There are often two or more groups 'competing' at any one time, and this can lead to infamous rivalries. From the earliest 'Bone Wars' of Cope and Marsh, to recent working groups on fossil feather colour, what I'm interested in is not so much that rivalries occur, but how people deal with them.

Books have been written about the lengths of nastiness O. C. Marsh and E. D. Cope went to in the attempt to destroy one another's careers and discoveries. Their problems ultimately stemmed from their personalities: both were argumentative and paranoid, Marsh was a bit of an introvert, while Cope was more hot-tempered. As a result, instead of working together (imagine the results!) they fought and ridiculed one another.

For a full low down of this famous
dispute, I recommend Sterenly.
Another well-known feud, this time in evolutionary biology - is  between Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. This one is more complex, but basically stems from different approaches to the drivers of evolution. Gould (along with N. Eldridge and on the back of work by G. G. Simpson) takes a more behaviourally driven view, and supports ideas such as punctuated equilibrium; where whole groups of animals change quite suddenly to form new families and orders. Dawkins on the other hand, focuses on genes as the drivers of evolutionary change. underlined by a categorically different approach to science and life itself ("oh, is that all...")

What I wondered as I discovered all of these stem-bird diversity papers, was whether the authors knew about one another's work and how they felt about it: was this a chain reaction of responses, set off by the earliest publication's conclusions? Sometimes you detect undercurrents of animosity in later papers as they pointedly dispute the findings that preceded them, but there were no obvious barbs in these ones.

When I began my course at Bristol, we were running through the latest discoveries on fossil feather colouration, one of the Bristol Palaeobiology Research Group's leading areas of research. Our lecturer explained that just as the team he was leading at Bristol were about to publish their reconstruction of an avian bird's colours using melanosomes, so did a team in the U.S. Did he launch a campaign of destruction and try to rubbish the competing team's findings? Absolutely not: he contacted the lead author in the U.S., and offered him a job instead.

An Eocene feather from the Messel shale (a) and the preserved
feather structures and melanosomes visible (b-e). These are
being used to reconstruct colour in fossil birds and dinosaurs.
"Nooooooo!" (dramatic reconstruction
of palaeontologist upon discovery
of competing publications).

It would have made a far more interesting assignment for my course to explore the personal relationships and reactions of the palaeontologists and palaeobiologists who write 'competing' papers, but alas, I would be dancing into a veritable minefield. I'd like to keep these disputes and camaraderies in mind as I progress in my own career: as a warning and, in the latter case, an example of how to deal constructively with competition. Joining forces with other strong researchers must be the best way forward.

What if you just can't agree with the other person's ideas and it becomes a Dawkins/Gould clash of world-view? I think of another anecdote I heard about a head of our department. He found himself sharing prime time at a major conference with another leading palaeontologist with whom he simply couldn't reconcile his views on macroevolution. Knowing they couldn't reach a consensus, they mutually agreed not to mention the subject at all. So they spent the day drinking coffee and eating cake together, talking about everything else there was in the world and thoroughly enjoying one another's company.

How wonderfully civilised. I love it.

Back to the grindstone now, I have to write a little something in the Ediacaran, another topic studded with controversy - and controversial people!