J. William Schopf, a paleobiologist of great distinction, gave a gripping talk at this Friday’s Marschak Colloquium on the discovery of the pre-Cambrian fossil record. [*]. The story, as he told it, seemed to fit nicely with the work that Susanne Lohmann, has been doing on the problem of university management, and in particular the challenge created by the existence of separate disciplines covering related matters from different perspectives. [*]
Here’s Schopf’s story:
Half a century ago, almost a hundred years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, the earliest fossils dated no further back than 550 million years, with already highly-evolved organisms such as trilobites. As Darwin himself noted, this was a serious objection to the whole idea of evolution.
Since then, the fossil record has been pushed back to about 3.6 billion years, or about 90% of the way to the current estimate of the date when life originated on this planet. Some of that work — the part to which Schopf himself has contributed most heavily — has involved the use of a technique called Ramen scattering to perform spectroscopic analysis of biological material in a petrified state, thus allowing paleobiologists to photograph the microfossils of soft-bodied organisms, including single-celled organisms. That part seems to have proceded about as quickly as the development of laser technology allowed.
But the other part of the story is a more complicated one. The discovery that stromatoliths — literally, “covered,” or “layered,” rocks — were in fact fossilized remains of colonies of cyanobacteria (called blue-green algae when I was taking high school biology). That discovery, unlike the other, could have been made at any time after Darwin wrote.
Geologists knew stromatoliths and had named them. Some biologists who studied the algae in highly saline tidal pools knew of places where there were layered rock formations with a top layer of cyanobacteria, with an appearance very similar to that of the geologists’ stromatoliths. [*] (According to Schopf, they exist today only in such places because, as soon as snail-like creatures evolved, they started eating the living cyanobacteria from the tops of growing stromatoliths, thus wiping them out except in places so salty that the snails can’t live there.)
The problem was that people studied rocks in geology departments, fossils in departments of paleontology, and colonies of cyanobacteria in biology or oceanography departments. It was only by accident, when a geologist visited a saline tidal pool in Australia and thought the dome-like formations looked familiar, that someone put together the marine biology with the geology to give the paleontologists a birthday present.
So there’s the puzzle for the university manager: the disciplinary structure that makes progress possible can also hold it back. Of course Lohmann, as a political scientist, might easily not know that Shopf had provided her with a perfect illustration of her point, though both are at UCLA.