A Metasequoia Second — Extinct


 These days, although, the notion of a dwelling fossil has fallen on arduous instances. This effectively intentioned “academic” video from the PBS Eons collection displays a broadly (although not universally) shared skepticism concerning the very concept of a dwelling fossil. Lately, plenty of necessary research (like this one or this one) have raised doubts about whether or not paradigmatic dwelling fossil taxa need to be thought-about dwelling fossils in any respect. If we have been incorrect about these paradigm instances like coelacanths and cycads, which may point out that there’s something irretrievably tousled concerning the very notion of a dwelling fossil. 

I generally surprise if one of many issues that makes scientists so cautious of speaking about dwelling fossils is that creationists have been identified to misappropriate the idea. If you perform a little shopping across the web, you will discover creationist websites that sometimes deal with dwelling fossils as proof that evolution doesn’t happen. In fact, that is badly mistaken in two methods: First, morphological stasis with respect to some fossilized traits remains to be suitable with a substantial amount of evolutionary change occurring underneath the geological radar. Second, the place it does happen, stasis itself is simply an evolutionary sample—an explanatory problem, to make certain, however one which evolutionary idea has the assets to satisfy. We are able to clarify stasis by invoking habitat monitoring, stabilizing choice, developmental concerns, inhabitants construction, and even the differential extinction danger of ecological specialists vs. generalists. Dwelling fossils due to this fact provide no assist or consolation in any way to the creationist. Nonetheless, I’m wondering if some scientists would possibly decide that it’s simpler to declare ‘dwelling fossil’ an illegitimate idea than to proceed deploying it whereas additionally taking countermeasures in opposition to misunderstanding and misappropriation. Though I can perceive this impulse, a part of me feels prefer it concedes an excessive amount of. The truth that some folks misappropriate or misunderstand a scientific idea doesn’t look like motive to jettison that idea if there are methods of placing it to productive work.

On this context, Scott Lidgard and Alan Love’s contribution final month is extraordinarily welcome. When you haven’t already learn their essay, test it out! Additionally, right here is the extra technical, peer-reviewed model of their argument. I be part of them enthusiastically of their effort to rehabilitate the dwelling fossil idea. My objective right here, although, is to construct on their argument by bringing one thing into play that they omit: The dwelling fossil idea has an simply neglected normative dimension. The lesson of the metasequoia second is that calling one thing a ‘dwelling fossil’ means saying one thing about its worth.


Lidgard and Love argue that there are two very different types of cognitive work that we’d ask ideas corresponding to “dwelling fossil” to do. 

On the one hand, we’d need the idea to do the work of classification. Some taxa live fossil taxa. Others aren’t. And what we want is a set of standards for distinguishing the dwelling fossils from the remainder. The issue, nonetheless, is that there are fairly plenty of completely different standards related to the time period, and completely different scientists appear to use completely different requirements in numerous instances, leading to unproductive “definitional debates.” Lidgard and Love argue that the broadly shared worries concerning the legitimacy of the dwelling fossil idea derive from pessimism about whether or not it is going to ever be capable of do that first form of work successfully. 

Extra constructively, Lidgard and Love counsel that “the dwelling fossil idea could be understood as setting an built-in agenda for analysis.” The completely different standards for dwelling fossil-hood could be reinterpreted as choosing out phenomena that stand in want of clarification, and as fixing explanatory expectations. Moderately than worrying a lot about whether or not some taxon “actually” does or doesn’t depend as a dwelling fossil, in line with some contested definition, it might be much more productive, research-wise, to make use of the standards related to the dwelling fossil idea to assist information and construction ongoing investigation. Thus, the second sort of labor that the dwelling fossil idea would possibly do (messy although it might be) is forward-looking and pragmatic. And in contrast to the primary, this can be a sort of labor to which the idea is effectively suited. 

