At Stanford I met and worked with a peculiar psychiatrist, older, spherically shaped, whom I christen Dr. Bigalow. In the clinic he was an evidence-based sort of man, admirably current for someone who trained a generation ago; keeping up with the literature was clearly a priority for him. As I got to know him better, I realized a tireless, roaming scrupulousness was one of his defining traits, hardly confined to psychiatry. His intellectual interests were enormously diverse. He batted proptotic owl eyes over half-moon glasses that seemed wholly ornamental, and one day between these fits of rapid blinking he mentioned offhand that the evidence for evolution was unconvincing.
Unconvincing! This, from a scientist! Needless to say, I was surprised. I asked him for his explanation for the diversity of species on the earth and he said it’s a mystery. I mumbled something about the fossil record and he dismissed it as riddled with significant, dubious gaps. I probed his reasoning, and found that his main objection to evolution was not so much the mechanism of natural selection itself, but was basically this: the rate at which it proceeded seems to him implausible. How he feels so able to determine from his rolly chair what rate of change is or is not plausible over millions and millions, billions, of years, I failed to ascertain.
I only bring him up at all because, were it not for Dr. Bigalow’s skepticism, I might never have learned exactly what New York City’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) had to tell me about evolution. I’d entered the building—or rather, the sprawling complex of 28 interconnected buildings—more or less on a whim, but when I found myself walking among the skeletons of prehistoric beasts, I decided to override the tourist’s instinct to race through all of evolutionary history in five minutes (with perhaps a slight pause to gawk at the T. Rex); I decided to take the time to listen to exactly what the museum was trying to tell me.
Friend—what a story! Christ, what a story. Indeed, one could argue that the story told on the 4th floor of the AMNH is the chief story of life itself, the fantastic burst of dynamism, of ever-shifting energy structures, that the universe exploded into existence in order to manifest. Consider that the dinosaurs ruled the earth for 150 million years, for basically the entirety of the Mesozoic Era, while humans have been around for a sliver of the Cenozoic too slim to be seen by the naked eye. By virtually any scale of magnitude (other than ‘number of iPhones produced’), the story of intelligent life is about them, not us. It absolutely boggles the mind. Then work backwards and realize that the saga of vertebrate evolution that defines the Paleozoic Era was the dawn of intelligent life itself: the first encapsulated nervous systems, the first jaws, the first limbs! This is the phylogeny that actually had to evolve, over thousands of millennia of desperate instinctual sex and warfare in the oceans, gnathostome devouring gnathostome, Dunkleosteus fucking Dunkleosteus and giving rise to slightly different, slightly mutated progeny, before it could all be recapitulated in ontogeny, as the saying goes. The silent stasis of the fossils in the Hall of Vertebrate Origins belies the pandemonium of their lives in the ancient oceans—nasty, brutish, and short, to be sure, but full of vitality. In the unprecedented, unnatural/enlightened tranquility of our own sliver of geologic time, the late Holocene, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the romance and simple purity of incessant predation has been lost. Am I saying I want to be disemboweled by a T. Rex? Idk, maybe I am.
Though the vast majority of the AMNH’s five million annual visitors seem to scurry through its halls relatively unimpacted, the museum tries to tell you this story. It really does. You just have to stop and listen. In fact, in the Wallach Orientation Center on the 4th floor, once you duck under the massive Titanosaurus cast plopped at the entrance for sheer shock value, none other than Meryl Streep invites you to listen in. That is to say, she narrates the recorded video that first briefly summarizes evolutionary history, with much stomping of hooves and gnashing teeth and a couple of lightning-riddled, ominously scored extinction events, and then introduces and explains cladistics as the organizing principle of the halls you’re about to explore. Incidentally, Ms. Streep’s narration, though precise, neutral, and pitched in an artificial cadence, is still somehow very lovely, elegant, classy, sensual, erotic, orgi—
Once the video ends and you shake yourself free of the spell Ms. Streep has cast, you begin to retrace the path of vertebrate evolution itself, one new distinguishing feature at a time. This was when I decided to determine exactly what I was seeing. Were these real fossils, or were they reproductions of some kind? Where were they found? Who found them? Who interpreted them? Getting a handle on these questions is step one in the process of understanding what the fossil record does and does not say, and thereby of refuting skeptics like the mild-mannered Dr. Bigalow.
