- The Paleontological Society
When ambitious large-scale projects are proposed, like the Paleobiology Database (Alroy et al. 2001) and Panama Paleontology Projects (Jackson and Johnson 2001), there is inevitably a negative reaction from various quarters, which is quickly forgotten when the projects start to yield results. Given that, it may be useful to sing the praises of “big picture” science more generally and I will do so after briefly addressing this discussion starter in the context of my own research.
Albeit a truism, it is also a profound truth that the kinds of patterns we observe and the kinds of explanations for these patterns are different at different scales (e.g., Willis and Whittaker 2002). A decade ago I studied the early evolution of the birds using a molecular phylogeny (Nee et al. 1992). In particular, we analyzed the rate of cladogenesis at the root of the phylogeny, the rate of diversification of those lineages that gave rise to all extant species—clearly a global measure of biodiversity dynamics. We wanted to see if the data fit an exponential model of radiation (they do not). This could be construed as “meaningless” by objecting that it is meaningless to talk of a “rate” when there is, inevitably, rate heterogeneity—not all lineages are the same and the devil is in the detail.
I reject this view, of course. By way of analogy, it is perfectly reasonable to compute and analyze the rate of increase of the human population, ignoring heterogeneity. One then discusses this meaningful global observation in terms of the Haber-Bosch system of nitrogen fixation and so on. At a different scale, we may invoke female emancipation to explain the declining populations of Europe. Finally, we could discuss my own childlessness by reference to my personality. “Meaningless”–ness would arise if and only if we mixed scales and, …