There are solely two species of coelacanth in existence, each belonging to the genus Latimeria. One lives within the Indian Ocean, of the jap coast of South Africa, whereas the opposite lives in Indonesian waters. The South African coelacanths are few in quantity, and extremely endangered. What ought to we predict if a company proposed to drill for oil of their habitat? (This isn’t hypothetical.) Maybe coelacanths must be given comparatively excessive precedence for conservation as a result of they’re dwelling fossils. Maybe being a dwelling fossil confers some worth. However why precisely ought to this be so?

One believable reply is that we care about phylogenetic variety or evolutionary distinctiveness.[1] Phylogenetic variety is a mind-set about biodiversity that goes past merely counting species. The tough concept is that we must always care about how a lot of the tree of life is represented in an ecosystem. Suppose, for instance, that we’ve got an ecosystem with 4 species of beetles. Now think about two attainable interventions we might make:

            (1) introduce one other species of beetle that’s intently associated to those already there.

            (2) introduce a species of dragonfly.

Each interventions have the identical affect on biodiversity, understood as mere species richness, since each carry the species depend in our ecosystem to 5. Now we’d say that that (2) provides extra variety—in some sense—than (1). However in that case, we’re basically saying that there’s extra to biodiversity than mere species richness. One thing else issues, too. And one chance is that the one thing else has to do with family tree.[2]

Suppose I’m having dinner with my mother and father. We might invite my brother alongside, or we might invite my cousin. Both approach, we shall be a celebration of 4. But when we invite my cousin, there’s a sense by which our group shall be extra various, for it is going to embody a broader swath of the household tree.

Is there any deep motive why we must always care about phylogenetic variety? I’m undecided it’s attainable to inform any terribly compelling moral story (whether or not ecocentric, biocentric, or anthropocentric) concerning the worth of phylogenetic variety. That’s, it’s arduous to see why (2) must be higher than (1) in an moral sense. (2) doesn’t make for much less struggling, or injustice, or frustration of the pursuits of dwelling issues, or no matter. However (2) might effectively be preferable on aesthetic grounds. The distinction between (1) and (2) is mainly historic and genealogical, and I’ve argued in an earlier submit that historical past issues to aesthetic worth. 

With all of this in thoughts, here’s a fast argument:

P1. Phylogenetic variety has aesthetic worth.

P2. Dwelling fossil taxa contribute to phylogenetic variety.

C. The extinction of a dwelling fossil taxon would due to this fact imply the lack of aesthetic worth.

P1 has some plausibility. However what about P2? A number of the paradigmatic dwelling fossil taxa fairly clearly contribute to phylogenetic variety. That is actually the case with coelacanths and horseshoe crabs. (The latter, by the way, are additionally threatened by human exercise.) The coelacanths, for instance, are most likely extra intently associated to us than they’re to different acquainted ray-finned fish. And we must hint their evolutionary historical past approach again to the Devonian, some 400-390 million years in the past, to search out an ancestor that they share with another dwelling species. Not all the standards for dwelling fossil-hood that Lidgard and Love talk about should do with phylogenetic variety. The purpose is simply that we will scarcely assist however carry our personal normative aesthetic pursuits to the research of dwelling fossils. 

These reflections counsel that Lidgard and Love’s rethink of the dwelling fossil idea must be carried even additional. They focus solely on the idea’s significance to empirical scientific investigation. However the idea may pick taxa that we predict must be prioritized (on historic/aesthetic grounds) for conservation. The completely different standards for dwelling fossil-hood that Lidgard and Love think about would possibly do far more than repair explanatory expectations or assist to select evolutionary phenomena that want explaining. In addition they categorical completely different normative aesthetic pursuits which have relevance to conservation biology.

[1]For a particularly clear and useful introduction to this concept, see James Maclaurin and Kim Sterelny, What’s Organic Variety?College of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 135-142.

[2]The thought experiment isn’t good, as a result of the dragonfly provides other forms of variety as effectively. For instance, it provides to the morphological disparity of the system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *