Thursday, 31 March 2016

The quest for the Holy relic of archaeology: part six

Fossil Brittle Star
(Palaeocoma egertoni from the Jurassic Middle Lias Formation)

Science is the systematic classification of experience. 
George Henry Lewes

Anything can be classified, even classifiers. Archaeological critics of Barry Fell do nothing but state the obvious. If you go the doctor complaining of an infection in your sinuses and the doctor tells you that you have sinusitis you will go away knowing nothing new, save perhaps, for its name. Criticisms of Fell's theories lack anything that can explain why a scientist would suddenly abandon scientific methods, and for me at least, that is the real subject. The reason for this lack of explanation is that the critics are part of the problem but have not examined their own roles in the situation. Even if the critic is not, personally, an extraverted materialist the subject of archaeology certainly has that characteristic.

Charles Sanders Peirce said:
 "Philosophy ought to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibers may be ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected." Some Consequences of Four Incapacities
and it might have been Konrad Lorenz who pointed out that when an important hypothesis is finally published all of the circumstances of its discovery including its false leads, hunches, and the personal experiences of the researcher do not get included in the final product and that this gives students the idea that it was all a matter of luck and that if they could be so lucky as to have such a hypothesis drop in their lap out of the blue then they, too, might get published in some important journal one day.

When I first published my work on Coriosolite coins, I explained how I came about its discoveries and the impetus that brought me to that point, but I did not mention the previous ten years I had spent looking for something original to write about Celtic coinage. There were a number of experiences which taught me that it is easily possible to build theoretical models which are internally consistent, and quite logical yet can turn out to be utterly wrong, so by the time I started my research I had already decided to be almost obsessively exact and detailed in my method. Most classifications rely on just a few elements but I took hundreds of them into consideration and finally used 88 overlapping and specific changes to 29 features of the basic design of the coins to build my chronology. Most series of coins are classified by only two or three features of change and although any number of varieties can exist, these are not instrumental in any chronological ordering, I have forgotten exactly how many elements I noted of that sort but I think it was around four hundred or so.  My diligence and ten years work paid off: I discovered that what had been considered to be a single series was actually three series, each with its own geographical focus. The book only got positive reviews; it was the first example of the use of evolutionary cladistics in archaeology; the most detailed analysis ever published for any Celtic coinage; and in the fourteen years since its publication all newly discovered varieties have fitted into its chronology exactly. It also spun off into many directions that I had not originally intended, but all good answers lead to to many more questions and avenues of research. That is how you know you are on to a good thing. If this does not happen, then your conclusions were probably either wrong or irrelevant. Everything is connected.

Barry Fell's research into echinoderm fossils turned into a train-wreck for him:
"Back when I was a student of Barry Fell's, we were using a very primitive computer almost the size of my condominium to study ancient distributions of echinoderm fossils. It was a pretty impressive use of Harvard's computer center at the time. We were using these distributions to try to determine ancient ocean current patterns to see if Earth's axis may have been tilted at different angles in the past. The intent of this study was to disprove what we felt was the preposterous theory of continental drift, now known as plate tectonics. Of course we were wrong. Echinoderms taught me my first lesson in being open to flaws in my scientific hypotheses, and to new theories. Therefore they hold a very important place in my cold scientific heart." Dr. Bill Bushing, Harvard, Dive Dry with Dr. Bill, #278: The Spiny Skinned Critters.
Yet, otherwise, Barry Fell had been previously greatly honoured and had also become an excellent mentor to many:
"For his contributions in the whole field of echinoderm biology, particularly fossil echinoids, Barry was awarded a DSc by the University of Edinburgh in 1955. He became a Fellow of The Royal Society of New Zealand in 1960, received the Society's Hector Research Medal in 1959, its Hutton Memorial Medal in 1962, and was also the Society's Hudson Lecturer. He became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1964.
"During his latter years at Victoria University Barry gathered around him a small but energetic group of graduate students who themselves became echinoderm specialists, including David L. Pawson who later joined the United States Museum of Natural History, Helen Rotman (nee Clark) and Alan Baker. They, and many others, found Barry to be a helpful, compassionate and greatly respected mentor, in marked contrast to the authoritarian and idiosyncratic stance that the then Head of Zoology, Lawrence Richardson, adopted towards many of his students and staff....
"The contrast between these two men was marked and eventually a serious rift developed between them, sufficient for Barry to respond in 1964 to several invitations that had been made to him to join Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology in Boston as Curator in Invertebrate Zoology. He later became Professor of Invertebrate Zoology, continuing his wide-ranging phylogenetic studies on echinoderms. As well he gained a singular reputation amongst undergraduate students for his innovative presentations and text-books on natural history of a style that had not been heard or seen for many years. He remained at Harvard until 1979, when he accepted voluntary retirement and he and Rene moved to San Diego, California.", Howard Barraclough Fell, PhD DSc Edin FRSNZ FAAAS  (the original is a New Zealand government publication, but the link to it  is now dead).
The Atlantic Online frames the problem within the subject of cultural, rather than biological diffusionism, but if you look at the broader picture from what I have given here, psychological factors are paramount in the directions that Barry Fell took. What we are seeing is an archetypal fall from grace, Jungian in its essence but since translated into the literary genre by Northrop Frye in his Theory of Archetypes (Autumn: Tragedy).

In life, just as it is in comedy and acting, timing is everything. In my younger years, before my own research, when working on something in the numismatic lab of the Nickle Arts Museum (now both the lab and the museum are defunct) I had a theory of mine completely exploded by a discovery the very next day. My lab companions were sympathetic and mentioned how disappointed I must have felt. My reply to them was "Oh, no, it's wonderful!" I explained that I now realized that a theory could be internally consistent and utterly wrong at the same time. It was the eureka moment for me that changed the way that I looked at everything from that moment on.  This is a truly great thing to have happen to you when you are young, before the accolades of life. Not so great after them, though. I know now that the glories of life are fleeting and when one door closes, another opens. But the timing of everything made it easy for me. How would you have reacted to Barry Fell's circumstances? I cannot answer that for myself.

More in this series tomorrow.

John's Coydog Community page

No comments:

Post a Comment