Dinosaurs and Progress

Shawn Mintek


Many claim that art and science are radically different: "two cultures." For example, Karl Popper argued that "while there is progress in the sciences there is no progress in the arts." Others disagree. For example, Paul Feyerabend countered that the possibility of comparing the content of different scientific theories and thereby judging the truthfulness of each is an illusion: "The refutation of this belief eliminates an important difference ... between science and the arts and makes it possible to speak of styles and preferences in the first and of progress in the second."[1] Feyerabend wanted to crack the wall separating science and art. I want to make that crack wider. A recent field in natural science suggests that (at least some) scientific progress depends on--or cannot do without--artistic representations. So let us consider dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs are new to natural science--the term "paleontology" was coined only in 1834, "dinosaur" in 1841. But dinosaur bones have been eroding out of the ground for tens of millions of years. So why the delay in recognizing dinosaurs? The ancient Chinese talked of dragons' bones, and many cultures have had stories about giants and their skeletal remains.Yet only recent history has much that looks like a scientific description of ancient creatures.

To be sure, dinosaur bones are rare, and easily crumble when exposed unless treated. More common, and more sturdy, are fossilized shells, often picked up as curiosities, as collectibles. Some marine shells have been found high in the mountains, which is curious. Herodotus concluded they had been left there by the sea. But that now common-sense view was ignored for millennia and was replaced, if the issue came up at all, by fantastic and mystical explanations. Robert Plot, for example, in the 1600's denied such "stones" any organic origin and surmised instead that "stones in the form of shellfish" were "naturally produced by some plastic nature latent in the rock," a view with Platonic overtones.[2] Another European explanation of marine fossils is the diluvial theory, that these rocks were remnants of actual creatures, deposited by a great flood. This told a better story, with drama and a moral, and it had some empirical plausibility--tsunamis can carry ocean sediment hundreds of miles inland and upland.

But a science needs more than a collection of curiosities, scattered observations, and localized generalizations. A science needs to be somehow systematic. The systematizing of these collected fossils and descriptions needed a group of collectors and researchers. The first fossil collectors were amateurs. Visiting collections beyond one's neighborhood could hardly have been practicable. There needed to be long-distance communication and comparison of findings. Words alone could not have sufficed, especially for strange (that is, ancient and not yet understood) physical characteristics. In order to agree on terminology, so as to agree on the questions to pursue and the hypotheses to suggest, researchers needed to look at the same evidence, which came with scientific illustrations, more easily transported (and reproduced) than the fossils themselves. Progress in the dawn of paleontology depended on the work of visual artists.

As more and more descriptions of fossils with illustrative engravings were published, it became evident that fossilized shells are not scattered in confusion, as they might by a flood, but frequently occur in groups and families, and that different kinds of deposits contain different types of fossils. Robert Hooke in the late 1600's compared using dug-up Roman coins to identify who walked that ground and when, with using fossilized shells and impressions to identify who swam that sea and (relatively) when. This led to a different kind of map, a geological map of the strata or layers--and thus ages--of the earth.[3] The work of visual artists in communicating what was in collections of remains of ancient creatures was seldom credited. "The non-visual (or even anti-visual?) tradition ... dominates social and historical studies of science."[4] Yet it was that artistry that made possible a collaborative understanding of how species came into and went out of existence through time, and just how long a time that involves, without which any notions of dinosaurs would hardly have made sense. Art and science were significantly intermixed.

At the end of the 18th century experts in comparative anatomy (of contemporary vertebrates) were able to elucidate the fossilized remains of back-boned creatures that no longer existed. Cuvier showed in 1796 that huge tusks found in digging the Paris subway were bones of extinct elephant-like creatures. By 1840 others were arguing that huge fossils were remains of fearfully great "lizards": Dinosauria.

The next hundred years brought a plethora of new discoveries. Anecdotes from this first century of dinosaur studies include uneducated Mary Anning's skill in finding, collecting, and describing marine reptiles out of the Dover Cliffs at Lyme Regis ("she sells seashells by the seashore"); Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' fabulous life-sized (and lumbering) restorations of Iguanodon and Megalosaurus for the Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park (and for New York, that now lie buried in Central Park because of the thuggery of Tammany politics); the articulated Archaeopteryx skeleton with impressions of feathers from the shale beds of Germany; the bone hunters of the American West, graduate students in Professor Marsh's class at Yale, competing for the most and largest dinosaur finds for their museums back east; and the real-life model for "Indiana Jones", Roy Chapman Andrews, finding dinosaur eggs in Mongolia.

