No Such Thing as a Fish

Richard Fortey

  • Deep Time: Cladistics, the Revolution in Evolution by Henry Gee
    Fourth Estate, 262 pp, £20.00, April 2000, ISBN 1 85702 986 0

In 1952, Gustav Wängsjö published a 612-page monograph on early fossil vertebrates from the Arctic island of Spitsbergen. These fossils were the remains of sluggish, fish-like animals covered in bony plates, on which, more than 380 million years ago, the finest details of nerves and arteries had been as faithfully impressed as fingerprints in clay. Wängsjö studied them with the care that a criminologist might apply to the dabs of a suspect, but the most remarkable feature of his monograph is its postscript. In the space of two pages Wängsjö was forced to retract most of what he had written in the previous six hundred. His interpretations were not correct, he confessed; instead, his findings confirmed the previously published ideas of Erik Stensiö, doyen of Scandinavian palaeontologists. It was reported that Stensiö had said, when Wängsjö presented his dissertation: ‘If you publish this, you will amount to nothing more than a schoolmaster in Norrköping.’ Thus did academic authority cauterise the truth; for time has confirmed most of the younger man’s conclusions. Stensiö lived to more than ninety, working every day in the Natural History Museum in Stockholm. Wängsjö became a schoolmaster in Norrköping. That’s authority for you.

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