Because, every so often, I feel I should show that my geekery goes beyond RPGs or fantasy literature.
There are plenty of links on this, within the somewhat clannish corridors of palaeontology, but I choose for reference this one.
To declare, in tones of astonished wonder, “a Devonian anomalocarid!” is unlikely to prompt any great response, apart perhaps from “gesundheit”. However, to get an idea of the true significance of the discovery, imagine Professor Challenger’s declaration, on attaining the plateau of the Lost World, “that I should see with my own eyes a living pterosaur!” (1) and you have the right general order of magnitude.
But of course Schinderhannes is a little water-bug rather than a great aerial dragon, and the Devonian was still around 400 million years ago, and so nobody’s going to be seeing the li’l fella in the flesh but, even so, the same general timescale of survival is involved, and a modern day mammoth, or even tyrannosaur, has nothing on it.
So, what’s the deal? This is basically about the Burgess Shale (2), a fossil site of nigh-miraculous preservation, showing a hitherto unguessed-at range of animals living at the beginning of the Cambrian period,. unthinkably early on in the evolution of multicellular life. The preservation of soft parts (as opposed to just heavy shells such as those owned by trilobites, for example) revealed a vastly more diverse fauna than had previously been believed to exist. This discovery has since been the ideological battlefield between various schools of thought, one claiming that the creatures there disclosed can mostly be classified conventionally and represent reliable survival-of-the-fittest evolution, the other (expounded most accessibly in Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life) claiming that they demonstrate a lottery element of evolution, and those individual lineages that did survive, whilst they were clearly fit, were also lucky. (3)
Anomalocaris was (4) the biggest of the big back in Burgess Shale days. Around two feet in length, uncertain in classification, and a predator, though an unconventional one. It probably looked something like this. Although it was best-guess included in the broad category of arthropods, it seemed at the time to have no obvious close relatives there. Other Cambrian anomalocarids turned up in other sites of similarly good preservation across the world, but it seemed as though the creatures vanished without a trace thereafter.
Needless to say, based on this situation, various palaeontologists took the opportunity to demonstrate just how ill-adapted for survival poor lumbering Anomalocaris was. As I’ve previously mentioned, the study of fossils can be very political. Mankind is a self-serving beast, and there are plenty of people who will advance arguments for evolution that, explicitly or implicitly, suggest that the evolution of something like us was basically inevitable once life got going (5), and all that mucking about with dinosaurs was really just a waste of the valuable time the planet has before the sun goes pop. The triumph of the mammals, which is John the Baptist to mankind’s Christ, is greatly trumpeted, despite the fact that our hairy little rat ancestors evolved at around the same time as the earliest dinosaurs, and spent an embarassing number of millions of years jumping about in trees at night (6). Anomalocaris goes the same way as the dinosaurs, shown as inherently unfit, dying alone with no family at its bedside. The BBC Walking with Monsters even kicks off with a scandalous Cambrian section in which we see brutal, stupid anomalocaris being hounded to extinction by our own minute ancestors. There have been theories about how that circular mouth was a bad design, how the big clutchy arms didn’t work, any part of the animal was seized upon as a smoking gun to show how poorly adapted the thing was, and therefore how reliable and predictable the operation of evolutionary survivals and extinctions.
Baloney, it would seem. Enter Schinderhannes. In fact, enter Schinderhannes around one hundred million years laterthan the date set by the, apparently greatly exaggerated, rumours of the anomalocarids’ demise. The fossil record is incomplete. That is, as Dick Cheney would say, a known known (7). The fact that anomalocarids were only known from sites of extremely good preservation should have tipped people off, really. Although they were arthropods of sorts, they did not seem to have particularly durable exoskeletons – predators are seldom required to be heavily armoured, which is why T-Rex isn’t got up like an ankylosaur, or a lion armoured like a rhino. So, anomalocarids were doing fine for several palaeontological ages since the Cambrian and, by logical extension, might well have gone on for some time after. Indeed, as some scientists now classify them as very early chelicerates, they may well have living relatives still amongst spiders, scorpions and similar arachnids. Not so shabby then?