Progress in this science of paleontology, particularly regarding dinosaurs, was not simply a matter of collecting fossils, naming species, and devising taxonomies. Concomitant with fossil discoveries and careful descriptions came stories about the dinosaurs themselves. Initially told in paintings and murals and museum mountings, these stories not only presented the science of the time but also provided speculations about that life of the Mesozoic era, guesses about dinosaurs' behavior and surroundings, abductive stimulation for further scientific research. These artistic productions were paleontological thought-experiments that were then tested (and perhaps disconfirmed) by further evidence from the field and from the basements of football stadia, where such bones were often stored.

These artistic productions provided inspiration for future paleontologists, which is necessary for a science to continue. You don't know what to look for unless you've some idea of where you might be. As R.G. Collingwood put it, every question needs a context. Understanding what dinosaurs were like is akin to understanding the characters in a play or novel. Details can be provided by the scientist, or the science popularizer, or the novelist, or the paleoartist, and sometimes we in the audience "get it" and are swept up in the story as the characters, the creatures, come alive. Personal anecdotes abound, how now-important paleontologists were inspired to become dinosaur researchers by the murals of Charles Knight, or the stop-action animation of Willis O'Brien in King Kong (and soon the computer graphics of Jurassic Park will be in this list). Investigating dinosaurs is painstaking and time-intensive, not for the uninspired. Art is important for the inpiration to do science.

The role of art in paleontology might be dismissed as harmless and any claims for art's importance called misguided. This seems to be the view of Douglas Henderson, a first-class paleoartist:

Depicting dinosaurs as living animals has little part to play in the actual science of paleontology. Scientists are mainly concerned with seeing their observations and interpretations expressed and disseminated in objectively written publications intended primarily for the scientific community. While technical drawings of fossil material or simple diagrams and reconstructions may serve this purpose, fully rendered images of great beasts passing in silhouette against western sunsets and the like generally do not. These more romantic works ... are akin to the arts of theatre and literature .... When the concern of science is to be empirical and documented, imaginative is regarded as the wrong language.[5]

Henderson, however, is assuming the wall between art and science that I'm trying to crack; he's assuming the bifurcation--that art and science are separate activates--that I would bust. Tellingly, for what I'm trying to show, he goes on to say the following:

On the other hand, ... paleontological art has considerable value for writers and editors of books and magazines, museum curators, paleontologists, and others concerned with interpreting and presenting the science of paleontology to the general public.[6]

Art, particularly the poetics of telling a good story, is as a practical matter a necessity for paleontological success. In inquiry the words and depictions we use (and the presuppositions behind them, including those needed to provide the sorts of questions the inquiry is a response to) provide (or continue) a certain background (or interpretation, or paradigm) for what counts as evidential (or sensible, normal, or compelling) for present results and future regard.

Consider "selling points" in political discourse. The "frame" must be right to make the pitch, to get a hearing. As Aristotle tells us, rhetoric is essential for communication. What is true in politics is also true in science. Indeed, science, or the scientific enterprise, doesn't exist in isolation from the political and economic structure of a community. Without intercommunication among scientists and others within that superstructure of society, scientific views don't get refuted--they go bankrupt, they expire.

The "selling points" of a view, be it political, social, or scientific, when "purchased" by the electorate, or culture, or community of inquirers, depend as much on presentation style as on evidence. (Aristotle's Sophistical Refutations, like Machiavelli's Prince, ought to be read as a how-to manual.) Consider the frequent successes of political propaganda, the overpowering waves of fads for "the newest thing" in fashion or electronica (with sometimes devastating economic consequences for individuals or businesses), and the now-laughable views of some fundamentalist sects (which yet proscribed science) as regards the age of the earth.

It is not truth but rhetoric that wins debates, and there is no final "end of the day"; it is not what you say but how you present it; it is not the facts that you bring to your case but how you bundle them into a story; not scientific truth, but aesthetics. Science is a social/economic activity, not only part of society's superstructure but also part of its means of production, of how we work and live. It is also a matter of money. Artistic skill, in rhetoric and marketing and public interest and appeal is needed to foster and mobilize resources for continued research in a scientific field. Paleontology is a tough business, and expensive. Without a "pitch", without interest in dinosaurs by public or university or government funding agencies, projects don't happen.

