THB, Banditos, Wayward and more confirmed for Cosmic Cocktail!

Evolution of a Scientist Johns Hopkins paleontologist Steven Stanley refuses to clam up. Once again, he's going out on a limb with his revolutionary -- or even heretical -- ideas about humans and nature.


Among fellow scientists, he is Mr. Bivalve. His word is Holy Writ on the evolution of clams, mussels and oysters.

And if Steven M. Stanley had stuck with studying the habits of bottom-feeders, he'd probably have steered clear of trouble.

But the boyish, 52-year-old Johns Hopkins University paleontologist has a restless mind. He's come up with a string of provocative insights in fields outside his specialty, trespassing on the turf of his intellectual neighbors: suggesting that evolution was stuck in neutral until the appearance of the nerve cell, say, or supporting the once-heretical idea that evolution occurs in spurts.

And this has irked some other scientists.

At a meeting in Chicago in 1980, John Maynard Smith, a prominent British zoologist and foe of the fits-and-starts picture of evolution, took the podium and called one of Dr. Stanley's books "wrong . . . wrong . . . wrong."

During a conversation over lunch in Rome a short time later, an ally of Dr. Smith sprang to his feet and crowed at Dr. Stanley: "I'm glad I caught you in this lie!"

Now, though he lacks formal training in both human evolution and anthropology, the Hopkins scientist is wading into the noisy debate over what led to the fourfold growth in the size of the human brain over the past 2.5 million years.

One anthropologist has already taken private potshots, sniffing that there is nothing new in Dr. Stanley's theory -- though some of his colleagues say it represents a startling insight.

"It seems everything I do I upset people," sighs the lanky one-time high school wrestler, swiveling in his chair in his spacious Hopkins office. "There are always entrenched people who are not happy to see someone else coming into their field with a new idea. There's a tendency to be unwelcoming."

Welcome or not, Dr. Stanley is undaunted. That's because he has not only survived past academic battles, he has flourished.

Named a full professor at Hopkins in 1974 at the tender age of 32, Dr. Stanley has published several books, including "The New Evolutionary Timetable: Fossils, Genes and the Origin of Species," which was nominated for the American Book Award.

He is also the author of "Extinctions," a book that explores the mystery of catastrophes that over the past 650 million years have periodically exterminated large chunks of the planet's plant and animal life. (Perhaps the best-known of these events wiped out dinosaurs 65 million years ago, now generally blamed on an asteroid impact off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.)

Last spring, he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

"Virtually everything he writes is stimulating, novel and usually correct," said Ernst Mayr, a retired Harvard biologist and prominent evolutionary theorist. Asked to describe Dr. Stanley's greatest strength, Dr. Mayr replied: "Brains."

"What Steve has is perspective," said Bruce Marsh, a geologist who, like Dr. Stanley, works in Hopkins' small department of earth and planetary sciences. "He's not buried in lots of details and lots of conventions. He can come in and look at it from broader perspectives and broader principles."

Even Dr. Stanley's professional debut, his Ph.D thesis at Yale relating the shape of a bivalve's shell to the animal's behavior, was a groundbreaking "instant classic," said David M. Raup, a retired paleontologist with the University of Chicago, who co-authored a textbook with him.

Once established, Dr. Stanley began rummaging around for fresh ideas. He didn't burrow into his academic specialty and publish stacks of papers on the topic, as most scientists wind up doing. He used his bivalve expertise as a springboard to bigger questions.

Surprisingly, Dr. Stanley partly blames his intellectual breadth on a learning disability.

At the age of 46, after a lifetime of struggling with memorization, reading comprehension and mathematical computation, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. (He has taken the drug Ritalin to combat the condition for the past six years.)

"I can't remember the names of things so well, or the exact numbers," said Dr. Stanley. "But I have a broad, general knowledge of the way things work, things that I find interesting."

Partly, Dr. Stanley said, he inherited an independent streak from his father, William T. Stanley, an engineer and inventor who designed a contraption that, at one point, was used to polish almost all the ball bearings made in the United States.

The elder Mr. Stanley once told Steven, his younger son, that the best way to solve a problem was to come up with his own solution.

