Paleo Personas: Musings on a Soviet Cephalopod, Norman Newell, and Mass Extinctions
Being an academic has several perks: surely one of the most superlative is the opportunity to work with talented students. Serving as a museum curator also has its perquisites. It’s true that Bobby Bacala of the Sopranos remarked that after “manicurist”, “museum curator” was the profession most anathema to Wiseguys. We enjoy the work of this thespian best known for playing mafiosi, and sadly we must admit that we see what he means in terms of his ranking
of museum curators on the “Wiseguy” scale (although neither of us has ever gotten a manicure … ). Still, opening up a drawer packed with modern species,
or ancient ones,
can be awe inspiring: in this respect it is much like staring up at the night sky and glimpsing a distant nebula so far away that it took light 70 million years to travel from those stars to your retina. We museum curators know that often a good way to find something astonishing, even something “new,” is to browse through old, neglected drawers in natural history museum collections. An excellent example of this involves a specimen of the trilobite Bouleia dagincourti found by one of us (NE) in just such a neglected drawer in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). It had been given to Norman Newell, who we will hear much more about in this blog, by archeologist Junius Bird.
Originally, Bouleia was thought to be very closely related to Phacops. However, analysis of the morphology (by NE) demonstrated that the arrangement of muscle scars on the heads of these two types of trilobites was quite different, revealing that they were much more distantly related; indeed, they belonged to entirely distinct families. This would be equivalent to showing that what were once thought to be two species of cats in fact represented only one cat, with the other species now treated as a member of the weasel family.
The science of paleontology intrigues so many because it is a science that provides a window on the past. BSL obtained a glimpse through such a window via the work of one of his graduate students, Kayla Kolis, who received her Master’s degree last year. As part of her Master’s thesis, she was studying patterns of evolution in Pennsylvanian and Permian cephalopods that lived roughly 310 to 270 million years ago in seaways that covered parts of North America. These animals are relatives of the modern squid and Nautilus.
Most of the species of fossil cephalopods were unique to that part of North America, as might be expected.
However, one of the specimens in the collection of fossil invertebrates at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute (KUMIP), a fragement of a nautiloid that stretched out like a crooked finger, had a more surprising pedigree.
A glimpse at the label indicated she had made a startling discovery.
This specimen came from a country that no longer exists today, the Soviet Union, yet one of its descendants, Russia, is still very much in the news. Moreover, it was collected in 1937 by a highly accomplished paleontologist, Norman Newell, who spent many decades working at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) where he served as the PhD advisor to one of us (NE). He cut an impressive figure throughout his many years at the AMNH. How he ended up in the Soviet Union in 1937, during the height of the purges, was a big surprise, but apparently he was sent by his former advisor, by-then boss, at the University of Kansas, Raymond C. Moore to take his place at an international conference. More aspects of his voyage may lie buried in the archive referenced here: http://images.library.amnh.org/hiddencollections/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/MSS-.N495_Newell_findaid.pdf though at present alas fiduciary responsibilities and the lack of pecuniary endorsements associated with producing this blog preclude thorough rummaging through said archive to elucidate this mystery further.
A sordid and disturbing aspect of this time in the Soviet Union was the penchant for people to simply disappear at the behest of Stalin and the state security system, which was embodied by the NKVD. People were made to not just figuratively but literally disappear from the record, all traces erased, even more thoroughly than certain clades of long extinct organisms were eliminated during ancient cataclysms. What it would have been like to visit the Soviet Union at this time could have been equal parts horrifying and fascinating, and we only wish we had asked Newell about it before he passed away.
And with these ancient cataclysms, and the long extinct clades they vanquished, we return to the story of the star of this month’s blog, paleontological luminary Norman Dennis Newell (1909-2005). He was raised in the great state of Kansas. His mother drove him to the University of Kansas (KU) in Lawrence, Kansas (if NE’s memory serves, Norman said it was in a horse-and-buggy) in 1925, where he studied geology (receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees) under the tutelage of paleontologist Raymond C. Moore, State Geologist and KU geology chairman. He was also an apparently skilled clarinetist—and later in life, Norman got out his old clarinet to play a few “licks.” Something that further endears him to the hearts of ourselves and others who were his academic children and grandchildren, and also shared a wannabe penchant for playing jazz.
