Thursday, June 23, 2011

Paleontology, Evolution 2012: Ottawa and the Future

So... with all that discussion about the meeting that just happened out the way, let's talk bigger picture here.

Next year, it will be a giant joint meeting in Ottawa with the European version of SSE. I think (and some other people are too) that it might be a pretty neat idea to lure as many paleontologists as possible to this meeting. Why? Well, based on what I observed at this meeting, evolutionary biologists and paleontologists are now asking essentially the same questions, just with different data and methods. How does trait diversity evolve? What controls lineage diversification? How do traits affect speciation and extinction (i.e. species selection or species sorting)? We definitely cannot afford to ignore one another!

This new interest in quantitative macroevolutionary analysis among evolutionary biologists means we that we should act to synthesize our efforts and learn from each other. The number of talks that were trying to use both sorts of data, either to compare or integrate, was striking. (Obviously) I think there's a lot that can be done by combining paleontological and biological data and methods. This is a very exciting time.

There are some hurdles, of course. I know some paleontologists remember earlier times, when biologists were not kind to the suggestion that paleontology could inform evolutionary biology and thus ignored paleontologists. I really don't think that is the case anymore; the relatively positive response I saw to Gene's talk on PuncEq suggested to me that biologists no longer remembered that a rift had even once existed. I see that a clear appreciation for deep time and historical factors is growing over there in biology, and we as paleontologists should be acting to nurture this.

Other hurdles, particularly limitations of money, are not as easy to fix. I don't have any great ideas on how to fix that one yet (Any ideas?). There's also time limitations. Many paleontologists do field work or museum work over the summer and there are also some early summer conferences around the same time. Nothing can be done about that.

Still, I think if evolutionary paleontologists can go and they are willing to do a little learning about how biologists do what they do and teach a little about how the fossil record works and what it means for evolution, I think they should go. I think its an opportunity that can't be missed.

Overall, I think some integration of the two communities needs to happen, but I admit that it isn't just about this Ottawa meeting next year. In discussion with some people, it was mentioned that maybe the annual SICB meeting might be a good bridge, as both paleontologist and evolutionary biologist communities partially attend. Also, Emily King and I are trying our best to try to get evolutionary biologists to come to GSA, where paleontologists generally go, but I do not know how successful we will be yet. (I'm keeping my fingers crossed!) In the long run, integration will require aisle-crossing from both sides, with paleo people going to bio meetings more frequently and bio-people coming to paleo meetings.

What do you guys think? Can we better unite these fields, at least meetings-wise?

(...Of course, once we get evolutionary biology and paleontology more copacetic, the next task is ecology and paleoecology... now there's a real challenge!)