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from the early days that crops up from time to time in the literature (though far more often in general ramblings of unpublished ideas and online discussions) that being the concept that an idea is convincing if you can produce some nice looking artwork to demonstrate it.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”.
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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