Last night I addressed the claims of Gregory Retallack from a recent publication in Nature, see here for my criticisms. As I was critiquing his claims I did not go into detail on some of the issues which I think it does raise. One is the nature of the Ediacaran biota, the other is the nature of scientific debate as perceived by the public.
The Ediacaran biota really are the most mysterious in the fossil record. Whether you are looking at the frond-like Charnia, or the oval shaped Dickinsonia, or even Spriggina, which at first glance appears to have a head, you’re in for a lot of difficulty working out just what they were. There are so many questions which remain difficult to answer. Are they animals? Or are they “almost” animals? Are they more like fungi or lichens? Are they actually single celled organisms? Can they even fit into a known group or are they some unique evolutionary experiment? All of these have been suggested at some point. Do they all group together as more closely related to each other than to other groups? Or are they from many diverse groups, some of which are familiar to us? Again, the answers remain elusive.
Not only is working out relationships fraught with difficulty, but mode of life can be confusing too. Their ecosystem was very different to anything we have today. We cannot infer modes of life through phylogeny if we cannot discern their relationships. One palaeontologist will see an organism which might have been swimming or crawling around, whilst another sees it as sessile, absorbing nutrients passively. Spriggina is an excellent example, as many see it as some sort of proto-arthropod, yet its “head” has also been interpreted as a hold-fast as though it is a frond.
Original ideas should definitely be welcomed, they can help us ask all sorts of questions which we might have overlooked, shedding more light on the nature of these fascinating organisms. Retallack did that when he first proposed that they might be lichens, back in 1994, but that is an explanation which has been assessed and found wanting. But this time he brings another novel idea: could the Ediacaran organisms have lived on land?
Terrestrial Ediacarans is an intriguing idea (except that they are not found in terrestrial deposits, contrary to Retallack’s claims). We very well could find something of the same age which is beyond microbial grade and inhabited the land. They could even be well known Ediacaran forms, for who are we to say that they could not have lived on land and in the sea? Modern organisms often tolerate a narrow range of environments, but we cannot claim the same for the past, not least because evolution often functions by an increase in generalists which later become specialists (this happens at all levels, from genes to species). We don’t know where Ediacarans fit onto the tree of life, so we cannot make a phylogenetic case against it. But without any evidence it is merely wild speculation; a nice idea, but not science unless you can back it. Retallack has tried. Retallack has failed.
In coming blog posts I will be exploring some of the weird and wonderful ideas regarding Ediacarans, of which Dickinsonia will be a focus as it seems to have been wedged into nearly every possible group at some point or another. Some of Retallack’s ideas will be presented, but they are not accepted and for good reason. (On a rather random note, check this out.)
There is, quite naturally, going to be a big response to Retallack. If he had published in a smaller journal as he has done in the past, then there would be less of a response (just the standard criticism), but he has published in what is meant to be one of the biggest journals and it is getting a lot of publicity, which sadly seems to happen often in palaeontology (Chatterjee’s bizarre views about large pterosaurs, for example, see here and here). Martin Brasier is reported to have said that he finds “Retallack’s observations dubious, and his arguments poor. That this was published by Nature is beyond my understanding.”
My biggest worry here is that people will mistakenly think that Retallack has a good case and that any resistance is because you mustn’t challenge scientific dogma. What it really shows is that if you are challenging a view which is supported by a lot of evidence, such as the marine environment of Ediacaran organisms, then you need to make a very compelling case. The response is because he has failed to do that. It also highlights that sometimes a good idea is wrong and that you need to accept it and move on (in rare cases sticking to your guns is a good thing, but not if you ignore contradictory evidence). Retallack’s lichen hypothesis never gained a following for good reasons; it was given a fair hearing and just did not stand up to scrutiny (on a related note, such ancient lichens are known and they do resemble lichens).
The public often sees debate as a bad thing for science. Many will no doubt see this as some form of bullying, as though Retallack is a heroic crusader, fighting a dragon called Dogma, guarded by those black knights of the scientific establishment. But really he is bashing a mop against the walls of a castle in an attempt to lay siege, even though the drawbridge has been lowered, the portcullis raised, and there is even a place at the table for him to eat.
Let’s end with some foliose lichen: