The New Paleobiological Synthesis

A few months ago I had the opportunity to sit down with a professional paleontologist and pick his brain about a few things. One of the questions that I most wanted to ask was about the changing nature of paleobiology. Molecular biology, genetics, evo-devo, and other disciplines appeared to have an increasing presence in discussions of ancient life, and I asked the paleontologist if students of paleontology should strive to receive training in these fields to further expand the scope of paleontology.

I could hardly have been more disappointed by the answer. The gist of his response was that paleontologists worked with rocks and bones. All that other stuff was interesting, but peripheral to the core of paleontology.

The statements of this paleontologist matched what I have often heard when I tell people I want to be a professional paleontologist someday. After the requisite question “Oh, like Ross from Friends?” they usually assume that the entire science consists of hunting bones on a dusty plain somewhere. While field work is certainly an essential part of paleontology, most people don’t know about the large scope of the science, and to echo the comments of paleontologist Brian Beatty I can hardly think of any field with as wide a focus as modern paleobiology.

Although paleontologists are often viewed as being concerned with little more than geology and anatomy, recent developments have brought in new lines of evidence for more fruitful discussions about how life has evolved. Take the study of extinct whales as an example. During the 1980’s and 1990’s there was a heated “fossils vs. proteins” debate about whale ancestry. Paleontologists favored an extinct group of predatory mammals called mesonychids as whale ancestors based on anatomy while molecular studies consistently grouped whales close to or even within artiodactyls. The debate was resolved with the discovery of more fossil evidence (primarily distinctive ankle bones) such that the fossil evidence confirmed the molecular hypothesis. A new, more complete understanding was reached through this debate.

Furthermore, studies of development have yielded important clues to some important events in whale evolution like the loss of external hind limbs and the loss of teeth in baleen whales. Indeed, more paleontologists are incorporating evo-devo into their research and there is certainly room for more researchers well-versed in both paleontology and embryology.

There are plenty of other examples (a full-blown academic paper could be written on this subject), but it seems to me that paleontology is a leading example of interdisciplinary evolutionary study. This is good for at least two reasons. Not only will it allow for increased communication and debate based upon multiple lines of evidence, but it may also allow paleontology to survive during these lean times. Right now many paleontology departments and museums are closing, and it is ever more difficult for young paleontologists to find jobs. Biology labs, then, might provide a place for young interdisciplinary scientists to hang on while the traditional homes of paleontologists in academia are winnowed down.

Geology, anatomy, and osteology will always play central roles in paleontology, but the field has greatly expanded to include other disciplines that were once seen as being competitors in uncovering evolutionary history. Today paleontologists are in a unique position to incorporate various lines of evidence to not only explain the pattern of evolution but also how major changes occurred. This synthesis has been a long time coming, and I hope it continues to be productive.