Nelson: Colin Patterson's Famous 1981 AMNH talk (audio files)

I listen to podcasts and online lectures while cleaning my office. Here’s a two-part YouTube audio file which should interest many here, whether office-cleaning or not: the late British Museum paleontologist Colin Patterson’s famous (or notorious) 1981 talk at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC:

Part 1: YouTube

Part 2: YouTube

This is the talk where Patterson asked his famous question, “Can you tell me anything about evolution that is true?”

Caveats: (1) the photo in the YouTube file does not depict Patterson (the same erroneous photo turns up at Patterson’s Wiki entry). This is Patterson:


Caveat (2) – the audio file has significant room noise here and there. Those I’ve spoken to personally who attended the lecture (Niles Eldredge, Gareth Nelson, and Joel Cracraft) say that the AMNH lecture space was standing-room only. You can detect this by the late Donn Rosen’s introduction of his close friend Patterson. “There are two seats left,” Rosen says, indicating their locations.

Art Battson of Access Research Network plans to correct the photo error, and also upload a carefully-edited transcript of the talk soon.


I’m not sure what message you’re taking from all this. Perhaps you could explain.

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I think he was just sharing it for the sake of sharing it.

Though I think this should be read. Especially Patterson’s letter:

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TJ is right: no message. The talk is a fascinating bit of scientific history.

Patterson was a hero of mine, for the clarity of his writing, his analytical precision, and the depth of his knowledge of the history of his various disciplines (fish systematics, comparative biology, systematics generally, and evolutionary theory; too few biologists make the effort to learn how their field got to where it is, and why). Even when one disagreed with him, one always knew exactly where Patterson stood on important questions.

Those who knew Patterson well (e.g., David Williams) have argued that he paid a heavy cost for giving the 1981 talk, and the controversy that followed. The intense public scrutiny under which Patterson fell, they speculate, may have led to his early death in 1998 (at age 65) from a heart attack.

I’ve written a bit about Patterson here:

Click on the “Patterson sampler” link at the bottom of the page for some of his best writings.


4 posts were split to a new topic: I Can’t Find My Topic!

I heard Patterson speak once, at a Field Museum symposium. He was a pattern cladist, but not as crazy as some. His point was that we should not assume any evolutionary processes in doing cladistic analyses, as that would make it circular to use the resulting trees as evidence for evolution. And of course he thought the trees were such evidence.

I think he was right that trees are evidence, but wrong that incorporating process assumptions into the analyses makes the argument circular.

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