NCSCE – Background

[John Jackson:

I’d been in touch with Steve Hunter in 2008, when we discussed the NCSCE site which he’d set up on the troublesome nature of cladism. He also told me all about his belated but enjoyable brush with science in general and palaeontology in particular. We even negotiated an arrangement with T-shirts, though I’m leaving that to him now. In 2012 Alan Feduccia reminded me of the site, and I renewed my acquaintance with Steve. We discussed how the “National Centre…” name of the NCSCE seemed to resemble Kevin Padian’s National Center for Science Education. Apparently it was a coincidence!! He also offered to add my book The Secret Dinobird Story (see side panel on right) to the list of relevant books. Unfortunately, prior to finding anything out about it, he inexplicably started procrastinating, told me he was having “issues”, told me he couldn’t co-operate because he didn’t know me, and completely lost sight of the overall anti-cladist aim.

As Steve seems to have lost his bearings, I’ve decided to represent The NCSCE and its quite interesting site on my blog, with some helpful improvements and comments of my own…

Steve’s words follow:…]

Cladistic Analysis is a tool used by paleontologists and biologists to understand the tree of life. It is based on a straightforward principal. If you are considering more than one possible family tree, the one that accounts for the most observed characters with the fewest evolutionary steps is probably the accurate one. Lots of characters of lots of species are fed into a computer, which constructs and compares trees looking for the simplest possible version.

I have nothing against cladistics, per se. What I object to is the view that a cladogram is not just an attempt to understand life’s interrelationships, but rather that it is an objective definition of those relationships that can only be modified or overturned by another cladogram with a larger data matrix.

The computer only does the math, after all. Fallible humans must figure out which characters and species to include and how to reduce those characters to the 1s and 0s that the computer can crunch. The computer makes no decision about the relative likelihood of convergence or the genetic complexity of a particular feature. The subtle curve of a femur caries the same weight as a fully formed, asymmetrical flight feather. To the computer, 1s are 1s and 0s are 0s.

And nature doesn’t ALWAYS move in straightlines.

This cladogram, based on 208 characters and 44 species of dinosaurs (and birds), is by Clark et al. from the book “Mesozoic Birds, Above the Heads of Dinosaurs” edited by Chiappe and Witmer.

There are clearer renditions of this same cladogram towards the end of my essay, “Feathers: What’s flight got to do …. got to do with it?”

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