What Attenborough Won’t Say
New season, new David Attenborough amazing and captivating nature 2-documentary TV production for the BBC: “First life“, about going “back in time to the roots of the tree of life, in search of the very first animals” (for plants and bacteria, that’s a very unpopular definition of “first life”).
Among the vast amount of information that is presented to millions in ways that are pleasing to the eye, however, there is a fundamental detail that has gone missing, and I couldn’t find even in the accompanying book: and that is the true story of how we have come to known about the “first life” that is the focus of the documentaries.
Sure, viewers are made aware that it all pivots around Australia, where “First Life” spends a great deal of time in search of the Ediacarans. As Attenborough himself told an Adelaide newspaper a year ago:
Amongst palaeontologists it’s a very famous site, a very important site. That’s why we’re going… because this is a crucial episode in the history of life.
The Flinders Range of South Australia is in fact called “one of the world capitals of Ediacara“. And “First Life” does mention the importance of a local scientist called Reginald “Reg” Sprigg, as the one that discovered the fossils but had a hard time in convincng anybody else of their importance.
Yet there’s much more to that and it’s not difficult to find. And it’s a true-life story dramatic enough to make one wonder why did Attenborough steer away from it.
By the way…Bill Bryson’s “Short History of Nearly Everything” mentions Sprigg’s tribulations too, at pages 320-321: having found definitive evidence about complex organisms from a period “at least a hundred million years” before what was at the time believed to be their starting point in the Cambrian, n 1946 Sprigg “submitted a paper to Nature, but it was turned down“. He then proceeded to “fail to find a favor” with the head of Australia and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science” and to pretty much everybody at the 1948 London’s International Geological Congress.
In Bryson’s telling, things got rosy for Sprigg’s discovery only from 1957 onwards. That’s right, but once again that’s not the whole story either.
The whole story, in fact, starts in 1868 (I have blogged about it here, with thanks to BBC’s In Our Time for the inspiration). The idea that scientists believed nothing larger than bacteria before the “Cambrian explosion” is still being used to nag poor Darwin, of all people the one more at pains in understanding why nobody could find complex lifeforms before the Cambrian geological strata.
If only Darwin had heard about Aspidelia Terranovica!!
The first Ediacaran fossils discovered were the disc-shaped Aspidella terranovica, in 1868.
At least one scientist understood they were fossils, as early as 1872 (note how others had been blinded by…the established consensus!!):
However, since they lay below the “Primordial Strata”, the Cambrian strata that were then thought to contain the very first signs of life, it took four years for anybody to dare propose they could be fossils.
Alas, consensus won the day, and buried the fossils into the forgetfulness of history:
Elkanah Billings’ proposal (see here) was dismissed by his peers […] the one-sided debate soon fell into obscurity.
Six decades on, more pre-Cambrian stuff is found. Guess how it all ends:
In 1933, Georg Gürich discovered specimens in Namibia, but the firm belief that life originated in the Cambrian led to them being assigned to the Cambrian Period, and no link to Aspidella was made.
Thirteen more years pass, and it’s finally time to look at a strong-willed Australian paleontologist, called…Reg Sprigg. Consensus still (barely) wins, although against the first signs of a breakdown:
In 1946, Reg Sprigg noticed “jellyfishes” in the Ediacara Hills of Australia’s Flinders Ranges but these rocks were believed to be Early Cambrian, so while the discovery sparked some interest, little serious attention was garnered.
As already said, Nature proceeded to reject Sprigg’s letter, and Sprigg switched to the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia. The partner of Sprigg’s son is his biographer and has some interesting comments about that:
If you look at them now I find it very hard [to think] that anybody could doubt them: they are about the size of the palm of your hand and you can quite clearly see they are circular, they look as you’d expect a jellyfish to look if it had dried out, or some kind of worm or something. But back then, yeah, he wrote a paper and submitted it to Nature, which is one of the most prestigious journals in the world, and they rejected it, they didn’t believe either in what he’d found. And it was about another 10 years before some amateur naturalists went back to Reg’s site and found some more specimens, different ones again, and took them again to the museum. And by then the museum was a little bit more interested and they organised their own expedition and brought back two truckloads of material and from then, the momentum grew.
And here’s how the story ends, and the dogma, with the involvement of an already well-respected scientist called Martin Glaessner and yet more evidence:
It was not until the British discovery of the iconic Charnia in 1957 that the pre-Cambrian was seriously considered as containing life. This frond-shaped fossil was found in England’s Charnwood Forest, and due to the detailed geologic mapping of the British Geological Survey there was no doubt that these fossils sat in Precambrian rocks. Palæontologist Martin Glaessner finally made the connection between this and the earlier finds, and with a combination of improved dating of existing specimens and an injection of vigour into the search, many more instances were recognised.
Needless to say, Nature published Glaessner’s letter. So much for “peer review”.
There we are then, with at least 3 scientists either wholly disregarded or actively isolated by the consensus/dogma crowd, a few rejected scientific papers, and a scientific consensus/dogma winning for decades despite being based on a rather odd idea.
The topic of a new history-based BBC drama, with shamed faces at Macmillan Publishers Ltd? Or the inspiration of a new David Attenborough documentary about how consensus-fixated scientists have been ruining science for centuries?
Sadly, I doubt it.