And of course, if the anomalocarids lived, then they just have been well adapted, after all those years, and one wonders if the authors of papers on how badly the ring-mouth or the clutching arms were suited for continued existence will now go and write papers explaining how those features were actually extremely fitting, and clearly the reason the line lasted so long. I suspect not, but you never know.
Mr Gould is no longer with us to advance his argument that random chance can scotch the best evolutionary careers, and his theories have certainly come under reasoned and logical attack from other palaeontologists, and so it’s another make-up-your-own-mind deal. Still, one imagines that he might be chuckling now.
In other news
Things that have caught my attention recently:
– Who Watches the Watchmen? If it’s not you, then why the hell not? The film is exceptionally good and very faithful to the original (there is some tinkering towards the end, the character of which I cannot discuss for spoiler reasons, but I actually liked the changes).
– For RPGers, I was recently recommended the novel Game Night by Jonny Nexus, the premise of which is that, if gods can play games with mortals as the pieces, why shouldn’y they play role-playing games in the same way? The results are hilarious, and at the same time utterly heart-breaking.
– Similarly, and following on more closely from the article I wrote for Death Ray recently, I note that a new RPG has been produced of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fireseries, definitely one of the bigger epic fantasy worlds currently on the market. The game is produced by Green Ronin, who made their name with superior Dungeons and Dragons open licence stuff, has a bespoke system, and looks extremely good so far.
– Finally, bringing the subject back, very loosely, to the palaeontological, I see that next week the third series of Primeval is set to start. From a first series that had a surprising, and pleasant, amount of scientific rigor and internal logic, the series lurched to the second series, which became increasingly incredible in its creatures (8) and ludicrous in its plots (9). I’m hoping for a return to the axioms of series 1, but not exactly holding my breath.
(1) Or he did in the film. Or one of the films. Or something very like it.
(2) I was delighted to find a reference to the Burgess Shale fossils at the end of Gibson and Sterling’s The Difference Engine, which I finally got round to reading recently.
(3) I need to very strongly point out, however, that both sides are still arguing for evolution, rather than any “alternative”, it’s just that one side has more faith in the inevitable survival of the fittest organism, whereas the other believes that the vicissitudes of history can conspire to undo all the advantages of a good body-plan, and that being in the right place at the right time can also have a lot to do with surviving the evolutionary crunch.
(4) There is a moderately complex story concerning precisely how anomalocaris was finally identified. See here for details.
(5) Or even that the universe itself is constructed specifically to make it inevitable that there will one day arise a human being who will propose something extremely like the philanthropic principle.
(6) Reptiles, and the birds that evolved from them, have excellent colour vision, superior in many ways to our own. Most mammals have very poor or no colour vision, with primates having apparently re-evolved the facility. The strong conclusion is that all mammals are descended from nocturnal ancestors, who lost their colour sight in order to improve their night sight. The strong conclusion from that is that they were nocturnal because the daytime was a dangerous, dinosaur-filled place.
(7) Perhaps no other speech in modern history has so divided exponents of the English language. For my part, it makes perfect sense to have known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but make up your own mind.
(8) If you want a burrowing monster that can move through wet sand at the speed of a running man, then you can have one. It doesn’t matter that, in the Silurian era, there was nothing on land that size. Fine, it’s speculative. However, if you want said subterranean racing-monster to be, basically, a modern whip-scorpion, which in the real world is a non-burrowing creature with a profusion of long, spindly legs and a body shaped like a plate, you are offending not biology but basic physics.
(9) The bad guys, with time travel and awesome futuristic technology on their side, decide that the best way they can use it to take over the world is to radio-control prehistoric monsters. There are backwards cousins of failed Bond villains who could do better than this.