2012 Romer-Simpson Medal Winner

       Philip Gingerich


I met Alfred Sherwood Romer several times visiting Harvard when I was a graduate student, and I spent a day with George Gaylord Simpson in Arizona  when I was an assistant professor. Both wrote the paleontology and biology textbooks I used in college and graduate school: Romer wrote Vertebrate Paleontology of course, and The Vertebrate Body. Simpson was the principal author of my introductory biology text, a massive tome titled Life; he was the principal author of Quantitative Zoology, one of the most accessible statistics books ever written; and he wrote Tempo and Mode of Evolution and Major Features of Evolution, the latter still pretty much required reading in college and graduate school. Romer and Simpson were inspiring, but down-to-earth real people too in spite of their iconic status. Both were energetic field paleontologists, clear thinkers, and prolific authors blessed with a simple and direct writing style. We are all much wiser for their contributions to our science.

Photo courtesy of Yukimitsu Tomida

My transition to a professional career was inspired by leaders:   Walter Alvarez was the teaching assistant when I studied introductory geology as a freshman at Princeton; Erling Dorf taught historical geology; and Alfred Fischer taught my first paleontology course and started me on research. In 1967 the six-day war in the Middle East scuttled plans to work with archaeologists in Saudi Arabia, and I am forever indebted to fellow undergraduate, Michael Archer, for steering me to Glenn Jepsen for summer field work. Jepsen took a small team of students to Wyoming each summer to search for Paleocene vertebrates. I spent the summers of 1967 and 1968 in the hot sun collecting Paleocene mammals. Jepsen inspired my eventual dissertation research on Plesiadapis evolution and Paleocene biostratigraphy – when as a student I found the professor didn’t know what I thought he should about both. Now, as a professor myself, I know why work with students is so important – students can always see gaps in our knowledge better than we can.

I spent two years from 1968 to 1970 teaching secondary-school mathematics and science in Malawi, the Central African country that Lou Jacobs and Elizabeth Gomani later made famous for its dinosaurs. When I returned to the U.S. and Yale for graduate study, Elwyn Simons and John Ostrom were great mentors, Keith Thomson had a big influence, and I was lucky to work on David Pilbeam’s first field project in Pakistan. Simons was my Ph.D. advisor and he was especially good in the sense that he folded me into ongoing research from my first days in graduate school. In the wider world, Farish Jenkins has always been a role model two or three steps ahead of me, and even as a graduate student I was aware that Mary Dawson was pushing the envelope in showing that men and women can work together.

At Michigan I have been lucky to work with great colleagues for years. Jerry Smith hired me, and Dan Fisher, Catherine Badgley, Jeff Wilson, and Laura MacLatchy have been the best colleagues I could imagine. Holly Smith is an accomplished anthropologist – but married me anyway. The Michigan Society of Fellows and other programs brought a series of smart postdoctoral scholars to Michigan. Our Museum of Paleontology sponsored great graduate students, many of whom are here this evening. And we were fortunate to have many talented undergraduates go on to careers in vertebrate paleontology – again many are here this evening. At Michigan I have been helped by a stable staff of preparators, collection managers, illustrators, secretaries, and key administrators over the years, without whom we never could have been as productive.

 

Research in paleontology can be wide ranging – as mine has been – because the unanswered questions are all so interesting! I knew Genesis was the first book in the Bible from childhood. Summer bible school taught me evolution was controversial – and hence certain to be worth investigating! I studied geology as a college freshman to satisfy a science requirement and move on, but was hooked from the beginning. The labs were outdoors, and what bigger subjects are there than the origin of earth and the history of life! Think about it. Nothing people study anywhere inspires others and gives more meaning to life than paleontology – the study of being, and ancient being, and how we got to be what we are.


In my research I study fossils in stratigraphic and temporal context because I want to see patterns through geological time, and I want to quantify rates of change. Rates are still poorly understood and largely under-represented in the current evolutionary synthesis. I find this astonishing, since evolution is such a unifying process in biology. How can we not know the tempo of this process? How can we not ask, and seek to answer, questions about rates?

           
I study fossils in stratigraphic and temporal context because I want to know how changes we see in the fossil record are related to environments in the past and to environmental change. The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum or PETM has become a model for global greenhouse warming, but remember this story started when we found a thin interval of strata with dwarfed mammals in Wyoming – just when most modern orders first appeared. Isotope stratigraphy linked the interval to similarly dramatic change in the deep sea, and soon we had new insight into global greenhouse warming (with some big mysteries still unsolved).


Finally, I study fossils in stratigraphic context because this is a context the general public can understand. When people hear the story of whale evolution, they can follow it because they understand the simple logic of a sequence of fossils changing through geological time. Public understanding of science has never been more important than it is today, and that includes public understanding of evolution.

     
My research has been published with some 250 different colleagues and co-authors in North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Each is entitled to a piece of this year’s Romer-Simpson medal. I have worked with many colleagues and students in the field – and all too are entitled to a piece of the medal. I like working with people. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a young person make a great discovery and move forward in his or her career.

 

The future will be more political than the past. If you are young, you need to budget time for national service when planning your career. Plan to be engaged in thinking about what is important in our science, and plan to be involved in making the right things happen in Washington. Reviewing grant proposals for NSF is a great place to start, but there are more ways to be engaged too. Bruce MacFadden has been a great leader in this.

           
What we do as paleontologists gives meaning to people’s lives, but what we do is also important for understanding the consequences and risks of environmental change. The old technology of ink on paper is becoming obsolete, and the old image of the paleontologist alone with his or her microscope is becoming obsolete too. We have to work together, and we have to engage the politics of our time. None of us can afford that the U.S., as one of the world’s largest and most influential democracies, continues to elect head-in-the-sand congressmen ignorant of the fossil record and evolution – electees who then wind up managing science policy. Where do people think our energy comes from? Why are coal and oil called fossil fuels? It is not because they are extinct or obsolete. Fossil fuels come from fossils, and paleontologists help find the fuels as well as the fossils. 

           
What we do is important too for helping biologists understand how life came to be what it is today. There is no way to reconstruct anything like the true history of life working back from the present – too little of the whole history remains living. We would never imagine the Paleozoic, or the Mesozoic, from what is left living today. I don’t think molecular clocks are calibrated correctly, and ‘molecular backbones’ just reinforce histories that biologists have long hindcast from the present. In the end, the history of life will be the one emerging through geological time from the fossil record. This is another reason the fossils we find and what we do with them are so important.

 

Romer and Simpson were founders of SVP, leaders in our profession, and great role models. I am lucky to have known them both. Romer and Simpson helped lay a foundation and lead our profession – but societies and professions are bigger than any of us as individuals. Societies and professions grow from collective involvement. Collective involvement is what I have had with you over the years, and you have had with me. In this spirit I am honored indeed to receive the Society’s Romer-Simpson medal.  

Thank you very much!