In brief, something like 50% of the fossils you see in the AMNH are 80% real. Or maybe 80% are at least 50% real. Or at least 80% are 80% real. Something like that, said the voluble, venerable volunteer I’d asked. Point is, many are almost entirely real, and you can distinguish which ones are mostly real by looking at the labels and seeing whether the word “cast” is written in parentheses, which would indicate of course that the specimen is not real. Any specimen lacking such a disclaimer is real, though missing ribs and whatnot may be subtly supplemented. Meaning it came right out of the ground! The thing before your eyes is exactly the thing dug out of the earth.
Appreciating this, I began to marvel at what I was seeing. Everything in the collection, whether cast or real specimen, was the reflection of so much labor by real men, all around the world, erecting a fence around a find and carefully, ever so carefully brushing and extracting and transporting bones tiny and enormous, one by one, in the midst of world and civil wars, of depressions and booms, putting everything on pause and focusing intently on preserving these frozen monochrome clues to an extraordinarily colorful ancient past. And they were real specimens themselves, these men: Roland T. Bird, who had no formal education and rode around America on a Harley Davidson, scrounging for bones; Barnum Brown, the greatest dinosaur hunter of them all, always impeccably dressed (suit and tie) even during hot sandy summers (why, Barnum Brown? for whom?); the bungling Yalie O.C. Marsh, who not only created the still-lingering apato/brontosaurus confusion by naming the same species twice (idiot!), but also postulated the “completely incorrect” idea that dinosaurs were so dumb they needed a “second brain” in the spinal cord (fuckin’ Yalies, right?). Yet these were real men, toiling away under the hot sun, in other continents too but largely right here in America, in locations that among paleontologists are famous: Ghost Ranch, New Mexico; Howe Quarry, Wyoming; the Green River formation, the Morrison formation; excavating vast death assemblages, unambiguous in their significance. Innumerable man-hours spent polishing rock and shipping it on trucks to the great cultural hub New York City, where it was meticulously catalogued and further prepared, all for it to be arranged for my lazy perusal, decades and decades later, at a charge of my own choosing (usually: one single dollar).
Yet the question remains: do the fossils prove evolution, or simply that dinosaurs existed? I suppose that’s too big a question to definitively settle in one obscure blog post, but of course the whole fossil record screams evolution, especially such phenomena as convergence, when creatures from clearly different lineages change to occupy the same ecological niche—why would this occur except because they adapted to the same environmental pressures? Consider the wings of the bat versus the bird versus the pterosaur: the pterosaur wing was supported by an elongated fourth digit, while the bird wing is supported by an elongated radius and ulna and wrist bones, and the bat wing by elongations of several of the digits. All of the species within each category of wing (avian, pterosaurian, chiropteran) are consistent in this respect, and through the fossil record it is trivially easy to see how they radiated (this is a technical term in evolutionary lingo and I love it) from a common ancestor. If they did so too quickly for Dr. Bigalow to comprehend, well, that’s his problem, I think.
Insofar as this whole post is basically a starstuck fanboy’s advertisement for the AMNH, I’ll just point out a few more respects in which it excels, and then I’ll leave you. The museum does a great job of articulating exactly what the fossil collection can and cannot show, and often issues sober reminders that a certain hypothesis is speculative—that certain dinosaurs were warm-blooded, say, or were able to run at a certain speed, etc.—and perhaps will never be proven. In the same vein it does a great job describing the progress of research, a particularly visible example being the fact that the T. Rex was initially mounted standing upright, but, for two compelling reasons, scientists now believe their stance was typically horizontal, and the exhibit has been modified accordingly. The two reasons are: one, an upright posture would apparently have dislocated many of the neck vertebrae; and two (more interestingly), no evidence of a tail has ever been found in a theropod trackway; thus it must be the case that the tails were held steadily aloft, as a deft and powerful counterbalance to the tyrannosaur’s fearsome hip-forward bulk.
Alas, there is so much to love about dinosaurs, and about the AMNH, that I can’t go into it all here. Just imagine the commotion in NYC when that first massive apatosaurus was revealed to the public in 1905, after a decade of painstaking preparation! There was a time when all this was new, when the whole notion of the Age of Reptiles had yet to enter the zeitgeist. Now dinosaurs are merely a phase that children go through, and the fossil record, absurdly, the touchstone of a stark political divide. Yet as Meryl reminds us, we would do well occasionally to remember, not only “where we came from,” but indeed that the entirety of our vain history is utterly dwarfed by the Ornithischian-Saurischian drama of the Era prior. If that doesn’t make President Trump’s 5 A.M. toilet tweets seem a little less important, I don’t know what will.