Wednesday, August 7, 2013

More Fossils/Days 45-46

If you have been following this blog, you know that a few days ago we visited the Fossil Butte National Monument near Kemmerer, WY. It is one of several places in the National Park system, which seeks to preserve the integrity of a site rich in fossils. Since fossils are by nature very old and have an inherent value as well as beauty, people are attracted to them and collect them. It is likely that without the effort to preserve these sites, they would eventually disappear. 

This visit a few days ago is not the first time we have visited a fossil site. Earlier in this trip we went to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon (see the post titled "John Day Country" for July 13, 2013), and last year we visited another part of the John Day site (there are three locations in all) - the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, which is very similar to the center and exhibits at Fossil Butte N.M. (See my post titled Thomas Condon, dated July 28, 2012. Condon was a Congregational minister who became a paleontologist in the latter half of the 19th century). And if you go back in my blog to August 13, 2010 ("Creation and Evolution") you'll find a fairly long discussion of the issue of the role which the theory of evolution (a theory in which fossils play a big part) has played in the development of religious faith, especially Christian faith, and the tension between modes of faith which seek to incorporate evolution and those that deny its validity, e.g., Christian fundamentalism and biblical literalism.

While we were at the Fossil Butte N.M., I began to think, perhaps a little more deeply than before, about the whole notion of a "fossil." I became curious about what people of an earlier time thought they were looking at when they found, and held in their hands, what today we call a "fossil" - i.e., the "fossilized" (i.e., "petrified") remains of a living creature which had lived millions of years ago. It must have been impossible for them to understand, in any way like what we think we do, what they were seeing . I asked the ranger about  this, and he had some things to say about people like Leonardo di Vinci, who already had some theories about the origins of "fossils' in the 16th century, and also about the biblical account of Noah's Flood, and how it was used in earlier times to "explain" how a "fossil" of a fish could be found on the top of a hill in the middle of a desert!  However, he was a little fuzzy about it all - as he readily confessed. So I went to the bookstore section of the visitor center and my eye immediately fell upon a book titled, The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Paleontology, by Martin J.S. Rudwick, published by the University of Chicago Press (not too shabby an outfit).  The blurbs on the back cover, including one by Stephen J. Gould (who said that this book had "rewritten (his) view of the subject,") seemed to recommend it, and a quick survey of chapters confirmed that it would probably answer my questions. So I bought it, and I've been reading it aloud as we go along, and indeed, it does address my questions and it is a very clearly written, very readable, and very fascinating discussion of how people have tried to understand what a "fossil" is, and how the intellectual climate of a given time has led them to one or another interpretation of the meaning of what they were seeing when they looked at a fossil.

            The term "fossil" means, originally,  "dug up" (from Latin fodere -"dig" > fossilis "dug up."). The early studies of "fossils" included a great many things, like, e.g., gemstones, minerals, and other inorganic materials, that would not be called "fossils" today. The book begins in the 16th century with a naturalist in Germany, Conrad Gesner (1516-1565), whose book, On Fossil Objects, was a preliminary survey of all sorts of things that had been "dug up" either by Gesner himself, or had been sent to him by other naturalists. Gesner organized these items into categories which he found useful, and many of them he illustrated with woodcut drawings. Gesner's work was cut short by an early death due to the plague, but his work incorporated three very important innovations of the time: (1) an encyclopedic effort to survey the entire field, using illustrations based on personal observation; (2) the development of actual collections - fossil "museums" - where other naturalists could examine the specimens for themselves, and (3) the creation of scholarly communities in which individual naturalists shared their work. All three of these innovations contributed in important ways to the development of modern science.

            In categorizing his "fossils," Gesner had to deal with three important factors: matter, form and position. I.e., what was the "fossil" made of, what was its shape and design, and where had it been found?  For example, let's say he is looking at a stone-like object (matter) shaped and marked very much like a shark's tooth, but much larger than what would be found in the mouth of any known living shark (form and design) found inside a rock on a hillside in central Italy (position). A modern paleontologist looking over Gesner's shoulder, so-to-speak, would have no hesitation explaining this object as the petrified remains of the actual tooth of an extinct species of shark deposited in the sediment at the bottom of a sea which existed millions of years ago over what is now a dry hillside. But for Gesner, that explanation would have been irrational and hard to imagine. As a philosopher/naturalist, he had at hand what were for him two much more plausible explanations. As a Renaissance humanist, he was a committed Aristotelian. Aristotle, and his successors, had developed the concept of  the "spontaneous generation" of a stone-like form "in situ," growing in a way analogous to the growth of a living organism, much as a stalactite grows in a cave. That it looked like a shark's tooth (albeit a very large shark's tooth), might be fortuitous (e.g., nature not infrequently creates a form that looks like another natural form or even a man-made object, without there being any causal relationship), or it might look like a shark's tooth because the "seed" of the form of a shark's tooth had been implanted in the earth either through a subterranean spring, or possibly as the result of a flood like the biblical Noah's flood. Also very popular in Gesner's time was a Neoplatonic explanation:  the entire universe is bound together, from top to bottom, by a mystical harmony, a "life force," which can create analogous forms at every level. Either of those explanations would have seemed more "rational" than the idea that the hillside he was standing on was once at the bottom of an ancient ocean populated by huge creatures no longer to be found anywhere on earth.

DAYS  45-46: We drove from Craig, CO to Colby, KS. We stayed last night st the Elk Run Motel:

The scenery on the drive through the Rockies was gorgeous:

We stopped in Arvada (a suburb of Denver) to visit my old seminary friend Robb Lapp, his wife, Jan, and their great-granddaughter, Aubrey, who is ten. Robb and Jan are raising Aubrey, not easy for a couple in their 80's!

We drove on to Colby, KS where we stayed at Budget Inn & Suites.

After Colby we took Route 24 east - we stopped in Cawker City, KS to see the Largest Ball of Twine in the World!

Cawker City has suffered the collapse of the family farm. The fields around Cawker City are flourishing, but the people have left, and the town is dying.

Main Street, Cawker City, KS

As we pushed on toward Columbia, MO we went through a storm. With the sun behind us in the west and the storm clouds ahead in the east, it was dramatic!

No comments:

Post a Comment