Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Cylce of Palaeo-art Mythology

So I'm not quite done with Andrea Cau's 10 Commandments for Palaeo-art.

While I disagreed with many of Mr. Cau's ideas for palaeo-art guideline I left one of his points untouched. It is something we palaeo-artists (and really all palaeontology enthusiasts in general) need to consider when thinking about accuracy in palaeo-art...

This issue being palaeo-art "myths" as Mr. Cau calls them. Alternatively palaeo-art memes as Darren Naish calls them (here, here, and here), or palaeo-art "type specimens" as I called them way back when.

Palaeo-art memes or myths are the artistic phenomenon in which one original artist creates their own version of something prehistoric. Other subsequent artists, due to a lack of other references (or just outright laziness) copy concepts or components of the first piece as though it was a direct source. Suddenly the prehistoric subject is always recreated just like that first artwork. Whether that first artist was (or still is) correct or not.

In his commandments Mr. Cau outlined:

7. Thou shall not create mythology

So there is no confusion on his intended meaning, I provide you with Mr. Cau's definition of "mythology" directly from a comment he made on Stu Pond's post about the commandments.

"When I say "mythology" I mean: unsupported image/idea that the profane can assume uncritically as a scientific knowledge... Since a false/wrong/obsolete/mythological idea in a paleoart image can spread more rapidly than the correct scientific concepts in a (boring) paper, paleart-mediated mythology is very dangerous for scientific progress."

I think there are certainly some very valid points here, and I completely agree with the spirit of what Mr. Cau is saying, so long as the emphasis is placed on the "spread" of an incorrect idea rather than the creation of one!

To me the problem is not the initial idea presented by the first artist in a meme chain. They are not "spreading" a "false/wrong/obsolete" idea, as their first work was original and highly creative. I think the presentation of ideas, whether they right or wrong, is critical in all avenues of life (science and art included). The problem is when people don't check an idea, and as Mr. Cau astutely puts it "uncritically" "assumes" it to be true. This is how we get the "spread" of inaccurate memes, subsequent artists who don't bother to do their own research and rip off the ideas of others.

I'm sure the first artist could explain their rational for their choices. Whether you agree with their logic or not is irrelevant frankly. The point is they made a legitimate creative decision for a reason, and that to me is all that counts. It is the copy cats who when asked why they recreated subject X the way they did can only respond "that's what the other guy(s) did" who we should take to task.

That having been said we should be cautious in our attacks and witch hunting. What is accurate now won't necessarily be tomorrow. Suddenly all our current art could be seen by future artists as some "false/wrong/obsolete" meme. Further more if people through legitimate research arrive at a similar reconstruction, that is totally acceptable.

So where does that leave us when creating new works?

Should we shy away from creating palaeo-art that contain "unsupported" ideas or concepts? Hell no!!! So long as it is a brand new idea, and not something you saw someone else doing. If you are going off someone else's artwork you should also do you're homework.

In a discussion I had with Dr. David Eberth on palaeo-art and reconstructing deep time, he sagely summarized my whole view on the topic (in this approximate "quote" I'm pulling together from my memory...) "Palaeontology is a story based science. We certainly collect and study data, but at the end of that we need to tell a story for it to really make sense. This is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. No matter what story we try and tell, due to missing variables or information, we will be unable to ever tell the whole story."

This should be the true view on accuracy in palaeo-art. It can only ever be partial accuracy, no matter what!

The worry I have with focusing on preventing "false/wrong/obsolete" reconstructions and memes, is that we could end up creating even more dangerous myths. Those that are based on supposed facts!

I present a few case studies for your consideration:

My first example is this tutorial piece by Tomozaurus that is aimed at getting artists to feather Dromaeosaurid (raptor) dinosaurs "correctly". I do like his intended take home message, but sadly he frames this completely wrong.

Tomazaurus does fantastic work, check out the rest of his great artwork here, so don't misunderstand the rant I'm about to launch into. I merely take issue with the format of this poster and false impression it creates. While he may of used quotation marks around the word "real" to alert us to the conjecture he engages in about reconstructing a Velociraptor, I feel Tomazaurus (inadvertently) is creating a myth about what we do and don't know about this animal.

The problem are the magic red X's and friendly green check marks. These symbols automatically imply black and white right and wrongs. Yet those do not exist within our scientific knowledge of Velociraptor. I'm sure Tomozaurus meant the X's and check marks ironically or in fun, but speaking as a teacher, these two symbols can carry powerful assertions about absolute correctness (60% of my incidents with parents were caused by disagreements over marking! "X"s in particular can become quite contentious in subjective areas). They should not be used lightly, especially when discussing science!

My issue is there are not many actual scientific facts about how to reconstruct a Velociraptor. The level of detail and commentary we see presented here (especially about soft tissue) is NOT possible! I don't care how much secondary (and soft) supporting evidence there is for his assertions. The point is he is basically making up his Velociraptor as much as anyone else.

Using totally different animals (Microraptor mostly) is not proof of anything about Velociraptor (Microraptor is not even close to being a direct relative of Velociraptor within the Dromaeosaurs)!. All we legitimately know about Velociraptor is it had some sort of large feathers on their arms. That is it! Not even the whole feather, just the quill base stem they've actually found in the fossil record! Yes it makes for a crappy picture, the underside of the arms, but with this format that is all you'd be allowed to show!

