The Burgess Story
"I don't like to say bad things about paleontologists, but they're really not very good scientists. They're more like stamp collectors.
- Luis Alvarez, Physics Nobel Laureate -
Luis Alvarez evidently had some very definite ideas about what a good scientist does, and it is especially telling that such a comment comes from a physicist. What could Alvarez have had in mind when he made this remark? He may have been making a mental comparison of the approach commonly used in physics -- that of laboratory experimentation -- with the way the study of paleontology is conducted, A paleontologist is very much a historian -- someone who is involved in the "reconstruction of past events ... based on narrative evidence of their own unique phenomena" (Gould 278). In Alvarez's eyes then, good science is characterised by the experimental approach of experiment, quantification, repetition, prediction, and restriction of complexity to a few variables that can be controlled and manipulated" (Gould 277). This seems to me too narrow a definition. Such an approach can hardly be used in fields such as paleontology, which study the occurrence of one-off events such as evolution. In cases such as these, what standards can we use to determine whether something is admissible as good scientific practice? Philosophers of science such as Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have each come up with their own ideas of what constitutes good science. Can they perhaps shed some light on other possible definitions of good science? Can these other definitions of good science be generalised to all disciplines of science?
Popper and Kuhn have proposed strictly theoretical ideas -- It remains to be seen whether a concrete example of scientific research would validate their ideas or not. Since we are interested in searching for a definition of good science that is also applicable to fields such as paleontology (where laboratory experimentation is severely limited if not impossible), it seems reasonable to look at a concrete example from the discipline of paleontology itself In his book Wonderful Life, Stephen Jay Gould provides us with just such an example. He describes the story of the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies, where Charles Walcott discovered animal fossils of the Cambrian era in 1909. The Cambrian era marks the time when "virtually all major groups of modern animals" (Gould 24) made their entrance, thus it is a period crucial to our understanding of evolution -- specifically, how the modem phyla of fauna evolved and why these phyla in particular. The discovery of the Burgess is a very significant event for the discipline of paleontology, because it is the "only extensive, well-documented window upon that most crucial event in the history of animal life, the first flowering of the Cambrian explosion" (Gould 24). The hard parts of animals are the parts normally preserved in fossils, but they offer at best a limited insight into the anatomies of animals....