Friday, April 15, 2011

M is for... Mososaur

Loyal readers who are, like Funes, memorioso, may remember I said something in an earlier blog about returning to discussion of cryptids.

Not yet.

The mososaurs, for any non-paleontologists out there, were large marine lizards - probably snakes are their closest living relatives - that became the dominant marine predator in the late Cretaceous Period. Almost certainly, coelacanths would have formed part of its diet: pretty much everything else did. The mososaurs, as a family, were tremendously large: the smallest species identified grew to be over 3 meters in length, while the largest exceeded 15 meters. Their limbs adapted into flippers, mososaurs had some characteristics in common with fish, and some with crocodiles. There is an interesting story to be traced in the identification of mososaur species, involving one of paleontology's many storied rivalries, which would make a fantastic subject for a blog.

Not yet.

Mososaurs make an interesting subject for paleontological study, for a variety of reasons; it is not surprising that Marcus Ross, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, selected them as the subject for his doctoral thesis. As the holder of a Ph.D., it is not surprising that he is recognized as an authority on the evolution, diversity, and extinction of mososaurs some 60 million years ago. You may be suspecting at this point that there is some relatively surprising factoid lying in wait, and if so your suspicion is correct. The surprising aspect of Dr. Ross' career as a paleontologist is that he is also a Young Earth Creationist. As a function of his religious beliefs, Marcus Ross sincerely believes that the Earth, and indeed the entire Universe, is only a few thousand years old. As a function of his professional status, he is an expert on a species that existed millennia before that.

This apparent dichotomy - I say apparent, because that apparition arises only from the assumption of an excluded middle - attracted the attention of New York Times journalist Cornelia Dean, who published an article on Dr. Ross in 2007. As Ross explains it, he is simply "separating the paradigms" between the scientific and religious perspectives of the world. He has been accused of intellectual dishonesty; it has been suggested his "impeccable" doctoral dissertation should have been rejected, since he has used it to argue for creationism as a plausible explanation for the Cambrian Explosion, in defiance of conventional scientific wisdom. The notion that the Earth could simultaneously be only 6,000 years old, and yet host massive predators 60,000,000 years old, is unscientific; in fact, the assumptions supporting that notion are beyond the capacity of science to examine. They have to do with philosophical conceptions of Time; while the question "how long does a second take to pass" may seem alternatively pataphysical and asinine, its implications make it, for this chronicler at least, one meriting consideration.

Rejecting the Aristotelian assumptions underpinning materialist-mechanist empiricism opens one up to a vertiginously uncertain universe; Ross identifies a quintessentially American solution, in pragmatically behaving as if one paradigm or another is "true" in the Aristotelian sense, depending on the situation. Other resolutions to this irrealist situation exist...

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