Consider the extinction of dinosaurs. Over 150 years of knowing about their past existence provided dozens of hypotheses to explain their disappearance--but no large-scale projects to investigate it. But after the serendipity of the Alvarez team's discovery of high-levels of iridium in the clay separating the Mesozoic from the Cenozoic and their readable and dramatic 1980 story in Science magazine, the possibility of an extraterrestrial cause of the dinosaurs' demise became not only popular but also funded: projects all over the globe contributed to a new and fuller understanding of asteroids and extinctions (and of "nuclear winter") and to hundreds of scientific papers, hundreds of artistic representations of an asteroid collision, several movies and dozens of television specials. It is not cynicism, but realism, to say that science, at least in the case of the natural science of paleontology, depends on art.

In trying to widen the crack in the bifurcating wall between art and science I've used three examples: (i) scientific illustrations allowed for communication among the first paleontologists, (ii) artistic portrayals of what dinosaurs might have been like have provided inspiration and impetus for new researchers in the field, and (iii) rhetorically powerful, dramatic stories about the lives and times of dinosaurs have engaged the resources of various institutions for further research in the field.

Scientist is not just engineers, or tinkerers, who want to make things work, and not just theoreticians, but is rather a collective that wants to understand why things work, or what and how something worked or lived. Charles Peirce saw scientific activity as inquiry sparked by the tension of doubt, by questions that somehow matter--the end of scientific inquiry is the dissolution of doubt, a completion. Art, as behavior, is a constructive activity that makes something special.[7] Art also makes something complete; it gives us something that nature cannot: a sense of closure, or completeness.[8] Aristotle, discussing what makes good plays, emphasized the plot: a beginning, middle, and end. It is part of our psyche to find comfort in a well-finished tale. These two sets of activities--from science and from art--are not mutually exclusive.

Consider the following related, and too often misleading, bifurcations:

All of these oppositions are ultimately faulty. To the questions, why one ought to care whether these supposed bifurcations are faulty, and what advantage there might be in seeing science as intermixed with art, I have five responses.

First of all, not many people become scientists. Those that do should be encouraged to consider new ideas, far-fetched schemes, and bold hypotheses, with artistic license. As Freeman Dyson put it, "There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. But there is one common element in these visions ... rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture.... Poetry and science are gifts given to all of humanity."[9] The more that beginning scientists accept and act on such a view, the better they may develop as scientists.

Secondly, the vast majority of us, as non-scientists, will be better off if we understand science as an open-ended endeavor akin to art. Without such an understanding of how wrong and far-fetched most science actually is, we are too easily swayed by propaganda and pseudo-science dressed up in authoritative clothing. Consider scientism's far-reaching acceptance in society--with no Heaven to guide us, those that claim the most knowledge about the world we live in may sway us to conform and follow their edicts. (Can you hear that mantra of current business organizations and institutionalized education: "Research shows ..."?)

Thirdly, the community as a whole will be better served by understanding science as allied with art. Without such an understanding, public funding of scientific endeavors may not adequately recognize the importance of fringe science, and thereby may miss the opportunity to get better evidence of the truth. (Consider the fate of the twentieth-century electric cars.) Various writers "argue that less than ideally rational individual scientists [who pursue a less likely heuristic] can actually benefit the scientific community ... if some individuals pursue the less promising of two [complex and expensive research heuristics], thereby dividing the communities labor between the two strategies."[10]

Fourthly, promoting a view of an aesthetic science may help the community as a whole get closer to the best way to live. The fallibilism and corrigibility of science, implied in seeing artistic license and scientific rigor as necessarily intertwined, parallels the freedom of speech and openness of dissent in a liberal democracy. Paul Feyerabend appealed to Mill's On Liberty for this interpretation of successful science. The physicist Richard Feynman also found such a connection.

The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in; a trial and error system. This method was the result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th century. Even then it was clear to social-minded people that the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.[11]

One last point. My view is that to make progress science should freely mingle with art and poetics. Why might this be objectionable? Most likely the complaint would be that science must be objective, unbiased, and non-ideological, that the sensibilities of the scientist must be neutral, unlike the artist's, and hence aesthetic considerations should not be part of natural science. But doesn't such a complaint presuppose Nature does not care about Beauty? What's the metaphysical rationale for that?

A different metaphysics has different presuppositions. If one is ever to be lucky or persistent enough to climb out of this cave of shadows to see the truth about what really is, if one is ever to attain perpetual possession of the good, if one is ever to attain what love strives for, one will recognize that Truth and Beauty are one. To understand the world is also to stand in awe of its overwhelming beauty, even if one does not get very far. As Newton reflected, "To myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."[12]