No Such Thing as a Fish
- 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.
Vol. 22 No. 14 · 20 July 2000
From Henry Gee
Richard Fortey (LRB, 6 July) uses his review of my book, Deep Time, to launch cheap shots at my late friend and his former colleague Colin Patterson. Fortey starts his review with an account of the alleged academic authoritarianism of the Swedish palaeontologist Erik Stensiö. He closes his review with a declaration that Stensiö was the palaeontologist most admired by Patterson – a crusader against authoritarianism. Patterson, one of the finest evolutionary theorists of the age, died a couple of years ago and cannot defend himself.
Fortey is entirely right in his suspicion that I have never published a cladogram. He has published lots, however – and the implication in his review is that I therefore have no right to discuss them, and that he, being older and wiser, knows better. This is precisely the kind of authoritarianism that Patterson strove to unmask – indeed, it resembles the actions of Stensiö that Fortey himself condemns.
Kings Langley, Hertfordshire
Vol. 22 No. 15 · 10 August 2000
From Richard Fortey
I was appalled to read that Henry Gee (Letters, 20 July) considers part of my review of his book Deep Time to be an attack on the late Colin Patterson. It was not – my quarrel was solely with Gee’s ossified version of Patterson’s views. I was both a friend and admirer of Patterson; indeed, I published a memoir of him last year in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society wherein my regard for him is evident. Gee also accuses me of authoritarianism, but while it would be authoritarian to describe an author as a ‘fool’ (which I didn’t), it is merely assertive to describe him as ‘out-of-date’ (which I did). The latter is easily rectified by a little reading; there is very little you can do about the former.
Natural History Museum, London SW7