Well some of you might already know this, but David Peters is back!
That's right, the paleoartist whose pterosaur faux-pas and downright bizarre illustrations backfired on him and made him a paleo-pariah had returned. Now he has a new and much more detailed website, and it seems he's at it again.You may remember a few years ago that Peters got a huge pile of flak from researchers in the field for his downright bizarre pterosaur illustrations and his theories on their evolution. Just looking at the things makes your eyes hurt.
Peters became the target of much criticism and mockery from the field (not all of it undeserved, I might add) for his downright weird pterosaur illustrations and equally weird theories on their origins and anatomy. The field sees him as more or less of a crank. And after years of almost no internet activity and a dead web site, he's BACK! And he's causing a bit of a stir in the paleo-community. But first, who is David Peters?
Some brief background
Those who already are familiar with his history can skip this paragraph. David Peters is a commercial/advertising artist who got involved in paleo-art back in the 90s, doing paintings for a few dinosaur books and even authoring his own book on evolution, From The Beginning. It's a very interesting and beautifully illustrated book, Peters certainly has tons of talent and knowledge of reptile and mammal evolution.
His dinosaur paintings are also pretty impressive and accurate, a lot like Greg Paul's work. In fact, Peters may well have become the next Greg Paul if he hadn't biffed it on the pterosaurs.
David Peters, around 2000 or so, began theorizing about Pterosaurs in detail. His first contention (shown on this web page) was that the traditional bat-winged model of pterosaur wings was incorrect and that they were actually free-legged and some could even run bipedally on the ground. This is actually something I tend to agree with, as the notion of bat-like wings extending all the way to the knees or ankles looks to me to be based entirely on squished fossils with displaced and torn wing membranes. However, things quickly went downhill from there...
Peters then postulated that pterosaurs were not archosaurs, but prolacertiformes - in other words, that they were not cousins of dinosaurs, as most palontologists accept, but actually more closely related to lizards. While this is the less popular of the two theories, Peters emphatically contends that pterosaurs were lizards, and that anyone who disagrees just isn't ready to open up to the facts (keep in mind Peters doesn't have a degree in any paleo-related field - not that this discredits him, but he's up against some pretty well-established PhDs). However, the majority of pterosaur researchers, including Dr. David Unwin, Dr. Mark Witton, Dr. David Hone, and Mike Habib, agree on an archosaurian origin for pterosaurs, not a lizard-like one. My verdict on the lizard theory: FAIL! Peters even draws pterosaur skulls in such a way as to make them LOOK more lizard-like than they actually are, and also distorts the proportions of several bones and joints, not to mention adding all the wacky crests, wattles, artificially long pterodactyloid tails and imaginary skin appendages which may just be displaced soft tissue, impressions of intestines and the like. He also never adequately addresses the clearly archosaurian (and on top of that, ornithodiran) ankle joints of pterosaurs.
There are several reasons. First, he's generally had an abrasive way of answering his critics. Second, he hounded and trolled researchers of the opposing archosaur-origin view, like Dr. David Hone (more on that later). And third, he acted like his methods are more reliable than the firsthand analyses of PhD professors. And what were his methods? Basically Photoshop. That's right, he just traced features in pictures of the fossils in Photoshop, without ever having seen them in person. And this is supposedly an 'accurate' way to restore crushed pterosaur fossils, according to him. I can see this approach working with sauropods or other big animals whose bodies are rarely preserved with any sort of soft-tissue impression anyway, and are not easily squashed. But for delicate creatures like pterosaurs, especially one found in slab fossils with mashed-up soft tissue stains, it's woefully problematic.
Look for example at Peters' strangely palm-tree-like skeletal of Longisiquama, the weird "proto-lizard" which he claims was an ancestor of pterosaurs (and ironically is also claimed by some BANDits as the ancestor of birds!)
Now look at how he traced so many hypothetical "structures" on the fossil slab which aren't even visible in the image (and conceivably not even with increased contrast) to get his skeletal concept.
Look at all those little weird filament outlines! Is that stuff real? I don't see most of it in the fossil photograph!
Dr. Michael P. Taylor of SV-POW was willing to keep an open mind and test David Peters' Photoshop fossil tracing technique, with results of a uniquely British manner of hilariosity.
Eventually, Peters put up his own garish-looking website, www.pterosaurinfo.com, which was full of his off restorations of pterosaurs and proto-lizards. The site soon after closed down. Apparently he closed down the site because it wasn't getting a lot of attention from paleontologists, and he didn't consider it worth the money to keep it up (again, more on that later). Peters has also implied in many instances that his photoshop method is equally or more accurate than diagrams and drawings by people who have actually seen the real fossils. Ridiculous, since photos can contain false data, and the human brain can potentially create more false data by how it interprets the photos. David Marjanovic responded to Peters' claims as follows:
Peters has historically reacted badly to this kind of criticism. He has repeatedly hounded experts in the field like Dr. David Hone, who has many times made clear that trolling and internet harassment is no substitute for publishing a rebuttal paper, and that tracing photos is no substitute for seeing a real fossil specimen in person.