"That was better than using somebody else's idea," Dr. Stanley said.

Excelled in reasoning

As an undergraduate at Princeton, he excelled in courses where success was based on reasoning, not memorizing facts and figures. While he muddled through freshman biology tests with mediocre grades, he earned an "A+" in a mineralogy course taught by one of the school's toughest teachers.

"He gave tests in which you had to figure things out, not just regurgitate," he said.

Despite his handicap, Dr. Stanley managed to graduate from Princeton with highest honors.

While earning his graduate degree from Yale, he plunged into the world of bivalve behavior with typical ferocity: He collected clams, scuba dived to watch clams, scraped clams off boats, X-rayed clams, built an aquarium for clams, imagined what it was like to be a clam. In the end, he said, he learned to think like a clam.

"I'd never been around the ocean very much," said the scientist, who grew up in the small town of Gates Mills, Ohio. "I was wallowing around the mud flats, snorkeling and scuba diving. I just enjoyed the field work and also the lab work, learning how they move and what they did."

He still spends a few weeks each year in a shell quarry near Sarasota, Fla., studying a fossil reef filled with extinct species. Otherwise, he teaches and writes at Hopkins and gardens in his backyard in Guilford, where he lives with Nell Stanley, his wife of 24 years.

One of Dr. Stanley's latest assaults on scientific orthodoxy involves what paleontologists think was the greatest mass extinction in Earth's history. For years, the standard view has been that up to 95 percent of the Earth's life forms were wiped out about 245 million years ago in a single cataclysm -- perhaps an abrupt climate change or massive lava eruption in what is now Siberia -- at the end of what is called the Permian period.

The Hopkins scientist, working with a former student, Xianging Yang, a paleontologist at China's Nanking University, thinks he has found strong evidence that this was not a single catastrophe, but two discrete events, spaced about 5 million

years apart.

Devastating events

Both were devastating events, Dr. Stanley said, but neither came close to wiping out 19 of 20 life forms, as the single event was thought to have done. Dr. Raup of the University of Chicago's department of geophysical sciences, who first came up with the 95 percent estimate, now supports Dr. Stanley's revised view of the end of the Permian.

Dr. Stanley's forthcoming book, "Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve," may get a rougher reception.

Anthropologists have long thought that the crucial moment in human evolution came when our ape-like ancestors switched from swinging through the trees of Africa to walking along the ground. These proto-humans were forced to become pedestrians, the theory goes, after global cooling turned ancient rain forests to savannas.

Only after this shift in locomotive style did these big apes, Australopithecus afarensis, begin to develop big brains.

Dr. Stanley agrees, in general, with this picture. But he split with other scientists in proposing how, exactly, walking on the ground led to differential calculus and rotisserie league baseball.

Independent infants

Dr. Stanley points out that the brains of tree-living apes are almost fully developed when they are born. That's because the baby needs to be relatively independent -- able to eat by itself, cling to its mother and move around.

Once Australopithecus quit living in trees, babies no longer required that level of independence. Their mothers could hold them, allowing them to survive with brains not fully developed.

Evolution favored infants whose brains could continue to grow rapidly after birth, which makes them smarter. In human newborns, the brain grows as quickly as the body for the first year of life.

In tackling the Australopithecus story, Dr. Stanley is once again venturing out on an evolutionary limb. There are lots of competing theories, and plenty of skepticism about his approach.

One anthropologist has already dismissed his version of human evolution, Dr. Stanley said, writing that there was nothing new in it.

"That's crazy!" Dr. Stanley said. "No one ever really recognized that Australopithecus couldn't develop large brains while they were spending so much time in trees, [that] they couldn't handle infants."

Dr. Mayr of Harvard praised the idea. "He came up with an entirely new theory that I'm convinced is correct," he said.

"A lot of disagreements in science are very acrimonious," said Dr. Marsh at Hopkins. ". . . Why are some of these guys upset? You'd be upset too if someone just wrote a paper that destroyed 20 years of your work, or 50 years of your work. If you're not doing something controversial, you're probably not doing something worthwhile in this business."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad