24 January 2006

George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984)

"…I was born with or somehow very early acquired an uncontrollable drive to know and to understand the world in which I live."
G. G. Simpson, Concession to the Improbable

George G. Simpson was a vertebrate paleontologist and one of the architects of the so-called synthetic theory of evolution developed during the mid-20th century. I recently read his 1978 autobiography, Concession to the Improbable. It took me, with many interruptions, about 2 months to finish it, mainly because, the book, initially interesting, got duller and duller as Simpson got older and older, so to speak.

The most exciting period in Simpson's life appears to have been during the early 1930s when he made several trips to Patagonia and other parts of South America to collect fossils. The chapters dealing with that period are also the most interesting parts of this book. Simpson volunteered to serve during World War II and spent 2 years as an intelligence officer in North Africa. His refusal to obey General Patton’s order that he shave his beard was witnessed by a reporter and subsequently publicized in the U.S. media. (Simpson was under General Eisenhower's command and had his permission to wear a beard.)

Simpson returned to South America in later years. During a 1956 expedition along some tributaries of the Amazon at a remote corner of Brazil, a tree fell on Simpson seriously injuring him. It took his companions 8 days to transport him to a hospital in New York. It was 2 years before Simpson could start to walk again with the help of a cane.

Early in the 1960s, presumably because of his declining health, Simpson seems to have stopped going on fossil collecting trips. Nevertheless, he continued to travel widely, but mainly either to attend scientific meetings or to study museum collections or to convalesce. I thought the chapters about those trips were mostly uninteresting. Simpson gives endless details, apparently copied from his diaries, about every city he and his wife visited, the people they met, the hotels they stayed in and even the meals they had. I skipped many of those pages.

During his latter years, Simpson studied fossil penguins, but it seems that all of his "field trips" during those years were to museum collections and his trips to Antarctica to observe live penguins were all on commercial cruises. Doing serious research while vacationing is not a bad idea, though, and I too try to incorporate a research project into all of my vacation plans.

Simpson was a prolific writer. In addition to many scientific papers, he wrote books on as diverse subjects as evolution, statistics, horses, penguins and the Kamarakotos Indians of Venezuela. He even wrote a posthumously published science fiction novella, The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, which I reviewed here. Simpson, who described himself as an etymophile, coined the term paleospheniscologist, a person who studies fossil penguins. During a time when he was the only such person he declared himself to be the world's greatest (and worst, according to one of his daughters) paleospheniscologist.

Considering Simpson's contributions to the field, the book offers disappointingly little on evolutionary theory. The most interesting part along these lines was the very brief account of the discussion Simpson and his friend Theodosius Dobzhansky had on speciation after having witnessed the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia:

"It is a matter of common observation in communities more fully studied that similar species live together if, and usually only if, each has a way of life sufficiently distinct so that they do not compete in at least one, even trivial, aspect of it…The trouble was that we could not see this differentiation for many species in the reef. Some of the different species of corals, for example, seemed to be coexisting in the same niche. We could only conclude that we did not know enough about them or that there was some hitch in the theory…"

Additional biographies of G. G. Simpson are available here and here.

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