In addition, on the DML, Peters has made some rather inane and insulting arguments about how a photograph is no worse than the original specimen and that scientists drawing from the real specimen can't get any better results than an amateur tracing from a photograph - only to get shot down by pretty much EVERY scientist who responded. In response Peters heckled the experts some more, "challenging" them to test if they could do better drawings of the fossils with their methods than he could with Photoshop tracing - as if this subjective contest somehow circuitously proved his argument about pterosaurs being lizards. It really wouldn't prove anything of the sort. Cries of "crackpot" ensued.
Then things REALLY got ugly. Here's one of Peters' diatribes against Dr. Mike Taylor.
That's how it is.
Mike, with your "That's how it is" paradigm we would have no relativity, no integrated baseball and the earth would be the center of a tiny universe only a few thousand years old.
Just in case anyone else was too dim to understand this perfectly simple thing: "That's how it is" is not a REASON to adhere to the status quo, but a DESCRIPTION of what has been established, by scientific inquiry as orthodox. So if Dave Peters comes to me and says "My tracings of aeriel photographs show that the Earth is flat", I will reply "No, the earth is round; that's how it is". Because something that has been so emphatically and repeatedly demonstrated is not worth the energy of arguing about. We're done with that. Move on.
A paleontologist who studied a fossil firsthand could try to reason with Peters a million times that such-and-such blot really is just a random natural feature of the rock rather than a soft-tissue structure of the pterosaur, and it wouldn't matter how good his drawing was, Peters still could refuse to believe him. But think about it - which one has actually SEEN the real fossil? Of course it should be pretty clear to everyone that looking at photographs is no substitute for studying the real fossil in person. I'd say Heinrich Mallison summed it up best:
I'd like to point out to Mr. Peters that he has, I have heard from reputable sources, in the past interpreted a specimen as preserving soft tissues when in fact the layer that the fossil was in was prepared away all around the bones, so that what he was seeing on the photograph was in fact a pedestal. No further comment on that needed. Nor do his attacks on Dr. Hone merit comment. Also, I'd like to direct him and all other interested parties to my assessment of a 'I have not seen it so I use published drawings instead' based drawing of Plateosaurus by Greg Paul (who has done awesome work on many other occasions): http://www.app.pan.pl/article/item/app20090075.html Not seeing a specimen = higher risk of errros than seeing it Seeing a specimen once or twice = higher risk of errors than being able to see it repeatedly, and play with the bones Preconceived notion = error guaranteed. So, Mr. David Peters, please stop whining. Dave Hone was spot on with his post, as any reputable scientist knows.
I couldn't have said it better myself - even the best photos are no substitute for the real thing. Even casts are no substitute, since you can't do histological studies on them.
If photos captured every detail perfectly and could differentiate between preserved organic structures and simple stains/paint smudges/impurities in the rock, then what would we even need fossils for? Why didn't the Field Museum simply let some private collector buy 'Sue' at auction, when a photo would be just as scientifically informative?!?!?! Why did they spend millions of dollars putting every one of Sue's bones through a gazillion CAT Scans and X-ray slices when they could just take a simple photo and learn everything from that? Why don't they just sell their Apatosaurus fossils, the Brachiosaurus type specimen, and those massive Argyrosaurus femurs they've been keeping for well over a century? After all there are plenty of detailed photos of those, plus they're old non-digital pictures and don't have the pixel distortion of digital photos! Think of all the money they would have to fund more research! Who needs fossils anyway?
Fact is, without having the actual fossils, more than half of the paleo-research that gets done today would be impossible. Practically ALL of Larry Witmer's work, Mary Schweitzer's work, and any papers on internal structures of bone histology could never have happened if the fossils didn't exist.
It's why so many sauropod workers don't take Yadagiri and Ayyasami seriously - because they only produced a few incredibly crappy drawings for Bruhathkayosaurus and never excavated any of the alleged fossils despite hyping up the thing as the biggest dinosaur ever - now they conveniently claim the whole thing is lost forever, got washed away in a monsoon no doubt! (Yeah right, and I have a bridge on the Indus to sell these guys!)
It's why the destruction of the original Spinosaurus, Carcharodontosaurus, and Aegyptosaurus type material in World War II was such a big loss for science. Even from a strictly superficial visual standpoint, the existing drawings and photos of that material, while very detailed and beautiful, still leave out a lot of details that can only be observed in person.
If photos and tracings really told it all, nobody would care what happens to fossils. Fossil poaching and commercial collecting wouldn't be a major concern in the field, in fact it wouldn't be a concern at all. The SVP wouldn't have a conflict of interest clause in its membership policy, nor would it have so many explicit bylaws and disciplinary policies against digging up fossils for profit. Take it from me, I've been a member since last year and I've read their entire bylaws section at least 10 times. The whole thing is one huge anti-fossil poaching ethics code. The real fossils DO MATTER.
Perhaps the biggest problem with David Peters is that nobody in paleontology seems to have the time to bother testing the efficiency of David Peters' indirect observation tracing methods more than David Peters. Everyone with a PhD is too busy analyzing the real fossils IN PERSON and publishing research to bother with testing a Photoshop method that's prone to much human error and misperception.
Jaime Headden had this to say on Peters:
He really is a nice guy and is fully willing to discuss and talk with you and your theories (even about his theories) at leisure. I met Dave before the photointerpretive technique began to be employed, and we discussed the identity of elements of the Batrachognathus skull in some depth, but I've not had the opportunity to sit down and retrace his observations, though I have used some similar techniques in piecing out elements of the Protarchaeopteryx robusta skull, counting "dentition", etc. Dave is also aware that people don't believe in his position, and that some people have not bitten his technique. He chalks this up as because there are too many people who are not willing to try his technique as he does it.
So far, no one I know of has tried to do a double-blind test of the technique, allowing third parties to take pieces of specimens at high resolution, use the technique, and compare with strict visual observation. This would actually take a lot of money or a reasonably-sized collection of specimens from different sedimentologic and depositional regimes.
One of the biggest problems here is that Dave is not a geologist, and while some of us have not held this against him, his strategy requires some knowledge of the method by which these fossils arrive in their current condition, including the process of slab-splitting and irregular preparation.
After fighting for his initial research which involved the Photoshop method and all his speculative sails, wattles and filaments which were mostly just artifacts of preparation, random splotches in the rock, or indecipherable blurred areas in grainy photographs, Peters seemed to have taken a hiatus. He had a website for a while, www.pterosaurinfo.com. This site apparently had citations of his (apparently meager) published work and some very odd pictures and figures. He shut it down allegedly due to lack of interest from the paleo-community. This old exchange on a message board is pretty telling of David Peters and how the paleontological profession views him:
> flying mounts (don't ask), a participitant invoked a certain David
> Peters, the possessor of a website on pterosaurs at
> www.pterosaurinfo.com with a ghastly colour scheme, as an authority for
> what seems to be pretty extreme sizes and abilities for larger
> Azhdarchids, particularly Quetzalcoatlus. Numbers like 18m wingspan and
> 400-500 kg weight were mentioned, which is alot bigger than any other
> estimate i can find on the net. It was also implied this monster was
> capable of power flight!
> Looking around at the net, many popular pages refer enthusiastically to
> Mr Peters and his webpage, but it seems professional pterosaur workers
> consider him an unscientific phantast. I was wondering what people here
> think of him.
David Peters is well known among the Pterosaur & Dinosaur workers. He is
not in the academia and many people in academia take a rather dim view of
him. Go to Dinosaur Mailing List Archive (http://dml.cmnh.org/) and
search for David Peters to see his posts and replies by pterosaur workers
from academia, specially Chris Bennett & David Unwin.
Well there you have it. Peters in a nutshell.
Thing is, pterosaurinfo.com has long been defunct. You can't even find the URL when you type it in a Google search!
For a while we all pretty much thought David Peters was gone and perhaps only popped up every now and then to bug Dave Hone on his blog. He also voiced some comments at the administrators of ArtEvolved a while back, over an old post of mine on that blog - he accused me of character assassination, whereas I did no such thing - I merely criticized his theory and methods, not his character (which I know nothing about, to be sure, since I've never met the guy). I have no interest in "character assassinating" Peters, as I admire a lot of his art (mainly his dinosaurs and proto-mammals) and the huge amount of work he put into his book From the Beginning. Though he's mainly a commercial advertising artist, he had a very bright future in paleoart back in the 90s, and it saddens me more than anything else to see him get bogged down in petty disputes over photoshop pterosaurs or repeatedly pestering PhD researchers on their own blogs or the DML.
Now the sole and solitary grand master of pterosaur knowledge (technically indirect to the nth degree through the loss of data inherent in all photographs and 2d representations, but hey, who cares about all that) has made his return.
The return of David Peters has actually taken not one but two forms.
The first is his new (and extremely tricky to navigate) paleontology website, www.ReptileEvolution.com. It's chock full of his wacky skeletal diagrams of pterosaurs, ancient lizards, archosaurs, proto-mammals, and proto-reptiles, among many other obscure creatures.
