This topic might have been a little more relevant in February 2009, since that month was the fortieth anniversary of two highly important papers in two areas of science for which this group has a special affinity: paleontology and psychometrics. But at the time, there was an even more important anniversary
to celebrate, so our post was about that instead. In addition to Darwin’s birthday earlier in the month, though, the last week of February is the anniversary of two historic papers by two scientists between whom there are some interesting parallels: the paleontologist John H. Ostrom and the psychologist Arthur R. Jensen.
On February 25th, 1969, John Ostrom described and named the dinosaur Deinonychus
in the Yale Peabody Museum’s journal Postilla
is now quite a famous dinosaur, but Ostrom’s discovery of it is important for reasons that go far beyond giving the world knowledge of such a fascinating animal.
At the time when Ostrom’s paper was published, the prevailing view of dinosaurs was as sluggish, cold-blooded animals that were an evolutionary dead end. This had not always been the case—in the late 19th and early 20th century, dinosaurs had often been thought as fairly active animals that were directly ancestral to birds, and one example of the active view of dinosaurs during this time is Charles Knight’s 1896 painting
of two sparring Laelaps
. (Now known as Dryptosaurus
.) In the mid-20th century, however, this idea had begun to fall out of favor. One reason why it did is Gerhard Heilmann’s 1926 book The Origin of Birds
, which carefully examined and then rejected the idea that birds were directly descended from dinosaurs. (Incidentally, the Wikipedia article about this book is written by Ferahgo.)
Although Heilmann’s book was very well-researched, its conclusions were ultimately the product of the incomplete fossil record that was known at the time. Despite pointing out the numerous skeletal similarities between dinosaurs and birds, Heilmann ultimately rejected the idea that birds were their descendents for a single reason. That reason was because no known dinosaur had a furcula (wishbone), or even clavicles (collarbones) that could have been fused into a wishbone. An Oviraptor
fossil with a wishbone had actually been found in Heilmann’s time, but Heilmann had the misfortune that this particular bone on Oviraptor
would not be correctly identified until the 1980s.
Because of the conclusions reached by Heilmann’s book, the idea that birds were directly descended from dinosaurs gradually fell out of favor among paleontologists, even when dinosaur fossils with correctly-identified wishbones became known in the 1930s. It is because of John Ostrom, and specifically the research based on his discovery of Deinonychus
, that the perception of dinosaurs has now shifted to what it is today. Ostrom’s discovery of Deinonychus
therefore marks the beginning of the period now known as the “Dinosaur Renaissance”—the modern re-awakening of the idea that some dinosaurs were active, warm-blooded animals and that birds are their direct descendants.
Arthur Jensen’s most famous paper was published in Harvard Educational Review
on February 28, 1969, three days after the publication of John Ostrom’s Postilla
paper. Harvard Educational Review
had asked Jensen to examine the conclusions of the Coleman Report, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education which had concluded that compensatory education was not effective for increasing students’ IQ or academic achievement. The conclusion reached by Jensen’s paper was that the reason why compensatory education programs were not effective for this was because IQ was heavily influenced by genetics, and that genetics therefore were limiting how much students’ IQ could be raised by factors like education.
Like Ostrom’s conclusions about dinosaurs, Jensen’s idea that IQ was highly heritable had once been widely-accepted in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not only had this idea been widely-accepted; it had also been misused as the justification for various abuses of governmental power, such as forcibly sterilizing people with below-average IQs. After a few decades of this there was an inevitable backlash against these ideas, fueled in part by universal revulsion at the eugenic policies of Nazi Germany. By the mid-1960s, any idea that popular perception associated with eugenics was generally not considered worthy of serious consideration, including the idea that genetics influence IQ.
As can be expected of a paper reaching a conclusion that went so strongly against society’s zeitgeist, Jensen’s paper was among the most controversial in the history of psychology. A large part of this controversy was focused on a part of Jensen’s paper that only took up around 10% of its total length: Harvard Educational Review
had also asked Jensen to provide an opinion on why the average IQ of some ethnic groups was higher than that of others, and Jensen’s conclusion was that there was a substantial chance genetics were contributing to that also. No other modern scientist in the western world has had to endure the amount of persecution that Jensen experienced because of this conclusion. It included protestors disrupting of the classes he taught at U.C. Berkely, slashing the tires of his car, painting swastikas on his office door, repeated death threats, and a few occasions where the police had to protect him from angry mobs for the sake of his physical safety.
As John Ostrom’s description of Deinonychus
was for the Dinosaur Renaissance, Arthur Jensen’s HER paper was the beginning of several decades of new research about the nature of intelligence and its relationship to genetics. At this point, the majority of Ostrom’s conclusions about dinosaurs have been widely-accepted, and the discovery of dinosaur fossils with primitive feathers over the past 15 years can be considered the ultimate confirmation of Ostrom’s theory that birds are their direct descendants. Jensen’s conclusion that genetics influence IQ has also been widely accepted in the fields of psychometrics and behavioral genetics, and its own ultimate confirmation could be this study
from October of last year, which was the first to conclusively link variance in IQ to specific genes. His conclusion that evidence supports a genetic contribution to the IQ variance between ethnic groups is not yet widely-accepted, but it’s taken far more seriously as a scientific hypothesis than it was in the 1960s, and it’s now generally possible for scientists to research this idea without being in physical danger.
In case it isn’t obvious, I find it interesting what a close parallel there is between John Ostrom and Arthur Jensen, and the impact that each of them had on their respective fields. I felt this way ever before I was aware that both of them published the papers which were the beginning of this impact in the last week of February 1969. With that in mind, here is this month’s question: Can anyone think of any other examples of two fields of science where the developments closely paralleled each other in this manner?
It would be especially interesting if there is another parallel between two specific researchers, or if important papers in both fields were published only a few days apart.
At the moment I’m not aware of any other examples of this, although that might be because I’m more familiar with paleontology and psychometrics than most other areas of science. I would be very interested to know if there are other fields where the parallel is just as strong, or if it turns out that the parallel between John Ostrom and Arthur Jensen is unique.