Norman, naturally enough, became entranced with the Upper Paleozoic fossil riches of Kansas—and was drawn especially to clams (bivalved mollusks). He wrote his doctoral dissertation at Yale, under the general tutelage of Carl O. Dunbar. The retired famed Charles Schuchert was still hanging around, and Norman once said (to NE) that the old boy had become hard of hearing, so Norman got to hear all of his words through the wall of his next-door office as he shouted out what must have been generally fascinating and engaging stuff into the telephone.
Norman worked in Kansas for the State Survery and, later, as a faculty member at KU in the 1930s. His 1937 publication on Upper Paleozoic Pectinacea (scallops and their scallop-like forebears) remains a classic on how one looks at evolution through the lens of a paleontologist.
Norman spent three years during WWII mapping the geology and collecting the fossils around Lake Titicaca for the Peruvian government. His specific charge was to locate exploitable oil deposits. As far as we know, none were to be found—but when Norman accepted a job offer from George Gaylord Simpson to become an invertebrate paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History in NY in 1945, he brought a choice collection of his Peruvian fossils—including trilobites—with him. Years later, in the late 1960s, NE found them just sitting there, waiting to be studied so their secrets could be revealed.
In the 1950s, Newell, teaming up with the Smithsonian’s brachiopod specialist G. Arthur (“Gus”) Cooper, and a huge array of colleagues, graduate students (mostly Norman’s Columbia kids, including Roger L. Batten, Donald Boyd, Robert M. Finks, Ellis Yochelson, and Keith Rigby) and technicians, pursued a massive, innovative study of the silicified Permian fossils of the aptly-named Glass Mountains of Texas. That endeavor led directly to Norman’s perhaps even more famous team effort to understand the carbonate ecology and physical environmental regimes of the Bahamian platform—a pioneering study of modern marine ecology sparked by his passion to understand all the better those ancient Permian environments.
But, probably above all else, was the fact that by the 1960s, Norman D. Newell had become, almost the sole—and certainly the most important—figure to proclaim the reality of mass extinctions. He called them “crises in the history of life.” As later emerged from a ton of data and careful analysis, the end-Permian was the greatest of all mass-extinctions to engulf life on earth since the emergence of complex, multicellular life over a half-billion years ago. Norman had also become an expert on gaps in the stratigraphic record of time: unconformities, paraconformities and the like. He knew he had to battle the traditional litany of complaints asserting that what the fossil record seemed to show about the history of life could be explained away because the record is riddled with missing time—ergo missing sediments and fossils. Missing data. Newell had to convince himself, first, and then the rest of us, that, despite missing time, the signals sent by the fossil record are real records of actual events—and not just, or only, the artifact of poor temporal preservation.
One of us (NE), by then a very junior curatorial member of Norman’s small (but we liked to think choice!) invertebrate paleontological department at the AMNH, once had a long tete-a-tete in Norman’s office. That would have been sometime in the early-mid 1970s. The conversation was cordial, but also quite intense, and even (on at least two moments) nearly heated. I (NE) was expounding on the virtues of cladistics, the then-new-fangled approach to phylogenetic analysis that had been sweeping the AMNH in the late 1960s, and was beginning to seep through its thick stone walls to the American hinterlands. Norman said it was all very interesting, but especially since the young Turks espousing the approach were willing not to include temporal (stratigraphic) information in their data sets, they were needlessly handcuffing their problems to make them mimic the approaches of systematics to purely contemporary, living taxa—for which phylogenetic systematics was originally devised by the German entomologist Willi Hennig.
Norman was defending the importance of time in thinking about evolution. He wasn’t wrong of course: one us (NE), Norman’s former student, despite having produced a cladogram hypothesizing a pattern of relationships among the various sub taxa of the Middle Devonian Phacops rana trilobite “species” (as was then thought), had also at the same time produced charts of stability and change in time and space of these fossils: the empirical basis of the notion of “punctuated equilibria.”
Norman was also a great teacher—and for awhile in the mid-late 1960s, convened (with Roger L. Batten) a weekly seminar focused on a different group (e.g. “Mollusks,” “Arthropods,” etc.) each semester. Graduate students of two age classes were in regular attendance: in my younger entering-group of 1965, there were also Gene Gaffney, John Boylan, Bob Hunt and others. But also there were those who had entered the program in 1963 (and taken NE under their wing whilst still a college junior), including two who I have long since come to regard as my academic older bothers: H. B Rollins and Stephen Jay Gould—aka Bud and Steve.
