Proof by illustration

One might think that after developing as a science for the last two hundred years, palaeontology would demand some pretty rigorous proof of a concept before it enters the area of ideas that one could consider ‘general consensus’ or perhaps nowadays more accurately (though less inclusively) ‘passed peer review’. However there is still one holdover from the early days that crops up from time to time in the literature (though far more often in general ramblings of unpublished ideas and online discussions) that being the concept that an idea is convincing if you can produce some nice looking artwork to demonstrate it. Essentially, proof by illustration.

Now I don’t want people to think I am slating palaeoart, I’m not, nor am I having a go at well reasoned ideas or strongly supported cases made for some ideas that are then illustrated (either in papers or elsewhere). My problem lies with over simplified concepts or dodgy interpretations where (as far as I can tell) the purpose of the illustration is to help sell the concept to the audience (by accident or design) when really the analysis should stand or fall on its merits, not on how nice a picture you can attach to it. Yes a good picture can help demonstrate a point, but it cannot act in place of the arguments. Ironically, they often show that the idea is bad in their own right rather than actually helping support the case being presented. True, this is rare in the literature and is generally (from what I have seen) more an issue for non-experts who pick up on the artwork (often via hyperbolic media reports) as being a good demonstration of the idea being put forward (often I should note, a behavioural one).

Given my general policy of not directly picking individual examples I’ve gone for one from the archives that has been much reproduced in various guises – that of sauropods wandering around on the bottom of a lake or river with just the head above the surface. You take one good look at it and then you think – “hey, that looks reasonable”.

ZBurian Brachio

Submerged brachiosaurs by Zdenek Burian.

But here’s what I think is the crux of the point, it matters not that even at the time researchers should have realised that sauropods would float, not sink, or that their lungs would collapse under the pressure, or that there were lots of footprints left in obviously dry conditions. No, what I think should be obvious is he question “just how many lakes are there out there that are exactly the right depth for a Brachiosaurus to keep it’s head just above the surface?”. I mean come on, really. Was the Mesozoic suddenly heaving with 80ft deep lakes? Were they of such uniform depth that you could always draw this picture (and there are plenty of version of it out there)? Was all the food in reach of this one point where the animal was standing? It’s ridiculous in its own right – it just doesn’t make sense. The environment has clearly been manipulated to suit the example and if the animal stood (or was drawn) anywhere else the concept (a submerged sauropod) would be laughable.

I can draw an allosaur in a tree, and I can position the branches such that the feet stand on very solid ones, and the small arms have nicely positioned lesser branches to grip and the head is free to bite at passing sauropods, but this is not an argument for allosaur arboreality. It might *look* very convincing, but a few moments though should make you wonder just quite if there were enough trees like this out there or how the damn thing got up there in the first place.

In short then, watch out for these. If you find this kind of supporting illustration for a concept don’t just think of the restoration of the animal but how it is positioned and the rest of the scene. Does it only look like a percher because the branch is big enough for its feet, can it only bite that animal from above because the other is down in a gulley, or climb that tree because the branches are at a conveniently low height? These kinds of things are still out there and do crop up so keep an eye out. You don’t know what ‘great’ idea might suddenly look less great with a little thought.

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12 Responses to “Proof by illustration”


  1. 1 Andy Farke 14/11/2009 at 4:33 pm

    This is the sort of thing that spurred a lot of my Triceratops behavior projects. . .many folks thought about and illustrated the things locking horns, etc., but could the horns actually lock together in a reasonable configuration? Two papers later, it’s looking like it was physically possible, but they would have had to be really careful!

  2. 2 davidmaas 14/11/2009 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks for this Dave! You’ve succinctly described my job as an illustrator: illustrate the concept, making it as haptic as possible. While I’m mostly involved in corporate mascots, sympathy arousal and similar marketing nudges at the moment, I greatly look forward to supporting all sorts of scientific claim. So you’ve laid your finger in the wound.
    If I may call you out on this, how can visualization best function to serve the needs of the scientist? From diorama, to specimen and individual bone, from volume and proportion studies to pose and biomechanic reconstructions… I’m (perhaps naively) convinced there’s great potential to engage illustration as a more integral contributing force to the scientific process, thanks in part to cg technologies.
    Thoughts on this?

    • 3 David Hone 15/11/2009 at 11:20 am

      Well David I think that science illustration is of course incredibly important, and just to reiterate here, I’m merely complaining about when illustrations are used in the place of a convincing argument (I can draw it, so it must be possible).

      As for actually serving science, I think there are a number of ways this can be useful. For starters not all of us are great at technical drawings (just providing accurate representations of bones or fossils etc.) so having clear and accurate figures is incredibly important and with many researchers lacking the time or skills this is becoming increasingly important.

      Secondly, life reconstructions etc. are certainly beyond most scientists and these are key for getting people interested in science. Sure most people can be awed by a T.rex skull, but they are more awed by a drawing showing it fighting another dinosaur, or a model of it as a real head or even an animatronic moving model. This actually helps us a s researchers get a good handle on what they looked like (I always like it when papers include life reconstructions of taxa, or faunal illustrations) but more importantly it gets a hook into enquiring minds. They see the bones and the art and want to know how you get from one to the other – it triggers that eternal question: “Hod do they know that?” and that is such an important mindset and one that will *not* occur from a skull – it’s obviously 1.2 m long and has 38 big teeth and of course someone found it. But what does it mean? well, that is something else!

      Hmmm a bit long and rambling but I hope that’s a good start!

  3. 4 Matt VR 15/11/2009 at 6:47 pm

    Must agree, if you take my most recent dinosaur illustration as an accurate portrayal, Iguanadon was king of the dinosaurs.

    I’m really interested in how extremely limited or fragmented fossils are reconstructed, and the effect this has on the scientists and then public perceptions of fossil discoveries.

    I must admit that when I’ve seen exciting reconstructions based upon scant remains I’ve felt quite wary of the assumptions being made. Even a bit ripped off.
    This seems to be another current Creationist line of attack as well.(scientist and artists are just ‘making it up’)

    Saying all this, I can’t imagine having as much engagement with pre-history without Knight, Paul, and my favorite, Stout.(who while not always the most anatomically accurate, certainly breathes the most life into any illustration he produces)

  4. 5 Al St J Wright 15/11/2009 at 8:58 pm

    Ah, the sauropod theory! I always liked the idea that they were submerged. Totally unrealistic, especially when you consider the amount of dead sauropods there would have been in deep ponds due to getting stuck in large amounts of mud at the bottom. They weren’t exactly light were they! I still find it amazing that the general artistic impression of dinosaurs is standing upright with tails dragging behind them. Surely that should be banned by now.

    • 6 Matt VR 19/11/2009 at 8:56 pm

      Unfortunately many non paleo-artists end up copying old illustrations. It really comes down to having good information available and the time and money to do a little research. Occasionally it’s almost pleasant when you come across a plagiarised Greg Paul illustration.
      Mercifully most of the worst offenders don’t appear in paleontology books for adults.

      I’d be interested to know how useful scientists think digital 3D reconstruction is vs. 2D images?

      • 7 David Hone 20/11/2009 at 8:59 am

        Well I don’t necessarily have a problem with image copying (or should that be ‘paying tribute to’) as such. John Sibbick did soem nice copies of old style illustrations for Dave Norman’s dinosaur book including a version of the one above to show off the old idea of submerged sauropods.

        Not that I have anything against Greg Paul’s illustrations but yes, he does get copied a huge amount and that is problematic. It means that a single ‘version’ of dinosaurs gets repeated endlessly and let’s face it, there are in many cases other possibilites or even probabilities of reconstructions for many animals.

        As for the 3D work I have nothing against the concept, but I have yet to see anything that was very good. I’ve never seen anything that can match up with work by Hallett, Henderson and the like but I am sure it is coming.

  5. 8 Eric 16/11/2009 at 1:27 am

    The flip side is that artists often inspire us to think of what’s in the range of possibility. Some notions lie just outside (Bob Bakker’s photographic galloping Chasmosaurus), or farther as John Hutchinson shows for Greg Paul’s 45 mph T. rexes (much as I’d prefer otherwise). There are subtler examples. Brian Cooley consulted with me about muscles in some tyrannosaur sculptures, and he got one so correct (without knowing it) that it helped me conceptualize the muscle in 3D. Mike Skrepnick had an interesting take on one jaw muscle, and we reasoned through whether it worked or not. Donna Sloan can depict unexaggerated biomechanics yet conveys dynamism and intent. You can feel the strain in her striding Brachiosaurus yet it’s moving reasonably for a sauropod.

    • 9 David Hone 18/11/2009 at 9:05 pm

      Well here I’m referring to scientists who use the illustration to make their point as opposed to some speculative / adventurous reconstructions on behalf of the artists. Of course new ideas stimulate new research, but as I say, art should not replace evidence.

  6. 10 Brad McFeeters 18/11/2009 at 10:48 am

    Burian’s Brachiosaurus is clearly inaccurate, but I think you are overstating the absurdity of it. If the lake was 10 or 20 feet shallower in other places, so what? You’d just have more brachiosaur sticking out of the water.

    I agree about the Ornitholestes in the tree, though.. I mean, “allosaur.” ;)

    • 11 David Hone 18/11/2009 at 9:04 pm

      Well I am being a bit mean to Zedenek to make my point, but equally the concept does rather rely on sauropods being largely submerged and that does require some pretty deep lakes, but not too deep! My point is, I hope, valid.


  1. 1 Megalosaurus and the Balance of Nature | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 25/11/2009 at 5:03 am

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