Frankly there is absolutely NO science to say the "half-arsed" Velociraptor is incorrect (beyond the point about the hand). The Greyhound/lizard can be said to fair analysis, but this is mostly due to the outright terrible anatomy that doesn't even match the skeleton.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Tomazaurus was essentially attempting to start a myth here. The intentions were noble, but because it was based on half truths (we know Velociraptors had quill knobs on their arms, but not what the feathers actually looked like that alone how far up the body they did or did not extend) and misused science (other feathered therapods) this had the potential to become a super-myth of sorts. Something so plausible sounding (and maybe found to be correct in the future... but don't count your fossils before they are found) that we could start to believe it to be true (without fossils!?!)... Which is just as bad as totally incorrect information becoming a wide spread myth!

My other case involves the dismissal of the unfounded palaeo-art myth/meme of ceratopsian defensive circles (seen above as created by Peter Barnett). However through the case presented in debunking this meme, a new (and not true) myth started to take form...

Ironically this was by Mr. Cau himself, and really illustrates the dangers of trying to directly confront mythology. The issue of defensive circles was raised in the same quote I used earlier from Stu Pond's blog (backlink here)

"When I say "mythology" I mean: unsupported image/idea that the profane can assume uncritically as a scientific knowledge (for example, ceratopsids forming a ring around their youngs when attacked by predators).Since a false/wrong/obsolete/mythological idea in a paleoart image can spread more rapidly than the correct scientific concepts in a (boring) paper, paleart-mediated mythology is very dangerous for scientific progress."

Mr. Cau starts to (accidentally) create a myth in this different comment further down the discussion:
"We know a lot of adult ceratopsians in bone beds, but few juveniles (if none at all) are recovered in these bonebeds. We also know that most of the known dinosaurs had a social system with juvenile and reproductive adults that lived in distinct associations: these facts support the hypothesis that juvenile and adult ceratopsid did not live together... so, the evidence actually reject the defensive ring hypothesis."

In advance I'm certain Mr. Cau was speaking from the best of his knowledge. This is not meant to belittle him, or question his knowledge. Far from it, on subject of Theropods he is one of the best in the business! However theropods and ceratopsians are not the same, and I suspect he can only afford the time to casually read the ceratopsian literature.

As a fan of both Centrosaurine dinosaurs and Taphonomy (the study of how fossils end up being fossils) I am well read up on both topics. I can say with some certainty, that while what Mr. Cau says is empirically true (in the sense of the number of juvie specimens found), the reality of the conclusions he draws are incredibly incorrect! The reason being he has only (accidentally) presented a portion of the data and findings important to Ceratopsian bonebeds. Simply counting the bones isn't enough. You have to take into account how they got there...

If you are to read any of the many papers or articles in the Dinosaur Provincal Park volume on the Centrosaur bonebeds in Alberta by Michael Ryan, Donald Brinkman, and/or David Eberth you would discover that through taphonomic analysis we have found some pretty serious preservational biases in many of these bonebeds that favour larger bone material. Meaning, yes, we get mostly bigger bones from adult animals. Yet despite this bias we still find the remains of juveniles at these sites, which means there had to be juveniles there too. More to the point there had to a lot of them to begin with for the bias being unable to wipe them all the record!

The juveniles material we have found from (Albertan Centrosaurine) sites is so good we've pieced together very complete and comprehensive osteologic series for many Centrosaurine genus solely from material recovered from these bonebeds, as we had animals of all ages to reference. Why would we have animals of all ages together unless they were living in proximity? (though this is not necessarily supporting family groups admittedly, but it is not countering family behaviour either! It does disprove Mr. Cau's statement "juvenile and adult ceratopsid did not live together." Whether it was a family group or something less social, the point is they were living close enough together to end up dead together!)

What does this evidence actually mean? You (and the experts) can (and have) drawn (pun intended :P) all sorts of things from this (I can discuss the literature in comments if people are interested). I think it emphasises how much we have yet to learn on this (or any other) topic, and that artists have an amazing amount of flexibility for palaeo-art that still falls within the factually "limits".

It also emphasises the problems with sorting myths and the truth. Mr. Cau was speaking from what he knew to be true. Yet that truth was missing some key relevant information, which actually meant it was another myth... I hope you see the very real potential for a vicious circle we could find ourselves in worrying about myths.

So I caution us from going after the myths themselves.

Not because the myths or memes themselves shouldn't be snoofed out! Far from it... There is NO reason, despite the evidence that they travelled with their young, that we should depict Ceratopsians defending their young by forming a circle! Our evidence doesn't support it in any way (especially given the herds in question are thought to have been hundreds to thousands of animals large, not something that could or would need to make a circle for defense!)... It is really time for new visual thought experiments on Ceratopsian family behaviour if anything!

I just worry in militant efforts to eradicate myths, we'll create new strains of super-myth based on partial science/fact that will cause even more entrenched damage to palaeo-art than blatantly wrong ideas.

I think rather than target ideas, we target artists and entice them to create new and different ideas. If we all do that, there will be no "spread" of any one idea (wrong or right) as we'll all be generating new ideas and expanding the current state of palaeontology.

That should be the take home message and goal... No more memes or myths, because we're all being original (or well researched) art! (I say well researched as people can come to very similar conclusions with more limited subject matter)

Your thoughts?

(By Craig Dylke)