Episode #29 Fighting Anti-Science with Facts and Fossils with Don Prothero
Don Prothero has written 48 books and counting! And he has repeatedly gone to bat for science, using the facts of the fossil record to disprove creationist beliefs.
Research Associate in Vertebrate Paleontology at the Natural History Museum of L.A. County
Don's been hooked on paleo since age 4. Don's parents were artists and his dad brought his artistic talents to work manufacturing airplanes at Lockheed Martin, illustrating planes by bringing blueprints to life before the age of computers. Don's father worked with watercolors and Don picked up his parents' artistic talents in addition to his compelling love of dinosaurs.
Ray knows Don as a "Rhino Guy." Rhinos, horses and tapirs are Perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates), with their toe symmetry centering on their middle digit. Horses and zebras only have one toe and rhinos have two side toes. Artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates) like camels, pigs and peccaries have symmetry between their digits. This evolutionary difference was first noted by Richard Owen, the guy who named Dinosauria. Then there are elephants with 5 toes who are more distantly related to horses and pigs than we previously thought. Elephants, sea cows, aardvarks, etc. are a unique clade known as Afrotheria. Desmostyllians are so weird scientists are still trying to figure out exactly where they fit in.
Don put the rhinos aside in 2005 and has since moved on to peccaries, camels and oreodonts, but he's also studied magnetostratigraphy to understand how the Earth's magnetic field has changed over time. Some say that the Earth's magnetic field plays into the significance of the number 42 AKA the "Answer to Everything" in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Although the Earth's geomagnetism continues to change but it isn't something we need to worry about in our lifetime. Don has collected samples all across America and compiled his findings in 2001.
We'll keep you posted if someone ever publishes that weird-looking rhino Mary Dawson discovered.
Don is among great thinkers like Steven Jay Gould who aren't afraid to ask questions that others might not be ready to ask. Gould's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium pairs well with the cultural evolution Ray is witnessing outside his window watching the divergent culture of orcas.
Don argues that the extinction event at the KT boundary wasn't as severe as biochemists claim. Looking at the complex biology shows that sensitive amphibians survived through the KT boundary, meaning this extinction event was more complicated than a simple result of the comet and was more of a culmination of different events like the eruption at the Deccan Traps.
Don has written 48 books and counting, which isn't surprising given his first scientific paper was published in Nature! He's also competed on Jeopardy! and has, in fact, won some of Ben Stein's money. In the early 2000s when creationists were pushing the "theory" of intelligent design into the classroom, Don stepped in to defend science with his vast knowledge of the fossil record. He debated prominent members of the creationist movement like Duane Gish and wrote one of his most popular books, Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters, about the subject.
If you or someone you know is encountering Creationist beliefs in the classroom, the NCSE is here for you.