A short conference on the future of Chinese vertebrate paleontology

18 November 2008. IVPP, Beijing.

Today I participated in a day-long conference highlighting some of the major research projects from a large collaboration between paleontologists at the IVPP and biologists from other Chinese institutions.

A series of presentations highlighted current research in the original of jaw fishes, the Tree of Life project attempt to resolve the evolutionary history of mammals, the fieldwork on the Tibetan Plateau and our understanding of environmental changes during the past 10 million years, the genetic bases for new functions and physical features, and the evolution of digits in dinosaurs.

My impression after the presentations was that the attempt to bring together developmental / molecular biology with paleontology / anatomy is great, but they are two extremes on the spectrum of time and physical scale. What is still lacking is, simply enough, good old ecology and natural history. How do animals do what they do, when do they do it, and where?

Just as many traditional paleontologists focus on skeletal morphology and attempt to extrapolate ecology and behavior, molecular biologists use genetic, cellular, and physiological mechanisms within an organism to expand on how external features and behavior are modified. Both sides could benefit from a more thorough understanding of the living organisms in their ecological context, not only as skeletons or as aqueous forms in a test tube.

The dialogue between the two disciplines is promising, and there is much more to do to bring back what scientists have been doing for centuries: understanding nature from a holistic view point. Charles Darwin was an integrative biologist; he used available evidence, regardless of superficial designation (geology, physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), to test his ideas about the origin of species.

Back to more pressing matter: I am finishing up a major research proposal to ask for money to study European museum collections. The field work and expedition season is coming to an end rapidly, as the weather is getting too cold to wear shorts (who could imagine that?).

The time has come to settle in and do some research; the photos taken will no longer be majestic mountains, but only majestic mountains of papers to read and fossils to study.