Here, among some semi-credible skeletals of primitive reptiles, you can find all of his weird and laughable interpretations (and most of his Photoshop tracings) of pterosaurs, including his artificially long-tailed Pterodactylus, his mysteriously palm-tree-backed Longisiquama, and his sail-backed, vampire fanged Jeholopterus (which actually influenced an episode of the British sci-fi sitcom Primaeval):
That tail is way too long, but that's the least of this picture's problems. There were no vampire fangs on these little pterosaurs. The "fang" was simply a strut of skull bone that got displaced in the fossil. The field has roundly rejected this restoration as unscientific. He looked at displaced fur impressions which seemed to be well outside the rib cage and automatically assumed the creature had a fuzzy sail extending far above its back. This is the same basic mistake he makes with plenty of fossils, assuming that squished, displaced soft tissue stains represent how the soft tissues looked in life! In reality there was no such sail, the skin and fur just got displaced sideways when the animal was compressed during the sedimentation process.
A couple of warnings about ReptileEvolution.com: First off, the site is NOT a compendium of the sum total knowledge of the field - while Peters names thousands of specimens and cites some literature here and there, much of the actual content and opinions in the site come solely from the mind of David Peters. It's all his own interpretations of everything, some plausible, others outlandish, and the only citations on the site that actually back up his theories and rampant criticism of established PhDs are his own. There's even a large rant page specifically devoted to attacking and undermining the claims of those in the field. Some of the "rebuttals" on this page make some sense, others are just flat-out ludicrous, and yet others are so obscure and pedantic that I have no idea whether or not they have a grain of truth to them.
Second, there is NO curriculum vitae anywhere on the site, so people not familiar with Peters and the sort of research he has done will just end up confused as to how much experience he really has with paleontology - and it's VERY easy to sway layman's opinion with your art when you can grind out the kind of detailed drawings that Mr. Peters regularly does.
However, there is a CV of his published work on his other site - this is the second form of his reappearance on the web, basically a hub site that has links to all his projects, both paleo-related and otherwise. There are only 8 papers listed, and only half of these are related to his extreme theories of pterosaur origins and anatomy. While most are in peer-reviewed publications, they are largely not all that controversial or direct. The most important and incendiary entry in his CV is not peer-reviewed however - it was a talk given by Peters at a pterosaur convention in Germany, and it's his core cited "source" for claiming that Pterosaurs are lizards not archosaurs based on Photoshop manipulation. I'm not sure any of his Photoshop methods would actually stand up to peer review.
His current website Reptile Evolution is borderline pseudoscientific, but it's relatively easy to change; most of the cited literature and even a bit of of the analysis is fine, it's just his illustrations and inferences that need fixing. I hope some day he'll take a second look at this stuff and clean it up (though based on all his DML debates, heckling of Dr. Hone and others, and what Dr. Taylor said after finally being pushed too far, I sadly doubt Mr. Peters will ever do such a thing).
I'm also a really big enthusiast of seeing how phylogeny and evolution turn out with every new analysis, and the kind of work Peters did for his book From the Beginning is extremely impressive (though admittedly HOW he decided which animals to put in the mammalian evolutionary sequence perplexes me to no end).
His other books, like GIANTS and A Gallery of Dinosaurs and Other Early Reptiles were also fine works of art and scale. Nobody else has really been able to produce the same effect of relative size and scale in dinosaur or nature books, and get so many things right in proportions (Gallery of Dinosaurs has a few errors, but nothing all that bad for a dinosaur book of the 90s, and is arguably one of the best nonfiction children's books ever written) and a pretty decent job with colors. So I definitely have a lot of respect for David Peters as an artist and an author of popular books on the most amazing creatures that have ever lived.
His collaboration with Don Lessem for the books Raptors! and Supergiants! was pretty impressive too, lots of detail there that, though a bit rushed, nevertheless can compare with the work of Greg Paul and Wayne Barlowe. A great eye for color and shadow, 3D form, and functional skeletal anatomy. Supergiants! came later and is the better book, not just because I like sauropods, but because the art is generally more accurate and better quality (though the dismal scan quality from Amazon.com doesn't come close to doing it justice).
All in all, Peters had a lot going for him as a paleo-artist. Perhaps deep down inside he still might. Maybe he has a small chance of salvaging his reputation in the paleo-sphere. Most would say probably not, based on everything he's done since 2000. But I don't want to say for sure just yet.
And I'd really like to see him 'return to his roots' so to speak, and produce more of the type of solid, respectable work you see just above, work that got him so much positive acclaim back in the 90s.
It's just incredibly sad and disturbing to see where he went after all that.