Sunday, April 8, 2012

How much is enough?

Zach put up a great post last week calling into question the rational behind the creation by master artist Julius Csotonyi reconstructions of the new Unescoceratops and Grphyoceratops ceratopsians. Now Zach makes it clear (as I do now) there is no problem with the quality or composition of this piece. It is one fine looking bit of palaeo-art.

No, the questions Zach raise are over the fact both these animals are each known from a single broken chunk of lower jaw only. Yet the Csotonyi piece displays both animals in full form. Zach wonders what the utility of such art is, since it is almost surely inaccurate. 

How much of a fossil organism is enough to justify a reconstruction? Why would palaeontologists commission the creation of such a piece when so little of the anatomy is known? Do such pieces benefit or hinder the science?

There certainly aren't any clear cut answers for these questions. This post is more to stir the pot and try to get thinking and dialogue on the topic going. I'll present what I see the pros and cons of such art being. I'm sure I'll miss a few points, so feel free to add to my points in the comment section

How much of a fossil organism should be known before we recreate it in art?

As palaeo-art is concerned with long extinct organisms we can't be picky on exactly which parts of these once living things we get. We just have to deal with what we are lucky enough to find. So while the obvious answer to this question is we'd like to have complete specimens for all fossil organisms, this is rarely the case.

To me, one's stance on incomplete fossil based art depends on their demand for scientific accuracy in the art. For most organisms that are over half complete I would say there is less of an issue for anyone. However for less than half known fossils there are reasons for concern if accuracy and pure science is your desired outcome in palaeo-art.

Yes we can try to reasonably extrapolate and guess what an animal looked like by looking at close relatives. However this is NOT accurate, nor (in almost all likelhood) EXACTLY what the animal looked like. So incomplete specimen based art is a conundrum if you want a totally accurate reconstruction.

Now for someone more laid back like me this is not as big an issue. While you might not guess the unknown bit of the animals right, it's really only a bit worse than already (basically) guessing the animals soft tissue or colouration. We do not know what any of these creatures actually looked like in real life. So getting anatomy we haven't yet discovered wrong in a drawing millions of years later isn't the worst issue in my estimation. Getting people interested and passionate about palaeontology and evolution is a bigger problem.

Why would a palaeontologist commission artwork of an animal for which so little anatomy is known?

One would think a practising palaeontologist would be a real stickler for accuracy, and to be fair many of them are. However in my experience the majority also have a vivid and active imagination about prehistory like the rest of us. They enjoy speculating and imagining what extinct critters were like, and art is the closest thing any of us will get to a time machine.
I suspect on some levels this is part of why we see scientists commissioning art about very fragmental organisms. It is as much a way for them to "see" long gone organisms as for us.
Though probably a more official reason is press releases. The average member of the public is not going to care about a fossil discovery unless they have an idea of what was found. Heck palaeo-fans are a lot like this too! We want to see the "living" organism. So what better way to get some coverage of a discovery than to commission some art and attach it to your press announcement. Is this good or bad, well that's the last question...

Do such pieces benefit or hinder the science?

Once again your philosophy on degrees of accuracy will determine your answer to this question.

If you see out reach and getting people interested in palaeontology and science as being the most important function of palaeo-art than any and all art is good, no matter how complete a fossil it is based on or not. Any piece of art that gets people interested and engaged has to be of some benefit.

However if you want art to impart and communicate only solid science, I can totally see why you would see this sort of art as harmful. It implies we know more than we do, and if people look more into what we know about a very incomplete fossil they may take the wrong message about how the science works. They will probably ask the same tough questions as Zach but not be aware that the palaeontologists were engaging (essentially) pure speculation, and assume palaeontology is all about making up creatures from scraps. This is definitely something we do not wish to occur, as there is a lot of solid science involved in even identifying critters from fragmented remains...

My take... 

For what little my opinion matters, I'm not quite as worried about the reconstruction as Zach is. However I do follow his concerns, and when it comes to that final point on lay people being possibly misled to think palaeontologists make up whole animals on tiny scraps I do believe we need to be careful.

I personally feel any piece of science art is harmless if given proper context. Communication is key. If you are recreating a very fragmented fossil critter, including an explantion on your online portfolio/website would be helpful to point anyone confused on how your reconstruction came about. Taking people through how we compare related creatures is good for illustrating how such art is a very educated guess (usually).
For this specific case study, not on a single (official) online story I read about Unescoceratops and Grphyoceratops did I see a note or acknowledgement that Mr. Csotonyi's reconstructions were based on a large amount of conjecture. Certainly journalists may have omitted or ignored this fact, but even on the official Royal Ontario Museum and Cleveland Museum press release pages it was not noted or highlighted.  

If mentioned in a proper context I think this sort of reconstruction is fine. For the majority of people it brings prehistory to life in a tangible way, and helps connect them with their deep time roots. Capturing imaginations to me is far more important in this age of scientific cut backs, than purely accurate palaeo-art reconstructions. We do need to ensure we are communicating what we are doing with speculative art though so that we aren't misrepresenting our level of knowledge or techniques.

Please feel free to let your thoughts on this topic be known below in the comment section (or contact me at if you want to write up your own post on this topic)...