On Paleontology

Hurray for paleontology! I think that paleontology, the study of ancient animals and plants, is one of the most interesting subjects to study that there is. If you’re a fan of history, well then, paleontology is the thing for you, because paleontology is the history of all of history, all of life. Not just us humans. If you just enjoy a good story, well then, paleontology is about the greatest story of them all. It’s just very interesting stuff. Anyhoo, that’s what I’ve been reading about the past two years. At some point in my life, I shifted from novels to science books.

Today, what with climate change and the covid pandemic, belief and trust in science is a hot political issue. Religion’s longstanding discomfort, nay antagonism, toward science is at the heart of the current quandary we’re in. Certainly the “old-time religion” conception of the world as a static place, created in seven days with two animals of every kind marching onto Noah’s ark is a comforting one. In a way I wish things were simpler too. However, they’re not. And in fact it’s much better, or at least far more interesting, that things are the way they are. The universe is 15 billion years old and expanding and evolving all the time. Yikes!

There’s no need to reject religion, of course. As the Good Lord made us in his own image and made us rational beings, we might as well use our noodles and explore the grandeur of His creation. Anyhow, science is what I’ve been reading: Paleontology, the history of life.

Donald Prothero is one author I’ve been reading of late. I think he’s terrific. He’s written numerous books on the subject. A very accomplished paleontologist himself, and a true educator, Prothero is able to introduce the average reader to a wealth of information about paleontological findings without “dumbing it down” too much. His writing style is direct. I enjoy his emphasis on history: on telling the stories of scientific discovery: from the early 17th century thinkers down to the latest radioisotopic, seismic, electron microscopic analyses. (It’s just amazing how much the scientists know now.)

Unfortunately, all the science is difficult to navigate. It’s a bit of a struggle, at least it is for me. Problem is there’s just so much you have to learn: all those geological periods and eras and epochs, all the biological phyla and the orders and the species. Chemistry always comes in, too. Anatomy too. One good thing about paleontology, though, is that you don’t need to know any quantum physics. Basic physics describes it all. Indeed uniformitarianism, as the 18th century Scottish geologist Hutton called it, the principle that “the past is the key to the present”, that the physical processes in operation today, like erosion, have always been in operation (eternally, maintained Hutton) and have created and continue to create our earth. This uniformitarianism of course meant that the earth was millions of years old, not five or ten thousand years old as most people thought at the time. This storyline in the history geology, the back-and-forth between the “eternalists” and the “cataclysmalists”, (who thought the Great Flood explained everything) fueled geological study for many years. Today’s grand theory of plate tectonics thankfully resolves these debates and puts both geology and paleontology on solid theoretical footing (albeit on moving plates)

As I say, paleontology involves no quantum physics, and surely it can’t hurt too much to learn about the geological eras and epochs. There’s a sense of perspective to be gained. The awesome feeling that you get just to consider and explore these matters is worth the price of admission.

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