Down to Earth With: Michael Novacek

Michael Novacek. Credit: Courtesy of Denis Finnin, AMNH Director of Photography Michael Novacek. Credit: Courtesy of Denis Finnin, AMNH Director of Photography

By Brian Fisher Johnson

When it comes to fossil hunting, Michael Novacek has just about seen it all. As a paleontologist, senior vice president and provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Novacek has braved everything from Andean snowstorms to Yemeni bandits in his quest for fossils. Somewhere, he found time to write two books about his expeditions: “Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs” (1996) and “Time Traveler” (2002). Novacek recently chatted with EARTH reporter Brian Fisher Johnson about his experiences.

BFJ: What’s the most trouble you’ve experienced in search of fossils?

MN: It was pretty tense working in Yemen in 1988. A renegade army group captured us and kept us under guard for a night or two. We had an official letter from the minister of mineral resources, but I’m not sure the [army leader] could read. We finally translated the letter and they decided it would be too much trouble for them if they actually did away with us, so they let us go.

BFJ: Did they have swords at your throat?

MN: We were thrown down onto dung heaps and I slept there between two tanks where this teenager with a [rifle] walked back and forth, jabbing it into me all night long. It was not a pleasant experience. The closest I felt to injury or exposure was when I had an accident on a horse in the Andes in ‘86. The horse fell from under me and my boot got caught in the stirrup. It dragged me along and I injured my head. I seemed OK but I couldn’t move my legs that next day, and we had to evacuate camp because a huge snowstorm came in. They literally had to lift me onto a horse. Then the horses panicked when we got to a river that was raging from the snow and the storm. The cowboys told us to dismount, but I couldn’t dismount, and nobody could help me, so I just fell off the horse hands first into a thorn bush. I was just lying there, bleeding, and I thought, “I just feel like a miserable beast.”

BFJ: Now you know how all those saber-toothed cats in the La Brea Tar Pits felt.

MN: [Laughs] It was bad.

BFJ: In “Time Traveler,” you mention that you got into trouble at your Catholic school for secretly reading science books.

MN: In my elementary school, not only was the prejudice societal or religious, it was largely ignorant — a lack of knowledge about science, especially areas like paleontology. There was that built-in belief that a lot of this stuff was mythical. There are plenty of people in the Catholic Church who understand paleontology and accept evolution. One of the foremost paleontologists in history was a priest: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. My school nuns, as with many elementary school teachers, were probably not knowledgeable about science. Even today, there is a shortage of science teachers at a lot of these earlier levels of education.

BFJ: Americans have often struggled to accept evolution. Yet the United States has remained a leader in science. Is there really a dire need for the general public to accept evolution?

MN:  When we’re talking about a population in this country that accepts evolution, we’re talking largely about the scientific community. That’s not where you find the anti-evolutionists. Now, is an acceptance of evolution required for all of the progress we’ve made in science and technology? Probably not. But are certain applications of biology enhanced by an acceptance of evolution? Yes. One of the ironies of people who reject evolution is the fact that they don’t realize that they actually accept evolution as a theory when they are worried about things like avian flu or AIDS. Infectious organisms can adapt to treatments against them — they can evolve in ways that makes them capable of resisting drugs, or they can evolve to shift to new hosts in ways that may more directly infect humans. So why do people worry about these things if they don’t believe in evolution?

BFJ: During a 2006 interview on “The Colbert Report,” you talked about the possibility that humans will go extinct. When might that happen?

MN: The fossil record suggests species last on average about a couple of million years. Homo sapiens, as far as we can tell, have been around for about a couple hundred thousand years at the most. Now, humans may be a remarkable species, as we like to think of ourselves. But it’s also important to acknowledge that, based upon what we know about the evolution of life, there’s no reason to expect that humans will last more than a few million years. And indeed, some of the reasons other species have gone extinct is that they couldn’t adapt to major changes. Well, putting those two thoughts together, Earth is changing in a major way, and this could create an environment in which humans find it difficult to adapt.

Brian Fisher Johnson

Johnson is a contributer to EARTH Magazine.

Thursday, April 23, 2009 - 06:00