A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Paleoecology is More Important than Agronomy. And Everything Else.

Paleoecology is More Important than Agronomy. And Everything Else.

The other day I heard Darren Naish and John conway, of the excellent Tetrapod Zoology Podcast, stumble over the question of why Paleontology is important. This was apparently a spill over from a whole panel of experts stumbling over this question at the Pop Paleo conference. I want to talk to the guys about this, blowing up the discussion to put paleontology in its place, as a sub-discipline of paleoecology. My life’s passion revolves around the lessons paleoecology can offer our society. My children are fed and my mortgage paid by those lessons, although writing that, I wonder if one can have both a ‘life’s passion’ and children to feed and mortgages to pay.  At any rate, I was horrified to hear the stunned silence around this question.

People need to be fed with enough calories and all the essential amino acids and vitamins. They need to be warm and dry. They need to feel reasonably sure that they can keep those other conditions up for the next three months. At that point we need to turn our attention as a species to paleoecology and I’ll tell you why.

But while I have your attention I want to tell you about my kids throwing up. That means it’s time for the Almanac Section of the Bentgrass Blog, where I talk about what happened in the real world here on the ranch even though I almost have a physiological revulsion to dealing with the real world so closely. Yeah, everyone got sick here and almost the whole week was spent dealing with that. We even got my Dad. But he didn’t get sick until he got on the plane to go home. So we didn’t have to take care of him. Perfect. He’s a grandparent, so at this point, he is expendable. And I can say anything I want since he isn’t reading this. He made it clear he doesn’t read blllooooggs! Seriously, though it was great having him around. We tried to teach Abel-the-two-year-old the phrase ‘grandpa move to Oregon,’ but he just blubbered and cried when my dad was leaving. Oh well, we’ll work on that, nothing a little rote memorization can’t cure. Grandparents are fundamental components of the human family. If you doubt it you can review some excellent anthropological studies from Marlowe et al. Or you can have kids.

The flood water started coming down on the pastures this week. Up until recently it had been fairly dry, but apperently with that last storm we had the tenth highest recorded river levels on the Coquille. Drain out stalled over the weekend with unfavorable tides but should pick back up here on Monday. I had a whole pile of willow poles cut and ready to drive in to the ground for planting but they all got scattered seven different ways, some are strewn about in the neighbors trees. I might not tell them they are mine. The beavers already started chewing on them. While the water was up, something went around and ate all the dock plants in the pasture, digging them up and eating the roots. Beavers or nutria I guess. But whatever. My thoughts have turned hard to the fence and water project this spring. Which I am sure you will hear more about.

So anyway, back to what I was saying about politics, economics, philosophy, religion, history, physics, and whatever else being for dopes.

I guess other people look at, say, the bones of a pterosaur and say, “well, I guess that is a little interesting but it is extra. As a species we have hunger, disease, war, and the most recent re-boot of Full House to worry about. Paleoecology is an extra.”

I see it completely differently. There are Pterosaur genera that survived virtually unchanged for Forty Million years. Paleoecology is full of organisms like that. Don’t, we as a species, want some of that special sauce?

Of course we do. I don’t think that I am speaking out of turn to say that we want to survive. That is fundamental to everyone. Since we are the primate that makes symbols, shouldn’t we then study what it takes to survive in this world? Paleoecology is the study of survival.

When we study geometry, chemistry, political science, philosophy, business, blah blah blah, we are probing around in the dark. We are not cutting straight to the issue at hand. Fundamentally what do we want? Survival? Ok well, we have hundreds of millions of years in the paleoecological record. At any moment in that record, we have uncountable billions of organisms, all surviving. Pick one. No, you can’t do it exactly as any of them do it. Just like you can’t start a business exactly the way Jeff Besos or Steve Jobs did and expect it to survive. You can’t run a political campaign exactly like FDR or Alexander the Great. But you can get the je ne sais quoi of it all. And that’s what you need. If you are going to start a business or run a political campaign, you would be better off studying paleoecology. Think of how many case studies you can draw from.

Sure none of the other organisms in the paleoecological record studied paleoecology. They got along just fine. But we are different. We can no longer do anything well without being conscious of it. That ship has sailed. Pterosaurs could not possibly survive without their unique elongated wing finger. If humans are going to survive we have to consciously interact with the paleoecological record.

No other discipline can make any kind of claim for offering that sort of refuge. What kind of record do they have to go on? 10,000 years for history? Four hundred years for physics. Two Hundred years for Agronomy. Put that up against the five hundred million year record of the Phanerozoic. There is just no possibility that any other discipline offers the sort. Every organism on this planet is the product of unbroken success over those 500 million years.

Let’s take Agronomy as an example. You might think someone could make a good argument for agronomy being the most important discipline, but that is exactly what’s wrong with the world. I make a living in agriculture. Agronomy is no use to me. Without paleoecology, agronomy has lost the plot. It has no organizing idea, theory. It is stumbling around in the dark from one shiny object to another. Oh, jeez! I almost forgot. I wrote a whole book basically on this subject. History, political science, chemistry, all the same as agronomy on that front.

The plants and animals that feed us and house and clothe us, that regulate our temperature and atmospheric gases and create our water cycles etc., are the product of a very long story. If we subscribe to the idea that they are the product of evolutuion by natural selection, we cannot effectively interact with those systems without understanding paleoecology. This is where I want to take another jab at the modern discipline of ecology. I am continually shocked a the level of paleoecological ignorance I find in professionally trained ecologists. You can’t know anything that way.

I hear you out there saying, “Well gee Nate, you’ve made the case for why paleoecology should be studied for our mere survival, but I want to do more than survive. I want to thrive!” Well, you need paleoecology for that too. In order to find out what it means to ‘live the good life,’ you have to understand the way our psyche is organized. In order to do that you need to understand the selective pressures that have operated on our species to shape the neural connections we have inherited. You need to understand the world that made us feel pleasure under certain circumstances and pain under others. You need paleoecology.

The more I think about it the more convinced I am. If politics drew from a well of paleoecological knowledge, if chemistry was the servant of that discipline, if agronomy was our real world interaction with paleoecology, the world would be a better place. In other words, we would have a better shot at survival and happiness.

Give me that old time Paleoecology. It’s good enough for me.

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