Friday seminar: Knowing the unknowable: form, function, and diversity through deep time
By Mike Benton (Note the time and venue!)
In simple philosophical terms, the historical sciences might be seen as non-scientific because they are not amenable to repeated experimentation. However, it is long-established in palaeontology, and in the geological sciences, to use the principle of uniformitarianism - namely to assume all rules/ laws/ processes of nature have always been the same, unless otherwise indicated. Secondly, by the use of multiple independent pathways, processes such as locomotion and feeding, can be assessed by seeking corroboration. A particularly fraught theme has been palaeodiversity - how do we establish and understand the accumulation of diversity, in the sea and on land, through time? Since Raup (Science 1972) it has been understood that some or all of the pattern could be bias/ error (geological and human failure). In seeking to correct for error, numerous methods have been devised: comparing fossil record with geological record metrics, removing trend and focusing on residuals, or sampling rate metrics such as SQS. All these measures have failed, leaving a substantial recent literature that is likely meaningless. Palaeontologists should use methods that determine known unknowns (Lazarus taxa, ghost ranges, sampling probability metrics) or purely phylogenetic approaches to macroevolution.
Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology
School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, UK