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Mini-T and the Character of Evolution

Fascinating how we have to change the characterological theories of evolution once there's a Mini-T. Today's NY Times article on the discovery of a miniature version of Tyrannasaurus Rex that lived 35 million years before the great giant reminds us that evolution is a fact, but interpreting what, why, and how of evolution is about a paradigm, often a paradigm only thinly based on modernist ( and Victorian) middle-class and often Euro-centric values.


I mean, think about the name "Tyrannasaurus Rex."  Hard to get more hyperbolic than that.  Think of values of regency, tyranny, and the equation of the tyrant and the king with bigger size.  Think about how awed the Victorians were by that massive skeleton, the huge jaw, the ferocity.  King-like.  That's anthropomorphism in action and in rhetoric.  We move quite easily from the fossil record of life 125 million years ago to values that sound like Marvel Comics.  

 

This week, I've been fascinated by how media coverage of Mini-T reports how this changes our evolutionary theory.  Even the account of what was the theory before the Mini-T find in China is different from account to account, as value laden as the name "Tyrannasaurus Rex."


And, ah, a Mini-T now added to the fossil record, predating the Big Guy.  Mini-T changes the solitary, savage, all powerful maurauding giant King of the Earth theory (and changes it differently in different popular and also scientific accounts of the "why").  Maybe the little guy was the one who survived longest against environmental odds and other creatures?  If so, maybe "survival of the smaller" is as good a motto as "survival of the fittest."  Think about all of the biological and social paradigms that change when we see all of the agon in the world (everything from international diplomacy to racial strife to marital conflict) labelled as embodying that lofty principle of  "survival of the smaller."

A paradigm changes everything.  Including what next experiment a scientist conducts and with what end in mind.   Think about what you would be looking for if the paradigm were "survival of the smaller," or, concomitantly, not the Victorian "nature red in tooth and claw" but something like "nature wily and smart and agile and occasionally needing the tooth and the claw too."


Significantly, early paleontologists, in their search for the next T-Rex, often excavated with a "back hoe" mentality, pushing away anything but the biggest bones, thereby spoiling a site that offered not just a new skeleton but a whole ecology of the era in which that skeleton once walked the earth.  In the quest for Rex, a fossil record of plant life and many smaller animals was scattered, compromised, and sometimes ruined, yielding a partial pre-history at best where much fuller evidence was available.  That is a tangible way in which a paradigm or a value (bigger is better) changes, in material ways, the evidence that could support or refute the paradigm.   As every professional detective knows, if you go into a case thinking you know the solution, you will find evidence for that solution--but are less likely to actually find the culprit. 


All of those meta-scientific issues are available in the revisionary accounts of T-Rex necessitated by the finding of Mini-T.  But perhaps most striking this week is the tone of melancholy, as if finding  Mini-T has  diminished Rex's stature in the evolutionary chain, has lessened his prominence.   It is as if the drum major at the head of the "survival of the fittest" evolutionary parade (the mightiest, most violent creature to ever roam the earth) is now looking a bit ineffectual relative to lesser raptors.

 

Now, Tyrannasaurus Rex is seeming more like Ozymandias.  And in the Romantic Period's rendition.   Remember your Shelley?  Ozymandias is the melancholic version of the King, pompously bragging about his immortality amid the shifting sands of time.  No longer tyrant, no longer king, no more forever.  (Think about those pathetic little T-Rex scrawny arms.)


Mini-T, O! Mini-T! I Hear Percy Bysshe Calling to Thee . . .

 

"Lone and level sands stretch far away . . ." 

 


Here's the url for the NY Times article:   http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/18/science/18dinosaur.html?emc=eta1

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