Paleontology for the New Age?

This review features a book with a lot of good scientific work on fossil tracks and trails. However, it seems to be interspersed with strange New Age thinking that made me uneasy about the work as a whole. Read on.

The work in question is Martin Lockley's latest, The Eternal Trail: A Tracker Looks at Evolution, Perseus Books, 1999. The retail price on this 334 page book is $26. I have read earlier works by Lockley on dinosaur tracking and had been impressed with his work in trackway interpretation. Lockley is a noted expert in this field throughout the world and is presently professor of paleontology and geology at the University of Colorado. With these qualifications in mind I had no hesitation in purchasing this book without even scanning it.

To be sure The Eternal Trail has more fascinating information about trackways around the world. Lockley does a wonderful job presenting the historical interpretations of famous early track sites and present interpretations based upon solid scientific analysis. Amongst these were giant bird tracks (the first dinosaur tracks), 150 million year old mule tracks (shrimp burrow trace fossils), and others. It will interest horse lovers to know that these creatures were gaited back in the Pliocene without the aid of human training.

The Eternal Trail's ten chapters are each subdivided into numerous one- to three-page subsections. Each of these is dedicated to a particular topic in support of the chapter's theme.

In chapter six Lockley does a reasonable job of trying to find a middle ground between Science and Creationists. He tries to plea for a little give and take to get both sides to move toward a peaceful agreeable position.

So what about the New Age issue?

I'd say about half of The Eternal Trail involves the scientific presentation and evaluation of tracks. The other half is a mix of folklore, philosophy, and New Age thinking. Included in this grouping are ideas that have been scientifically disproved, scientifically unprovable, or just not worth consideration. Science works on hypotheses, theories, and testing. These others do not fall within the world of science.

Examples are surely in order.

An early warning sign of things to come pops up on page 24. Lockley relates a belief of the Desana Indians of Columbia that "the view of the [night] sky [is] as a giant brain." OK so far. He goes on with "This view of the plane of the galaxy [the Milky Way] makes it analogous to the sagittal plane that bisects our brains and bodies. To stand in alignment with the night sky is to integrate our entire beings with the cosmos." Whoa! Where did that come from, and where is the relevance to tracks and evolution? As if that weren't enough, in the following paragraph he ponders human preoccupation with two sided symmetry and follows with "Is there an evolutionary message in our bicameral world of right and wrong, light and dark, day and night?" Shall we lament the lowly corals with their radial symmetry or applaud the lofty sandwich for the bilateral nature of the two slices of bread which form the union?

What's going on here? Lockley is presenting a philosophical message of design and direction in the grand scheme of things by using interesting and amusing non sequiturs (Literally: It does not follow, meaning that a Columbian Indian's concept of the heavens does not have any link to human physiology, or in other words, fact A does not explain fact B). Lockley's use of non sequiturs continues throughout The Eternal Trail.

Here is one of my favorite examples from pages 31 and 32. Lockley speaks of Ms. Mae-Wan Ho's work in which she and co-author Brian Goodwin "make a plea for science dedicated to the ‘knowledge of the organic whole'". Lockley amused me with his follow up sentence, "Their conviction is grounded not in mystic intuition (or at least not that alone [sic!]), but rather in hard scientific evidence." Ho has reiterated that living organisms defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics according to Lockley. You may remember the Second Law being used in similar fashion by the Creationists. For a refresher the Second Law applies to a theoretical closed system (which can not exist in nature) and by definition excludes living systems. Therefore, living organisms do not "defy" the Second Law since it does not apply to them.

It gets better. Lockley waxes poetic about eddies in streams. He likens them to "an organism's life cycle" as "a smaller circular current connected to energy flow in a complex system." What does that mean? It means that an organism is directly connected to all other organisms, the ecosystems, the cosmos, etc. Put another way, this is holistic thinking (have you heard of Gaia?). Lockley further states that "we are polychromatic organisms, radiating biophotons" and that this has "implications for research into energy fields or auras."

My absolute favorite was another concept of Mae-Won Ho, that organisms are "polyphasic liquid crystals - phases of matter between the solid and liquid state, with molecules in perfect harmonious alignment." I guess that's why the Pillsbury Dough Boy's belly goes in when it's poked.

In the ninth chapter Lockley even lends credence to Bigfoot legends in part claiming that all those native peoples' legends are so consistent there must be something to them! Another non sequitur. Reality is not determined by popular vote.

In an interesting reversal in thought patterns, Lockley uses trackway evidence to discredit the theory proposed by Robert Bakker that brontosaurs traveled in herds. His reasoning? The trackway evidence is insufficient to draw such a conclusion. In other words, in Lockley's opinion, Bakker has over-interpreted the evidence, possibly because herding behavior is something that we would like to believe. From my viewpoint, this is precisely what Lockley himself has done in The Eternal Trail. Considering that he was supposed to be somehow tying organism tracks to evolution, I think his bases are firmly planted in sand.

The Eternal Trail is available at local book stores in the science/biology sections. I personally believe it should have been put in the New Age section. Did you ever wonder why New Age sections exist in book stores? I'll let you ponder that one on your own.

I can not in good faith recommend this book. I find it sad that Lockley's excellent scientific work on tracks and trails is overshadowed by inclusion of strictly philosophical tenets. The Eternal Trail is a "popular" book intended for the general public. Those in the "great unwashed masses" of humanity will probably read this and believe every bit of it. My hope is that we all look critically at ideas posed in any "popular" books. Oftentimes we never get to see the other side of the story in peer reviewed journals. Sometimes books are written for the purpose of gaining popular support in hopes of swaying the public and scientific detractors. To paraphrase Lockley in The Eternal Trail: wishing it to be so doesn't necessarily make it so.

Click here to read the previous issue.Click here to read the next issue. Click Here for Book Title Index Click here to go to top of Author Index Click here to go to Issue Index