And NE will never forget one day, back in the student’s research room, after one of these seminars, Steve saying “I swear that man (i.e. Newell) will go to his grave denying natural selection.” Newell had probably been waxing eloquent on his love for the stratigraphic vision of the history of life. And maybe he was on a tear about extinctions as well. I (NE) remember wishing we could talk about something positive (evolution!) rather than negative (extinction!) during those days. Little did Steve or I (NE) know that we would go to our graves after careers developing and promoting the idea that nothing much happens in evolution unless and until extinction, of varying intensities, shakes up an otherwise stable system.
BSL’s encounters with Norman Newell were much less lofty and far more indirect. Certainly I (BSL) was impressed as a twenty-something graduate student to see him coming into work several times a week: long after retirement and well into his late 80’s. Further, the image of Newell taking a protracted, slow, and measured perambulation down one of the longest hallways in the world (on the AMNH’s 5th floor), carrying a small box of Permian bivalves to be photographed brings me (BSL) back to fond memories of life in graduate school. One might step in and out of one’s office several times to find him moving slowly but steadily towards his final destination. God, to have long dead clams imbue one with such a sense of purpose is a testament to the triumph of science and the human spirit.
Newell’s legacy: mass extinctions
Extinctions are a central part of paleontology’s fundamental connection to evolutionary biology. Indeed, starting with the work—and arguments between—the two great French naturalists Cuvier and Lamarck at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in the early 1800s, extinction was perhaps the first great theoretical contribution paleontology made to evolution. However, before Newell’s time, the notion that mass extinctions could occur was largely anathema to biologists. Indeed, Charles Darwin, in a last-minute comment scrawled into the “Fair Copy” (i.e. clean handwritten copy, made by an amanuensis, and readied for the printer, though in this case never delivered) in his 1844 “Essay,” wrote “Better begin with this: If species, really, after catastrophes, created in showers over world, my theory false.” Darwin was evidently jolted by the appearance of Alcide d’Orbigny’s (a student of Cuvier and rival naturalist who preceded Darwin by a few years in South America) 1842 monograph on Jurassic ammonites. D’Orbigny introduced the concept of “Stages” (“Etages”)—bodies of rock recording intervals of time, demarcated and defined by the abrupt, near simultaneous extinction and subsequent replacement of species. He also thought that his “stages” were world wide in extent (“monde entier”—Darwin’s “over world”). Though we now see that “stages” are not global (there are fewer than 10 truly global mass extinctions—including the human-caused one, which we are now living through and hopefully surviving), large-scale regional “stages” remain a key element of biostratigraphy. They are the basic units recording the “turnovers”—births and deaths of species in environmental event-driven episodes. Norman would have loved this!
We cannot agree with Darwin that regional and global mass extinctions prove his theory of evolution through natural selection wrong. But they do represent an important challenge to aspects of Darwin’s views that posited that evolution is largely a slow and gradual process, with speciation and extinction events stretched out through time, and competitive factors playing a primary role in each of these phenomena.
Norman Newell, along with his wife Valerie, would occasionally throw large parties for students and faculty involved with the Columbia/American Museum of Natural History program in paleontology. The Newells had a magnificent pool table in their basement, which was an important attraction at such events. In the late 1960s, the Newells had attended yet another International Geological Congress in the Soviet Union—and Norman decided to regale his attendees at one such occasion with what turned out to be, shall we say, an exhaustive slide show of their trip. Exhausting is perhaps the better word. As the show wore interminably on, at last one of our graduate student numbers—the redoubtable Eugene Spencer Gaffney (soon to become the AMNH’s fossil reptile curator, replacing the retiring Edwin H. Colbert) plucked a white handkerchief from his pocket and began waving it in the universal sign of surrender. At last Norman got the hint, and said his formal version of “show’s over folks!”
But Norman’s show is far from over—as he was vital in so many ways in changing our understanding of how the stratigraphic history of life, riddled as it is with local, regional and truly global mass extinction and evolutionary recovery events, connects up with our grasp of the evolutionary process itself.
This blog was written by Niles Eldredge and Bruce S. Lieberman. The current manager of the website is named below.