Be kind to colleagues, ruthless with theories is a good rule. A scientific theory isn't merely idle speculation, it's a verbal picture of how things might work, how a system in nature might organise things — atoms and molecules, species and ecosystems. But old palaeontological theories too often aren't treated roughly enough. Old theories — like the reptilian nature of dinosaurs — are accepted like old friends of the family.
|A fake fossil slab, made in Morocco.|
|See Simulating a fossil|
In inland districts, on mountain peaks and in places farthest from the sea, shells, skeletons of sea-fish and marine plants are found, which are just the same as the shells, fish and plants now living in the sea, which are, indeed, exactly the same.
— Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon
Every organism forms a whole . . . if, for instance, the intestines of an animal are so organised as only to digest fresh meat, it follows that its jaws must be constructed to devour a prey, its claws to seize and tear it, its teeth to cut and divide it, the whole structure of its locomotory organs such as to pursue and catch it; its sensory organs to perceive it at a distance
Baron Georges Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert Cuvier (1769 - 1832)
We have a lamentable instance of the gross impositions practized on the ignorant in former times, at two of their establishments on this coast - Whitby and Lindisfarn, where, to make it appear to the vulgar that their titular saints possessed the power of working miracles; St Hilda is said to have decapitated the snakes and converted them into stones of that form (now the Ammonites of the Lias); and St Cuthbert of Holy Island, is said, with his little hammer, to have forged the introchi (of the Mountain Limestone) - so called St Cuthbert's Beads.
What a gross perversion of Nature.
— William Smith (1769 - 1839)
The violence of the weather lately washed down . . . and exposed a mass, which, on digging out, proved to be the vertebrae of some animal, whose size must have been enormous. It is in excellent preservation, every process and part being perfect. . . . Many are the conjectures with respect to the animal; some imagine it to be the gigantic buffalo or the rhinoceros, and others the elephant. That intelligent osteologist, Miss Anning, of Lyme, surmises it to belong to either the behemoth or the hippopotamus, yet admits that it far exceeds their acknowledged dimensions.
The Gentleman's Magazine (1928??)
. . . the extraordinary thing in this young woman is that she had made herself so thoroughly acquainted with the science that the moment she finds any bones she knows to what tribe they belong. . . . by reading and application she has arrived to that greater degree of knowledge as to be in the habit of writing and talking with professors and other clever men on the subject, and they all acknowledge that she understands more of the science than anyone else in this kingdom.
Lady Harriet Silvester, in her diary, 1824, after visiting Mary Anning.
She sells sea shells
By the sea shore,
And the shells that she sells
Are sea shells, I'm sure.
Verse about Mary Anning
We are lucky to have fossils at all. It is a remarkably fortunate fact of geology that bones, shells and other hard parts of animals, before they decay, can occasionally leave an imprint which later acts as a mould, which shapes hardening rock into a permanent memory of the animal. We don't know what proportion of animals are fossilized after their death - I personally would consider it a very great honour to be fossilized - but it is certainly very small indeed. . . If a single well-verified mammal skull were to turn up in 500 million years-old rocks, our whole modern theory of evolution would be utterly destroyed. Incidentally, this is sufficient answer to the canard, put about by creationists and their journalistic fellow travellers, that the whole theory of evolution is an 'unfalsifiable' tautology. Ironically, it is also why creationists are so keen on the fake human footprints, which were carved during the depression to fool tourists, in the dinosaur beds of Texas.
Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker.